“It’s in a way interesting and in many ways sad that Bollywood has dominated every aspect of culture in this country in the last two decades especially.”
Tannishtha Chatterjee is an Indian film actress. She is the only Indian actress whose films have been selected in three of the major international film festivals in the same year. Tannishtha won the Best Actress award at the Osian film festival 2006 for Bibar, at MahindraIndo-American Arts Council (MIAAC) Film Festival2009 for Bombay Summer, and at NYIFF Indo-American Arts Council for Dekh Indian Circus.
She got nomination for Best Actress at the British Independent Film Awards 2007 for Brick Lane, the film for which she got the maximum recognition in the West. Her other notable role includes Masha in Academy Award-winning German director Florian Gallenberger’s film, Shadows of Time. Tannishtha is also a successful recording artist, trained in Indian classical vocals and as an actress works with both Indian and international directors.
Here are some of the excerpts of the candid interview with Tannishtha Chatterjee:
Silhouette: You were born a Bengali outside of Bengal and travelled extensively in your childhood. How did you grow your interest in acting and in art in general?
Tannishtha: Actually it was quiet sudden. I was a hard core science student. I had an influence of music right from my childhood because I learnt music. And because of my mother (who loves reading) I was exposed to world literature from a very early age. Acting was just one of those things that just happened. But when it happened, I decided to train. So I went to NSD.
Silhouette:What were the influences on you from other art forms like painting and music?
Tannishtha: Dance, Music and painting – all had an influence on me and still continues to have an influence. I learnt Hindustani classical vocal and I also learnt a bit of Odissi and Bharatnatyam. My sister is a Bharatnatyam dancer so I had a huge atmosphere of dance at home. And music was something that I was totally into.
I used to paint as a child, actually till my teens. And I was always fascinated by still photography. Painting and photography has always fascinated me as far as composition and gesture is concerned. We had a professor in NSD, Nibha Joshi who used to teach us how to study gesture and body language from sculptures and paintings.
Silhouette: You are trained in classical Indian music? What do you draw from music in your life?
Tannishtha: Music is meditation for me. It is very personal. I regard music as the highest form of expression in art, where every bit is so nebulous and yet so universal. I draw my emotional peace and spiritual space from music.
Silhouette: You have done a variety of movies – in different languages, with national and international directors. How is the experience so far?
Tannishtha: Very enriching. Working with different people from different cultures and exchanging thoughts and ideas has been such a wonderful and fulfilling journey. To travel and live in different countries makes my life exciting as well as grounded. I am a better listener of different perspectives now. I don’t judge and jump into conclusions. I try to absorb, learn and grow.
Silhouette: Which of the roles you cling to your heart?
Tannishtha: Acting is a spiritual process. I can’t cling to anything. I submerge myself in a project and character and then bid goodbye. Be passionate for the time I am in it, but then detach as soon as it is over. The power of now is what I live in. So I always look forward to the next, never cling on to what I have already done.
Silhouette: How you decide to take up a role? What factors you consider in the role?
Tannishtha: In the beginning of my career I did not have much choice. I took up whatever came to me. Then slowly I picked up directors and projects which were interesting. I like strong women characters. I have done many films which are woman centric. Brick Lane, Bombay Summer, Dekh Indian Circus – all have woman protagonists.
Sometimes, I struggle against type casting. Other times I can make choices where I push myself to play characters which I have not tried before. I also love to experiment on styles of acting. So doing all kinds of films from European cinema to Bollywood give me the chance to explore different styles of acting.
Silhouette: You are a pass-out of the NSD. How do you balance theatre with cinema?
Tannishtha: I am primarily a cinema actor, though I did train from NSD. But I have done very little theatre after I graduated. I did a big show at the royal opera house in London, and a few other shows in India here and there. But most of my work has been in films. So I can’t really say that I have balanced it out. But as an actor I would like to say this, that the process of exploration of a character is the same in any medium. Its delivery and execution varies.
Silhouette: How fastidious are you about your work? Do you take criticism of others openly or you think it is a lack of empathy/understanding from the other who is criticising your work?Tannishtha: I am very open to criticism. Depending on who is criticizing though. I have some friends and family who are my biggest critique and thus my greatest support. Without an openness to hear criticism, an artist cannot grow.
I am selfish that way. I want to be better and I want to grow. So I do want to listen to people whose judgment I trust and regard. Actually, I am the biggest critique of myself. Till date, I have not been 100% satisfied with any of my works. I strife for better. Always.. And it is purely in terms of the artistic quality.
Silhouette: Apollinaire, the poet, talks about the long quarrel between tradition and innovation. How much traditional are you and when do you feel the urge to be innovative?
Tannishtha: I am all for innovation. Sometimes we fail, but we must always try. There is experiment even in the traditional. The day we start repeating ourselves and playing it safe, we should stop. As long as we have the urge to do something new, something that truly excites us, we will engage.
Silhouette: You don’t have the natural looks that sell in Indian popular cinema. Were you consciously taking up roles in your initial years which were by off-beat filmmakers, to make a mark and then get accepted by the mainstream?
Tannishtha: I did not have a choice in the beginning. I got some interesting international films in lead roles like Shadows of Time, Let the Wind Blow and Brick Lane. These films made Indian directors look at me in a different light I guess.
Silhouette: There is a prevalent practice of making Indian Cinema and Bollywood cinema as synonyms in the popular mainstream cultural space. What you think about this tactics of homogeneity?
Tannishtha: It’s in a way interesting and in many ways sad that Bollywood has dominated every aspect of culture in this country in the last two decades especially. So dance, music, theatre, literature, and all other forms of cinema have been affected by the mainstream Bollywood.
It’s almost like an assault. But hey, it is our popular culture. I don’t know what to think of it. Every TV show, every little kid on the street, every mobile phone ring tone, every cricket commentary, all tabloids – it’s Bollywood across the board. I feel like a dinosaur in a jurassicpark, come see me. I am different. I think and behave differently from the mainstream.
Silhouette: Do you believe art to be a transcendental function i.e. a means to rise out of parochial, narrow states of mind?
Tannishtha: I absolutely do. But unfortunately ours is not an era where we strive to excel in art. We strive to excel in our material living standards. We live in a capitalist world where everything is weighed by money. The importance of art is very insignificant compared to people’s basic needs for existence and strife for the material.
And when we don’t strive, we don’t create. We have stopped creating poetry. Great civilizations were always known for their contribution to art, poetry, music, literature, architecture etc. The Greek vs. the Romans!
Silhouette: Finally, do you believe that to be accepted and be popular one has to be exploited?
Tannishtha: I don’t believe in acceptance n popularity anyway. I believe in personal happiness. Only when I can find inner peace with myself that I can contribute to the world around me.
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