Nivedita Bhattacharya Interview
As the afternoon sun glares down on the patio of an Oshiwara club, kids with bright red floaters rebel against it by splashing vigorously inside the inviting swimming pool.

Actor Nivedita Bhattacharya walks in. Wearing a white cotton kurta and grey jeans, teamed with beautiful silver hooped earrings and hands full of artsy silver rings, the petite actor looks as fresh as the pool in the vicinity. She's wearing black eyeliner and a nude lipstick; her skin is glowing like the water's surface.

After working with Makarand Deshpande and Ansh Theatre group for almost 20 years, the duo have collaborated again for BALATKAR, PLEASE STOP IT!, a two-hour long play in which a theatre company decides to do a play on the occasion of International Women's Day, but the subject decided by the director creates discomfort among the actors.

 By Divyani Rattanpal

A woman-oriented play, the poster features Nivedita's name as the first among the cast members.

Close on the heels of the premier of BALATKAR, PLEASE STOP IT!, written by Makarand Deshpande, Nivedita trudges through the deep waters of her nearly 25-year-long journey in theatre, that began in Lucknow.

She went to the Seventh Day Adventist Senior Secondary School in Lucknow, where she began performing in school plays. She continued her theatre journey while studying philosophy, economics and literature at the Isabella Thoburn College, commonly called IT college, by performing in college plays. For the annual day celebrations, she got the chance to perform in the Hindi adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's THE CAUCASIAN CHALK CIRCLE. Directed by renowned theatre director and former Bhartendu Natya Academi Director, Surya Mohan Kulshreshta, the play got Nivedita noticed and gave her the opportunity to work with professional theatre groups in Lucknow. "It opened up my life for me," Nivedita remembers.

With its rich history of theatre, Lucknow proved to be a fertile ground to hone Nivedita's acting talents. She worked with big theatre legends like Raj Bisaria, who is called the father of modern theatre in north India.

Although Nivedita's parents had always been supportive, when she got a chance to perform in the play, BIJOYA by Saratchandra Chattopadhyay, during the three-day Durga Puja cultural festival, family friends and relatives too started to advise her parents to push her into the acting field.

"I was not very fluent in Bangla when I got selected, so I would take the script and write it in Hindi for me to be able to pronounce it. The play got me so much attention that people even told my parents 'that you should push her more into this'. That's what got me to focus all my attention and energies on being an actor."

After cracking an audition for TV, Nivedita shot her first serial in Lucknow for Business India Channel. Mumbai came calling soon after, when they gave her another show which was to be shot there.

Although Nivedita had picked quite a bit of TV work in the one year since she moved to Mumbai, she was eager to get back to theatre. A chance encounter introduced her to Makarand Deshpande, who gave wings to her theatre journey in Mumbai.

Makarand, who is called Mak by loved ones, was one of the actors who had come for a reading as part of a presentation to give to the channel for a TV show. "It was a reading of the prime cast. I wasn't even one of the prime cast members, but one of the female actors didn't turn up. So the director requested if I could come for the reading. I said sure. Post the reading we got chatting. He told me he's doing a play, and asked me to join him. "

Since then, Nivedita has enjoyed a 22-year-long association with Mak.

"It's all destiny, I was not supposed to be there that day and I happened to be there for a reading and meet Mak. A lovely friend, brother, teacher; I have had a lovely enriching journey with Mak and with Ansh theatre group," Nivedita shares with honest twinkle in her eyes.

Coming back to the new play, on which both are working together, Nivedita shares an interesting insight that explains the director's rationale for a forceful name, "Whenever there is a reading by Mak, we go just to see what new stuff he has written. The first reading only had the first act. I asked Mak what he had called the play. He said BALATKAR. My question to him was if he is sure he wants to call it BALATKAR. He said yes. That was his conviction that he didn't want to beat around the bush."

The play's intention is to lay bare the psyches behind the social evil.

