Indian actress Seema Biswas blazed onto the world cinema scene in 1996 playing Phoolan Devi, the notorious killer turned politician known as the Bandit Queen. Biswas portrayed the real rebel heroine who was gang raped by her husband and the elders in her community and joined a gang to wreak vengeance on them. Devi went on to terrorize men who abused young lower caste women before serving time in prison and later serving as an elected official and was assassinated. The film created uproar and a star was born. Biswas has worked extensively since then, including here in Canada in Water for Deepa Mehta, Cooking With Stella for Deepa’s brother Dilip Mehta and Amal for Richie Mehta (not related). Biswas’ latest film, Patang (The Kite), takes place in the ancient western Indian city of Ahmedabad, during the traditional January celebration of Uttarayan, a kite festival to mark the coming of summer. Biswas’ character Sudha is trying to keep her family together in a difficult time, through peace, love and respect. They are all suffering in one way or another and things come to a head when a good deed goes wrong. We spoke with Biswas in Toronto about the film.
Will you be seeing any of your friends from Water or Cooking with Stella while you’re here?
Yes, because it’s my hometown and lots of friends are here. My mentor, my teacher and my everything, Deepa Mehta is from here. I have lots of friends from Cooking with Stella and Water and Amal. So that way it’s my second hometown.
The kite festival’s a great backdrop for Patang. The beauty and freedom of the kites and fireworks exist in stark contrast to the pain the characters are feeling.
Believe me, for me it was life experiencing life, because during the shoot, the festival was on in the original location where we were working, and the people, non-actors, and the kites of the festival are full of life and energy and hope and excitement and music and colour, so full of life. You cannot imagine a few years back disaster happened in the same city. [In 2001 a devastating earthquake killed nearly 800 people, in 2002, a thousand people died in Hindu/Muslim conflict and 17 bomb attacks took place in 2008.] They cope with it; you don’t know who is rich and who is poor anymore, or who is Muslim or who is Hindu.
Your wonderful Stella was sneaky, a real troublemaker, but Sudha in Patang is almost saintly with her tolerance and love. It must be fun to explore all these characters.
It’s exciting and interesting and I think being a theatre person I always enjoy working with different directors and roles so that way I’m lucky. I got the Sudha character who is very direct and caring, like the character in Water who is transforming any vessel where you put the water. She is flexible and open-hearted and lives for others.
Your naturalism onscreen is incredible. Is it technique or simply your response to an acting situation?
See, I’m not that active of a person. I don’t believe in technique that way. I try to be honest and I have my way of working as far as preparation for the character. I visualize for any role, small or big, a biography of the character and the link with the other characters, small little things, before the shooting, having a bath or walking subconsciously thinking of the character and after a certain time it is inside my heart. I internalize it until the time comes. I learned from Shekhar Kapur to take maximum time, days or months before you research whatever you want, but keep it inside your pocket. If it’s coming it does, if not, don’t force it. That is when I perform from my heart authentically. It can be exhausting and I cannot lie, sometimes I need a break emotionally after focussing and internalizing so much. But at the same time I am here for my performance and it should not affect me personally.
You started your career in theatre, and come from a long line of theatre folk. How did that shape what you do?
Theatre is a strong foundation for film. Theatre is a polishing workshop, I can polish my acting qualities and refresh anything that is in front of a living audience performing so there is an instant reaction. Right now, I am doing solo performances and traveling all over India in a show about a famous writer, poet and novelist, Tagore, which is also exhausting! It’s about the women’s liberation and respect and values and everything. He wrote about it 100 years ago and it’s a reminder to the younger generations to do it now. It’s interesting media for me, theatre and film. They are opposites but I love them.
The Bandit Queen was a worldwide sensation some years ago. How do you look at it today?
I feel thankful I did that film. It was really far ahead of its time for India and nowadays it could be an example for new cinema. I’m proud of it. I did it when I was much younger and I feel really lucky to have Shekhar Kapur think that I could do this role. Oh, my God, how did I get this? It was wonderful to get good roles. I am so lucky and proud of the film. Wherever I go I get a reaction – what a great film it is, what a great performance – I think how thankful I am. I feel myself so lucky. I don’t need more than that. I’ m not super highly ambitious. I want to be around nice people who are creative and intelligent. I’m a lazy and shy person [laughs] and I don’t push myself so much. But God is great.
Patang (The Kite) opens in Toronto and Vancouver on June 22. Check out the trailer for the film here.