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‘Nobody could have done this role better than me’: Sreelekha Mitra

The Bengali actor, whose film Once Upon a Time in Calcutta premiered at the Venice film festival, on playing the role of a lifetime, confronting sexism, and living every moment

Written by Tanushree Ghosh | New Delhi |
November 7, 2021 6:15:33 am
Sreelekha Mitra, Sreelekha Mitra films, Sreelekha Mitra career, Sreelekha Mitra Bengali actor, Sreelekha Mitra Bangla cinema, Sreelekha Mitra interview, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express newsSreelekha Mitra (Credit: Stephanie Cornfield)

Walking the 78th Venice International Film Festival red carpet was no less than a fairy tale unfolding for Bengali actor Sreelekha Mitra. Ahead of two other film releases, she recalls that day in September. A star-struck Mitra was eager to click a selfie with Benedict Cumberbatch and Matt Damon until she was told she’s no less of a star than Damon at that moment. “I’m a little crazy,” says the actor, laughing, who roamed the streets, Gelato in hand, Venetian carnival mask on face, chatting up the Italian locals, instead of networking.

Director Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s third Bengali film, the Mitra-starrer Once Upon a Time in Calcutta (OUATIC), was the only Indian film this year at the world’s oldest and prestigious film festival, competing in the Orizzonti (Horizons) section. This was Sengupta’s second outing there after his National Award-winning lyrical debut Asha Jaoar Majhe (Labour of Love) won him the Fedeora “Best Young Director” award in 2014. OUATIC didn’t win at Venice, but won the Netpac Special Mention Award at Egypt’s El Gouna Film Festival last month. It’s headed to Whānau Mārama festival, New Zealand and Festival des 3 Continents, France, and would hopefully arrive in India next year.

OUATIC opens with Ela’s daughter’s death. With the only life in her dead marriage gone, Ela wants to move on. Her half-brother Bubu da (played by actor-politician Bratya Basu) — a nobody who needs nobody, a dinosaur in the ecosystem — refuses to budge out of the relic (mother’s memory, father’s cabaret theatre). Ela is a signifier of a modern, capitalist city in transition (a dinosaur statue gives way to a flyover, traditional Rabindra sangeet to its remix), a gestalt of aspirations and miscalculations. The evolution’s undertones — political (red/green sari) and moral (light/dark face-pack shades) — are unmistakable.

Sreelekha Mitra, Sreelekha Mitra films, Sreelekha Mitra career, Sreelekha Mitra Bengali actor, Sreelekha Mitra Bangla cinema, Sreelekha Mitra interview, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news Credit: Stephanie Cornfield

In lifting a defunct cabaret stage, with Mitra at the centre, Sengupta has given the actor, in her more-than-two-decade career, a role of a lifetime. The parallels in Ela and Sreelekha are uncanny, such as a late-night TV astrology show Mitra had to do once, after going bankrupt post a Paris trip. “I could see myself in Ela as well. A bit of Sreelekha rubbed onto Ela and a bit of Ela rubbed onto Sreelekha. An osmosis was happening between us. I could feel Ela’s angst, pain, desperation, but due to that desperation things that Ela did Sreelekha would never do. Ela is far more intelligent than me, not conniving but something in between…I would never do something which I think is amoral,” she says.

Sengupta, who’d “been seeing Sreelekha’s films for a very long time” didn’t write Ela with anyone in mind. Mentally, for Sengupta, the collaboration started when they met at an event. Later, “with every meeting and conversation, it was clear there were more parallels in the personalities. She’s extremely collaborative and patient, it’s been wonderful finding Ela with her,” he says.

Some scenes left Mitra “numb, wondering how come Aditya, being a man, could capture the nuances of how a woman feels in such a correct, bang-on way”, other scenes left her “panting for breath”, like the one in Khidirpur, where she goes with Raja (Shayak Roy), to go meet a local don, she was “fed-up with Aditya” for making her repeat-climb the stairs until he was satisfied. “He makes everyone work hard and he works hard himself. He helps you explore yourself”, and would interject to “tone down” if a flip, a turn seemed “a little commercial”.

