#Mahalaya: Paoli prays for a Covid-free world

In a year that has not been kind to the entertainment industry, Paoli has been on a professional high. The actress has received a fair bit of appreciation for her back-to-back OTT releases. But she is not celebrating yet. As the fate of the big screen hangs in balance and the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down, Paoli has pinned her hopes on some serious divine intervention on the auspicious occasion of Mahalaya today. Excerpts from a candid conversation with Calcutta Times:

Sanjhbati, Love Aaj Kal Porshu and Konttho – you started the year with films that were well received by audiences in the theatres and then came the lockdown. But are you happy to have made up for the absence of

theatrical releases with your projects on the OTT platforms?

Kaali and Bulbbul were my first OTT outings and honestly, in the initial stages of these projects I had no clue that they would do so well. I have been watching OTT films for five years now, and in the process, I developed a fondness for the content. The kind of stories that are being told on these platforms do not always get told in traditional filmmaking. It is also helping us discover some amazing actors and filmmakers from regional cinema, which would not have been possible otherwise. But you cannot ever recreate the magic of a big screen on the OTT platforms. It has its own charm.

What do you miss the most about the theatres? It is about walking into a packed theatre where you can feel the excitement of the audience. You can hear them repeat your dialogues and engage with every scene, every moment of the film. That energy is something else and you simply cannot match it on the digital platform.

But the digital platform has also been good for filmmakers and actors, especially from Kolkata, who have been able to take their work to a wider audience.

Absolutely. It is a matter of pride when you see stories from Bengal or a film shot in Kolkata with Bengali technicians and actors, reaching out to 190 countries around the world. It is not easy to create content that can hold the audience’s attention on a small, digital screen – the story and the performances have to complement each other and be outstanding. What OTT platforms have done is help us connect to different cultures and cinema around the world – whether it is Spanish or Bengali, Tamil or Finnish.

This year we have had some serious debate over prejudices against skin tones. How often have you encountered prejudices over your looks and did it affect the kind of films that were being offered to you?

There is stereotyping in every field. Shundor maney forsha (beautiful is always fair) – the patriarchal system has been telling this for generations, and women have been succumbing to it. It has taken us a lot of time to understand that this, in itself, is demeaning. It starts with accepting yourself for who you are. When I started my career, women like me had to fight against all kinds of labelling – hero-heroine, art house and mainstream. I took a good look around me and decided I just wanted to be part of good cinema. I made it clear that I will become the part I am required to play, but I will look the way I am. It helped that I was never known to be conventionally good looking and that there were some exceptional and legendary filmmakers who gave me the opportunity to establish my versatility.

You are synonymous with bold, empowered female characters on the screen. Has it been a conscious decision?

I have never wanted to be typecast. I have always wanted to explore different genres. I had to fight with myself to play Binodini in Bulbbul – because I have always played characters which are strong, independent, whether it is in Devi or Kaali. But here I was playing a victim and I had to struggle to find that child in her somewhere. She was a woman who had to give in to these structural and social norms that are patriarchal and misogynistic. I guess in all my characters, what you will find is this emotional quotient – an acceptance and respect and love. What I look for is love in all my characters. That is my value-add to the roles I play.

This year’s Durga Puja is exceptional because of the pandemic and Cyclone Amphan. What are your hopes and wishes around the festival this time?

Durga Puja is about worshipping the divine feminine. It is about unbridled joy and happiness. But this year, there is an all-pervading fear, insecurity, even when we step out for work. As human beings, celebrations mean coming together in love and sharing the joy – and that has been denied to us. During Durga Puja, I cannot think of being anywhere but in Kolkata. I want people to be here with their families and friends and enjoy the festival with all the safety protocols in place. Let us not be reckless and let us hope Ma Durga rises to slay the coronasura once and for all. I hope and pray we are all able to move around without restrictions, smile at each other and breathe freely.