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‘I just eat and work!’: Tannishtha Chatterjee

From Brick Lane to Lion, Tannishtha Chatterjee has blended so many cinematic ingredients that you can’t describe her work in one menu card. So when she says, “I have no staple food,” one gets a sense of the versatile actor’s taste.

ON A ROLL Tannishtha Chatterjee at Sorrento restaurant in New Delhi's Shangri-La's Eros Hotel. Photo R. V. Moorthy

With Island City knocking at the doors, she is on a short trip to the city so much so that she hasn’t even informed her parents, who live in Greater Kailash. A product of Sri Venkateswara College, Tannishtha studied chemistry and has carried its mantra to the film world: ‘no theory, all practical.’ She calls herself a combination of all the elements of the Periodic Table including the radioactive ones. Perhaps, it is one of those days for her attitude is matching the electric mood at Sorrento, the bustling Italian restaurant in Shangri-La Eros.

No staple food doesn’t mean that anything makes it to Tannishtha’s plate. “I am pretty fussy about food and its presentation. The raw material, the freshness of it, all those things matter to me as they affect taste.” No wonder she starts with fresh mozzarella salad. “Same recipe can yield different results if the raw material is not right. I like it when film sets have good food. If I am shooting in Mumbai, I carry food and water from home as I don’t like water in plastic bottles unless absolutely necessary.”

She remembers how in Gour Hari Dastan, “the food was vegetarian but good.” This ‘but’, she says, is typical of Bengalis while referring to good vegetarian food. She finds cooking therapeutic but here again she is finicky about the time of steaming and temperature of boiling. It is like World cinema where each emotion is measured? “You are actually right,” the actor gushes. “I give my cook a tough time,” she admits. Tannishtha remembers that she was like that since childhood. “In between I became a little amenable but now my mother says that I am back to my old habits.”

However, she clarifies that unlike many other actors she is not choosy about food. We get a sense of it as she approaches potato gnocchi and tortellini stuffed with roasted sweet pumpkin with equal curiosity. “I can try anything; it is just that I am particular that it should be cooked well. Like during the shooting of a Swedish film, when I discovered that the food being served is not up to the mark, I asked my driver for options. He took me home and his sister cooked haldi ki sabzi with baajre ki roti and curd. It was divine. My colleague said she had been advised to stay away from gluten but the rotis on the set didn’t cause any allergy. It says something about the quality of cereals we get in big cities.”

Sometimes her eating habits give directors complex. The latest being Ruchika Oberoi, who is on the heavier side. “She is surprised by my metabolism and would often say, ‘How can she remain in shape after eating so much’. At the same time she was annoyed when I stopped her from eating street food in New York. I was like you can’t have hot dog in plastic sheet. In fact, in one of the interviews she held me responsible for her losing weight after the Venice Film Festival.”

And at times, it forces filmmakers to change storylines! “During Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s production Chhoti Moti Batein, I knew he works in limited budget, so I requested him to give me home-cooked food. He would get my tiffin prepared at his home everyday. It was so good that by the end of the shoot I had put on weight. On the last day he joked, ‘The character was supposed to lose weight but now that it has happened otherwise, I have to change the story!’”

She doesn’t get judgemental about the characters she essays even if she is playing Sunny Deol’s girl friend in I Love New York but when it came to Saroj Khan’s biryani she did, without realising the choreographer is an expert at it. “She turned up with a bucket-full of biryani on the last day of the shoot of Gulab Gang. I presumed it would be oily only to be given a lesson in cooking authentic biryani.” Tannishta could relate to long hours that are put because she is conversant with Kashmiri and Bengali cuisines, where patience is crucial. In fact, one of her favourite delicacies is chitol mach, which her mother, who hails from the erstwhile East Bengal, prepares with relish. “Here after de-boning the fish you have to make dumplings by using only a hint of besan. The process takes a long time. There is always a debate which side of Bengal produces better food and I must say the eastern part has an edge.” A Bengali can’t survive without fish and Tannistha says whenever she eats out, she orders fish. So Sorrento is no different. The chef brings black cod, lardo wrapped with olio negra, nuts and roasted forest mushrooms.

One feels that Tannishtha happened before the atmosphere changed for female actors in Hindi films. “I happened a little early. In many ways I was lucky because I got a head start when I was very young. I didn’t land in Mumbai for work, I landed with work. My counterparts are getting those films now. However, I agree, in many ways recognition for my work was limited to a very niche segment.” Even a section of the media, she says, brands her as a ‘serious’, ‘festival’ actress. Does she still get roles according to her skin tone? “That still happens but less so.”

In the last couple of years, she says, things have changed for her as she has been cast in remarkably different roles. “In Island city, I am playing a young girl from lower middle class who works in a factory and her love affair with virtual reality. How an anonymous letter changes everything for her. In UnIndian, set in Sydney, I am a corporate woman. In Parched, which is about female desire set, my character is that of a widow from a village in Bhuj, who hasn’t been touched by a man for 15 years. In Angry Indian Goddess, I played a lesbian and now I am doing a biopic of the first woman doctor in the country, Dr. Rakhmabai. And then there is Lion where I won’t tell you what I am playing…. All this is quite exciting.” Of course, but how does she manage to bring so much to the plate? No extra-curricular activities! “Look, I just eat and work!” Indeed!

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