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Women on top

It’s called Girl Power and it is charming its way to centre-screen in urban Bengali cinema. So, moviegoers will soon be taking their seats for the first ever Bengali chick flick Aami Aar Amaar Girlfriends. The movie directed by Mainak Bhaumik stars a vivacious trio — Swastika Mukherjee, Raima Sen and Parno Mitra — who play best buddies dealing with boys, age and diet issues.

The three of them will also liven up the screen in his August-end release Maach Mishti ‘N’ More, a comedy about three brothers and their love interests, says Bhaumik.

Bhaumik’s not the only one putting big bets on womanpower. Cut to last month and four actresses — Raima, Parno, along with Mumtaz Sorcar and Tanusree Chakraborty — turned out powerful performances in Subrata Sen’s Koyekti Meyer Golpo that’s about a bunch of young girls trapped in the murky world of prostitution. Also, last month Paoli Dam impressed audiences with her portrayal of a 1940s rebel in Elar Char Adhyay.

Hey, when did the sultry ladies of Bengali cinema upstage the leading men who usually called the shots? Once upon a time the women stood behind men when it came to pushing the plot forward. Not any longer it seems.

“In mainstream potboilers the hero is the crowd-puller but urban cinema requires both the male and female leads to be good actors,” says Rana Sarkar, producer of Bedroom. “And in recent times, our female actors have been outshining their male counterparts,” he adds.

So, you have Ananya Chatterjee, Raima, Swastika, Paoli, Parno and Mumtaz all making their presence felt on the screen. And moviemakers are acknowledging this by ensuring that bigger female roles are being written into the scripts in the latest urban Bengali films.

Role play

To understand the way scripts have changed, take a look at Parno Mitra, one of the newer faces who has grabbed the attention of audiences. She made a dream debut in films in 2010 as the rock star Ranjana in Anjan Dutt’s Ranjana Ami Ar Ashbona. She returned to the screen as a fashion photographer in Bhaumik’s Bedroom. And, she’ll be cornering eyeballs once again in the soon-to-be- released Ekla Akash, where she plays a wife who breaks up with her husband (Parambrata Chattopadhyay), and becomes an actress.

make-up: aniruddha
chakladar; styling: sandy; location: The park, calcutta

“Women’s roles have evolved. It’s not just about dolling up,” says Parno, who debuted on television in 2007 with soaps like Khela, Mohona and Bou Kotha Kau.

Or look at Swastika, who has seen change take place around her, ever since her showbiz debut on TV in the early 2000s. A few years ago, she says, only a handful of leading directors made movies that gave prominent roles to women. Says Swastika: “Earlier, one could expect directors like Aparna Sen or Rituparno Ghosh to create meaningful women characters, now more filmmakers are doing it.”

Swastika has cemented her position in the industry and has acted in many of the new genre of movies like Kaushik Ganguly’s Brake Fail in 2009, Birsa Dasgupta’s 033 in 2010 and Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Janala in 2011. More recently, she was one of the stars in the blockbuster Bhooter Bhabishyat. In the film, she plays the ghost of a 1930s movie heroine and she managed to reproduce to perfection the nasal tones and exaggerated mannerisms, common at that time. Says the movie’s director Anik Dutta: “I asked Swastika to practise the tone and instructed her on dialogue delivery. When she came back she’d also worked on the body language, which I’d forgotten to tell her about.”

Other youngsters too are landing plum roles. Take a look at Mumtaz who made her debut in 2010 with Birsa Dasgupta’s 033 as Ria, a Marwari girl who joins an all-male band. Soon afterwards, she grabbed the lead role in Pranab Choudhury’s period film Musalmanir Galpo, inspired by a Tagore story. But her biggest hit so far has been Bhooter Bhabishyat, in which she plays the ghost of a lovesick youngster, Koel. “Mumtaz has a very strong look that sets her apart from the quintessential feminine mainstream heroines,” says director Subrata Sen. Incidentally, Mumtaz is a trained boxer and jazz dancer.

Mumtaz learnt to ride a scooter in a week for her debut film

A new milieu

The Bengali film world moves at high speed spending a month or two on a movie and then moving on to the next piece of celluloid action. And the female screen stars must also be able to make effortless transitions and portray any number of different roles. So, you have Raima Sen morphing from a Tagorean heroine to a free-spirited runaway bride in Maach Mishti ‘N’ More. And Paoli Dam moves with alacrity from dissatisfied housewife to a nationalist movement activist in Bappaditya Bandopadhyay’s Elar Char Adhyay. “Paoli’s appeal lies in the fact that she has a timeless beauty and is also very cerebral,” says Bhaumik.

“It’s amazing how these girls keep re-inventing their looks,” says Rai Sengupta Ganguly of Mojo Productions, which has produced films like The Bong Connection, Bhooter Bhabishyat and Maach Mishti ‘N’ More.

Says Rudraneil Ghosh, one of Paoli’s co-stars: “The urban woman commands equal recognition of her ideas as the man and this is translated in urban cinema.” “This,” says Bandopadhyay, “can be attributed to the new generation of directors, script writers, and even producers.”

