Indrani Haldar is one of the finest actresses in current Bengali cinema yet to get her due her National Award for her role in Dahan (1997) notwithstanding. Still, she has bagged extremely meaty roles in films directed by some of the best directors in the Bengali industry. Acting is in her genes as her late father was actively involved in amateur theatre. So, when Indrani made her debut in the television serial Tero Parbon while still in her teens, it was no surprise. The serial became a big hit but Indrani went back to school only to resurface some time later. The rest, as the clichéd saying goes, is history.
“I am like water, I assume the shape of whatever vessel I am poured into and that is why though I love to interpret my role, I am a director’s actress, first and last,” says Indrani, defining her role as an actress. “I love to take suggestions and to interpret but all this under the guidance of the director. I consider Goutam Ghose to be the ideal director. He is precise in his direction, planning everything down to the minutest detail.” She has worked in two of his films, Dekha (2001) and a telefilm in Hindi called Faqir (1998) opposite Pawan Malhotra. This was originally slated for television was shot on 35 mm. “In Faqir, I played Nimmi, a young housewife. Her husband is indifferent to the physical side of their relationship. So Nimmi goes ahead and leads a promiscuous life, though she loves her husband deeply and suffers from pangs of guilt. Yet she cannot make herself stop. "This was a very negative role with positive shades to it. Something I had never done before," she admits.
When asked about her role in Dekha, she says, “at first, I was hesitant about taking up a role that is not the female lead. Then Goutam-da explained that the role of the heroine would not suit me in terms of my age so it had to be done by someone in the age group of Debashree-di (Roy).” Reema is a tongue-in-cheek, naughty journalist who arrives like a breath of fresh air to lighten the rather heavy ambience of the film’s main narrative. I am wearing jeans and a top or salwar-kameez and have several punch lines to deliver which are pithy and naughty as well. It was a wonderful role and though I had only five scenes in the film, all the five were significant for me.”
Indrani is grateful to Buddhadeb Dasgupta for giving her a break in art house cinema in Charachar (1993). It was a brief but important character that fetched her The Bengal Film Journalists’ Association Best Actress Award in 1995. She had won the same award in 1993 for Kaancher Prithibi. Then, in 1997, there was the Patton Kalakar Award for her double role as mother and daughter in the television serial Kuasha Jakhan. Other privately instituted awards she ahs won -- like the Uttam Kumar Award and the Pramathesh Barua Award, the Bharat Nirman Award for Excellence in Acting -- have been so many that she has to sit down and make a list and update it constantly.
Her work in any film depends mainly on the director she is working with. She offers some suggestions before the shooting begins. One thing she is rigid about is that she insists on reading the entire script before she decides to accept or reject a given film. “If I accept, I take four to five days to allow everything to seep in. Then I design the whole character – the costume, the hairstyle, the make-up, everything. I believe that if you do not get into the character, try and identify with what she is going through, what she has already gone through, how she projects herself as a woman, how she interacts with the other characters, it is just not possible to invest the character with credibility and relate her to real life. I am not concerned with the future of the character because that is always uncertain.”
Her portrayal of Jhinuk, an ordinary teacher who turns into a crusader overnight in Rituparno Ghosh’s Dahan remains among her favourites. “For the scenes that show me sick, I used my own little trick -- I covered my eyes with glycerine-soaked pads. The eyes turned red and my face was swollen. Ritu-da loved the effect. That is all the make-up I did for Dahan. I cherish my role in Dahan because it is very close to me, Indrani, in real life. I didn't have to act at all. And after reading the script, Ritu-da [director Rituparno Ghosh] asked me to behave just the way I do naturally. We were so involved with the film that when the shoot was over, all of us were a bit sad," she says.
Indrani has been in films for more than a decade and a half. Today, there is hardly any actress in Bengali cinema who can hold a candle to her in terms of versatility and talent, besides Rituparna Sengupta, the actress she shared the National Award with. It is not as though she has not had her share of commercial films. She did the sacrificing elder sister’s role, similar to Raakhee’s character in Tapasya (1976) in Biyer Phool (1992), produced by Ram Mukherji, Rani Mukherji’s father. This was Rani’s debut as the romantic lead, but Indrani’s was the central character. She also played the sister of the hero rather than his ladylove in Raja Sen’s Chakravyuha. “I played the sister of the hero who is sucked into a vortex of crime because though he is educated, he remains unemployed. I try to help him out of this trap, to change him for the better. When the sister fails, she leaves home and severs all links with him, marrying the boy she loves. It was a very strong role and I enjoyed doing it.”
