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Theatre is like cooking: Sanchayita Bhattacharjee on her love for meaty roles

Sanchayita Bhattacharjee on her love for meaty roles and why her latest character is like a fiery curry

Written by Dipanita Nath |
Updated: November 10, 2014 12:04:15 pm
Sanchayita Bhattacharjee as a desperate housewife in A Woman Alone. Sanchayita Bhattacharjee as a desperate housewife in A Woman Alone.

A voice like a hammer answers the phone. It hits you that Sanchayita Bhattacharjee may not be too distant from the formidable protagonist of her latest solo A Woman Alone who suffers fools only until she can shoot them down. The actor, however, insists that she is “very malleable in real life”. Is this because Bhattacharjee is also a chef — specialising in French cuisine — since theatre has offered her only strong, even headstrong, women characters?

She has always been passionate about theatre, says Bhattacharjee, but when the chance came to choose between the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) and Le Cordon Bleu — two prime schools for theatre and hospitality education respectively — the actor opted for the kitchen. At the Le Cordon Bleu in London, Israeli celebrity chef Michael Katz gave her the moniker Chef Sunshine, which sticks to this day. Chef Sunshine now has a restaurant in Kolkata called The Restaurant on the First Floor as well as 25 theatre roles to her credit. She is a part of Kolkata-based arts organisation Padatik and performed in the Capital for the Delhi International Arts Festival. Excerpts from an interview:

She has played a man: It was in a play called Mr Hardheart when I was studying at St Thomas in Delhi. Our principal Mrs Joy Michael, a well-known theatre person who started the Yatrik group, ensured that we learned theatre craft, which included sets, lighting and backstage work. Mr Hardheart was a comic role of a stingy man who has a change of heart after meeting Father Christmas. When I went to Jadavpur University in Kolkata, I did lights and was the first girl to do so in the city.

Theatre is like cooking: It helps me reach out creatively. Unlike film and television, theatre is for the moment and you are only as good as your last character. Every performance is like a new dish; the freshness of every audience and the excitement of playing a role anew keep me going.

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The housewife in A Woman Alone is like a curry: It is a fiery curry that starts slow, melts in your mouth and then hits you in the back of your head. She  talks to a new neighbour about her husband who has given her all luxuries and locked her up in her own home. She looks after her brother-in-law who has roving hands, she deals with dirty phone calls, she deals with a psychotic ex-boyfriend, she deals with a pervert who stares at her, she deals with a crying baby — and she makes all of this sound ridiculous.

WOman on the edge can be tough: A Woman Alone is not a laugh riot, it is more a giggly kind of black comedy. Franca Rame, an Italian theatre actor and political activist, said that we women have been crying for 2,000 years, let’s laugh now, even at ourselves. For this role, I had to get physically fit because the protagonist swings between high energy and hysteria. I didn’t think the audience could laugh with the housewife because the things happening to her were so ridiculous. But, it is true that when we women sit down to chat, we don’t cry, we laugh about what is happening to us. Director Mahmud Alam interpreted the play in a stark, achromatic set because her own life is so colourful.

She has played a romantic: One of my plays was called Barishwala and I went and howled to director Rodney Marriot, who had come from New York to direct this play in Kolkata, that I was not attractive enough to play the lead Lizzie. I was extremely overweight and he said I was the perfect person for the role. Lizzie was also going through a similar phase and a fairy tale man comes and shows her her beauty.

And the other woman: In Atmakatha, I was the young girl who has an affair with her brother-in-law, played by Kulbhushan Kharbanda. Another woman in my life was Olivia, who I interpreted in an Indian way as a cross-gender person for the video that we had to send to RADA. She dresses like a man because, in India, a lot of women wish they could hide behind being a man. They called me for the final process so, I think, they liked my Olivia.

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