Swastika blew audiences
away with her performance
in Bhooter Bhabishyat

The new dynamics of urban cinema has also influenced the moolah factor. Says one director: “Unlike mainstream mass movies, actors and actresses in urban films get paid equally.” The going rate is Rs 2 lakh to Rs 8 lakh, for a maximum of 25 days of shooting. And producers agree that the figure has doubled in the last three to four years. “An experienced actress like Raima would be in the higher bracket,” says the director.

Raima’s credentials as an actress have been bolstered by her performances in four Rituparno Ghosh films — Chokher Bali, Antarmahal, Khela and Noukadubi. Her latest hit was Srijit Mukherji’s Baishe Srabon last year. “Rituparno Ghosh really turned my career around by giving me Ashalata in Chokher Bali. I learnt a lot about the craft of acting while working with him,” says the actress, who’s also done Aparna Sen’s The Japanese Wife and Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Swapner Din.

And where does sex figure in the new cinematic milieu? Paoli for one has earned a reputation for doing ‘daring’ roles. In Vimukti Jayasundara’s Chatrak, her lovemaking scene created a huge stir. But Paoli indicates that the sexual angles are overplayed and that critics should look at her role as Ela in Elar Char Adhyay. “Ela is perhaps the boldest role I’ve played. She is a true rebel who defies institution. Boldness is in the mind,” says Paoli, whose upcoming projects include Debarati Gupta’s Hoi Choi and Ritabrata Bhattacharya’s Basanta Utsab.

The other actresses also insist that sex is being portrayed in a more natural way in Bengali films. “If the script is about a married couple, it’s only natural that they will have intimate moments. No one makes a fuss anymore,” says Swastika. “We just make sure that we don’t have onions before a lip-lock,” she adds, laughing.

In fact, the work atmosphere in general is more conducive to better performances. “With so many young, like-minded people working together, shoots are no-stress now. We don’t even realise when it’s time to pack-up,” says Swastika, who will soon be filming for Suman Mukhopadhyay’s upcoming Shesher Kabita, based on Rabindranath Tagore’s novel.

Similarly, Parno says: “In Ekla Akash, Param’s and my characters have a fight, which leads to lovemaking. I have to be convinced about it being in the natural scheme of things and it has to be done tastefully.” She, however, insists that she wouldn’t do full frontal scenes.

Parno’s very first film won three
National Awards
Hair and Make-up: Abhijit Chanda; Styling: Sandy; location: Afraa, City Centre, Salt Lake

In fact, the actresses argue that sex isn’t enough to hook audiences anymore. Says director Kaushik Ganguly: “To think that people would watch a film just because of sex is to undermine the urban audience. In Laptop, there is a scene where Ananya is ironing her clothes in a bra, but we never even considered making that into a poster to promote the film.” In Laptop, Ananya plays a typist who assists a visually challenged novelist and a undefined relationship brews between the two.

Each of the actors insists that they’re constantly striving towards better performances.

Raima points to how she prepared for her role in Chokher Bali. “I did workshops on body language and on how to be comfortable doing all kinds of chores in a sari without a blouse,” she says.

The actress has just finished shooting for Kaushik Ganguly’s Shobdo, where she plays the wife of a recording artist, who imagines he is hearing sounds. She will start work on Anjan Dutt’s Ganesh Talkies in December, and has two more Rituparno films lined up. “One is an adaptation of Tagore’s Chitrangada and the other is a fiction documentary on the life of Tagore,” she adds.

Parno too put in extra effort, and weight, for her role as Nisha, mother of a little girl, in Ekla Akash. Says Sandipan Ray, director of the film: “Parno has an intensity that allows her to handle roles beyond her age.”

(From top) be it a woman in a strange relationship in Laptop, or a call girl in Koyekti Meyer Golpo, or a tomboy in Maach Mishti ‘N’ More, these actresses are game for all kinds of roles

And while Parno took guitar lessons for Ranjana Ami Ar Ashbo Na, Mumtaz learnt how to drive a scooter in a week’s time for 033. “I’d never even been on a cycle and there I was giving a shot on a Scooty on the busy Red Road with my co-actor Saheb riding pillion,” she recalls. For Musalmanir Galpo, the actress learnt horse riding in five days. “I will soon start shooting for Bandopadhyay’s next, Kolkata 2012, where I play a Muslim athlete from Metiabruz, struggling to survive in a male-dominated field,” says the actress, who is currently filming for Anjan Das’s Life in a Zero.

For Ananya, in Rituparno Ghosh’s Abohoman, the film that won her the 2010 National Award for Best Actress, the challenge was the different layers that her character had. “At one level, I was playing Shikha, a struggling, unrefined theatre actress. Then there was Shikha, six years down the line, a successful and glamorous film heroine. And on a third level I played Binodini in the film within the film,” she says. Ananya is currently shooting for Kamaleshwar Muk-herjee’s Jwala, where she plays Ritwik Ghatak’s wife, Surama. Incidentally, Mumtaz too will appear in Jwala as Bengali actress Supriya Devi.

Ananya is also looking forward to the August release of Agnidev Chatterjee’s film Teen Kanya, where she plays a call girl who is raped.

Will these women move into mainstream potboilers? Or, will they do item numbers if the movie calls for it? Nobody’s ruling anything out. And though the world of cinema has its constant ups and downs, chances are bright that Bengal’s leading ladies will be making screen-scorching performances for some time to come.