Indrani is into teleserials in a big way too. The medium doesn’t matter that much to her; the role does. She is grateful to Raja Sen for having given her one of her best roles for television in the earlier days. Purba Purush (Ancestors) was the story of a young girl, Hemantabala who was widowed when she was very young. Indrani played this character who grows to be an old woman of 80. This was the most difficult character she had ever played in her entire career till then. The character had many shades and a very long span in terms of time. Purbo Purush marked a turning point in the history of television serials in Bengali. “I had to deglamourise myself completely. I wore a cropped hair wig, cut off my manicured nails, drew in eyebrows to do away with the plucked-eyebrow effect, and did not wear a pinch of make-up on my face.”
Indrani did the female lead in a daily afternoon soap called Bhool Thikana where she played the complex role of Durga who becomes pregnant, runs away from home, lands up with a folk theatre group, becomes Aparna, the actress, runs away, gets beaten up by village folk and loses her memory. In Jeebon Rekha, she was a UK-returned surgeon who took up practice in a hospital started by her father and run by her uncle. But she was too sensitive to pain and emotions and found it difficult to cope with guilt when a patient under her treatment, died. In both Jeebon Rekha and Bhool Thikana, she acted with veteran Soumitra Chatterjee. Since then, the two have been cast together in umpteen feature films and telefilms together. Doesn’t acting with such a great performer make her self-conscious in any way? “Never. Any senior actor or director never overawes me probably because I have performed on stage since I was little and I made my tele-debut in Tero Parbon while I was still in school. So, even Suchitra Mitra, who played my grandmother in Dahan and who is the greatest living exponent of Rabindra Sangeet today, did not make me nervous. She is noted for her fiery temper and her independence but to me, she appeared to be bubbling over with energy and stamina.”
Recently, Bonhishikha, a mega serial that went on for several years, was pulled off the air. Indrani played a double role in the serial of which the better-bred one is killed and her daughter comes to investigate and seek revenge. When this young girl is jailed on a cooked up charge by the mother’s killer, she meets a Punjabi girl linked to the underworld and Indrani played this character of the cheroot-smoking, coarse-tongued, hoarse-voiced woman with a heart of gold with great artistry. She is currently doing another double role in Tithir Aitithi, a megasoap that has been going on for years and years.
One of Indrani’s most challenging screen roles has been the title role in Satarupa Sanyal's directorial debut, Anu (1998). She plays a young girl who is gang-raped when her fiancé, a political activist, is in jail. They marry after his release, but he discovers the scars on her body on the nuptial night. The marriage remains unconsummated; he wallows in self-pity while she works to make both ends meet. Finally she walks out of the marriage and decides to strike it out on her own. Indrani's performance was exemplary, but shoddy direction and editing saw to its rejection at the National Awards.
Indrani’s command over histrionics and low-key acting to get the message across cut across all kinds of audiences when she did Anjan Das’s Saanjhbaatir Roopkathara (2002), the noted debut novel of poet Joy Goswami. She played the role of Saanjhbaati whose life is filled with dreams and fantasies where characters from nowhere appear and disappear to tell her their own stories. At a point of time, she begins to weary of living within a surrealistic world because she learns, much to her bitterness, that facts are too distanced from her illusory world and that it would perhaps serve her better to wave her dream world goodbye. “The fairies flow through life like a stream, fading away and then appearing again,” says Saanjhbaati. She compares her mother to water, “something you can see right through, down to the bottom till you are scared that you might just fall off,” and her father to a huge tree whose shadows you could hide in, so what if you cannot see through. Such moments make up a beautifully textured film, exploring into the complex emotions that sustain between a father and his daughter.
In 2007, one of her best films Jara Brishtitey Bhhijechhilo, saw another sterling performance from Indrani. Anjan Das made this film based on a long, autobiographical prose poem by Joy Goswami. Indrani played one of the three women in the young poet’s life. How did she interpret it? “There was some tension about playing a character that is already very famous as a literary character and also because it has already been made famous with the one-woman theatrical performance by Bijoylakshmi Burman. I did a lot of homework. Firstly, I tried to shed some weight. I tried to visualize myself as an ordinary woman who loves Nature. Secondly, a perfect rapport with Anjan helped me a lot. The film is structured in a series of flashbacks and flash forwards which covers a span of time evolving from a young girl in love with someone through a woman married to another, to an ageing woman and so on. I had to go through the ageing process, changing my gait, my speech pattern, my attire, everything. Bridging the gap between scenes does create problems for me. I work hard to make the transition smooth and seamless.”
The same year, one saw Indrani efficiently as ever playing the central character in another film Raatpaakhir Roopkathara, directed by a new director Sanjukta Choudhury that unfortunately fell flat on its face. In this film, Indrani played a sex worker. Indrani made friends with a couple of real prostitutes to get the hang of the character. The story revolves around certain turning points in this girl’s life. One is when she falls in love with one of her clients – played by Jackie Shroff – who fills her with fresh hope; the other is when she becomes a mother and is desperate to take her daughter out of the trap of prostitution.
