Arguably the most popular mainstream female star in contemporary Bengali cinema, Mimi Chakraborty became a household name with the television series Gaaner Opaare. The stupendous success of her second feature film Bojhena Se Bojhena (2012) – "It holds a very special place in my heart because it made me what I am, a commercially viable star," says the star – cemented her place in the industry. The year 2018 turned out to be particularly satisfying for her, as she seamlessly alternated between the masala blockbuster Villain and the critically acclaimed Crisscross. She's now gearing up for the release of Mon Jaane Na, possibly her most challenging role till date, which also marks her debut as a singer (in the process becoming the first female actor in Bengal to sing an unplugged version of a song in a film).
You play a drug addict and a prostitute in the film. Did you have any rituals to get into the headspace of the character?
If I had to get into the headspace of a character like this every day, I would go crazy (laughs). In terms of consciously preparing for the role, there wasn't anything special that I did – there weren't any workshops or things like that. As an actor, I responded to the script, trusted my own instincts and followed what my director wanted me to do. I did watch videos on YouTube to acquaint myself with the experiences of people dealing with drug abuse, watched films that depicted similar characters. Beyond that, when you are playing a character like this you don't have role models you can emulate or take lessons from. That's where the actor in you comes into the picture. You use your imagination to live the role.
How creatively satisfying has this role been vis-à-vis your other roles?
It has been one of the toughest I have essayed – though it's difficult for me to make a comparison between the various roles I have played. What made it interesting for me was the character arc. Pari is your regular girl-next-door, an orphan, shy by temperament, who is driven by circumstances into the vicious world of drug addiction – so the character traverses the whole gamut from a normal casual world to the dark underbelly of the city. As a person I am aware of the former but the latter is something I had to discover. As an actor there's always the hunger to do something that challenges you, scares you, something that you can sink your teeth into, and Mon Jaane Na offered that in large doses.
The demands of the role were a huge strain and there were times I felt exhausted, drained of all energy. I didn't even want to talk to people around me at the end of a day's shoot. I won't be able to pinpoint one particular moment or scene as more challenging than another – there were so many of those, and so many beyond what I have ever attempted before, having a nervous emotional breakdown, conveying the after-effects of drug abuse, the haze one walks through in that state. So, yes, it offered a lot of creative satisfaction, though that came at a cost.
You do a lot of big commercial films. Do you think people take you less seriously as an actor in those films?
I guess, the standard answer to that would be, I do not believe in the distinction between commercial and offbeat or artistic cinema. But I have no hesitation in saying that if there wasn't masala cinema, there wouldn't be Mimi Chakraborty. I am sure that be it Baba Yadav or Srijit Mukherji, Raj Chakraborty or Birsa Dasgupta, every director would want the film to make money – in that respect all cinema is commercial. It's the vision that differs, I suppose. I owe everything I am to mainstream cinema – I have seen fans wait for hours for a glimpse or for shows I attend, so obviously mass adulation is not lacking.
It's a different matter whether a film works or not – some do and some don't, and that applies to both kinds of cinema. And believe me it's as difficult, if not more, to engage an audience with the 'non-realistic' elements of song and dance. At the same time, it's not child's play for an actor to buy into the willing suspension of disbelief that these films call for – only when you believe in what you are doing will that get through to the audience. And these films do reach out to a bigger audience which enjoys the dialogue-baazi, the action, the song and dance, as opposed to a more high-brow cinema which is more urban, catering to the more cinematically aware 'now generation'. But I am open to a different kind of cinema and it's up to directors to offer me what can challenge the actor in me in a way that's different from how a commercial film does.
Do you read reviews? What is the harshest critique you've read about your performance that's actually helped you?
I don't read reviews myself. Although my team does follow up on what's written about my films. And it gives one a high when the response is good. I am not God, so it does hurt when the reviews are scathing, particularly when you know that the criticism is neither fair nor justified. There are critics who have made up their mind beforehand that Mimi can't do this, and that reflects in the way they write-off a film or my performance. That affects me and that could have an effect on the audience – many of whom may decide not to watch the film. It has happened at times that people have given my films a miss at the theatre based on reviews and then come back to me when they premiered on TV to say how much they enjoyed it. Like actors, critics too need to broaden their horizons and be accepting of different kinds of cinema.
I am not God, so it does hurt when the reviews are scathing, particularly when you know that the criticism is neither fair nor justified.
You have 1.4 million followers on Instagram. What is the trick to being a social media star?
There has never been any conscious strategy behind this. It has grown organically. I think it has something to do with the fact that I am honest in my posts, without always caring about whether I'm being prim and proper. I mean, just because I am a glamorous actor doesn't mean I wake up in the morning with full make-up and jewellery on me. I post stuff that comes to me naturally, warts and all. When I am not shooting, I am basically a no make-up person and maintain that on social media as well.
If you could change one thing about Bengali cinema, what would it be?
One of the biggest changes in all cinema in general, not only Bengali cinema, is that the day of the superstar is over. Films are no longer driven by star power. It might sound clichéd, but content is becoming increasingly important – and that holds true for both mainstream and offbeat cinema.
As far as roles for women are concerned, I think there has been some progress from what we had even ten to fifteen years ago. Today, Srijit is making a film on a woman athlete. A film like Crisscross succeeded despite the lack of a marquee male star. I am in conversation with Arindam Sil for a film that's totally women-centric – I hope it gets off soon.
The one thing that depresses me and that I would like to change is the absence of pay parity. As a brand I do get my worth, but when it comes to films, it's pathetic how underpaid women still are.
Is there a role that you recently watched and felt damn, I could have played that!
Not really – but yes, say, when I watch a Padmavat, or Kangana Ranaut in the trailer of Manikarnika, I do wish I could do something similar, on that scale. I would like to do a good biopic of a Bengali icon, someone like Rani Rashmoni or Debi Choudhurani. Enacting a real-life character offers a certain challenge that I would love to take on. As far as a yesteryear character I would like to play, well it's a no-brainer really – Rina Brown in Saptapadi.
I came to Kolkata on my own, had no house or family here, no godfather in the industry, no one backing me, and I braved it out. I had no idea of camera placement and light and how that impacted a performance.
What advice would you give a young actress trying to break into Bengali cinema?
I am entirely self-taught, have never been to any film school. I came to Kolkata on my own, had no house or family here, no godfather in the industry, no one backing me, and I braved it out. I had no idea of camera placement and light and how that impacted a performance. So, when the director would yell, 'Follow the light,' I was like, what light, there were lights everywhere! But I was never afraid, never felt nervous. I pulled it off on the strength of my dreams and my positive energy. It's only now – with experience, with responsibilities – that I am scared at times.
So, I would advise youngsters – when you dream, dream big, and follow that up with honesty and hard work. I know, people will say, Mimi is now mouthing platitudes, but there's no other secret I have. You have to let yourself be squeezed to the last drop, love your passion with a passion. These days, there are so many more options to test the waters – reality shows, short films, web series. Keep your eyes and ears open and go out there with positivity.