Sreelekha Mitra, Sreelekha Mitra films, Sreelekha Mitra career, Sreelekha Mitra Bengali actor, Sreelekha Mitra Bangla cinema, Sreelekha Mitra interview, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news Mitra as Ela in a still from Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s film Once Upon a Time in Calcutta

Sengupta would ask her what she did when she was sad, and weave it (eating chocolates) into the narrative; he’d talk to the wall, practise a scene, before asking his actors to respond. “In that exchange, organically, a scene would develop,” says Mitra, who, as a little girl, used to play-act with her shadow, instead of playing with dolls, mimic radio/TV presenters, and watch her father, Santosh Mitra, rehearse for plays. She once climbed the stage howling when he died in a Bangla adaptation of an Anton Chekhov play. Her father, “an umbrella, a banyan tree over my head”, who’d once recounted on Bangla TV that he’d left his Zamindari roots in Madaripur subdivision of Faridpur in Bangladesh to arrive into poverty in post-Partition Calcutta, passed away just as Mitra returned from Venice. The lows have lurked in the shadows every time she’s been on a high.

Sreelekha Mitra, Sreelekha Mitra films, Sreelekha Mitra career, Sreelekha Mitra Bengali actor, Sreelekha Mitra Bangla cinema, Sreelekha Mitra interview, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news Photo: Stephanie Cornfield

“Aditya has given me a new life, a new birth, a new horizon to look up to. It was a huge booster for an actor who was “suffering from a very low self-esteem”, believing that she’s “finished, lost, poof, gone!” says Mitra, who’d asked Sengupta, “Why me? You don’t know me. This is such a state (West Bengal) where if you know a person, only then you’ll cast the person.” Eager for the film’s release here, but aware the praises, like in the past, won’t translate into work, she says, “Looking back, I can say, nobody could have done this role better than me.”

She’s played leads before, too. As an illegal immigrant in the critically-acclaimed Kantatar (2005) and opposite Prosenjit Chatterjee in the potboiler Annadata (2002). But for the most part, she had to settle for bit roles: the parallel lead, hero’s sister or who doesn’t get the hero. Her tirade has been against a system that plays to the gallery. Her outspokenness has cost her many a project.

Last year, amid the nepotism debate in the wake of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s death, Mitra ruffled many feathers by taking names (Chatterjee, Rituparna Sengupta, Swastika Mukherjee). “It wasn’t something I did on an impulse; it was latent inside me. Sushant’s death acted as a catalyst. I revisited that trauma (professional and personal life on a standstill, going through separation). I’ve suffered the sense of neglect, of identity crisis, gone through depression, even contemplated suicide,” says the English literature graduate, who, drawn to the camera, navigated her father’s military regime at home to land a TV-serial career in the mid-1990s (Ei toh Jiban, Pratibimba, etc.). “Back then, television was realistic in the execution of content. There’s been a massive downfall later. I couldn’t see myself doing TV anymore.”

Sreelekha Mitra, Sreelekha Mitra films, Sreelekha Mitra career, Sreelekha Mitra Bengali actor, Sreelekha Mitra Bangla cinema, Sreelekha Mitra interview, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news Mitra after the premiere of OUATIC at the Venice film festival

In films, she began to be seen (Hothat Brishti, Mondo Meyer Upakhyan) and to show (Y2K: Sex Krome Aasiteche, Ek Mutho Chabi, Uro Chithi, Ashchorjyo Prodeep). The vitriolic trolls on her social media evinces a public memory which has boxed her into the sex-kitten image, into her bold scenes. “It’s sad. I’m more than that, I’m a cerebral actor. If a scene demands, if I’m comfortable, only then will I do certain things,” she says. In OUATIC, a snoring post-coital woman is far from sleazy.

“If people only remember me for the sultry roles, they are sex-starved,” says Mitra, whose sex-worker character in Mondo Meyer Upakhyan (2002) raises a pertinent question: “What if the body desires sex?” “Why is talking about sex a taboo? Did we drop from the sky? It’s life. It’s a most natural, biological and valid need. We are such hypocrites that we are unwilling to speak on anything regarding sex. There’s no sex education, sex awareness, hence the perversion level has risen so much,” says Mitra, who works with dog rescuers and comes across cases of animal abuse. Pointing to a poster in her room, she says, “the more I see of men, the more I love my dogs.”

