The last time Swastika Mukherjee appeared in a Hindi film, before Dil Bechara, she was playing the femme fatale, a movie star from the 1940s called Angoori Devi. A kiss from her could mean the kiss of death and our hero, played by Sushant Singh Rajput, comes this close to succumbing to her charms. In Dil Bechara—which, as fate would have it, is Rajput’s last film—Mukherjee plays the mother of his love interest (Saswata Chatterjee plays the father). Mukherjee remembers the disbelief in the eyes of one of her co-actors in the film, Sahil Vaid (who plays Rajput’s friend), when they were being introduced to each other by the assistant directors: ‘You are Swastika Mukherjee? You played Angoori Devi in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy?’ The team had come down to the cafe of the hotel they were put at in Jamshedpur, for breakfast, and Mukherjee was in her pyjamas and T-shirt. Vaid didn’t say it in so many words but he couldn’t seem to match the two.
Mukherjee found it funny. “Throughout the shoot I embarrassed him: That you came up to a woman and you said that ‘If you look like that, how can you look like this? Such a derogatory comment you made, Sahil’. So whenever he would see me he would say sorry. I am sure many others would also have a similar reaction. I don’t know how looking like that is humanly possible,” she says when we speak on the phone, thankful that she didn’t have to do another Zoom call. “If I have a phone interview, I can just take a shower in the evening,” she says. She has got rid of most of her hair, save for a few strands in the front so that “if shootings somehow start she can put a wig”.
Mukherjee’s blessed with classically movie star looks—one of her best performances came as a movie star, or rather the ghost of a movie star, in Bhooter Bhabishyat (2012), in which she showed a gift for comedy, a quality we don’t exactly expect from our leading female actors—but she’s rather defiantly anti-pretty in person. You can see it in the roles she has done of late, which includes the web-series Paatal Lok, where she plays a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and the Marathi film Aaron, where she plays the estranged mother of a boy, living in Paris. There seems to be a shift in her career, almost spanning two decades, aided by the advent of streaming platforms (both Paatal Lok and Aaron are on Amazon and Dil Bechara was released on Disney + Hotstar). Edited excerpts from the interview:
You have done a Marathi film called Aaron. How did that happen?
I was in Mumbai. I was meeting a lot of casting directors. There are small casting agencies also, along with the big ones. I got a call from Tanushree Sharma, who does casting for different kinds of films in Mumbai, not really mainstream. The film’a cast was almost locked—but they were not very confident about it. It was very close to the shooting schedule. And I can’t speak Marathi. Also the production team had a dilemma that I don’t look a certain way people look in Marathi films. But the advantage was that this character is not typical Marathi as she’s been living in Europe for a long time and I just kind of got the role.
How did you learn Marathi?
I thought I’ll mug it up and take care of the rest in the dubbing. Just a day before the shoot in the Konkan, I came to know that they are shooting in sync sound. Then I wanted some big calamity to strike so that I could just pack up my things and leave. Basically on the set I would get hold of anyone, from the spot boy, dresser dada, light men, whoever was there in front of me, and ask them if I am getting my pronunciation right. There was no breather for me. In Budapest, people would be going to the casino, mall, restaurants and I would just sit in hotel and mug up my lines. It was like exams all over again. We used to travel in a big bus to the outskirts early in the morning for the shoot. Everyone would be sleeping and I would read the script with my mobile phone light.
We applied some small tricks. My co-actors helped immensely. If there was a mid frame or close-up, and the hands and leg wouldn’t be visible, they would tap their leg, or move their feet, or do something that would be out of the frame which would be my cue.
I also had to incorporate a certain kind of French accent into my English.
After Paatal Lok, I’ve got messages that said that they saw me for the first time. It made me wonder what I was doing for the last 20 years when it seems like I have arrived just now.
I wanted to do these things because I expect that the more sensible audience will observe these small but pertinent changes that an actor brings to the table. We have a perception that the public will consume anything we give them. That was the thought process before Netlix and Amazon came in. The world for our audiences have opened up so much that a viewer sitting in Salt Lake is watching a Scandinavian film. So I have to perfect my craft thinking about all that. Not just what Bengali and Indian actors are doing.
You are making a conscious effort to go out and find work that will take you out of your comfort zone.
Yes. And since I want to do performance-oriented roles, and I don’t want to repeat myself, and I also want the script to be fabulous, the option of doing a lot of work in Bengal is less.
So I thought it’s a good opportunity to go to Mumbai and introduce myself. It’s not that people don’t know that I exist. Because that’s what usually happens if you are from the East—and not from the Punjab or South Indian film industries. Whether you are a star or a beginner, what your body of work is, you have to believe that you are zero, and you have to start from scratch. I was just lucky that I had Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, because of which there was an opening for me in Mumbai.
