In the first season of the web series Kaali, Paoli Dam’s titular heroine tackled a drug cartel in Kolkata. In Kaali 2, which is being streamed on Zee5, Kaali’s battle against the bad guys stretches all over India.
The events of Kaali took place over 24 hours, after Dam’s masseuse decided to traffic drugs to fund her son’s operation. The second season makes life all the more difficult for Kaali. The cast includes Paatal Lok star Abhishek Banerjee and Chandan Roy Sanyal as criminals and Vidya Malvade as a tough police officer.
Kaali and its sequel offer Dam the opportunity to headline a Hindi project after years. The 39-year-old Bengali actor made her Bollywood debut in Vivek Agnihotri’s erotic thriller Hate Story (2012). While the first season of Kaali was shot in Bengali and later dubbed into Hindi, season two was made simultaneously in both languages.
Kaali has been created by Rohan Ghose and Aritra Sen and produced by Bengali actor-filmmaker Parambrata Chatterjee, who played a key role in Sujoy Ghosh’s thriller Kahaani. The Kolkata-set 2012 film, in which a woman’s quest for revenge brings her in the crosshairs of terrorists, intelligence agents and law enforcement officers, is clearly an inspiration for Kaali.
“What attracted me to Kaali’s role was that on the one hand, it was the story of an ordinary woman who is trying to make ends meet and looking after her family and sacrificing her desires, and was thus a relatable character for most people, on the other hand, it’s also a fast-paced crime thriller,” Dam told Scroll.in. “In India, female actors seldom get to do action, so when this opportunity arose, I couldn’t say no.”
The series indirectly rekindles Dam’s collaboration with Chatterjee. He has been her co-star in nine films, starting with Goutam Ghose’s Kaalbela (2009). Kaalbela made Dam a sought-after actor in the Bengali film industry.
Based on the Sahitya Akademi Award-winning Bengali novel of the same name by Samaresh Majumdar, Kaalbela starred Dam as Madhabilata, a conscientious woman who stands by her Naxalite lover Animesh (Chatterjee) in Kolkata in the 1970s.
“I grew up with academics and never intended to be an actor, so when I received such immense love for Kaalbela, I was really touched, as people began calling me Madhabilata on the streets,” Dam said. “I remember receiving fan letters at our house. It was also then that I became serious about acting as I began studying cinema and watching films from all over.”
She will be seen with Chatterjee again in the Hindi-language Bulbul, the directorial debut of lyricist-screenwriter Anvita Dutt.
Dam trained in singing and dancing and performed in plays while at school and college. She maintained a steady acting career in television alongside earning a Master’s degree in Chemistry from Rajabazar Science College in Kolkata.
She was cast in minor supporting characters before Kaalbela, and then quickly transitioned to lead roles, mostly as independent-minded women in literary adaptations.
In Ghose’s Lalon biopic Moner Manush, adapted from the Sunil Gangopadhyay novel of the same name, Dam played the baul saint’s devotee Komli.
“Moner Manush had a huge release in both West Bengal and Bangladesh and it was an important film for me,” Dam said. “In fact, my character wasn’t in the novel. Working in it was a life-changing experience, as we shot in extreme locations, seemingly uninhabited. Dressed as a baul performer, practicing with the ektara, I soaked in their philosophy, and it turned me into a different person.”
Then there was Bappaditya Bandyopadhyay’s Elar Char Adhyay, adapted from Rabindranath Tagore’s final novel Char Adhyay. Dam starred as Ela, an early-20th century Bengali woman who joins India’s freedom struggle. Her charismatic leader Indranath (Indraneil Sengupta) drives a wedge between her and her lover Atin (Vikram Chatterjee).
“There’s nothing better than playing a Tagore heroine – strong, fearless, upfront, challenging society’s norms,” Dam recalled. “My only problem with the role was the tough period dialogue.”
While Dam’s stock in Bengali films rose, she suddenly found herself in a controversy. A five-minute sex scene featuring Dam and Anubrata Basu from Sri Lankan filmmaker Vimukthi Jayasundara’s Bengali film Chatrak was leaked online a few months after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2011.
Bengali audiences used to seeing Dam as a traditionally dressed Bengali woman in period films were shocked. Heavy lashings of pan-Kolkata moralising followed.
“Chatrak went to Cannes as an official selection, and me going there with my film, in the midst of other Indian actresses, who were representing some fashion or lifestyle brand, was a big deal,” Dam recalled. “Yes, the controversy did make me feel bad, because an audience who had loved me for so long was suddenly negative about me, but then I knew I was doing something new as an actor, and it’d be difficult to people to digest it. I think what exactly happened was people were outraged seeing me as a character who did not fit into their understanding of society, or as someone they want to be but cannot be.”
A year later, Dam starred in her first Hindi film, Hate Story, which featured her as a serial seductress. Dam played Kavya, a woman sexually exploited by an unscrupulous businessman (Gulshan Devaiah). Kavya takes her revenge by sleeping her way to the top to bring her enemy down.
“Taking up Hate Story was natural for me as I never want to be stereotyped and I always look for challenges,” Dam said. “I am still told today that the first Hate Story is the best of the series, which feels nice. But what happened with my Bengali films happened with Hate Story also. After Kaalbela, I kept getting similar roles. The same happened with Hate Story. So I kept rejecting films until I got to play a lawyer in Ankur Arora Murder Case. If I have given my everything to a character, there’s no sense for me to play it again. I wouldn’t be doing justice to my audience.”