Mamata Shankar wears her legacy with pride and endearing deference. The Bengali actor, dancer and choreographer is the daughter of legendary dancers Uday and Amala Shankar. Her brother, Ananda Shankar, was a pioneer of fusion music, while her uncle was Ravi Shankar.
Mamata Shankar made her acting debut in Mrinal Sen’s Mrigaya in 1976. She has gathered acclaim over the years for her portrayals of sensitive and complex characters in films by some of Bengali cinema’s biggest names, including Mrinal Sen, Satyajit Ray, Buddhadeb Dasgupta and Gautam Ghosh. Shankar has also starred in recent movies by younger filmmakers, such as Srijit Mukherji’s Jaatishwar (2014) and Pratim D Gupta’s Macher Jhol (2017).
Her latest film, Shah Jahan Regency, revolves around the lives and loves of residents of the titular Kolkata hotel. Srijit Mukherji’s adaptation of Sankar’s 1962 novel Chowringhee will be released on January 18. Shankar plays a married woman who leads a double life – a social activist by day and a seductress by night.
In a conversation with Scroll.in at the Udayan Kalakendra in Kolkata, where she teaches dance in the tradition of her illustrious parents, 64-year-old Shankar spoke about her choices in life and before the camera.
You play an unusual character in ‘Shah Jahan Regency’. The trailer was quite a surprise.
Yes, there was one comment, “Mamata di, chee!” And I was like, after all these years, this is what I have to hear.
But I did enjoy myself during the process. Srijit is a hard taskmaster, and so am I, and I don’t mind giving take after take because I want it to be perfect. I’m never satisfied with my work, be it dance, acting, anything. I always feel that my work could have been better.
I don’t know how Srijit came to me with this role, because nobody could have imagined me as Mrs Pakrashi. It is poles apart from who I am, so I was sceptical. But my husband, sons and daughters-in-law said, why won’t you take up this challenge?
I don’t know how much justice I’ve done to the role. Every day after the shoot, I would come back home and re-shoot the whole sequence in my head. I would get depressed, thinking that I could’ve done xyz differently. Now I’ve started to tell myself to be detached, do my duty, and leave the rest to God.
Had you read Sankar’s ‘Chowringhee’ and watched the first film adaptation, from 1968?
I had seen the film, but I hardly remember anything, because I was too young to grasp the whole thing. I just remember the last scene, where the aeroplane blows up.
Srijit isn’t saying that he’s doing another Chowringhee. It’s more of a tribute. If you don’t like the film, you can blame me and if you like it, you can credit Srijit. It’s a good, fresh perspective.
Ever since you made your debut with Mrinal Sen’s ‘Mrigaya’ in 1976, you have been selective about your films. What guides your choices?
I believe there is a time for everything. When the right time comes, things start happening.
I don’t have ambition, but I have a mission. It might be because of my upbringing, but I have never thought that I have to do a certain thing or be somewhere, or be constantly in contact through social media. Because in doing so, life becomes very stressful. One can get depressed when things don’t happen. I wouldn’t say I’m laidback. I’ve just done things as they came to me.
I try to be honest and truthful to my work, and I work hard. At least, I try to work hard, and the rest just happens, really. I am a devotee of Sathya Sai Baba, and Baba is taking care of everything for me, sort of orchestrating everything.
There was a period when there was a boom of film offers. I would get three-four calls every day. I was very busy with my films and we used to have 22 shows a month, believe it or not.
Suddenly, there was a lull period. There were no shows. It was almost like we didn’t exist. And there were film offers coming in. I was happy, but I felt bad for the troupe members. Though they get monthly salaries, they get an impetus when there are shows. I started feeling guilty. Maybe Baba heard me – suddenly, there was a boom in dance programmes.
What was your experience with Pratim D Gupta’s ‘Maacher Jhol’? It did extremely well.
I thoroughly enjoyed it. And also, Ahare Mon, Flat Number 609. They were all so different.
I really enjoyed Maacher Jhol because the whole time I was in bed. No makeup, nothing. I’d just go, get into the hospital bed and sleep. When they were taking other shots, I used to sleep happily.
