Breaking Boundaries: Swastika Mukherjee

The bonafide movie star of Bengali cinema is winning national audience with her poignant portrayals one OTT outing at a time

One of my favorite movie characters of 2022 was undoubtedly Qala’s Urmila Manjushree —renowned thumri singer and the sole surviving member of a family that is considered as the music royalty struggling to keep its legacy alive. Living in a society deeply rooted in the patriarchy of the 1930s, where women musicians ran the risk of becoming courtesans rather than building a career as professional singers, Urmila has time and again got the short end of the stick despite her immense talent just because of her gender, hoping for a male heir to pass on the mantle. Her hopes are dashed when between her twins, she loses her son and her daughter survives. But she has no time to wallow in her sorrow; there is no help for her severe post-partum depression. Instead, she puts all her focus on making her daughter a capable artiste. Her maternal instincts are smothered by her zeal to create a worthy protégé.  


Photographer: Samrat Das


In Urmila, Anvitaa creates one of Hindi cinema’s most layered and complex women. And it is Swastika Mukherjee, who brings her to life. The gorgeous actor, who has been Bengali cinema’s favorite femme fatale, might have seemed an unusual casting choice for the stoic and grim mother, but as Urmila Manjushree, she is perfection personified, hazel green eyes steeped in melancholia. This is a heartbreaking portrayal of a woman struggling with her inner demons as well as a deeply patriarchal society who inadvertently drives her daughter to her doom.   


“We have this set notion about our parents that they exist just to cater to our needs, especially the mothers. The mother is always supposed to prioritize the children. In this movie, of course, the mother is insensitive towards the daughter, but you also see where that is coming from and that stops you from painting her as a totally dark character. I think she never got out of her post-partum depression. She was concerned about the gender of the child only because she knew it would be far more difficult for a woman to carry forward the name of her legendary family, she has had first-hand experience with that. Also, this was the 1930s. But the irony, and what made it so relevant, is that things have not changed much even in 2023, we are still fighting for equal pay, and equal spaces for women, and a woman still has to work much harder than men in a professional setup,” says Swastika as we sit down for a quick interview at the Taj Bengal Hotel, Kolkata. It is not just a city she calls home but also the city that hails her as a bonafide star. The daughter of popular Bengali actor, late Santu Mukherjee, Swastika made her acting debut while still studying at Jadavpur University with the TV serial Devdasi hoping to make some extra pocket money, and before appearing on the big screen with Hemanter Pakhi (2001).  


Photographer: Debarshi Sarkar 


The prolific actor has made sporadic but impactful outings in Bollywood. In 2008 she was seen in the anthology movie Mumbai Cutting. She followed it up with Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! in 2015, and Mukesh Chhabra’s Dil Bechara in 2020. But the actor truly became a household name and won much critical acclaim for her nuanced portrayal of Dolly Mehra, the troubled wife of a top news anchor (played by Neeraj Kabi) in the 2020 web -series Paatal Lok. That year she was also seen in another web series, Black Widows. In 2022, apart from Qala, she was seen in the social thriller series, Escaype Live and Criminal Justice: Adhura Sach, the third installment of the Pankaj Tripathi-starrer hit courtroom drama. But why was she so slow in taking up Hindi projects? Why didn’t we see her in more Bollywood movies?  


Photographer: Samrat Das


“This is not a question that should be asked to the actors, we don’t take the casting calls,” she explains.. “We can meet producers and directors and even audition, but it is their call who to cast. It is about whether the actor fits the character, but more so if the actor is saleable or not. Why would someone cast an unknown actor when you have the option to cast a known actor? Until OTT happened, it was difficult to land a part unless you had the Bollywood actor’s tag. Before OTTs, we just had films and people were more focused on telling stories that were business-wise viable and mass-oriented. Those movies needed actors having a national presence and fan base.


It is quite simple,” continues Swastika.. “For example, in Kolkata, I am very big, I am a star here, and people know my body of work. If a producer has the option to cast me, why would he opt for a new actor who has not proved her worth yet, and risk it. It is the same in Bollywood, there I was the one who had to prove her worth. If I had to really make it big in Bollywood, I had to not only leave a lot of work that I was getting in Kolkata, but also start from scratch and compete with actors who have already established names. Moreover, I was never really hankering for the ‘Bollywood’ tag. But I was meeting people in Mumbai, in fact, I had given hundreds of auditions after Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! but nothing really worked out,” she explains adding that with OTTs, things have changed. “With OTTs so much of work is happening that opportunities have opened up for actors and technicians from across the country. Also, it is not star-driven. Moreover, in a 2-hour long movie, the focus is usually just on the main leads, but in the web series format even the non-lead cast has substantial roles.” 


Photographer: Samrat Das


Being the daughter of an actor and almost born into the world of movies, one would assume that the big dream would be to become a ‘Bollywood heroine’. But not for Swastika. “Becoming a heroine was never a dream (laughs). But I was very into Bollywood fashion. I remember getting a number of those Dil To Pagal Hai salwar suits stitched from my local tailor and my mom didn’t approve of those saying they are too see-through. I had a Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! blouse and a Khamoshi lighthouse dress… we would buy the cloth from New Market, and get the pictures — sourcing those weren’t easy, we didn’t have Internet, we had to find the right magazines, buy those, cut the pictures and take it to the tailor, there was a lot of work involved. And of course, after the dress was made you had to fight with your mother and aunts who would never approve of those Bollywood dresses. For me, once I became an actor, it was very important that I make a mark through my work. That was the one to ten on my priority list. Being a Bollywood heroine was not.” 


Photographer: Samrat Das


So, now with international projects increasingly opening up to South Asian ‘brown’ actors, is Hollywood the next step? “I am not brown,” she chuckles. “I sometimes feel that my fair skin has been detrimental in my acting career. There were so many roles that I missed because the directors felt that my looks are not convincing enough for the part. I have been told that I can’t play a girl from a village or an auto-rickshaw puller’s wife. I don’t know why a rickshaw puller can’t have a fair-skinned wife but those are the stereotypes we have created.” 


For the 42-year-old, characters like Urmila Manjushree are those rare opportunities that let her push herself as an actor, even after spending more than two decades in the industry. “I have been working so long in my industry in Kolkata that I feel I have nothing new to give as a performer. I have done around 100 films and experimented with most of the characters that I have played. Now, it has become difficult to find something that will push me out of my comfort zone. For me, any movie I do in Kolkata is within my comfort zone. The directors I work with here are all happy with my takes and it’s hardly ever that they come to me and tell me that something is not working or they want something else. It has all become too easy for me now. I want to grow. If I am not challenging myself, then I will be stuck as an actor. In Kolkata, I am always playing a Bengali character, maybe various shades of it. But it is when I move out of this industry that I get to play Urmila Manjushree from Himachal, or an Avantika Ahuja in Criminal Justice, or an out-and-out dark character in Escaype Live.  For my entire life, I have heard that my face or demeanor is not suitable to play a negative character. After watching Escaype Live, my daughter told me that sleeping next to me is giving her the creeps (laughs). Unless I got the opportunity how would I know if I can do it? I want to push myself, emote differently and go beyond what people think I can do.” 

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