Indrani generally does not begin to shoot for a new film until one film has been shot completely. This is not possible for teleserials of course. But for films, she has made her own rules. “This helps me perform each role with the goals I set for myself and to fulfill the faith the director places on me. Today, my criteria for accepting a role are (a) I should be needed to contribute 100% to the total script; (b) the totality should offer me a direct link to my audience; (c) the film should have some message for the audience, give it something to think about; and (d) the character I am to portray should not be a hollow, empty character introduced for decorative value.”
Asked to pick her favourite films and characters through her career so far , Indrani promptly ticks off her fingers. “Jhinuk in Rituparno Ghosh’s Dahan; Tukun in Saanjhbaatir Roopkathara; Anu in Satarupa Sanyal’s Anu, Radha in Jara Brishtitey Bhijechhilo and Neeta in Aloye Phera, a telefilm. In Aloye Phera, I play a blind girl. I worked very hard to keep my eyes totally unfocussed and rolling like blind people in real life do. I loved every minute of doing the role.”
It does not matter to Indrani that Bollywood, something she once dreamt of passionately, eluded her though she did have a go at it. She has done three Hindi films. The first of these was Hamari Shaadi (1990), directed by Basu Chatterjee, on the significance of a ritualistic Hindu marriage where the active participation of the two families is important. The second was Faqir directed by Goutam Ghose. And the third is Bhairav opposite Mithun Chakrabarty. Bhairav cast Indrani as a snobbish girl of the upper class who clashes with the hero, a poor-honest-to-goodness-boy-struggling-to-come-up-in-life Mithun. Beginning with the accidental death of a boy in the hands of three young girls outside a shop, the film dwindles to the usual cliché-ridden incidents of the average Hindi masala film. She also did the main role of the Mother Goddess in a Hindi serial on StarPlus called Maa Shakti.
No discussion on Indrani’s acting talents can be complete without taking her telefilms into consideration where she has brilliantly essayed some extremely complex characters. In Atanu Ghosh’s Ankush, Indrani played Mrs. Dutta, plagued by a past she knows nothing about. So, after four years of stay in the US, she comes to Calcutta to look for Ankush, her husband who deserted her when she flew to New Jersey to join him a few months after their marriage. Where is he? Why did he desert her so suddenly and vanish without a trace? These are questions she wants answers to. Indrani packs Mrs. Dutta’s character with a low-key performance that speaks volumes, investing it with dignity, arrogance, alienation, diffidence and control. In Premer Galpo, Indrani plays Sushmita, a young woman suffering from a psychological ailment which leads her to create several worlds of dreams for herself and to move fluidly between and among these worlds, each one cut off from the others. In Asamapto, she is a sophisticated sex worker forced to give refuge to an old man who is lost because he is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and cannot recall who he is or where he came from.
Indrani launched a production company called Indigo in 2004 with her business partner Ringo. Indigo kicked off with eight telefilms in Bangladesh, with actors from both countries. Indrani herself has directed a few telefilms that have been well received by the audience. Apart from a host of telefilms for Bengali channels like Alpha Bangla and Tara, Indigo has made countless ad films, music videos and public awareness campaigns. Indigo plans to produce a full-length feature film soon. “I have always been business-minded. And professionalism matters to me most. So you can say production has been a natural choice,” she says. Indrani also runs an acting institute for budding talents. She feels that she has a responsibility towards the next generation. “When I was a newcomer in this industry, it was so difficult to get work, let alone good work. As a senior actor, I feel that I should be creating opportunities for youngsters. My company has launched a lot of new faces. For instance, we found Rishi Kaushik, became the main protagonist in the TV serial Ekdin Pratidin. I feel good when our boys and girls do well.”
This very confident actress who is smart and outspoken becomes strangely reticent when it comes to her personal life, however. Indrani lives with her mother and brother Indranil and often jets away to meet her husband, a tea-planter in North Bengal. “My only regret in life is that my father passed away before Dahan was released so he did not learn about my National Award. “Put in your best, put in your best,” he would urge me from his sickbed till the last day of the shoot. He was not around to share the greatest joy of my life," she says, a little emotionally. Indrani had one brief marriage behind her that she doesn't wish to talk about. She later fell for her co-star in Dahan, the handsome Sanjeeb Dasgupta. They were even engaged to be married for some time. Then, suddenly, one found her married to a tea planter. “The long distance marriage has suited us fine and makes the heart grow fonder, I guess,” is all she is willing to let out.