Actress and filmmaker Tannishtha Chatterjee on playing Ismat Chughtai, her directorial debut which won at Busan and the joy of working with a minimum crew on her lockdown short for Prime Video
Few Indian actresses can boast about working with Majid Majidi (Beyond The Clouds), and earning nominations along with Dame Judi Dench and Anne Hathway (for Brick Lane at the British Independent Film Awards ). However, Tannishtha Chatterjee’s illustrious filmography comprising 46 films (including Gulaab Gang, Parched and Angry Indian Goddesses) in a career spanning almost two decades would paint her as a reluctant if not an extremely picky actress. But going by the accolades she received for her unreleased directorial debut starring Nawazuddin Siddique, Roam Rome Mein (Asian Filmmaker Of The Year at Busan International Film Festival, 2019) and her lockdown directorial Rat-A-Tat (part of Prime Video's Unpaused), one is assured she’s surely a multifaceted artiste.
Her next, Lihaaf (releasing on Voot on July 31), is an adaptation of Ismat Chughtai’s most controversial stories (by the same name) which alludes to a same sex relationship between two women. It has already won 11 awards at film festivals around the world. The 1942 story drew much controversy at the time of publication and also a legal suit for obscenity which Chughtai won at Lahore Court as it was established that there were no obscene words and the narrative was only but suggestive. Almost 80 years later, Chatterjee feels that while society and audiences have evolved, there’s scope for further evolution. “We are going in cycles. There was a point when we, as artists, were getting more freedom and pushing boundaries and doing different things. And now, more than the government, we are censoring ourselves,” she says, lamenting the selective freedom extended to creators in the country.
Apart from CBFC intervention and self-proclaimed moral cops, she also feels that social media has played a big role in policing as one has to now also be careful not to offend anyone through one’s work. “As artists, we are definitely dealing with how to really express ourselves. In India, we have pockets of communities who are in their 20s and 30s who think in a certain way and then there are those who are 5000 years behind when it comes to their evolution of acceptance. We need to learn to live and let live and not get offended and even if you are offended, to be able to discuss it,” says the NSD grad who majored in Chemistry at Delhi University.
With filmmakers and writers being compelled to toe the line by moral if not judicial bodies in the country, did Lihaaf’s writers, Sonal Sehgal (who also plays a significant part in the film) and director Rahat Kazmi feel stifled in the telling of this story? “Not at all as we only borrowed from Ismat Chughtai’s life and overlapped her childhood when she encountered the story and didn’t know how to process it with when she was defending herself in court for writing it.” To slip into Chughtai’s character, Chatterjee met with the late writer’s nephew who lives in Mumbai who shared photographs and anecdotes, and also dug out her interviews. “We built certain scenes around the discussions she had about sexuality, freedom of speech, literature and artists. We thought it would be interesting to have these discussions with Manto since he was a good friend, was also simultaneously fighting the cases against his own work and would often accompany her to court hearings,” she says.
Pinning the backlash that the story received when it was published in 1942 on society’s struggle with acceptance, Chatterjee feels that “representation of LGBTQ characters have definitely increased in films”. “With creators, producers, platforms and makers, there’s a silent mandate to be inclusive and include all genders and LGBTQ characters. There is a conscious effort to be inclusive in storytelling. And we do not want to tell stories about LGBTQ characters but the more we weave them in as characters of a story, the more normal it will become with society,” she says, lamenting on the fact that many unwittingly continue to practice heterosexism . She refers to a friend who recently passed a fleeting statement about how it has become a trend to include an LGBT character in every show. “I was appalled to hear this comment. She didn’t even realise what she had said. And these are people who are not my aunt’s generation and very much our contemporaries. So we still need to travel miles when it comes to acceptance.” Chatterjee is, however, glad that mainstream films such as Kapoor and Sons and Ek Ladi Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (where Sonam Kapoor plays a queer character) have sensitively and accurately portrayed queer characters which is “an important step in the process”.
A regular at the film festival circuit, the 40-year-old actor-filmmaker premiered her directorial debut Roam Rome Mein at Busan International Film Festival in 2019, where she also won the Asia Star Award for Best Debut Director. But even after being screened at several festivals including MAMI, the film’s theatrical release in India was stalled due to the Covid pandemic. Even though her producers are now considering a digital release for the psychological drama, Chatterjee believes garnering festival ferns on a film’s poster hardly translates in number of screens. “To be honest, unless you’re a Palme d’Or-winner at Cannes or a Golden Bear-winner at Berlin, it doesn’t make a difference. And sitting in India we don’t even realise how difficult that is. Only the masters and the greatest filmmakers win those awards,” she says, adding that reviews, however, surely help shape opinion and can attract audiences. “When my film was reviewed by Hollywood Reporter and Variety, I felt satisfied, as an individual and an artist. When someone whose reviews you’ve admired for years writes interesting and good things about your film and you realise that they’ve understood what you wanted to do, it feels very gratifying.” She remembers the precarious position she found herself in when her casting director warned her about two stern Italian critics who had turned up to watch Roam Rome Mein at the Rome International Film Festival. “She told me that I shouldn’t feel bad if they ripped my film apart. And I just thought, they will write in Italian so not many will get to know. But they actually understood my film and I felt really happy and elated,” she says of the response she received for her film which is shot in Italy.
During the peak of the lockdown, Chatterjee also directed her second -- Rat-A-Tat (one of the short stories in Prime Video's Unpaused) starring Lilette Dubey and Rinku Rajguru about two unlikely individuals who are trapped together due to unforeseen circumstances. It was a singular experience that Chatterjee particularly enjoyed. Shooting with a skeleton cast and crew of 20, Chatterjee remembers the first day of shoot where everyone was on edge. “The unit had arrived on set after being at home for 6-7 months and everyone was very scared and work was slow. But we had to finish it in three days with just one camera and 24 pages to shoot. I did pull things out since everyone was very slow in the first 6-7 hours. Wearing shields and masks for 12 hours in Mumbai’s muggy weather, people were getting headaches and it was really challenging.” She adds that when people watch a film they never consider the circumstances in which it was produced or relax their expectations or be more considerate. “But that is the way to evolve, we should be less forgiving. We can’t just keep leaning on ‘first time in India’,” she adds.
For an actress to consider a role behind the camera can extend a chance to reflect on the craft from a new perspective, and Chatterjee jokes saying that the first thing she learnt was the importance of being compassionate towards the film’s producer. “I also learnt things like you can talk about a character’s back story. I feel that acting is a very personal craft. Each person has a different process. I am a trained Hindustani classical singer as well so I’m trained in a discipline which is very different from acting. So I understand that just like any form of performance art, you have to spend years training before you can actually try improvising. I have always believed that talking about acting, characters and process will only help to a certain extent. You just have to go out there and do it and it has to be believable at that point of time. You may have everything clear in your mind and yet if that moment is not truthful, it really doesn’t matter,” she shares, adding that it surely helped that her co-stars including Nawazuddin Siddique and the rest of the Italian cast of Roam Rome Mein shared her ideology and approach to acting. “In cinema, unlike in theatre, you just have to find the truth of that moment and the camera captures it. You become the character by doing other things instead of reading scenes. I’m an actor’s director and my writing also comes from the insights I’ve gained from the emotional journey of a character.”
Chatterjee’s next is an acting gig in National award-winning director Rajesh Touchriver's Cyanide, which is a multi-lingual crime-thriller inspired by the life of teacher-turned-serial killer, Cyanide Mohan. But the project has been temporarily stalled due to the ongoing pandemic.