The male gaze desires and judges her in equal measure. “I’ve been body-shamed time and again, called tholthole boudi (flabby sister-in-law), told that to hide my khaamtis (ineptitude), I talk of favouritism, nepotism,” she says. The TV reality show Mirakkel made Mitra a household name in the late 2000s, with an unfortunate title refrain: “Slim figure ey bhalo laage Sreelekha (slim Sreelekha looks best)”. “And I used to sit in my (show-judge) chair, and cringe within,” she says, “There was so much testosterone around me. In Mirakkel, I was the only female. There were umpteen number of jokes circulating which were derogatory. As a judge, I’d point out if a person was being sexist, or not up to the mark, but when televised, my remarks were edited out, and I was seen just laughing. Bangla television wasn’t ready then, Bangla television isn’t ready still,” says Mitra, who was out of the latest Mirakkel Season 10, “because I’ve spoken against the stalwarts. It’s kind of a chain reaction.” She was also onboarded, then offloaded the bawdy-boudi OTT series Dupur Thakurpo 2.

Sreelekha Mitra, Sreelekha Mitra films, Sreelekha Mitra career, Sreelekha Mitra Bengali actor, Sreelekha Mitra Bangla cinema, Sreelekha Mitra interview, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news Mitra as Ranu di in a still from Subhrajit Mitra’s upcoming film Avijatrik

Mitra, 46, has no qualms talking about her age, “but are people ready to accept how old I am? We aren’t just body-shamed, we are age-shamed, too. There’s an age taboo, that we have to look and dress a certain way after we cross 40, why?” “Heroines have a shelf life of five to 10 years, then they are cast as hero’s/heroine’s mother, and I’m not eager to do any rona-dhona mother roles, I want to do women-of-substance roles. There’s a Stepmom, Thelma & Louise, The Bridges of Madison County in Hollywood, I don’t know what’s happening here,” she says, “I’ve done different roles, too (a village girl, sophisticated woman, femme fatale, a soft housewife in Swade Ahlade, Pori Pishi/fairy aunt in Rainbow Jelly, mother in Mayer Biye). Why would I knock on doors asking for work?”

“Sreelekha is a versatile actor in the Bengali industry, mostly under-utilised to her full acting potential,” says Subhrajit Mitra, director of Avijatrik (releasing on November 26), which takes off from where Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar (1959) left, it is the last section of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s novel Aparajito (1931). It has Mitra in a small role, as a soft, motherly middle-aged widow Ranu di. “Screen presence/duration doesn’t matter, I wanted to be a part of a good film, and this was a very good film,” says Mitra, who’ll also be seen in filmmaker Anubhav Sinha’s nephew Anshuman Pratyush-directed courtroom drama Nirbhaya (releasing on November 12).

Sreelekha Mitra, Sreelekha Mitra films, Sreelekha Mitra career, Sreelekha Mitra Bengali actor, Sreelekha Mitra Bangla cinema, Sreelekha Mitra interview, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express news Photo: Stephanie Cornfield

Subhrajit’s earliest memories of Mitra, however, were her TV advertisements. The 2003 Coca-Cola ad with Aamir Khan became the talk of the town, there was Lays ad with Saif Ali Khan, too. “I should have stayed back in Mumbai at that time and explored opportunities. (Filmmaker) Pradeep (Sarkar) wanted me to stay back. But I’m neither ambitious nor plan my career ahead. My priorities were family that time,” says Mitra, mentioning other projects she had to let go of, including the Kurkure ad campaign, and roles in Main, Meri Patni Aur Woh (2005) and Parineeta (2005).

Her Venice news was eclipsed by a bizarre news involving her, a stray adoption, coffee date, dead puppy and a Red Volunteer member. The CPM supporter, who was seen in rallies in Bengal’s Assembly election this year, and has faced character assassination, even from fellow party supporters, after the aforementioned episode, has since distanced herself from future “rally or political campaign”. Artistes are loners, she says, “People think I live a colourful life, but it’s not true. I don’t put on an act. I’m a fighter. There’s so much pain within that I’d rather laugh, live, and snatch every moment.”

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