Nearly three decades have passed but most remember Susmita Mukherjee as the inimitable Kitty, an assistant to private detective Karamchand in the iconic television series by the same name. Her hair tied in two ponytails, the young girl would ask her boss questions that almost always threatened to sabotage the ongoing investigation. She was “silly” yet endeared herself to the audience.
Looking back all those years ago, Mukherjee says the popularity of that character surprises her even today. “Back in the day, when the role did come to me, I was very upset. Kitty is a bimbette and I, who had just moved to Bombay after studying at the National School of Drama (NSD), was not keen to play a ‘dumb’ character. I was extremely unhappy but took the role to survive in this city. But in retrospect, I am glad to have been a part of a landmark show that made me an overnight success.”
Even though 30 years have passed, the 60-year-old has kept her career as an actor alive, working in a variety of television shows, as well as films, including Vinta Nanda’s Tara (1993), Sudhir Mishra’s Yeh Woh Manzil Toh Nahin (1987) and more recently, Batti Gul Meter Chalu. However, one aspect of her profession that she chose not to highlight is that of a writer. “I would ghost-write for television shows, plays, and even pen short stories. But none of it took precedence over acting or my family,” she says. She did most of the writing for her husband Raja Bundela’s television production house.
However, Mukherjee, over the last few months, has been working towards changing that. The actor makes her debut as a published author with her novel, Mee and Juhibaby (Speaking Tiger, Rs 350). The book will be launched today at Prithvi House by writer-journalist Shanta Gokhale, in conversation with Nandita Om Puri.
Mee and Juhibaby is a tale that explores her protagonist Meehika aka Mee’s tumultuous relationship with her mother Juhibaby, even as she navigates her conservative middle-class Bengali family, a troubled marriage, the worlds of theatre and films, the underbelly of Bollywood, before finding a semblance of stability and becoming a mother. “The relationship between a mother and a daughter is the first complex bond a girl is exposed to. I believe all of us women have experienced that shifting dynamic with our mothers over time and that is what I try to bring to life in the novel,” Mukherjee explains.
The book, which she started writing almost eight years ago, borrows from Mukherjee’s life, primarily in its settings, but it also weaves in the actor’s own experiences, peppering them with fiction and drama that progresses rather swiftly with its sets of twists and turns. Born in Kolkata and brought up in Delhi’s Pandara Road, the writer explores these two locations in the book, later moving the story to Mumbai’s filmy neighbourhoods such as Versova. “It’s my first book and I suppose it’s only natural that the places, incidents and people in my consciousness will seep through in my writing. For instance, like me, Mee moves to Bombay from Delhi to join her artist husband. While there is nothing in common between the character Kishore Bohitdar and my former husband Sudhir Mishra, it is marriage that brought me to this city,” she says.
While the book explores the lives of several characters, primarily women, it focusses on the complexity of human nature. This aspect also finds resonance in Mukherjee’s other work, a play titled Naribai, which the actor has been travelling with for the past few months. A solo piece where Mukherjee plays three different characters, she juxtaposes the character of a prostitute from Bundelkhand’s Bedia community against that of a housewife from an affluent family in Delhi. The piece raises questions about morality, highlighting how women from all stratas in their own ways negotiate freedom and space within the patriarchal system.
The play opened at Ninasam Natakotsava this year, where she was invited by her friend and NSD classmate, Ninasam’s Akshara KV, to perform. Mukherjee also took the play to Bengaluru’s Rangshankara after the premiere. “Somehow these two new and exciting projects have come together at the same time. I hope these two projects symbolise a more creative time ahead for me,” she says.