It was a marquee year for Indian women at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival that ran September 10-20. Of the three Indian feature films shown at TIFF, one was directed by a woman – Talvar, by Meghna Gulzar; and the other two – Parched, directed by Leena Yadav (again a woman director), and Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses – were women-centred films with no male leads at all.
Playing pivotal roles in both Parched and Angry Indian Goddesses (AIG) is the Indian actress Tannishtha Chatterjee, who is drawing a lot of attention on the global stage. Her breakout film was Brick Lane, based on British writer Monica Ali’s best-selling book of the same name, which had its world premiere at TIFF in 2007.
“I love her,” says Cameron Bailey, Artistic Director of TIFF. “I like that she, like Irrfan Khan, takes on challenging roles, works with independent filmmakers, and is able to transform herself utterly. She’s a very sophisticated and poised contemporary urban woman but she’s also able to play village women very convincingly. She’s able to play period parts very convincingly. She’s got this great range that allows her to act in so many different films.”
On her fourth visit to TIFF this year, Tannishtha was wowed by the Toronto audience’s reaction to both her films. AIG was in fact the runner-up to Room, the Grolsch People’s Choice Award winner. And she was struck by the fact that the public audience here responded to the humour within the intense script of Parched.
“In India that was never the response. Here they got that humour also, they got the second layer,” she said in an interview at her hotel downtown.
In both Parched and AIG, Tannishtha is part of a close-knit group of women who fight to reclaim control over their lives, yet her characters in the two films are worlds apart.
In Parched, she plays Rani, a villager who was widowed as a teenager and has relied on her needlework skills to bring up a son, Gulab, who is now ready to be married, also as a teenager. She has so far accepted the severe limits posed on her life by the menfolk in her community, but when Gulab seeks to impose similarly oppressive values on his bride, she is forced to question him and her community’s traditions.
Rani’s closest friends are Lajjo, a vivacious young woman played by Radhika Apte, who stoically endures marital rape and endless beatings from her husband because they are childless. Another childhood friend, played by Surveen Chawla, is Bijli, an erotic dancer who is both lusted after and brutalized by the men of the village.
Tannishtha said she came across a real-life Rani while preparing for her role in a previous film Road, Movie, and shared her story with Leena Yadav, leading to Parched. Recalling a meeting with the real Rani, she said, “One day she just held my hand and said, ‘Didi, 15 saal ho gaye ki kisi mard ne mujhe chua nahin’.”
The women in the film are literally parched, leading lives devoid of a kind word, a loving touch. Yadav doesn’t hold back on the intensity of violence towards them, and while it’s disturbing to watch, it acts as a counterpoint to the bonding between the women.
A scene in which Lajjo goes topless while Rani is tending to a bruise and lets her hand linger for a few moments is captured without a hint of voyeurism. There are no lesbian undertones either.
“It’s a very complicated performance. You don’t have any dialogues there, it has nothing to do with nudity, it’s just that she hasn’t been touched for so long,” explains Tannishtha.
I feel it’s one of the best scenes I have ever been in till now and I will always cherish it. I hope that they give us an XXXXXX certificate but release it exactly the way it is.
– Tannishtha Chatterjee
In AIG, Tannishtha plays a feisty activist, one of a larger group of seven contemporary urban women, who are also trying to avoid being straitjacketed in their lives and professions and under the constant threat of sexual violence. There are sensitive and challenging scenes in this film as well. “The expression of your sexual energies, until and unless we are allowed to explore that, change is not going to happen. I strongly feel that, which is why these two films are very important for me as an actress,” she says.
A graduate of the National School of Drama, Tannishtha says she had to resist being typecast both after Brick Lane and Dekh Indian Circus in 2011, an award-winning performance that led to a spate of rural roles. Ironically, she had to work harder at them because of her urban background and globetrotting childhood, having lived in Japan, Australia, Kenya, England and India.
Asked where she sees herself in the Indian mainstream industry, she replies, “I don’t see myself in the mainstream Indian film industry, they also don’t see me, it’s like a mutual acceptance.”
The actress has had a good run of late. Besides Parched and AIG, another film in which she plays the protagonist, Island City, premiered at the Venice film festival a few days before TIFF and bagged a first time director award for its maker Ruchika Oberoi. Next month, she will be seen in UnIndian, a romantic comedy where is paired opposite former cricketer Brett Lee. “Brett is so good…he just reacts naturally to things. He doesn’t pre-think that he’s going to do this. I approached it differently, my energy is different in that film,” Tannishtha said.
Her first major role was in the 2004 film Shadows of Time by first-time German director Florian Gallenberger, which also premiered at TIFF. This year, he was back to premiere his latest film Colonia, starring Emma Watson and Daniel Bruhl. As she met Gallenberger in Toronto, Tannishtha said the two laughed about how far they had come and the pivotal role of TIFF in their careers.
(Indira Kannan is a senior journalist and was in Toronto to cover the international film festival, TIFF 2015)