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Monday, August 10, 2020

Shakuntala Devi was ahead of her time: Jisshu Sengupta

Ahead of Shakuntala Devi's release, Jisshu Sengupta talks about the film releasing online, playing Paritosh Banerjee and the Bengali character stereotype that's become a constant in Hindi films.

Written by Priyanka Sharma | Mumbai | Published: July 28, 2020 7:47:21 am
Jisshu Sengupta Jisshu Sengupta’s Shakuntala Devi will stream on Amazon Prime Video.

Jisshu Sengupta hates watching himself on screen. In his career spanning more than two decades, the Bengali star has seen only a few of his films. “I watch myself during dubbing and that’s it. I learn about my performances from family and friends and I’m okay with that. I am never satisfied.”

The actor perhaps channels this dissatisfaction into his pursuit for work across mediums and languages. It made him risk stardom on television for a big screen stint, and later turned him towards Bollywood and films in South. Jisshu shifted to Mumbai almost three years ago and now has three Hindi films in his slate, beginning with the Shakuntala Devi biopic.

Ahead of Shakuntala Devi’s release, Jisshu Sengupta speaks to about the film releasing online, playing Paritosh Banerjee and the Bengali character stereotype that’s become a constant in Hindi films.

As an actor, does it matter to you which medium your film is releasing on?

As an actor, I would definitely want my film to release on the big screen. You want to see yourself larger than life, but this is also great because in one go, it is going to release in 200 countries which is huge. There are pros and cons. You can’t really compare both of them. So, I guess, you have to go with the flow.

When Gulabo Sitabo was up for release, Ayushmann Khurrana had said it took him some time to get convinced about its digital premiere. Were you up for the digital release of Shakuntala Devi in one go?

I was up for it instantly when I got the news. In fact, Vikram Malhotra called me up and said that we are planning to do this on Amazon Prime. We really don’t know when the lockdown gets over. Lockdown is over in a few states but going back to the theaters, I don’t know when people are going to do that.

It’s a time when everything is uncertain, so it’s great that people will get to see the film. They will watch the movie whenever they want to.

What about Shakuntala Devi’s story or perhaps about your character, Paritosh Banerji, made you want to be a part of the film?

It’s absolutely the story. It’s a fascinating journey of this woman. We don’t know how she was. We don’t know what was her relationship with her husband and daughter. When you see the film, you will know why I am saying this. People are going to know the human side of Shakuntala Devi.

A lot of times what happens with biopics is that they turn out to be hogwash. There has been consistent criticism that biopics only brush over the aspects of the celebrated personalities without really delving into who they are. Did you have these concerns when you joined Shakuntala Devi?

I knew very little of her. So, when I read the script, I found it very fascinating. She was a woman ahead of her time. She was bold, brave and everything a woman can be. That was interesting. Then the way she has dealt with her relationships. People should know about her. People, who are into Mathematics, should know what she was all about.

Also, working with Vidya was on my mind. I am a huge fan of Vidya so this was a great opportunity for me to work with her.

According to my limited knowledge, Paritosh and Shakuntala Devi’s relationship was beyond the worldly understanding at least at that time. Shakuntala Devi wrote a book, The World of Homosexuals. How did you approach Paritosh’s sexuality and his dynamics with her?

If I have to talk about Paritosh, this aspect of his life and his equation with Shakuntala Devi, then I have to say a lot of things that I can’t, and I don’t want to because then I will give away the crux of the relationship. That is the story of Paritosh and Shakuntala Devi.

But, I have done a film earlier, where I played a bisexual. It’s Rituparno Ghosh’s Chitrangada. It was also a film ahead of its time. And it was based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novel. Everyone should come out with their preferences. This is something natural. It shouldn’t be a taboo. I knew Ritu da closely, and I know it’s painful for people. We all need to talk about it. It cannot be a taboo.

How was the actor-to-actor equation with Vidya Balan?

She is a prankster! We used to have a lot of fun. There were two Bengalis on the set, our associate director and myself. And Vidya speaks Bengali really well. So, most of the time, we would look at director Anu Menon and talk in Bengali. She would think we were talking about her. We would talk very seriously. It was Vidya’s call to play a prank on Anu. We used to laugh so much.

