How can you be so dark despite being a Bengali Brahmin?”
“You are such a bright girl, why don’t you assist me in making films instead?”
Famous last words, as far as Tannishtha Chatterjee is concerned.
Chatterjee’s nine-year-old acting career has been fruitful despite frank and often crudely-expressed reservations about her complexion. The National School of Drama (NSD) trained actor has a list of Indian and international productions to her name, including Ravi Kumar’s Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain, Sarah Gavron’s Brick Lane, Mangesh Hadawale’s Dekh India Circus, Florian Gallenberger’s Shadows of Time and Partho Sen-Gupta’s Hava Aney Dey. She is more familiar to film festival circuit travellers than regular movie-goers at the moment, but that could change whenever the Sunny Deol-starrer I Love New York, directed by Radhika Rao and Vinay Sapru, or Soumik Sen’s Gulab Gang, based on the exploits of the women’s group Gulabi Gang, that is currently being shot, are released.
“The skin tone is something we have to struggle with,” says Chatterjee. “If you are dusky, you can only play certain types of roles, you are not desirable in the mainstream sense. There is a perception that cinema should only have a certain kind of beautiful woman, which has nothing to do with acting talent.”
For better or worse, Chatterjee’s career has been markedly shaped by her skin tone—and she has made the most of it. She has often played a free-spirited, uninhibited woman since she started appearing in the movies in 2003. Chatterjee, who is in her early 30s, was a bar dancer in Hava Aney Dey, a prostitute in the Bengali film Bibar and a nautch girl in Shadows of Time. “Yes, I have played a lot of those roles,” she says. “We have to go the extremes. Besides, I have always been confident of my body.”
Casting agents for international movies need to look no further than Chatterjee to play the exotic Indian beauty. In British director Joe Wright’s recent adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, she has a small role as Masha, a prostitute who becomes the companion of Nikolai, the alcoholic brother of aristocratic revolutionary Konstantin Levin. “I have three scenes, but it’s fabulous,” says Chatterjee, who has also sung a tune composed by Anoushka Shankar for the soundtrack (Wright, who has directed such films as Pride And Prejudice and Hanna, is married to Shankar).
The perception that dark (ergo lower-caste) Indian women inhabit mostly brothels or villages has also led to rural-character roles, such as in Road, Movie and Dekh Indian Circus. Chatterjee has a term for it. “I am a Rajasthan Kutch specialist,” she says good-naturedly. “I am bracketed as a certain kind of character—I can’t play an urban chick who speaks English. But when I play a Rajasthani in Dekh Indian Circus, it’s actually more difficult because I don’t know that kind of life.”
Chatterjee comes from solid starched-collar stock. Her father is an engineer, her mother a political science lecturer. Her father’s employment with Sony Electronics took the family to several places during her childhood, including Japan, Kenya and Australia. Chatterjee moved to Mumbai a year after completing drama school in 2002.
“I didn’t know what I was doing here,” she says. “It wasn’t the time for me—it was Bollywood or nothing.” She points out that she is one of the few NSD female graduates to have a full-time acting career. “There are such interesting actresses, but they don’t get work,” she says. “In my batch, for instance, there were five women and 15 guys. But when you come out and look for work, it’s always about your looks. Nobody wants to cast you against type.”
However, Chatterjee’s stay in Mumbai was hardly wasted. She met international casting directors and was chosen for Shadows of Time and Hava Aney Dey. She moved to London in 2006, but moved back in 2010 after the offbeat movie scene in India started hotting up yet again. “It’s said that a break for an actor is 100% here,” she says, gesturing to her forehead to suggest the importance of destiny. “But for any actor, you need to work on your skill. That’s why I chose to go to NSD, because if you want to take acting seriously, you have to train. You have to have a spark, but you also need to work on your acting.”
Chatterjee was also encouraged to return to Mumbai because she feels that the prejudice against unconventional-looking actors is fading. “Unfortunately, in the last 10 years there has been a huge regression in the way women have been portrayed in Bollywood,” she observes. “Roles for women have become smaller and smaller. They come in songs and disappear. Again, that has been changing in the last two years.”
She is currently shooting for Gulab Gang and will appear in Partho Sen-Gupta’s new movie Sunrise later in the year. Gulab Gang will probably be the biggest release for Chatterjee till date—it is produced by Ra.One director Anubhav Sinha and also stars Madhuri Dixit and Juhi Chawla.
Chatterjee is used to seeing her movies emerge for a release several months after being shot or circulate mostly at film festivals. She recently completed dubbing for Jal, for which she shot two years ago. Bombay Summer, from 2009, didn’t get a theatrical release here, just like The White Elephant. Even Anna Karenina is unlikely to be released in India.
“I am super-busy but I am not seeing my films in theatres,” Chatterjee says. “My major releases in India were Road, Movie and Jalpari. Unfortunately, my films remain within the general parameters of the educated viewership. It’s a distribution problem.”