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regular-article-logo Friday, 19 April 2024

Shweta Basu Prasad on her turn as a sex worker in 'India Lockdown'

'I had to pay attention to the language she uses'

Sudeshna Banerjee Published 07.12.22, 12:56 PM
Shweta Basu Prasad in India Lockdown, now streaming on Zee5

Shweta Basu Prasad in India Lockdown, now streaming on Zee5

Basu is her mother’s maiden name and Prasad is her father’s surname. “I speak Bangla fluently and I can read Bangla as well,” Shweta Basu Prasad asserts at the start of the interview with t2. The actress, who struck a National Award on her first screen appearance at the age of 11, is playing an out-of-work prostitute in India Lockdown, currently streaming on Zee5.

It is curious to be interviewing a trained journalist. How does it feel to be on the other side of the table?

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I have never been asked this question before (smiles). I have studied journalism (Bachelor in Mass Media) but not practised journalism except to make a documentary and be a columnist with the online edition of a mainstream newspaper. That was seven years ago. I am primarily an actor and I have been giving interviews since the age of 11. So there is a comfort level I have with journalists. After college, I was more behind the camera till good projects like (The) Tashkent Files came my way. I always wanted to act but I wanted to explore other departments of film-making before I made the decision. I used to produce short films and assisted Anurag Kashyap. There are aspiring actors who come to Bombay but maybe their talent lies in writing or directing or editing. So I wanted to try out different things and see if acting was really my calling. It turns out that it was.

When did you decide to take up acting as a profession?

My dad had a diploma in acting and direction. He has his theatre group also. My mom is a musician and writer and a movie buff. Cinema was always a topic of discussion at home. I grew up watching good films, my parents took me to classical music, art and theatre festivals....

You went off to complete your journalism degree after the release of Iqbal. What was your reasoning?

Madhur (Bhandarkar) sir had offered me Traffic Signal after Iqbal but my parents said I had exams. They wanted me to lead a normal teenager’s life. I respect my parents for taking that stand. I see child actors burning out. Parents get greedy to make money off them. To each his own. But because of my upbringing, I am an audience (member) first and an actor after that. When I take up a project, I ask myself: ‘Do I want to watch it?’ The fate of the project is secondary. I need to be honest to my audience and be humble and treat cinema as an art.

Do you have ambitions to direct some day?

This year, I directed a short film, produced by Applause Entertainment. I had written the story four years ago and wrote the screenplay during lockdown. It has Anupam Kher, Danish Hussain and Zarina Wahab in it. Aarti Bajaj is editing it. She has cut Jab We Met, Sacred Games, Rockstar, Dev D... I want to remain primarily an actor but if I find a story I want to tell, I will.

How did you spend the pandemic lockdown?

I was just out of my marriage. After my divorce, my family asked me if I wanted to come back home. I’ve grown up in Bombay and my family is here. But I am in my late 20s... I don’t want to live with family anymore. Living alone is a big part of growing up. I needed space to introspect and clear my mind. I was asking for time alone and I got the lockdown! (Laughs)

I did a lot of reading and started journaling my experience of watching films. I used to pick up one film-maker or one actor, watch only their movies through the week and write essays about them. I watched seven of Shabana Azmi’s films and wrote a 16-page essay on her. I read Bhagavad Gita. It’s dubbed as a religious book but it’s on way of living more than anything else. I realised I am comfortable living by myself and within limits.

During the second lockdown in 2021, I painted a picture of Satyajit Ray on his centenary and auctioned it on my Instagram profile. Whatever money I got, I donated for Covid relief. As an artiste, I was feeling very passive and frustrated as I was unable to contribute and help people who were suffering.

What is your role in India Lockdown? Why did you agree to do the film?

It is a great subject. Like any art form, cinema too needs to document the times we have lived in. Covid-19 hit people globally. Meherunnisa (her character) is a sex worker. Her livelihood was hit because of the pandemic. We went to Kamathipura (in Mumbai) and met some commercial sex workers. I picked up mannerisms, body language and how they talk, walk and do their make-up, thanks to Madhur sir and his team who took me there. That was the prep part.

But as an actor, it is more important to keep it human. Sometimes the work you do overwhelms the person. Be it the journalist in The Tashkent Files, or the lawyer in Criminal Justice or the sex worker in India Lockdown, the work that they do is an extension of their personality. What is important is who she is as a person. And I wanted Meherunnisa to be a likable person. Many people who have watched the film said she is the comic relief. She is fun, bright and unapologetic. She is not the kind of sex worker that you’d pity. She has a survival spirit to fight back.

Playing a prostitute without having to solicit or entertain clients could make the role the same as say, that of a domestic help without work. Or did you try out any distinct body language?

I had to pay attention to the language she uses. She talks and walks in a certain way, and her clothes are of a certain kind. Shefali, our costume stylist, has done a fantastic job. But as I said, the work is secondary. What she is as a person is important.

She is interacting with clients in a different way in the pandemic situation, which you will understand once you see the film.

It’s 20 years of Makdee. Did you think acting would be your calling at that age?

Back then, I was 11. It is a distant memory but some things have stayed fresh. I enjoyed what I was doing but that was it. It was the hand of God that made Makdee happen. My parents did not want me to act at that age. I had gone with my father for a meeting. Vishal Bhardwaj (director) was making some other movie then. Makdee was supposed to happen with twin boys. But on seeing me, he decided to change it to twin girls.

Any memories with Shabana Azmi and Makrand Deshpande from the sets?

Shabanaji used to make me do the dialogues. When I saw her for the first time, she was in her witch’s costume. I did not know who she was. Before that, my mother had made me watch Masoom, Shekhar Kapur’s film. Makrand used to treat me like an adult. In fact, on that set I used to be pampered but treated as a cast member, which I loved. Now I know about the body of work of Shabanaji, Vishalji, Gulzaar saab, Makrandji, and when I look back on that experience, I wish I could work with them again.

A debut in Makdee crowned with a National Award (for Best Child Artiste). Did acting seem like cakewalk then?

After Makdee, I did Iqbal which also got me an international award and some popular awards. I was 15. I got the Zee Cine Awards Best Actress Critics Choice while Rani Mukerji got Best Actress Popular Choice for Black. I got lucky with both Makdee and Iqbal. But nothing came easy. I still give auditions. I don’t have a family background here. Hard work has no alternative.

What else is on your plate now?

Vikramaditya Motwane’s web series Jubilee (starring Prosenjit) will be out on Amazon Prime Video. There are also a couple of other things which I don’t know if I am allowed to talk about. But I am excited for the release of India Lockdown. It does not trigger memories of 2020 but it is a reminder of the resilience of the human spirit. Life is unpredictable but it is survival of the fittest and as a race we need to survive together.

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