At 22, Tannishtha Chatterjee’s performance in the 2004 German film, Shadows of Time, put her on a 13-year journey exploring world cinema. Last week, Leena Yadav’s Parched opened in India. Tannishtha went on Comedy Nights Bachao Tazaa on Tuesday as part of the film’s promotions and was appalled by repeated jibes about her complexion. She was described as a “kaali kalooti” and asked if she has been eating jamun (blackberries) since childhood as a result of which “mooh kala hai”. The show is hosted by popular stand-up comedians, Krushna Abhishek, Mona Singh, Ssumier Pasricha, Bharti Singh, Nia Sharma and Sumeet Vyas, who usually manage to raise a laugh with insults but this time they crossed the line.
“I had been led to believe that it was going to be a ‘Roast’. In the West they cheer your achievements by making fun of them and I was excited about being ‘roasted’ on a comedy show on a leading national channel,” says the actress, adding that she had been promised that it wouldn’t be as “extreme as in the West”. Two segments into the show, a shocked Tannishtha walked out, admitting that when she repeated some of the comments, her sister from New York who’s currently in Mumbai couldn’t believe her ears. “She questioned the regressive script, the show runners and the audacity of the channel to propagate such racism,” says the actress.
Tannishtha points out that she doesn’t have a ‘white’ hangover and has been to every A-list festival in the world and never felt humiliated. “Even today this is not about me being offended but because a burning issue is being promoted through such shows. It’s as bad as making a joke about a marginalised community. That is not the spirit of Parched or the face of a woman who believes dark is beautiful,” she asserts. After the first segment, the 35-year-old actress thought the jokes would move from her skin tone to her performances, films and personal life like any insult-comedies, but when the next segment continued to be peppered with “kaali kalooti, baingan looti”, she told her publicist she wanted to leave immediately.
She also made it clear that she did not want to be featured on the episode or be associated with the channel in any manner since no apology was forthcoming. “They did not understand why I was angry and told me that if I was offended by any particular dialogue, they would edit it out and mock something else about my features. When I refused to continue, the best they could come up with was, ‘Madam exit toh shoot kar lo!’” Tannishtha’s part in Sarah Gavron’s British film Brick Lane brought her global acclaim while she was nominated for the British Independent Film Awards alongside stalwarts like Dame Judi Dench and Hollywood actress Anne Hathaway for her contribution to cinema.
Referred to by international media as the “India’s Princess of Parallel Cinema”, she sang at London’s Royal Opera House with British composer Jocelyn Pook. In March, she won a special award at BAFTA for her cinematic work. Has she ever felt discriminated against before? She admits that while getting her make-up done in India, she’s often told, “Ek tone light kar lo, it’s a city girl, had your character been a villager it’d be okay.” “Racism is rampant in the Indian film industry and being propagated through films and such crass shows.
Once I was asked that since my surname is Chatterjee, I must be a Brahmin, so why wasn’t I fair complexioned,” she fumes, pointing out that while Indians rave about how “exotic” foreigners find them, they themselves look down on a dark complexion. “Africans are proud of their skin colour, but look at how we treat them in India. We are misguided by a deep-rooted casteism,” she signs off.