The first time that Chitrangada Chakraborty ever left home, it was to work in the Bombay film industry in 2013. Daughter of well-known Bengali filmmaker Satarupa Sanyal, the only place in the world Chitrangada can truly call home is Kolkata, and the only world she has ever inhabited has been tinged with the colours of celluloid.
But, even with three feature films behind her, including the newly released Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal, there is something very different about the 29-year-old actress, who speaks with the innocence of a child in real life and yet can transform into a dark, feisty, frustrated, angry, bitter character when the cameras go on. Who is she, really?
I need to talk to her about this. I dial her number, and we get pleasantries out of the way before my questions begin.
eShe: What does Kolkata represent for you?
Chitrangada: Kolkata is comfort for me. That’s where I’ve spent most of my life. My mom and dad are both filmmakers. They got divorced when I was six, and my mother has been both parents for me since then. She is also a poet, and does more social work with women’s NGOs than make movies.
And your sister Ritabhari Chakraborty?
She’s three years younger than me. She’s an actress too and is quite a star in Kolkata.
When did you start acting?
I did theatre while studying mass communication and film production at St. Xavier’s in Kolkata. Then I started working in television, and got a chance to do a minor role in a film directed by Suman Mukhopadhyay. I also did another full-length feature film in Bengali, which is yet to be released. And then I moved to Mumbai and worked in theatre for three years. I’ve also done some web series.
Your character in Aditya Kripalani’s Tikli and Laxmi Bomb (TALB) is a sex worker who is really fierce and full of life. How different is Tikli’s personality from yours?
I’m quite polite and practical in real life; I try to solve things calmly. But even so, there is this fierce alter ego in me, so I was able to identify with Tikli’s impulsive and feisty nature.
And how did that role impact you?
Well, it definitely made me feel very grateful for the many privileges in my life – a place to live, my mother, sister, boyfriend, choices, freedom to wear and speak what I want. I was playing a character from a completely different and complex milieu, and there was this sense of responsibility that I better do justice to the role. I should understand a sex worker’s life and context, and not just because I want that tick-mark on my acting CV. So I did a lot of research and really immersed myself in it.
What was the experience of shooting street-side scenes in full costume like?
We had a very tough 45-day schedule with a lot of night shoots. We had to shoot scenes guerrilla-style sometimes, and change clothes in a basti (slum area) nearby. Passers-by thought we were real sex workers. Cabs would slow down and men would stare. Once, when a wide shot was being taken and the crew was a little distance away, a guy asked, ‘Andar chalegi kya?’ And then our cameraman shouted out to him, ‘Shooting chal raha hai, bhai!’ And the guy was so embarrassed and went away. The good thing was knowing that we looked really authentic! But yeah, now when I look back, I wonder how we did it all.
You also had another Bengali film release at around the same time as TALB?
Yes, Ahare Mon, it was a coincidence that they released back-to-back. That was shot in Kolkata, though.
Then you went bald.
Well, my character in Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal is a karate instructor. In martial arts, long hair gives your opponent something to hold on to, and is undesirable. Aditya [Kripalani, the director] suggested I shave my hair off to do justice to the role, and I agreed.
Was it an easy decision?
It was a drastic decision for me; I always had very good, long hair and it was actually a kind of USP in my previous roles. But I didn’t mind trying out a new look.
How did it feel?
Oh, it changed me in very unexpected ways in real life. My body language changed. I also started learning karate, and my gait changed. In the movie, four Delhi women kidnap a man who harasses them on the street and teach him a lesson about what it feels like to live under the threat of rape every day. Cutting my hair genuinely helped me get into the role. I am glad I’ve had such characters coming my way; I have learnt so much in the process.
You haven’t done any running-around-trees sort of Hindi movie stuff.
(Laughs) I have nothing against running around trees, but yes my experiences have mostly been niche and artistic. In the film industry, you’re lucky if you can choose your role, and I’ve been lucky to have good strong female roles come my way. But I have nothing against any genre. Besides, no one will give me a role running around trees with this short hair!
When did you start playing the ukulele?
My best friend gifted it to me two years ago. As a freelance actor, you have these long periods of no commitments. So I’d just sit and play, and started looking up chords on the internet. I realised I have a decent musical sense and am good with strumming. It’s fun because it’s not my main profession. There’s no pressure, just pleasure!
And what about your photography?
I started out taking pictures of my co-actors in theatre, especially Kalki Koechlin. They liked my pictures and then I started doing professional portfolios for them – because casting directors these days ask for candid photos and that’s my speciality. It’s my alternative profession now.
Tell us about your boyfriend Sambit Chatterjee. What’s it like to date a drummer?
We’ve been friends since our college days in Kolkata. He’s been in Mumbai since last year but he is usually traveling all over the country for his shows. It’s actually nice when you’re both artists; it’s easier to understand one another. You empathize with each other’s ups and downs. Artists are very vulnerable when we have these long gaps between jobs, or when a gig is cancelled. So it’s very comforting when the other person gets it. Ours was a friendship first, and then we realised, why choose someone else when you have your best friend right there?
Photo courtesy: Chitrangada Chakraborty. Tikli and Laxmi Bomb is available on Netflix. Tottaa Pataaka Item Maal is currently being shown at film festivals around the world.