ANINDITA ACHARYA, Kolkata: Actress Swastika Mukherjee has a strange connection with dogs, to be more specific stray dogs. As kids, they had 11 strays living with them. Now, that is quite a number. At her Kolkata house, she has a stray, Phulki. That she has “effortlessly” become ‘Savitri’s mother’ after the success of Paatal Lok on Amazon Prime Video doesn’t come much as a surprise. However, what surprised her was the instant feedback to her character as Dolly Mehra, an anxiety-driven, neglected wife to Neeraj Kabi’s journalist character Sanjeev Mehra.
Her social media feeds are still flooded with messages appreciating how genuine she was as Dolly. But then she has always been a dynamic performer, be it as Doyel Mitra in Mainak Bhaumik’s Bengali film Take One, Jaya in Partha Sen’s Anubrata Bhalo Achho? or as the powerful yet vulnerable Kamilini Guha in Srijit Mukherji’s Shah Jahan Regency. And can anyone forget Anik Dutta’s 2012 film Bhooter Bhabishyat where Swastika played the yesteryear actress Kadalibala Dasi? But when we caught Swastika for a chat, the forever vivacious actress said that she had to wait for 20 years for a character like Dolly Mehra for the national audience to realize that regional actors, too, has potential. The tad bit melancholy in her voice did not go without notice.
“I did a Bengali film, Onek Diner Pore, which the producer sold it to ZEE5. I watched Ronny Sen’s amazing film Cat Sticks on Mubi recently. There are endless films, which are available on OTT platforms, that directly release online sans the pandemic. But now that Gulabo Sitabo and some other Bollywood films are releasing on OTT, we think this is the trend,” she said.
Complex characters have always been a forte for Swastika. “I have played anxiety driven characters earlier too. Doyel Mitra in Take One was an extremely difficult character and so was Jaya in Shaheb Bibi Golaam. My Bengali film audiences will remember me for the work I have been doing for the last 20 years. But to establish myself on the national level, I needed a character like Dolly Mehra… and this is the tragedy of regional actors. No matter how much good work they do back in their industry, they need to do something in Bollywood to make an instant connect with the national audience. The kind of feedback I have received for Dolly Mehra … I haven’t received in my entire career. But I have played much difficult characters than Dolly Mehra before,” said Swastika.
Among the truck loads of compliments, there’s one that will remain with her forever. It was a call from Vidya Balan, who congratulated Swastika for playing Dolly Mehra with utter ease. But then, Swastika didn’t have the Tumhari Sulu‘s actress contact saved. And she was cooking in her Mumbai flat and missed her calls quite a number of times. Given it was an unknown number, she checked on True Caller. “I went crazy when I found out Vidya Balan called me up and I missed her calls. She took the trouble of watching the show, got my number and then continuously rang up me. I was so ecstatic that I couldn’t hear her properly. She congratulated everybody on the show. She loved my performance and had watched the show in detail. She found my performance very real… vulnerability and fragility are some of the words she used repeatedly,” said Swastika.
After the call was over, Swastika felt like a zombie, she said. She then calmed herself and messaged the Kahaani actress. As someone who has dealt with body-shamers and isn’t afraid to stand up for herself, Swastika looks upto Vidya not only as a superlative performer but more as a woman.
“Vidya has inspired millions of woman about body positivity and embracing oneself. She has always been vocal about how she wanted to live her life and her journey in Bollywood. Whenever a Bollywood star achieves a certain position, we think as if there hasn’t been any struggle. But an actor goes through his/her share of battle. Vidya had to handle a lot of brickbats in her career to reach the position she is today. She has always been so inspiring with her decisions, yet remained so humble. And the way she has handled body-shaming, and media … of course, I cannot tell anything about her acting… who isn’t a fan of Vidya Balan? But I have always admired her more as a woman. It made a lot of difference when she called me up,” said Swastika Mukherjee.
Dolly Mehra is weak and vulnerable. She finds solace in the arms of Sabitri. However, to family and friends, Swastika is known as a strong woman. Here, the conversation is interrupted.
“I don’t have an option… I have to be strong. But if there is someone who can take away all my responsibilities, then I will happily become a laid-back and weak person. And now with my father gone (actor Santu Mukherjee passed away in March 2020), I am left with zero option but to become a strong person,” said Swastika, and there are long pauses between her sentences.
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Had told Baba 5000 times to smile, he said he needs to look handsome, hashle naki sheta lagbena. Tai shoyi. Amar meye amar baba kei baba Bole dakey, prayoshoi ‘dude’ bole dakto, ei ‘dude’ jinish ta ki sheta baba konodin bujhe uthte pareni but he always gave a reaction that was hilarious. Camera bondi kawra hoye otheni, mone rekhe diyechi. Mone rekhe dilam Baba, my handsome dude, forever 💓
Swastika then went onto mentioned how she had played strong personalities before on screen, who has questioned the morales of the society. But it was the vulnerability of Dolly which attracted her. “She doesn’t try to be someone smart. Also, Dolly has no agenda like most of the other characters on the show, which I think was liked by the audiences. And she had anxiety issues, which was necessary to talk about. Mental health issues need to be spoken about and reach maximum viewership. If we can’t ask questions about mental health issues in our art form, how can you reach out to people?,” she said.
This is the Swastika’s second outing with Neeraj after Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! but alas ! here, too, the love is lost between the two of them. To this the actress laughed out loud. “Neeraj and I used to discuss this on the set of Paatal Lok. Next time, we should do a love story,” said Swastika. So, is Pataa Lok two in the offing? “Well, something might be,” she smiled.