Lolita Chatterjee will be familiar to Bengali and Hindi movie fans of a certain vintage. Her debut Bengali film Bibhas was with screen idol Uttam Kumar in 1964, and after appearing in a few more productions, she moved to Mumbai.
Chatterjee is from a family of academics and writers in Kolkata, and her command over English (she was partly schooled in England) and her mellifluous voice got her typecast as the seductress and the vamp in many films. She made a splash in her swimsuits and tank tops in Hindi movies toplined by Rakesh Khanna, Mumtaz, Tanuja and Feroz Khan. Her credits during the 1960s and ’70s include small roles in Raat Andheri Thi, Aap Ki Kasam, Talaash, Victoria No 203 and Pushpanjali.
Chatterjee eventually returned to Kolkata, where she dabbled in jatra (Bengali folk theatre) for a while, playing roles as diverse as Ophelia and Indira Gandhi. She starred in a series of popular stage productions in the ’70s and early ’80s alongside the odd Bengali movie, and faded out of view until she was rediscovered by Goutam Ghose for Shunyo Awnko in 2013. Chatterjee has performed in Arindam Sil’s upcoming Aaschhe Abar Shabor and plays the lead in Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s Jonaki. Sengupta’s dialogue-free debut Asha Jaoar Majhe (2014) was the toast of the festival circuit, and his second movie is an unorthodox drama about an elderly woman’s reminiscences of her past.
The octogenarian actress hadn’t fully recovered from a recent surgery, but turned up in her glamorous best – orange lipstick, trendy black and gold nail polish, a perfect bob, and a dazzling smile – for an interview with Scroll.in. Chatterjee spoke about her life-long struggle for recognition, her professional choices, and the opportunity to play the lead role in the winter of her life.
How did you become part of a movie that seems like nothing you have done in your career?
The offer came from Aditya Vikram Sengupta. I had seen his first movie, Asha Jaoar Majhe, and had liked it very much. But I didn’t know him. Then my niece told me that somebody called Aditya Vikram was looking for me, and I agreed to meet him.
They came, he and his wife Jonaki. We had an initial conversation, and they said they felt good about it. He rang me up and told me, we have selected you for the role. I said, thank you so much. I am delighted and honoured. And that was that.
Were you actively looking for projects like this one?
Oh yes, of course. I have been in this profession for a long time, but I haven’t had, I must say, very good opportunities. For various reasons, I had to take up roles which I shouldn’t have. So my career graph went down. This was a great break for me. At this age, it was great.
What is it about the character in ‘Jonaki’ that appealed to you?
This is about an old woman, quite advanced in age. She is ill and in a coma. The director wanted to make a film on her thoughts while she is in a coma. He told me that his grandmother had been in a coma, and that he was very fond of her. It struck him that in that state, there must be a hundred different things going on in her head, and he wrote a story around the idea.
It’s about this woman who goes back to her past, where a lot of things happen. Her love and everything else is there, in the past. Then she comes back to her old home and finds that things have changed, and she is very nostalgic. The treatment is highly evolved. The director has his own vision, thoughts, imagination. I would sometimes ask myself and others, what am I doing? What does it mean? They said, go and ask the director. It went a little bit above my head, though I acted in it.
Did you enjoy being challenged this way?
Absolutely. The director is a very nice guy, very quiet, very patient. He was also a perfectionist. He would take several takes of one shot, sometimes 13 or 14 times. But thankfully very short ones. The film has hardly any dialogue.
You share screen space with younger actors, such as Jim Sarbh. What did you make of their approach?
I must say they are all very, very talented. Jim Sarbh plays my lover, actually – boyfriend, whatever you call it. The film also shows me as my younger self.
There are some unsettling scenes in the trailer. For instance, you are shown to be pregnant and seem to be delivering on a table. There is another scene in which you seem to be dying in a bathtub.
See, I am an actress and I have trained myself to accept a lot of things. I don’t feel embarrassed or shy or hesitant. So it was quite easy. But yes, the character is unique. She is an ordinary woman, but there were a lot of things that I had to do that required courage. A lot of thought went in before I faced the camera.
You were also a jatra performer, and you have mentioned in an interview that two productions are very close to your heart – one is Hamlet and the other one is about Indira Gandhi.
