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‘Actors never age; they merely mature’

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Bengali actor Lolita Chatterjee recently made a comeback with her moving performance in Jonaki. Partha Mukherjee believes her best is yet to come

Well into her 80s and on her 23rd film, Lolita Chatterjee’s acting career seems to be taking off like never before. She recently starred in Jonaki, which premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival in the Netherlands this January. Filmmaker Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s ode to his late grandmother, it reflects on her tragic life as she lay in a coma for four days before she passed on.

“An actor doesn’t age; rather, she matures with time,” she told us when we visited her sparsely decorated home in South Kolkata’s Regent Park area. “Yet, in this case, it helped to be an octogenarian.”

Chatterjee has more in common with the subject of the film than just her age. She too belongs to an old, affluent family—her mother, the late Sikhar Basini Devi, was a descendant of the famous Mukherjee clan of Serampore, and her father was the late Kali Charan Chatterjee, an erudite scholar. She too had suffered a loss early in life. “My mother passed away when I was only five. I learnt later that she was the pivot of our family as my father did not look after the nitty-gritty, everyday affairs of the family,” she reveals.

As for Sengupta’s grandmother, he writes in his ‘director’s note’: “She grew up in an aristocratic and Anglicised family. However, her life was marked with pain and suffering. Her father passed away when she was six. Her mother was authoritarian. Despite being in love with a Christian boy, she was forcefully married at the age of 16 and, understandably, my grandfather and she never got along. Chronicles of her life became my bedtime stories. Before she passed away, she lay in a coma for four days, with her eyes slightly open…. I wondered what she was thinking.”

Chatterjee’s first film, Bibhas, was opposite West Bengal’s beloved Uttam Kumar, of whom she was in awe. He had first spotted her at a social gathering where she charmed him with her rendition of Ranbindra Sangeet, a talent she had honed during her school days. Although she acted in a few more Bengali films, she moved to Mumbai, hoping she could fulfil her potential there. “But they only offered me roles of vamps and seductresses considering my height, complexion and, above all, my Westernised mannerisms.” Chatterjee played small roles in movies like Raat Andheri Thi, Aap Ki Kasam, Talaash, Victoria No 203 and Pushpanjali, before she returned to Kolkata and dabbled in Jatra (Bengali folk theatre). While her sporadic performances have caught the attention of the public across the decades, of late a group of filmmakers have found her to be just what they were looking for.

Goutam Ghose cast her in Shunyo Awnko in 2013; Arindam Sil recently cast her in Aaschhe Abar Shabor; and Aditya Vikram Sengupta chose her to embody his grandmother. It was a fantastic choice—Chatterjee has delivered an almost Zen-like performance. Excerpts from an interview with the veteran actor:

Tell us about the character you portrayed in Jonaki.

It is all about an 80 year-old woman in a coma. Though she shows no sign of consciousness, there’s a flicker in her mind and memory, where she goes through the events in her life as an old woman. Aditya tackled the subject with maturity. I had watched his previous film, Jaoa Asar Majhe. It was not only well-crafted but thought-provoking.

What was it like being a part of a full-length feature film in your 80, as an actor and as an octogenarian?

An actor doesn’t age; rather, she matures with time. You will realise this if you observe the craft of Promode Ganguly, Dame Judi Dench or Zohra Sehgal. But, in this case, I agree that it would never have been possible to seamlessly enter the skin of the character, as the director had envisaged, unless I was an octogenarian myself. As for me, I think I reinvented myself with Jonaki at a time when people had almost forgotten about my presence in the industry.

How do you think filmmaking has changed since the 1960s and ’70s?

Directors today are experimenting, which was not possible in the ’60s and ’70s. Filmmaking has changed content-wise, form-wise, and in the style of acting. There are new challenges all around and new filmmakers are leveraging this. However, I think we are missing good, classic storytellers like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Rahen Tarafdar or Tarun Mazumder, even Goutam Ghose. The same can be said of acting. A few talented actors arrive on the scene but they cannot retain their class for long.

Can you tell us a little about your work in Jatra?

Yes, Jatra gave me the satisfaction film never could. I think the productions I got to be a part of—including Tin Poysar Pala by Ajitesh Bannerjee, Hamlet, Indira Gandhi Banhisikha, Ulka and Sonar Khonje—were worth the viewers’ hard-earned money.

How did you get your first break?

I was visiting my sister-in-law Kaveri Basu, who was shooting Suryasikha at Technician Studio in the 1960s. She was a well-known actor and I was teaching at South Point School then. That’s where I met Uttam [Kumar]. He asked if I would be interested in playing Padma in Bibhas, an upcoming film by Binu Bardhan. The film, if my memory serves me right, featured many eminent actors of the time including Uttam Kumar, Kamal Mitra, Pahadi Sanyal, Bikash Roy, Tarun Kumar, Anubha Gupta, Chhaya Devi and Gita Dey. It was 1964. Thus it all began and it went beyond expectations.

When did ‘Runu’ become ‘Lolita’?

I was reading Lolita by Vladimir Nobokov when the producer of Kaal Shroat, a New Theatre production I was shooting for along with Bibhas, asked me about the name I would prefer in the credit title. Without giving it much thought, I said ‘Lolita’. They accepted it and I became ‘Lolita’. I wanted to change it later but that didn’t happen.

What does the future have in store for you?

Shunya Awnko was a great break that revived the actor in me. I don’t know whether a better role will come my way. But I do believe I am yet to get a role that will prove my acting prowess.

Photo: Soumya Sankar Bose
Featured in Harmony — Celebrate Age Magazine
April 2018