Six years ago, in Gangor, an adaptation of Mahasweta Devi’s short story Behind the Bodice, Priyanka Bose played a tribal woman in Purulia, West Bengal, whose life changes horrifically after a photojournalist takes a photograph of her breastfeeding. “I bagged the film when I had taken a break from acting and was trying to convince myself that it was what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. Directed by Italian filmmaker Italo Spinelli, Gangor swept the awards at the 2011 New Jersey Independent South Asian Film Festival in America, including one for Bose for Best Actress — but is yet to be released in India. Bose is basking in the warmth of the acclaim — and even an Oscar buzz — that her second international project, Lion, is receiving from critics around the world.
Sitting at a coffee shop in Mumbai, just days before going on a promotional tour to New York and Los Angeles for Lion, the 30-something actor is upbeat about the response the film got at the recent Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). “It was serendipity. Two years ago, I’d read a news item about Australia-based Saroo Brierley and how he used Google Earth to locate his original family in India. I thought someone should make a film on this,” she says. At the time, Bose was touring with Nirbhaya, a play written and directed by Yael Farber on the December 2012 gang rape. “Tess Joseph, the casting director for Lion, called me to say she wanted to test me for a project based on Brierley’s story,” she says. Within a month, Bose became the second actor, after Dev Patel (he plays the lead) to join the cast. Nicole Kidman, who plays Brierley’s foster mother Sue, and Rooney Mara, who plays his love interest, came on board later.
The making of Lion, an adaptation of Brierley’s memoir, A Long Way Home, has been a remarkable experience, says Bose. Before shooting her scenes in last March, she workshopped with director Garth Davis, Patel and Sunny Pawar, who plays young Saroo, a boy who is accidentally separated from his family and ends up in an orphanage. He is then adopted by an Australian family. “We walked around the forests of Madhya Pradesh, running up hills and listening to each other’s heartbeats. Some of these exercises were to build memory as well as affection and attachment towards each other. Dev and I have one scene in the film together. Garth didn’t let us see each other and that anxiety led us to the final scene,” says Bose.
Even though Bose’s career is dotted with applause-worthy performances in Gangor and Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex aur Dhokha (LSD), there have been long gaps between projects. “There are no big directors who I did not reach out to. I knew I had to keep trying,” she says. She recalls being literally picked from the streets for LSD. “I was haggling with an AC repairman when a man approached me. He told me that his friend Atul Mongia, a casting director, would like to meet me,” says Bose, whose only notable appearance till then had been as a dancer in Johnny Gaddaar (2007).
Bose grew up in Delhi, graduating in sociology from Delhi University’s Maitreyi College. When she was 20, Bose left her home in Vasant Vihar and moved to Lajpat Nagar, where she did amateur theatre with different groups, worked as a dancer with two companies and tried to make ends meet. In 2005, with little money and no contacts, she landed in Mumbai. Trained in Kathak, Manipuri and ballet, she tried her luck in modelling as well as a dancer in films.
“Earlier, I was training to be a choreographer. Eventually, I realised I was a better performer,” she says. The struggle as an actor was dotted with long spells of unemployment during which she found support from her husband, musician Paresh Kamath. “Everywhere, I was told how I had more attitude than looks. I started projecting myself in a certain way. But I realised I was not being true to who I am,” says Bose, who shot to fame, briefly, when she played a young mother on the day of her second marriage in a Tanishq jewellery commercial directed by Gauri Shinde, three years ago.
Today, Bose wants to do cinema that is accepted worldwide. “I am confident that I will be able to break the mould — of the dark-skinned, poor Indian woman — if the screenplay trusts me,” she says.
Bose has a slew of films in her repertoire that have been lauded at film festivals in India and abroad — but they are yet to have a theatrical release. These include Sold, directed by Jeffrey D Brown, and Oonga by Devashish Makhija. With Netflix in India now, Bose hopes that Gangor will make it to a homegrown audience. “I’m thankful that Goutam Ghose’s Shunyo Awnko (2013) and this year’s Half Ticket (in Marathi) made me familiar to regional audiences,” she says.
She is working on two new films — Rakkosh, a psycho-thriller by Abhijit Kokate, and an untitled international project. She is also producing socially-aware short films under Cause Effect, an initiative she has formed with filmmaker Megha Ramaswamy. “Megha and I are exploring stories about feminism, sexual abuse, Down Syndrome and equal education for children. We are collaborating with creative people who share our vision,” she says.