Unrelatable as it may sound, 2020 has been a good year for Swastika Mukherjee.
But she seems annoyed by one specific part of 'Bombay culture', where she says people take few months (possibly even years) to respond to a text. Most of these texts come with an underlined subtext of 'no hard feelings'. Anyone who has navigated the city for work, knows exactly what Mukherjee is talking about.
"After Pataal Lok, when someone is starting a conversation, I can see that the last time I spoke to this person was in 2017, and there was no response to my repeated texts. I was probably following up on work. And now that conversations have begun again [perhaps post the success of Paatal Lok], I even told a couple of them that the last time we spoke you never responded to my texts. Now they're laughing, they have nothing to say. This is how things change."
Riding the wave of successive high-profile projects " from Dolly Mehra in Pataal Lok to Mrs Basu in last week's Dil Bechara " she seems to have captured the attention of a pan-India audience. And it's taken only 20 years.
Starting her career as part of an ensemble cast in 2001's Hemantar Paakhi, Mukherjee starred in her first potboiler in 2004's Mastan, opposite Jeet. Though she made a blink-and-you-miss appearance in Rituparno Ghosh's Chokher Bali (2003), her breakthrough performance was probably in the 2007 adaptation of Bankim Chandra Chatterjee's Krishnakanter Will, where she played the free-spirited widow, Rohini. After nearly two decades, Mukherjee is more discerning than ever, about taking up a Bengali project. "It's difficult to choose scripts and films that I haven't done yet. The options just keep reducing every day and I also feel like wanting to move out of my comfort in Bengali films, because I don't want to become stagnant and stop developing, mastering my craft. For a Bengali film, I'm really picky about the script and my character. I don't want to do a film where the entire focus is on male character, and I think I'm beyond being a part of a supporting cast," she says.
Delivering (arguably) her most famous performance in Anik Dutta's Bhooter Bhobishyot, Mukherjee dug into her 'movie star' quality to perfection while essaying the role of Kodolibala. A quality that's barely diminished even eight years later, in Mukesh Chhabra's directorial debut.
Mukherjee along with her on-screen husband, Saswata Chatterjee, are arguably the best things about Dil Bechara. A film that constantly reminds us to feel in every scene, both Chatterjee and Mukherjee ace the art of minimalism.
While Chatterjee is the nervy, jovial Bengali father, Mukherjee is the reticent mother. She has more concerned stares than lines in the film. Mukherjee might look absolutely on-point in the final film, but she looked far from what someone might expect of 'Mrs Basu', when Mukesh Chhabra's office asked her to audition. "I had a brave haircut at that point, I got that buzz-cut like Ronaldo. I kept telling Mukesh (Chhabra) that it didn't matter if I sent my tape in, because I looked nothing like a mother. I didn't want to send something that I myself didn't find believable... but he kept insisting. I asked my cousin to shoot my audition." Chhabra's immediate response to Mukherjee's audition was - "OMG! Why did you shave your hair?" A few more auditions and a visit to Mumbai later, Mukherjee was locked to play Sanjana Sanghi's mother in the film. "I used a different colour of contact lens to match Sanjana's eye colour. When we did the look-test, I was looking more like her mother than her actual mother," she adds with a laugh.
Before Dil Bechara, Swastika Mukherjee's last Hindi film outing was Dibakar Banerjee's fabulously designed, brimming with intrigue, but ultimately underwhelming adaptation Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!. Mukherjee played the role of a mysterious woman called Angoori Devi. An actress during '40s Kolkata, there's more to her than meets the eye, and something is always left unsaid between the lines. Angoori Devi's presence reeks of unmentionable secrets. Mukherjee's audition for the role, was the first time she ever had to audition for an acting job.
