For Mithi’s role as a lonely woman on the verge of retirement in Yours Truly (now on Zee5), did you have to make an effort to understand her loneliness?
I believe I’m also a loner by nature. I have had periods when I have faced loneliness. You can be lonely even when you are in a house full of people or in a marriage. There are times in life when loneliness is a companion in some ways to all of us. It is a universal emotion.
Many people have tried to find a link between your debut film 36 Chowringhee Lane (1981), about a lonely Anglo-Indian teacher living in Kolkata, and Yours Truly.
Coincidentally, both these movies were shot in winter. When I was part of Satyadev Dubey’s adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, Jennifer and Shashi Kapoor saw me act in Prithvi Theatre. They recommended my name for the role in 36 Chowringhee Lane (she played the role of Jennifer’s niece) as they wanted someone who looked Anglo-Indian. That was my first visit to Kolkata. After that, I kept going back for shoots and plays.
You have dabbled in direction but you still call yourself ‘a struggling actor’.
Given a chance, I would still direct. I’m in the process of finalising something. It could be a web series or a movie. However, acting is my profession, part of my DNA and something I know how to do best. That’s not going to ever leave me. I’ve already wrapped up the web series The Verdict: State v/s Nanavati for ALT Balaji.
How has your journey been with the Indian parallel cinema?
I was really privileged to work with some wonderful directors — Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Aparna Sen, Mira Nair, Mahesh Bhatt, Ramesh Sippy and Vidhu Vinod Chopra. My grouse has always been that my role has never been the meatiest of the lot. Still, I have done what I could and learnt from my directors. At that time, I was a complete misfit in the film world. I didn’t have the required looks. Hema Malini was the rage. Then came Jaya Bhaduri. Had I been young today, I would have probably got a lot of work.
Did Buniyaad (1986-87) give you your first taste of popularity?
I think so. That’s when the vegetable sellers started recognising me when I stepped out of the home. Those shows and movies had very impressive woman characters. It’s funny. We started out by being very adventurous when it came to parallel movies. Similarly, in TV, you’d tell the stories you didn’t in movies. The popular cinema was very formula-driven. Then, that changed and television went into a regressive situation. However, movies have become more exploratory now. Today, we have platforms for all kinds of films.
Of late, you have been doing a lot of work.
Raazi (2018) was offered to me. Before that, I had shot for No Fathers in Kashmir. I loved the script and had to almost persuade director Ashvin Kumar to cast me. He thought I was too young to play a grandmother.
What’s the prep before facing the camera?
I read the script and learn the lines. But it’s an instinctive process and takes place on the set. I believe Alia (Bhatt, daughter) is similar to me in this respect. We do our preparation, but it’s on the set that the character takes over. It’s a combination of what the director wants, interactions with co-actors and costumes.
Have you always been vocal about political issues?
No, I wasn’t. My mother’s side of the family is from Germany. They lived in East Berlin, just before Hitler came to power. My grandfather, Karl Hoelzer, ran an underground newspaper against Hitler. He was not Jewish but he was against fascism. He was imprisoned and put into a concentration camp. The only reason he was not killed was because he had a very good lawyer. Finally, he was released but was asked to leave Germany. By then, World War II had started and he moved to England with his family.
Somewhere, deep within me, is the understanding of what fascism can do to a country and its people.
You are half-Kashmiri and played a Kashmiri grandmom in No Fathers in Kashmir. How close is Kashmir to you?
My father (Narendra Nath Razdan) is an architect from a family of Kashmiri Pandits and my mother (Gertrude Hoelzer), a British citizen of German origin, is a former nursery school teacher. I have never lived there. We don’t own property there. We don’t speak the language. My family moved out in the late 1800s. At that point, many Kashmiri Pandits moved from the Valley to Shimla and Delhi to work for the British government. My great-grandfather was one of them. Being a half-Kashmiri, I definitely have an emotional connect with the issues that Jammu and Kashmir faces. I feel for Kashmir, deeply. I believe its issues are dealt with very unfairly. While working on No Fathers in Kashmir, I started exploring more. I met people, spoke to them and got pulled into what’s happening there. As the tag line of the film — ‘Everybody thinks they know Kashmir’ — suggests, it’s such a difficult place to understand and its issues are very complex.
There has been much discussion about your British passport. You were born in the UK. When did you move to India?
I was born in the UK but when I was three months old, I moved to Bombay. My mother got the British passport for me. We lived in south Bombay and I studied in Bombay International School, which was started by parents. As for my passport, why should anyone tell me what I should do about it? It is my choice and right as a citizen of the world to decide what passport I want.
What drew you to the world of theatre?
No one in my family was an actor. I made my theatre debut at around age 12. The late Pearl Padamsee used to direct pantomimes with children. She visited my school to recruit talent for Uma and Seven Dwarfs. I bagged a small role in it. I also acted in Amal Allana’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan. At 17, I moved to London for further studies and joined Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
How encouraging were you about your daughter Shaheen Bhatt sharing her struggles with depression in her book, I’ve Never Been (un)Happier?
She is a brilliant writer whether she writes about her life, depression and her struggles with it, or anything else, and I have always encouraged her. We’ve to blast the myth that depression is some kind of stigma. People could understand their issues after reading her book.