TANNISHTHA Chatterjee was once offered a small role in a feature film called Rough Book. The film was centred on a physics teacher; a role for which the director was imagining a male character. “I approached the director and asked him why the teacher couldn’t be female,” says Chatterjee. “He just hadn’t thought of it. I ended up playing the part.” The 35-year-old graduate from the National School of Drama has played an array of unconventional characters during her career in London, Delhi and Mumbai.
Though Chatterjee claims off-beat roles “pick her”, it’s obvious that she finds them more exciting than regular song-and-dance shows where women are relegated to playing a love interest. Not one to shy away from controversial roles, in her first major film, Shadows of Time (2004), Chatterjee played a courtesan who had an extra-marital affair and an illegitimate child. Now, in Ruchika Oberoi’s portmanteau Island City, which releases on September 2, she plays Aarti, an introvert with tumultuous inner struggles.
One of the three leading characters — each of their story illustrates the loneliness and cynicism that afflict urban people — Aarti leads an unhappy, mechanical life in Mumbai. It is devoid of affection even from her family. To make matters worse, she is engaged to a self-obsessed man. But an anonymous love letter awakens a yearning for a connection greater that what she had settled for. Going against the wishes of her family, she leaves her fiance. Suggesting that the film is quite critical of the institution of the family, Chatterjee says, “Families in Indian societies can be a great support but they can also be very oppressive. In the urban landscape, though we may think of it as being more progressive, women have to suffer patriarchal manifestations of violent relationships or dowry pressures.”
Talking about the various films she’s acted in recently — Angry Indian Goddesses, where she plays a rebellious activist fighting giant corporations; Parched, a story of sexuality and female bonding in a village in the Gujarat-Rajasthan area; and UnIndian, a rom-com featuring an Indian girl living in Sydney who falls for a white man — Chatterjee says that off-beat films have gained more acceptance in recent years. “The Indian audience is increasingly intrigued by movies that don’t follow the mainstream. In the last four years, these films have been enjoying pan-India theatrical releases, and travel to top international film festivals. That’s probably due to the growth in digital technology and other platforms to showcase films, and a younger audience that has been exposed to different things. Parents, I believe, are more willing to let their children step out of the box and explore unconventional ideas.”
This does not mean that the actor is not keen on acting in Bollywood. “I like Bollywood films. There are a lot of mainstream and masala-type movies, but there are also some very interesting ones that break ground. Sanjay Leela Bhansali is a wonderful director — he treats female roles with diligence and grace. I don’t know why I’ve never been in a Bollywood production. I’ve just never been offered a part I’m interested in,” says the actor. She adds that in Bollywood, too, directors have become more open to nuanced roles for women. But she has noticed a worrying trend as well. “The beauty standard is becoming more and more rigid- not only in Bollywood, but all over the world. Women especially have to meet certain requirements of youth, weight, height, hair and skin colour,” says Chatterjee whose recent film UnIndian also stressed on the need of being comfortable in your own skin.
Though lauded by critics, the actor has experienced her share of controversy. Her role in Brick Lane (2007) — based on a novel by Monica Ali — as an unhappy wife and mother, invited criticism, including angry letters and a planned protest, because her character has an extra-marital affair. “As an artist, I have to be willing to listen to criticism,” says she.
Usually cast as the “nice girl”, Chatterjee aspires to play a negative character. “I’d love to play a horrible, mean character. For some reason, people only give me good-person roles,” says the actor. Her next project, meanwhile, is a biopic, where she plays the role of Doctor Rakhmabai, the first practising female Indian doctor.