So it was easier for me to introduce myself, that ‘Hi I am Swastika Mukherjee, I have played the character of Angoori Devi in Detective Byomkesh Bakshy and I would like to connect with you and see how things can be taken forward’. But still I have auditioned for everything, and sometimes given multiple auditions for the same work. After Paatal Lok, I’ve got messages that said that they saw me for the first time. It made me wonder what I was doing for the last 20 years when it seems like I have arrived just now.
Does it mean there is less exciting work in Bengal?
There’s not much work that will give a female actor the space to flourish. It’s still mostly male-centric characters. And I don’t want to do films where I don’t have anything to contribute. And even if I do get such a film, there is the matter of whether that film will even get a proper release or not, which happens all the time. If I set so many parameters of the kind of work I want to do, the options are really less.
Did you have any apprehension in playing a mother in Dil Bechara?
It actually bothered Mukesh (Chhabra, the director) a lot. Otherwise everything was in place. The auditions went well. Sanjana (Sanghi) and I look like mother-daughter more than her actual mother. The only apprehension was that the moment people will see me and Sushant together they will have that hangover of Byomkesh and what if they don’t accept me as the mother of his love interest. I really had to convince him. If anything, it’s a huge responsibility on the actor’s part that I have to be so believable that people will see me as Kizzie’s mother and not anything else in those 2.5 hours.
Also, I think 10 years back actors really used to think like this. I think the scenario has changed. People don’t have that the mindset anymore that if someone has played a mother, for the rest of her life she will only play a mother. I have never had these kind of hang-ups. I have done a Bengali film, Anubrata Bhalo Achho, where Ritwick (Chakraborty) and I play an elderly couple who are 55-60 years old. I was the fourth person to be offered that role because people who are actually of that age didn’t want to play those characters.
If I get exciting maintstream offers after Dil Bechara, I will do it. Doesn’t matter if I play a mother or grandmother or aunt. I don’t have that greed about mainstream Bollywood but I am very hungry as an actor… So these things don’t bother me at all. Otherwise I would have pestered Prosit (Roy) that I will do a bit of shajuguju (‘dressing up’ in Bengali) in Paatal Lok, and not look sloppy and tired.
Yeah, it didn’t seem like you cared how you look in Paatal Lok.
Dolly Mehra isn’t supposed to. I told Prosit and Sudip (Sharma) that I am a woman, and if I know that my husband is sleeping around and I have an anxiety driven problem, then all the insecurities are going to hit me, and the first thing I am going to think is that my body is not in the right shape, my face is not in the place, I am not enough for him and that’s why he is going to other women. I have to show that I am unhappy with my physical being, with my shape, my waistline, breasts, double chins, with the lines in my forehead. All over the world woman are trying to speak up against body shaming. If I wanted I could’ve wore a tummy tucker and played Dolly Mehra.
I get very influenced by the kind of shows and films I watch. There’s a crime series where the main detective is a plus-size actress. You can see that the hairdresser wouldn’t have brushed up her hair even once. She looked like a haggard in all 10 episodes. She doesn’t sleep well. There’s no make up, no earrings, just running around wearing a shirt, pant and a coat. She did what the character demanded and she didn’t give a fuck. Because I am a woman I observe these things, for example, there are scenes at home where she is not wearing an underwire bra. You can just see the difference. I get totally influenced by all this.
Is that how you’ve always approached your roles?
I have been trying to do this for a very long time. Have you seen Take One? If you ask me the 5 best films of my career, I would count it as one. It’s about the MMS clip of an actress getting leaked. If you see that film, wherever I had to look like shit, I looked like shit.
What would be your 5 best performances according to you?
Take One, Kia and Cosmos. Asamapta, where I was so consumed by the character that I would imagine talking to her, trying to persuade her to get out of that marriage. Bhooter Bhabishyat, because I don’t think I’ll play a character like that. I will say Paatal Lok, because I share maximum screen space with a dog. And also Detective Byomkesh Bakshy. It was such a mysterious character, and also the hours and hours of getting ready. Just doing that hair would take 3 hours. If the unit call time would be 6 in the morning, my call time would be 2 at night. Getting those picture perfect eyebrows and lips because Dibakar had references of Marilyn Monroe. My make up artist was flown down to New York to get specific eye lashes that were not available in India. Dibakar (Banerjee) wanted the shadow of lashes on my cheek bones. Four different brushes for the lip ticks, the line had to be perfect, the shade has to be perfect… Also the love that my DoP Nikos Andritsakis had showered on me, the filters and butter papers. I really had to experience that once in my life. I was only salivating looking at myself on screen.