Tisca Chopra is best known for two things: Adding menace to mundane, domestic chit-chat in Chutney, and being a mother to sons who are a handful. On screen, that is. In real life, the actor is the mother to a daughter, but her reel life has seen Chopra playing mother to the dyslexic Ishaan in Taare Zameen Par (2007) and a troubled young man in Dahan: Raakan Ka Rahasya. Chopra, who is among Hindi cinema’s most reliable character actors, has a gift for disappearing into roles. This was perhaps best seen in the short film Chutney (2016), which she starred in and wrote. While Chopra exemplified the terrible but quiet rage of a traditional homemaker, her Avani is all about the grit and determination of a career woman who refuses to give up. Chopra described Avani as a “dream character” while in conversation with Film Companion.
Here are edited excerpts from the interview:
If you could emulate one thing about your character, Avani, from Dahan, what would it be?
She is fearless. You don't see a crack on her surface and she has got resilience. I am in awe of her. Avani is a dream character. She is relentless. She is another kind of human being and is made of very very tough stuff. I like that about her. … She carries the demons of her past and she tries to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders.
She carries a tremendous amount of guilt too. What goes into enacting it?
For most women, this is an overriding emotion. If you are working, you feel guilty about not giving enough time at home, and if you are a homemaker you feel like you didn't do enough with your education. Guilt is a very familiar emotion to the female species and we guilt trip very easily. It is not like my parents taught this to me. It is learnt behaviour. We absorb it from the world we live in. You don't live free and you don't live with abandon. There is somebody telling you what to do and how to do it. There is always that feeling that something is wrong, yeh theek nahi hai woh theek nahi hai (This isn’t right or that feels wrong). These are some things we need to work hard to shake off. I have personally worked very hard on saying, ‘I am not guilty and I don't care’.
The mother-son relationship in Dahan is very different from the one in Taare Zameen Par, in which you play Maya Awasthi. What, on an emotional level, was contrasting in your characters?
One has to admit to the fact that my on-screen sons are crazy and they drive their mother mad. Maya Awasthi was actually not very close to the kind of person that I am. In that sense, Avani is a little bit more ballsy. Maya Awasthi is not ballsy. Her husband tells her, “I am going to send the kid to the hostel” and she is like, “I don't think you should”, but she doesn't do anything about it. If that was Avani, she would have told him the clause number of the thing where parental consent is needed and she would have held up some rule saying that he can't do anything without the mother’s consent.
You have a daughter in reality, and on-screen, you’ve played a mother to sons. What changes have you noticed in terms of parenting?
Daughters are far more intuitive. They will notice the flicker of an eyelash. You can't put anything past them at all. But boys are a little bit more like broader strokes. When I was shooting Taare Zameen Par, I had two sons, Ishan and Yohan. They needed to be told who is the boss. You can't boss over a daughter. It is more like a mentorship.
You’ve been a theatre actor before you began screen acting. Which, for you, is more of a challenge?
Screen acting is a lot more peaceful because you do little bits which are put together. But in theatre acting, I died before the performance. I would wish ki aaj ka show cancel ho jaye and aaj na karna pade (I would hope that the show would get cancelled and I wouldn’t have to perform). … But that is the feeling you get inside yourself. That is the reality of my theatre life. That I die every day and I die a hundred deaths before coming on stage. But once you cross the hurdle of your first line, order is restored in the world. … You take the energy from the audience and you transform it into performance. The more they are enjoying, the better you are doing. It is like an exchange between us and them, whereby you are taking and returning repeatedly. You are sculpting it into the performance and giving it back to them.
What was it like working with Naseeruddin Shah and Satyadev Dubey in theatre?
Dubey Ji was very much a straight shooter and he would make us do weird things. He would make us perform with trees and all of that. All the trees at Prithvi theatre are like friends to me.
All of us were sort of working towards bettering our craft and that was the spirit of theatre in a sense. No one was going to be making money out of it. There was no other reason for doing it than learning and the joy of it. With Naseer sir, I have a hilarious incident to tell you. I asked him this question: How do you approach the script? He just said, “Learn your lines and don't walk into the furniture.” That was pretty much the end of any other discussion that I could have had with him. He is very very funny like that. He tells it like it is.
You write, act and direct. Which do you enjoy the most?
The one that I am doing at that moment because they are all my choices.
So far, who has been your favourite character to play?
They are all like wonderfully dear friends to me. Whether Maya Awasthi from Taare Zameen Par or Anushka Narang from Dil Toh Bachcha Hai Ji or Avani from Dahan. They are all favourites but for now, I would say Avani.