Also Tin Paisar Pala – they are all very close to me. There I got real good roles – satisfying and which, sort of, did justice to me, my craft. We travelled all over Bengal and the North-East. The audience response was fabulous. I wasn’t very happy with the film offers, but I had to do them for many reasons.
You were typecast as a sort of glamour girl in Hindi films.
Oh yes, at that time especially. If anybody was fair and tall and, you know, looked a little bit different, they were villains. So unfortunately, I was cast mostly in those roles. Not in my first movie [Bibhas].
Even then, there would have been films that you enjoyed perhaps?
I enjoyed working with Uttam Kumar. I was the heroine – a village belle, a zamindar’s daughter in Bibhas. Then in Antony Firingee, I played a small role, followed by Joy Jayanti. They were all good films.
In Bombay, I worked in some movies, played character roles or lead roles. I acted in Raat Andheri Thi with Feroz Khan – that was a very good role. Then with Manoj Kumar in Yaadgar, Ek Thi Reeta. Quite a few, but not worth mentioning.
Lolita is your screen name, right?
Yes. My original name is Runu.
How and when did Runu become Lolita?
When I was shooting for my second movie, a few journalists met me at the studio and asked me, what name should we use for you? I was reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and it suddenly struck me. Call me Lolita, I said. That’s how it happened.
Do you think it worked for you? Or were you trapped in the Lolita image?
If I had a chance to change my name, I would. Lolita is too connected with Nabokov’s Lolita and sounds foreign. And people actually viewed me like that as well. They thought since I was tall and fair, I was Westernised and a vamp. I did not like that.
But the film industry has changed a lot since then, has it not?
Oh yes. In our times, there were gradations, grades. Because I worked in Raat Andheri Thi in Bombay, which was a spy thriller, they called it a B-grade film and my career was done. I didn’t get any chance to be in an A-grade movie after that.
What was your life in Bombay like in those days?
I had two flats in Bandra. I was there for almost 10 years. My sons were in a Panchgani hostel. I would keep coming to Calcutta off and on because my heart was here. And my family.
What was Bandra like?
Oh lovely, lovely! Bandra Bandstand is where I used to stay, right where Shah Rukh Khan now lives. There was just one hotel at Bandstand and a tea shop from where we used to make phone calls. We would walk along Bandstand and enjoy the view. I returned to the same place five years ago, and could not recognise any of it. So crowded, so many shops, so many people. It lost its charm.
You did have a group of friends, including Rajesh Khanna and Tanuja.
That was in the late ’60s. Tanuja, her husband Shomu Mukherji, Rajesh Khanna, Anju Mahendru. When we worked, we worked, and then we met up with people, not filmy but very close friends. We used to have lots of parties – singing and this and that and all-night parties. Rajesh Khanna was a very dear friend. That was my life.
I did a few good films, but also made some career mistakes. I was acting under a lot of pressure. Otherwise my career would have been different.
Did you ever feel like writing your memoir?
Very much. I started once or twice, but it just didn’t happen. I have three grandsons. They tell me, why don’t you write your memoir? I said, I will be very frank They said, we don’t care, go on and write. But you see, I don’t want to write it myself. First of all, my handwriting is very bad; secondly, I cannot do it well.
You come from a family of academics. How did you get into acting?
I was not supposed to come into this line at all. We were culturally inclined. I used to work for All India Radio when I was about 10 or 11 years old. At 11, I did a movie in which I played Kanan Devi’s young self. It’s called Ananya and the story was written by my elder sister. She was a writer, Kalyani Mukherjee, who used to write with the pen name Sujata.
I was in England for quite some time, I did some schooling there. Then I came back, got married very early, had two children. I had my first baby when I was 15 years old. I also studied. My in-laws helped me a lot. I did my matriculation privately and I stood first. I did my intermediate from Lady Brabourne College, and did pretty well. I graduated in an MA in Metaphysics from Presidency College, I stood first.
Then a lot of things happened in my life. Personal tragedies, when I made some mistakes. I took up a teaching job and met Uttam Kumar on a film set. He asked me, would you like you become a heroine? I said, of course. That’s how I started.
Would you say that you are getting your due recognition now?
I feel very happy, but it’s coming very late in the day. How long will I live? And the scope is limited because of my age. I won’t be taken in every movie.
I have suffered a lot. I lost my elder son many years ago, and since then, I have somehow been dragging myself around. Perhaps this is all a penance.