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A class act

She’s no ultra-glam Bollywood diva. But actress Tannishtha Chatterjee has made a career that may be the envy of many Bollywood stars. She’s had chunky roles in a string of international movies and come within a whisker of winning a major British award. She also has a jampacked calendar doing a mix of international films and Indian alternative cinema.

Currently gearing up for release is Bhopal: Prayer for Rain directed by Ravi Kumar. The movie, which also has international stars Martin Sheen, Kal Penn and Mischa Barton, is about how a family comes to terms with death after the Bhopal gas tragedy. “My role is small but I play a pivotal part in the development of the story,” says Tannishtha, who plays the wife of a factory worker (played by Rajpal Yadav). The movie is slated to premiere at the Toronto Film Festival and will be released commercially in India.

Tannishtha’s also acting in a movie on women’s issues, based on the novel Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The film is partly directed by Lucy Liu — famous as one of Charlie’s Angels. Other parts of the movie will be directed by stars like Angelina Jolie, Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway. Liu’s segment is called Meena. Chatterjee, who plays the lead, says: “Lucy Liu is a lovely person and an amazing filmmaker.” Shot in Mumbai a few months ago, Meena is a story of a woman who was sold to a brothel at a very young age. She goes on to become a role model and rescues many women like her. The film is slated for a 2012 release.

Tannishtha Chatterjee performed with British composer Jocelyn Pook (left) at London’s Royal Opera House

Chatterjee is currently shooting for Girish Malik’s Jal, a film about preserving the ecological balance in the coastal areas. Then, she’s acting in Sold, a film about a 13-year-old girl risking everything for freedom after being trafficked from her village to a city brothel, directed by Oscar winner Emma Thompson. “I play Monica, who’s exuberant yet very reflective,” says Tannishtha. Besides that she will also be acting in Partho Sengupta’s Sunrise, and Aditya Bhattacharya’s yet untitled film. She also finished shooting recently for Mangesh Hadawale’s Dekh Circus — a first of sorts for her, because it’s a mainstream Hindi film with music composed by Shankar Ehsaan Loy.

So far the actress has steered clear of Bollywood potboilers, though she adds that she hasn’t received many offers for them either. “I think the role of women in most of these films is regressive. Most actresses play mere showpieces in films. The concept of being liberal has, sadly, come to mean only economic independence for female actors,” she says.

Tannishtha credits her international career to “sheer effort” and luck, she says, played only a small part. For the movie that made her famous — Brick Lane (2007), directed by Sarah Gavron and based on the bestselling novel by Monica Ali — Tannishtha auditioned for the key role of Nazneen and bagged it in the face of stiff competition.

But chance did play a role in bringing her into the world of movies. She was all set to do her PhD in Chemistry at Delhi University when she was bitten by the acting bug. “I attended a workshop at the National School of Drama (NSD) under theatre-director Barry John and discovered the thrills of the stage.” The stint at NSD “shook me out of my upper middle-class life,” she laughs.

Actors Christopher Simpson and Tannishtha at the screening of Brick Lane in London
Photograph by Claire Greenway

In fact, filmmaker Anwar Jamal spotted her in an NSD play and decided that she fit the bill perfectly for the role of a Rajasthani woman in his movie, Swaraj (2003) that went on to win a National Award. “It’s less about just mouthing lines and more about engaging in a process of self-exploration. Every role you play is a part of you,” Tannishtha insists. While researching for Swaraj, she lived among Rajasthani women. For Brick Lane she went to the East London street after which the movie is named and lived among the Bangladeshi families there.

Soon after Swaraj, she did an Indo-French co-production Let the Wind Blow (2004) and a German film, Shadows of Time (2005), both received critical acclaim.

Growing up, Tannishtha travelled the world — Japan, Kenya, Australia — due to her dad’s transferable job. “But my mother didn’t spare any efforts to familiarise me with the diversity of Indian culture,” she says. That’s why, apart from listening to Lady Gaga or classical Western, she’s also a trained Hindustani classical singer and has sung in films like Page 3 and Road, Movie. She has even performed at London’s Royal Opera House with famous British composer Jocelyn Pook.

Her biggest moment in the world of movies was being nominated for Best Female Actor in the British Independent Film Awards for her Brick Lane role. “Actor Judi Dench (who won the award for Notes on a Scandal) said on stage that she thought I’d win it. That was my proudest moment,” says Tannishtha, who also acted in a Bengali film, Bibar (2006).

Why hasn’t she done a Bengali film in the last five years? “I got a lot of offers but most of them needed me to play similar roles — either a call girl or a cigarette-smoking seductress. I didn’t want to be typecast,” she says.

Although her latest release, Dev Benegal’s Road, Movie (2010), didn’t fare too well at the box office, her role as a gypsy woman received praise. Says Benegal: “In Road, Movie, she brought in a fierce independence to the role that made the character a modern woman. She is miles ahead of anyone else.”

Tannishtha has created a niche for herself both in India and abroad that proves it’s still possible to be outside the mainstream and build a career in alternative cinema.

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