Even though she hails from a film family, movies were never on her mind. Yet, after a career spanning 11 years and some of the most successful Bengali films to her credit, actress Koel Mullick is the reigning box-office queen in Tollywood. In a free-wheeling chat with Sagorika Dasgupta, the actress discusses her career and the Bengali film industry
Your film Arundhati released recently. Are you happy with the way the film has performed?
I am getting extremely positive reviews for my performance and I am very happy. It was a dream role for me. In fact, this was one of the toughest roles I have ever portrayed. I had to undergo a lot of fitness training for it. For instance, I learnt sword fighting and horse riding. Initially, I had thought I would be using a prop as a sword but my action director made me use a real sword so that my muscles would pump up and my jaw would look tense with the weight of the sword.
Also, since it is a period film about a warrior queen set decades ago, I had to showcase the glamour of power and not merely look all dolled up. So it was challenging both mentally and physically. I had to also work hard on my body language.
Your father Ranjit Mullick is a famous Bengali actor. Was acting a natural career choice?
Not at all. I was in school when I got my first offer. A director had asked my father if I would be interested in acting. But like all Bengali families, my dad thought it was best I complete my education. In fact, he told me about that offer much later as he didn’t want to distract me from my studies. Later, when I was doing my graduation, I got another offer, which was for my first film Nater Guru. By this time, my dad decided I was mature enough to take up film offers. The film was based on a famous novel by the great writer Samaresh Basu and my dad was also cast in the film. He gave his nod because it was a rom-com, which was a famous literary work and he thought it was a film which was best suited to be my debut platform.
I was very fortunate that I bagged my first film when I was in my first year of college. But to tell you the truth, films were not on my agenda. I have done my Masters in Psychology and I wanted to become a psychologist. I was very studious and focused on academics. I was such an introvert in my teens that when my father had meetings with people from the industry, I would lock myself up in my room, even if it meant staying there for four hours! I was aloof from the industry as a kid. When I was on my way to shoot my first film, I waved goodbye to my relatives all teary eyed, as if I would never return. (Laughs)
With your industry background, the pressure to live up to your father’s calibre must have been huge.
Absolutely! Almost the entire Bengali film industry turned up on the first day of my shoot, because they were all friends of my father’s and they wanted to see how this new girl would perform. Although they had come to lend their support, it made me very nervous, also because it was a big-budget film. Earlier, I mentioned how shy I was and my mother actually thought I would not come out of my make-up van. Somehow, I eventually faced the camera and everything around me transformed into a mute, invisible environment. It took just one take for me to nail the scene. It was like a miracle. I surprised my parents that day and I think I made them proud.
Did you get a generous response from the audience and the industry after your first film?
After we wrapped my first film, I was watching the rushes and I felt I was intolerable. I thought if I couldn’t bear to see myself on screen for a few minutes, how would the audience tolerate me for two hours! But, everyone liked my work, thanks to which I have managed to maintain a good foothold in the industry.
Since your debut in 2003, how much has the Bangla film industry grown?
It has grown by leaps and bounds. In fact, the change had already taken root by the time I made my debut. There was a time when it was impossible to imagine a regional film going overseas. But my second film itself went to Singapore, parts of Europe, Spain, Milan, Cannes and other foreign destinations. The Bengali film audience had stopped going to cinemas but thanks to multiplexes and better films being made, they have returned to movie halls. This obviously brought about better returns for our films and for producers to invest more. The entire monetary cycle has been revived because of multiplexes.
Also, technically, the industry has gone to another level. The kind of VFX we use in our films nowadays is as good as those in Hollywood films. In fact, in my films Arundhati, the CG we used was great. We also used helicams to shoot aerial shots. Such sophistication for a regional film was unthinkable till a few years ago.
You are one of the top commercial actresses in the industry. Do you ever think about a film’s returns at the box office while signing projects?
I know that some films will linger in the minds of the audience longer than others. But I am very blessed to have had commercial hits. I do try and look into things like whether the producer is getting adequate returns but I never make a deliberate effort to select only commercial roles. If you look at the films I have done, while there are super-hits like Paglu with Dev, I have also done films like Saat Paake Bandha, Shubhodrishti, Hemlock Society, Jackpot, Hitlist and now Arundhati. I try and strike a balance between commercial and content-oriented films. You only have one shot at life, you have to take challenges and make the most of the opportunities you get. But I have always chosen quality over quantity. In fact, my next film Chaar is a collection of four films and my film Porikha is directed by Satyajit Ray’s son Sandip Ray. It is again a period film, in black and white. It releases tomorrow so I am very anxious to see how it fares.
You have done over 11 films with Jeet and most of them have been blockbusters. What is he like as a co-star?
He was my first co-star and we have been quite a successful on-screen pair. He was very patient with me in my first film. I had never faced the camera in my life since I had never auditioned for a role. I was clueless when I first stepped on to a film set. It requires a lot of patience to work with a newcomer and Jeet was very tolerant of even the silly mistakes I made. My first film with him was more like a workshop for me. We would read the script and dialogue together and he would coach me on how the flow of the dialogue should be. I think we are a hit pair.
Is that the reason you chose to foray into television in a show he produced?
Oh yeah! That show was called Kotha O Kahini and it was a fun experience. Jeet and I were coming back from a shoot at Shantiniketan and he casually told me about this show he was producing. One day, he called me and very casually asked me if I wanted to host the show. I was excited but I thought he was joking because it was a heavy-duty chat show which dealt with problems within families. It was on the lines of Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate. I had to play a pivotal role in emotionally reuniting family members, couples and siblings who were estranged. It required a certain amount of seriousness and I liked the challenge. Also, it brought my background in psychology into play. It was a very mature show for me to handle.
And then you judged the Bengali version of Jhalak Dikhhlaa Jaa too.
I have loved Madhuri Dixit and the show, and I was thrilled when they asked me to judge the show. Remo (D’souza) was also one of the judges and I liked the way he judged after watching him on the Hindi version. I am also a trained Odissi dancer, so it was the perfect show for me to judge. The only hitch was that unlike in the Hindi one, where the contestants are all young, the Bengali one featured senior actors. It was really tough telling them they were not getting their steps right! I guess I was one of the kinder judges! (Laughs)
Don’t you want to do Hindi films?
Of course I do. But then I have a certain responsibility towards my audience in Bengal. I can’t let them down. I have to be extremely careful about the film I choose to make my debut in Hindi films.
Are there any directors in particular you would want to work with?
I admire the work of Imitaz Ali, Anurag Basu and Sanjay Leela Bhansali.