Last Tuesday, Sreelekha Mitra walked the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival. She wore a sea green sari—not too different from the one she wears in the last scene of Once Upon A Time in Calcutta, almost as if picking up from where the film had left off. At the end of the film, her character, Ela, gets what she wants, which the film grants her through a twisted series of events. When the director Aditya Vikram Sengupta was casting for the film, he couldn't think of anyone else in the role and you can see why: Mitra doesn't play Ela so much as she embodies her—a has-been actress, a mother, and a strong-willed single woman who finds success at long last. Representing India in one of the world's top three film festivals, where a film starring her is in competition, is the ultimate win for her.
Mitra's career as a movie actress never really took off. She has deep resentments against the Bengali film industry, which she says has treated her unfairly. Last year, in the wake of conversations around nepotism following Sushant Singh Rajput's suicide, the actress put out a video where she dropped "truth bombs" about the industry, stating that she was repeatedly left out of projects because of favouritism. She took names—Prosenjit Chatterjee, Rituparna Sengupta, Swastika Mukherjee. There were counter-attacks, like those from Mukherjee, who said that by implying that she got to act in multiple films with the same director or actor because she was dating them, Mitra was slut-shaming her (and women in general).
The actress takes pride in her outspokenness. "The words 'What's on your mind' on Facebook", I take them literally," she told me over the phone from Venice. When I sat down to do some research on her, most of my time was spent going through her social media posts, which includes a bizarre incident involving a coffee date with a Red Volunteer—a CPI(M) youth initiative based in Kolkata—and a dead puppy. In 2019, Mitra started her YouTube channel; the videos are about a range of things: from body positivity to her mother's memories to a trip to an NGO in Sundarban. In one of them, the guy shooting the video who doubles up as the interviewer asks Mitra, in hot pants, if she might consider changing into something less revealing considering the vitriolic fat-shaming she faces online. It's an obviously scripted scene which presents an opportunity to talk about the issue, but soon, unexpectedly, and organically, the discourse takes a sexual dimension when Mitra throws open the question if a lot of men find fuller-bodied women more attractive. The camera is turned at the interviewer, with Mitra now behind it asking the questions, asking him about his preferences, and, in a matter of fact way, if he has ever fantasised about her.
When the guy says yes, who hasn't, he may have spoken for a generation that has grown up in the 2000s for whom Mitra personified the ultimate Bengali screen crush. To his apologetic 'Guilty as charged,' comes her assurance: 'There's nothing to be guilty about'. The actress has after all always been frank about matters of sex. In Chandril Bhattacharya's now-cult diploma film for the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, and one of her earliest works, Y2K: Sex Krome Ashitechhe (2000), Mitra has a cunnilingus scene with co-actor Rajatava Dutta. She is wearing a nightie and is simultaneously on the phone with another lover, telling him teasingly that she is a bad girl, and whatever she touches is inevitably destroyed.
Y2K was a cheeky film school experiment inspired by Godard (the scene has a throwaway gesture that subverts the titillation by showing Dutta taking out pubic hair from his mouth), and the Sreelekha Mitra 'persona' was born right here. Created by an almost fetishistic male gaze, directors have time and again used this persona. In Ek Mutho Chhobi (2005), where she is paired opposite Dutta again and plays his wife, she performs a sexual act for her husband's boss to bail him out of a difficult situation. Anik Dutta's Aschorjo Prodip (2013) does a variation on the same. She is the middle class Indian male's worst nightmare: The wife sleeping with someone else, and the husband's impotency in front of it. Although Mitra has done other films, this is the image that has stuck.
The actress got divorced in 2013. Determined to make a new start, she moved out of her husband's house to an apartment of her own, but started getting into depression. She wouldn't step out, sit in bed all day and watch series, films, read books. "I saw that the mattress has permanently sunk, taking the shape of my ass. That's when it hit me that I am not doing something that I should do," she says. Mitra visited a psychiatrist for the first time, a decision that gave her "a fresh lease of life". "The first question he asked me was, 'When was the last time you had sex?', and I couldn't remember," she says, "That was my prescription."
But feeling the need for sex is one thing, and finding it another. Mitra had stopped socialising, she had closed herself off from the film industry, so she began responding to messages from admirers—random strangers she wouldn't normally reply. "For them I am an image. Maybe they would go to their friends and say 'Just slept with Sreelekha Mitra'. So I right swiped some of them although later on, I had to take some of them to the police station, too." A year later, she went for a holiday in Paris with her girlfriends and daughter. It left her broke and made her do something she's not proud of: anchoring a late night astrology show for a local TV channel. We see her character do the same in Once Upon A Time in Calcutta.
The crucial difference between Sengupta's film and the earlier mentioned films is that unlike those, it is about her. We see her deglam and real, drinking rum in their decaying South Kolkata house, grieving the death of her four year old daughter. But consistent with the film's playful mix of real and fiction, it is also a riff on Mitra's persona. For a brief, dreamy spell, she gets to be the sex symbol once again, walking in slo-mo in a red hot sari, shrouded in fog produced by a mosquito repellent smoke machine. It's the film's money shot and a tribute to the actress. In that scene she leaves her husband's house to sleep with her boss—this time, to bail herself out of a difficult situation.
When Once Upon A Time In Calcutta got selected at the Orizzonti competitive section at Venice, Mitra knew she had to be there. Even if that meant practically sponsoring the entire trip on her own, barring three days stay at Venice, including 'quarantining' 15 days in another European country maintaining Covid travel restrictions imposed by the Italian government on visitors from certain countries. Ticking one off the bucket list, she chose Switzerland. In one of her video diaries uploaded on her YouTube channel, she's in the window seat of the Eurail living her middle class Indian dream, styled like Sridevi from Chandni, and in another, celebrating her birthday with a Bengali family she's met there who's cooked a Hilsa dinner for their special guest.
Even though one of the film's producers is also traveling to pitch for Sengupta's next, Mitra is practically traveling solo, having fun but also running out of budget. On the day we speak, she's moved into a cheaper place in Venice far in the suburbs close to the airport. "I'm supposed to be networking at the Lido, but I feel like spending time at the beach," she says, "I have never been very ambitious or a careerist. Even now, I don't know what's post Venice… Netflix, YouTube and dogs. It's a full life. I am alone but I'm not lonely."
The experience at Venice has been her life's biggest high. She was moved by the gestures from strangers who congratulated her for "portraying the struggle of women from across the world". In a scene in the film where she was required to cry after her daughter's death, Mitra thought of her own daughter to trigger the emotions and felt guilty about it. In a Q n A session after one of the screenings, when she shared it with the audience, some of them came up to her and gave her hugs. "The Italians, they are emotional too," she says.
Mitra says she hasn't quite been the star she'd have liked to be at the festival, thanks to her clumsiness. When a couple came for her autograph, she was busy trying to have a Gelato without making a mess of herself. "I had ice cream on my nose and clothes and I had to tell the couple to wait till I am done with it." And as for the red carpet walk, what were the thoughts running in her head? What was her state of mind? "My aanchal was constantly getting stuck in my co actor's feet. I have a really bad habit of tripping, so all I could think of was that I shouldn't fall flat on my face."