"Of course, once you say that I'm working on a Yash Raj Film (YRF), it sounds a little heavy. So your heart goes a little more dhak dhak than usual." Meeting Honey Trehan for the audition in Kolkata, Mukherjee said it took nearly four months for YRF to finalise her for the role. "This happened in August, and every month I used to get a call saying that I had been shortlisted into the last five. From 500, I came to five... then three... then two. By the end of it, I asked them to please tell me I'm not doing the film, because I can't live with this dilemma. It's better to hear a no, than to wait around for a maybe. Finally, I got confirmed for the film in December," she says. Even though the film found its takers, it didn't make a big dent in the cultural landscape and the box office, except for its memorable multi-composer soundtrack.
Mukherjee remembers the day when she finally embraced her limitation of the Hindi language, on the sets of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! "Personally, I have an issue with genders in Hindi. I can't keep track of hoga/hogi... and it makes me paranoid. The chair is female, but the fan is male, a box of chocolates is male, but a toffee wrapper is not... I must be conscious about what I'm saying. I must learn my lines with a little more effort here. I remember I had this scene in Byomkesh around the climax, where I had to get into this vintage car wearing a sari and a trench coat, while carrying a suitcase and holding a gun. It was a logistical nightmare. It was even tough for Sushant (Singh Rajput) because he was around 6 ft, and those vintage cars have little legroom and he was wearing a dhoti. Also, it's a period film, so the Hindi is a very specific kind. The shot was done, and I was so relieved that I had managed to pull it off in the first take. It's a very emotionally intense scene, but by the end Sushant was laughing. Then he told me very politely - 'Swastika ma'am, you acted so well. But you've said all your lines thinking Byomkesh is a woman.' For every hoga... I had said hogi. Everything was karti, jaati... and I was angry with myself that I had to redo the whole thing because of the wrong gender."
Having starred in a big-ticket film like Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, Mukherjee was advised to use this opportunity to make connections in Mumbai. Unfortunately, her mother passed only a couple of months after her Bollywood debut. Making the choice of staying back in Kolkata to look after her father, Mukherjee set off on her Bollywood dream in 2016. "... because of the character I played in Byomkesh, I got many roles which I knew would add nothing to my career. I got these 'bold' characters, who were 'bold' in a very cliched sense... where there's a lot of skin show. What people saw was a very one-dimensional version. I thought Angoori Devi was much more complex and layered than a sexy siren", Mukherjee says about those early days in Mumbai. Not to mention, she found navigating through the numerous casting agencies, that have mushroomed all over the city, particularly taxing. She auditioned for anything and everything. "Earlier I was stupid enough to go into fully crowded auditions, which I later realised was a bad idea. Then I started to tell them that I can come for the audition, but you'll have to make sure that I don't have to stand in a line, and I'll go at a time when no one's around. Over time they figured out that I wasn't a 'struggler' and had a body of work behind me."
It's impossible to wrap this conversation up without asking her to weigh in on the insider/outsider debate. Mukherjee has a unique perspective of being both a 'veteran' in Bengali films, and an 'outsider' in Hindi films. And she keeps things lucid and categorical about her experience in Hindi cinema up till now, "One route is easier, and the other is difficult and time-consuming. I think if I knew the right kind of people, then maybe I could have reached out faster. Maybe, I could have done more work by now. I didn't know anyone over there, and every piece of work I've done over here is through an audition, or by the connection of other work that I may have done or auditioned for. I really don't have any friends or family in Bombay. One audition has led to another, and this process is more difficult, time-consuming and (comprises) more rejections. Everything is finalised, dates have been locked, remuneration has been locked, in your mind you know you're doing this film... maybe you've even worked with the production house before. And then you notice that the communication slows down, and you get an inkling that something is off. Then you hear someone needs a Bollywood name, and you're not doing the film anymore."
However, Mukherjee also quickly adds that an industry can't function on negativity alone. "I also know filmmakers who have stood and fought for me. You will find directors who will fight for you, and there will be those who let go of it and cower under pressure. There's both the good and the bad," she says, the 'no-hard-feelings' tone impossible to miss in her voice. Swastika Mukherjee seems to be picking up the pragmatic lingo of the Hindi film industry.