I don’t have words to describe working with Vidya. She is a lovely soul. I have done a film with her earlier, but we didn’t have much interaction then. So, on my first day on the Shakuntala Devi set, I was a little shaky. It’s ‘The Vidya Balan’. But the way she started it off, it felt like we knew each other for at least 100 years and done 200 films together! She made me feel comfortable. In fact, the day I wrapped up the film, I didn’t even realise, and I was like, ‘The film is finished? Are we not going to meet anymore?’ The time just flew.

When you are playing a real-life person, is the sense of responsibility much more than while bringing a fictional character on screen?

Absolutely. For me, the script is the bible because the director has seen the film before we go on the floors. So, he or she knows exactly what they want out of the character. What I need to know are the characteristics of that person. How he used to talk, walk, etc.

In Paritosh Banerjee’s case, we haven’t seen him. That was a plus for me because I could do whatever I wanted to do with the character. Everything else I got to know from Anu and Vidya as they had met Shakuntala Devi’s daughter Anupama Banerjee in London. They got to know about Paritosh. Anu spoke to me at length about him. So, I learnt about his mannerism and added my own things to it.

Does that sense of responsibility ever restrict you as an artiste, considering there’s little room to experiment or take creative liberties while playing a real-life person?

That’s why I am an actor. That’s what my responsibilities are. That’s the challenge that we have to take when I am part of a biopic. When I am being chosen for such a character, I am sure the makers have seen something in me. That’s the one thought always in my mind, that I have been taken for a reason. They must have seen something in me, which is like that character. It gives me that liberty to experiment and also figure out how I can provide that extra edge to that character. This is how I look at it.

In your body of work in Hindi films, you have mostly played Bengali characters and a lot of those films have been helmed by Bengali directors. Do you believe that when a character is played by an actor, who speaks that language and belongs to that region, the representation is more authentic?

If you are taking a Bengali actor for a Bengali character, he or she would be knowing more nuances about a Bengali person. It’s easier for the director to film that character. The director can, in fact, ask the actor what a Bengali would say or how he or she would react in a certain situation. So, yeah, probably that helps.

But at the end of the day, we are all actors and I believe I can play different kind of characters. Like, when I first did a Telugu film – NTR: Kathanayakudu – I was shocked that Krish (the director) could cast me in a Telugu film and in a character who speaks that language. I asked him, ‘Sir, how will I do this? I don’t understand the language.’ He told me, ‘That’s up to me. You don’t worry. Forget about it.’ I did it.

After that, I did two more Telugu films and probably, I will be doing one more at the end of this year. So, at the end of the day, it’s the director’s vision. If I match their visualisation, I should be there.

But do you feel there is a Bengali character stereotype in Hindi films and does that bother you?

Yes, there is. It doesn’t bother me because if the film and character works, it works for everyone. So it doesn’t matter how I feel. What matters is, if I like the film or not. Phrases like ‘Aami tomaay bhalobashi’ (I love you) or ‘Aami roshogolla khete bhalobashi’ (I love eating roshogolla) – these are a few things that a Bengali in a Hindi film will talk about. They will say this in most of the films. But there are so many other things out there as a Bengali you can do. But at the end of the day, how you place it, how you recreate that on screen and how your director is showcasing the character matters.

It has changed a lot now because there are actors from Punjab, South and North East. All kinds of actors are coming and working in different languages. Thanks to OTT platforms, it has opened up for other state actors to come in and work in national and international spaces. So, it’s great that a crossover is happening now.

It’s been a career of 22 years, in diverse mediums and different languages. When you look back, what would you count as the biggest takeaway from your journey?

That can be a very short question or a really heavy one! At the end, I have to ask myself, ‘Am I happy?’ If I am, then happiness is the takeaway. Or if I ask, ‘Am I not satisfied yet?’ Because that also happens. As actors, we are never satisfied. Especially me. I don’t like to watch my films because I will be depressed at the end of it, thinking I could have done better. I haven’t seen 80 per cent of my Bengali films. I hate myself on screen.

So, I want to do more good work. I am happy with the last 22 years of my life. The way people have loved me. From leading in television, starting my film career as a fourth lead then slowly becoming the first lead, doing back-to-back six films with Rituparno Ghosh. And now for the last two and a half years shifted to Bombay, working in Hindi films and then doing Telugu films. I could not have asked for more.

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