"Conversations about rape affect all of us on a deeper level. As a woman, as a concerned citizen, as a human being, we are all asking ask what can we do to stop it?" says Nivedita.

While preparing for the role in this play, Nivedita became even more involved in finding out just what makes a rapist. "As an actor when you are researching about the subject, it becomes more personal," she shares.

Nivedita has been part of the Mumbai theatre circuit for almost 20 years now, with more than 500 shows to her credit, including some very popular ones like ALL THE BEST, written by Devendra Pem, which is one of the most successful plays in India with 8000 shows in almost a dozen Indian languages; KAVITA BHAAG GAYEE and JOKE with Makarand Deshpande, a potent play, where she plays a female havildar with a UP accent.

Incidentally, Nivedita's first play with Makarand Deshpande, for which they got talking in the first place, never did take off. However, it brought in a new chapter in her personal life.

"The play was called PAANCH BOODHE BARGAD. Although it was canned after two months of rehearsal, through the play, I met actor Kay Kay Menon, whom I fell in love with and later, got married to!"

Nudged whether she fell in love with the actor first or the person, she giggles like a teenage girl. "I didn't know him as an actor first. I fell in love with the person. We met through theatre and marriage has obviously made my life richer," Nivedita shares.

The other gang members that were also part of the play, are all now part of Nivedita's closest friend circle, including sibling-actor duo, Vijay Maurya and Teddy Maurya. "We are like the paanch budhe bargad now!" she laughs.

As someone who read a lot of plays in Lucknow, when Nivedita first to Mumbai and saw the stage and the lights at Prithvi Theatre, so taken in by the magnetism of the place was she, that she determined to do a play here. The very first play that she signed up for, ALL THE BEST, was performed in Prithvi.

"When I first came to Prithvi, I dreamed that one day I will be performing here. That dream was accomplished in just one year of moving to Mumbai, courtesy Makarand Deshpande," says Nivedita.

As someone who graduated from amateur theatre to professional theatre, the only difference between the two that Nivedita finds is that the latter is more organised in terms of production value. "When it comes to the discipline of theatre…that you have to come for rehearsals and practice... there is no difference."

Nivedita's acting process is deeply understanding what the story is trying to tell, and then exploring how much of the story can she drink down. "Kahaani ko pi lena hai. Somewhere along that long, winding journey, you realise that you are slowly becoming the character. But your own ego can't come in between because that is where your journey stops."

No matter whether it has been the struggle to get by in her initial years, or a packed schedule in TV, Nivedita has never let go of her first love - theatre. "I knew I am not giving up on my theatre. Of course, the money to earn my rent and other expenses all came from television doing shows. But even though I had a packed schedule in TV, I used to inform my production team much in advance that these are the dates when I am not available. Those would be dates for my rehearsals or when I had my shows lined up. There might have been a lot of work I would have let go off, but I guess that is a choice you make as an actor. "

As a female actor, Nivedita has maintained incredible longevity, working in theatre for almost two decades. She shares her thoughts, "I think for any actor, longevity is that your work leads to other work."

Although theatre has the suspension of disbelief, where you can play even a 16-year-old character as a 40-something woman, the same is perhaps not true for camera work. But Nivedita defiantly denies being bogged down by any so-called short shelf life of actresses.

"When you keep working, you never think that there is a shelf life. That has not been the limiting factor for me." Like all skills, even acting is honed over a period of time, so when a female actor is abruptly told to quit just when she is beginning to do her best work (most of the top Oscar winners among females have been over 40), it's not fair.

"You put in x amount of years to hone your craft. So I don't think actors have that baggage. It's the casting people who need to get rid of that baggage to reduce female actresses to a certain shelf life."

*Divyani has worked as a journalist for The Quint, where she was also among the Founding Team members. While there, she also hosted and produced a podcast and fronted several standups. She's also worked for The Times of India group. She's now a theatre and film actor.

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