As the film festival season kicks in from September, Tannishtha Chatterjee will only get busier. Three of her films, Angry Indian Goddesses, Parched and Island City, have been selected for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and Venice Film Festival.
This is not new for the actor, who has consistently featured in films that have made their presence felt in international festivals, such as Shadows of Time (2004) and Monsoon Shootout (2013). She was nominated for her role in Brick Lane (2007) at the British Independent Film Awards, alongside Judi Dench and Anne Hathaway.
This time, however, Chatterjee’s films are Indian as she launches on a significant phase in her career. The films are the results of the actor’s return to India after five years in London in 2012. “I felt like coming back to India because I saw the whole cinema scene changing. Younger directors, writers and producers are exposed to international cinema and different kinds of stories have begun to be told,” she says in an interview, a few days before she leaves for Venice for the premier of Island City.
The other reason was also that Chatterjee was routinely typecast — as a cigarette-smoking seductress after Bibar, a distraught Bangladeshi woman following Brick Lane, and a Rajasthani rural woman post Dekh Indian Circus. “London is nice but, as an Asian actor, you only get so much. The volume of work, I felt, was more interesting in India,” she says.
The 35-year-old has stayed away from commercial fare ever since her first release, the Bengali film, Bibar (2006). “Let’s say it was a mutual choice. Commercial cinema didn’t want me, I didn’t fit them in either and we both kept avoiding each other,” she says, “Now the line between mainstream and arthouse cinema is blurring.” Before one labels her as an “arty actor”, she will be romancing cricketer Brett Lee in the Australian film UnIndian, a light-weight rom-com. “I also need to balance and do all kinds of things,”says Chatterjee, who has appeared in Madhuri Dixit-starrer Gulaab Gang as well as played the title role in Meena, a short directed by Lucy Liu.
As for her three current films, Parched has a fable-like rural setting and the story revolves around a group of women, their sexuality and desires. Island City, that is set in a Man vs Machine world, is made of three stories and in one of them, Chatterjee plays the lead, an ordinary girl who has no interest in life, until she receives an anonymous love letter. Angry Young Goddesses is a “female buddy movie” that brings together six friends for one of their weddings. “Through their interactions we discover their individual stories and get into things like gender politics and how it’s merging with the idea of India as a developing nation. It’s a complex film,” says the actor, a National School of Drama graduate.
Her biggest high as an actor, Chatterjee says, comes from the occasions that the audience and organisers in film festivals have failed to recognise her as the actor who has played the characters they have just seen on the big screen. “I can probably become another person and come out of it and people can’t match the two.
That’s how I’ve always approached acting. Some actors feel they should always be recognised for style and signature. I just feel the opposite,” she says.
This month, as the lights come back on inside the theatre at Venice Film Festival after the screening of Island City, the actor will hope that nobody recognises her.
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