I did Antarleen. Arindam Bhattacharya being a new director, I don’t know how he thought of me in that role, but that was also a very nice experience. I also loved my second time with Pratim on Ahare Mon. He is so calm and cool. And the same with Arindam. Srijit made me tense, but it was nice working with him.
Then there was Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s ‘Pink’ in 2016, which was supposed to be your comeback in Hindi films. You play Amitabh Bachchan’s bed-ridden wife.
Aniruddha told me that it was a very important role. And obviously it was, although Jaya di [Jaya Bachchan] felt that there should have been more scenes instead of me just lying in bed. I told her to go tell the director this.
But at least Aniruddha thought of me, and I am grateful for that. The relationship between the husband and wife was too subtle, but that was the director’s discretion.
So is 2019 looking good for you?
It started from the end of 2018, and one of the greatest promotions of my life is about to happen. The greatest was when I became a mother, and now I’m about to become a grandmother. Perhaps the baby who is coming will be lucky for us. Everything is looking positive, inshallah.
You said you have been selective about your film roles. Did you set the bar high because you started off with some of the finest filmmakers?
I’ve been so lucky to work with Mrinal da [Mrinal Sen] in my first film, because that puts you on a different pedestal. Had I started my career with ordinary films, maybe things wouldn’t have worked out so well.
I have been getting offers since I was a child, but my parents were never keen on me getting into films so early. They said, finish school at least, go to college.
My parents were very strict. They said, you have to be grounded, your base has to be very strong. What they gave me and my brother were values. Till date, they haven’t given us a car or a plot of land or a bank balance. But the values are what we carry forward, and that is what we try to instill in our children and also our students.
I already had a reputation for doing art films, but I would rather call them good films, or realistic films. I had lucrative offers from Bombay, to work with Vinod Khanna and so on. But my mother said, wait.
I’m so lucky to have done so many films with Mrinal da, Goutam Ghosh, three films with Satyajit Ray, two with Buddhadeb Dasgupta. Then I have worked with Rituparno Ghosh, Pratim, Srijit Mukherji, Arindam Bhattacharya.
You have also dedicated a part of your life to continuing the work your parents started so many decades ago. How difficult is it to maintain the dance tradition of the Shankars?
We are absolutely swimming against the tide. It’s very difficult, but at the same time, very rewarding when we get feedback from parents, about how someone who has learnt dance here is flourishing. Even if she isn’t pursuing dance, the training here has transformed her.
This has happened because what we teach here is not a dance style but the Uday Shankar philosophy. The students are divided into groups. I give them a theme, a letter or a number, and they have to create their own moves. The first thing we teach them is to get rid of their egos, tell them that we are all learners. Every day is a lesson for us.
First of all, one has to take criticism. Secondly, you must trust your peers – nobody wants to pull you down. You have to go within yourself, and you always have a chance to better yourself.
What are the changes you see around you?
What I see all around me is a corrosion of values and a misplaced sense of empowerment and freedom. It reflects in the art we produce. We have become cynical, mistrustful, disrespectful.
For example, a beautiful couple, Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma, were in a clothing advertisement. They show Anushka nudging Virat with her feet. I was upset to see this. You can do it when you’re in your home, but it means so much when you’re an icon. When things like these are shown to everyone, what answer does one have?
I believe both men and women should have equal respect for each other. Neither can survive without the other. This is what I’m trying through my dance, to bring this awareness in my students. To be a good artist, you must be a good human.
Uday Shankar poured his philosophy into the dance drama ‘Kalpana’, which he choreographed and directed in 1948. You fought a lengthy court battle to wrest back control over the film’s copyright. What is happening to ‘Kalpana’?
The rights are with nobody. We just want people to see the movie. We have never charged anyone anything for the film. That’s our motto.
What is it like to be with a living legend like your mother, Amala Shankar, who turns 100 this year?
She is absolutely my baby now. I still sleep with my mom, and she holds my hand tightly and sleeps. We make sure that at night, I feed her, if not me, then my sons or daughters-in-law. I don’t know what special thing I have done to deserve this privilege of being a caregiver to my mother at this age.