Interview: Tannishtha Chatterjee; star of Road, Movie.

Tannishtha Chatterjee, the Indian actress who starred in the acclaimed drama Brick Lane, makes an impressive entrance in her latest feature Road, Movie. Like a specter wandering the desert, her nameless gypsy is happened upon by a trio of mismatched souls on a road trip to bring cinema to the masses. Road, Movie is the new picture from director Dev Benegal, and is all about the uniting power of classic Bollywood (and Hollywood) cinema. Fittingly, it plays the Perth Festival from December 20-26. I spoke to Tannishtha about her own love for movies, the reputation of her director, and her enigmatic character in Road, Movie.

SM: Were there any specific films or performances that inspired you to become an actress?

TC: Not really. I actually majored in chemistry. I never thought I would have become an actress. It’s funny that just happened to me. I’m really a great believer in a really clichéd sentence which generalises what happened to me: “Life is what happens while you keep making plans”. My plan was to be working in a cold lab somewhere in the U.S., but something happened to me. I ended up going to drama school and studying acting, and that’s why I am where I am today. I went to drama school and studied European cinema, that inspired me a lot, and I watched a lot of very intricate performances in films that you watch, like Fellini – Giulietta Masina is one of the actresses who really inspired me. People liked Judi Dench, actresses in India… those are the kind of actresses who inspire me.

SM: Would you ever consider going back to chemistry at all?

TC: (Laughs) No, I’m miles away from chemistry now.

SM: That’s behind you.

TC: Studying science gives you a sort of discipline, which is quite nice and the whole mixture of being an artist and having a background in science in my undergrad is quite good. I enjoy that mixture; I like it. I think in a particular way because of that mixture that I have.

SM: That’s interesting. This latest film is directed by Dev Benegal, and I believe it’s been ten years between movies for him (although he’s done a documentary in that time). Can you tell me a little bit about his reputation in India?

TC: Dev actually made a very interesting film many years back – English, August – part of the independent Indian cinema movement; that was the first. It was based on a very popular novel called English, August again, and in this time English writing was appearing in India in the mainstream, and Dev was the first filmmaker to make a film in English in India. So he did become very popular with that film in the younger generation. I had seen that film when I was in high school … even younger than that. And I liked his work. When I first moved to Bombay, he had made two films – a documentary film on a very famous actress’ life here, and another feature film about water problems, both very interesting – but his first film still remained the most well-known and widely accepted film in the country. hen he went to New York and started working on different scripts, because he wanted to make international films. And then he made Road, Movie. I met him for the first time in Bombay through a common friend, and I was a part of their band at that point – I was singing – and he wasn’t doing anything at the moment. And then many years later, when he was making Road, Movie, he got in touch with me with the script, and then we worked together.

SM: Was it just that relationship you had with him that attracted you to the project, or was there something else?

T: I liked Dev’s work; I especially liked his first film a lot. And I quite liked the magical worlds he explores; they’re very different from many of the films we make in our country. The characters are all understated; there’s nothing dramatic that happens in the film. So it’s very difficult for actors to impress the audience; you just have to be the character. I like those kinds of projects where you’re naturally growing into something; and so I liked the script and the journey it was making. That was something I love about road movies, and this was a road film. And the fact that the team was also very nice with Dev and [stars] Abhay [Deol], and Satish [Kaushik], who I worked with before in Brick Lane, and he’s such an amazing actor. I wanted to work with them.

SM: You mention the room you had to work with the characters; and yours arrives halfway through the movie, and it’s a very enigmatic entrance and a very mysterious character over all. I’m wondering, how much could you bring to that role, and build upon it beyond what was in the script?

TC: It’s a very difficult role, because you don’t have any tools to play with. And Dev said to me: “I want a generic gypsy woman”. Something that is very enigmatic about her is her quality of a wanderer, and he just said: “You kind of don’t get it, what she’s all about it”. She’s kind of just there; she appears like a mirage, and she disappears like a mirage. So it’s a very nebulous kind of character, and he said: “I don’t want you to work on any dialect; I want her to be generic, I don’t want her to be region specific”. Actually, when you are given tools like language and this and that, it’s easier for an actor. When you’re stripped of all those tools, it’s far more difficult for an actor to give a screen presence that people would like to watch. It was tough but before I started filming I was there for three days. I wore the costume every day and just went on set and walked and talked with all these women; I just did that; I had to be that person.

SM: can you tell me what you’re working on next?

T: I just finished an Indian/Hindi film, and I’m working on a British/U.S./Indian co-production [Bhopal: A Prayer for Rain] with this British-Indian director; half the cast is from the U.S., half the cast is from India. Martin Sheen is one of the principal characters in the film; it’s about a tragedy that happened in India in 1984 [the Bhopal gas tragedy]; it’s based on that. So that’s what I’m working on right now. And next year I have about three films lined up: two Indian films and one American project.

Road, Movie plays the Perth Festival from December 20-26. You can buy tickets here.

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