When I was working as an entertainment journalist in Kolkata I was always fascinated by Bengali actress Koneenica Banerjee’s in-your-face honesty when she talked about the perils women face in filmdom. Koneenica never had any qualms about admitting that she got “casting couch” propositions every other day and because she turned them down she often didn’t get roles.
The girl – who shot to fame with the role of Pakhi in the superhit Bengali serial Ek Akasher Niche went on to do memorable roles in a number of Bengali films and serials – also decided to try her luck in Mumbai. With an impressive CV she was brimming with confidence that her work would speak for her. On the contrary while standing at the endless queues at the auditions everyday she realized Mumbai was a different ballgame altogether.
When I asked her about what she thought of the suicide of Jiah Khan, Koneenica told me over phone from Kolkata, “I know what she felt because I have gone through the exact situation. I am no one to judge why she did this but if media reports are to be believed Jiah Khan was depressed about lack of roles and at the same time a letter written by her talks about the pain she felt for the demise of her relationship with her boyfriend. I have faced rejection day in and day out and I plunged into depression after my break-up. When I finally came back to Kolkata from Mumbai I couldn’t go out or speak to people for months.”
Here is what Koneenica told me:
“In Bollywood if you sleep with 10,000 men it does not ensure you a role”
If you are an aspiring actress every man in the industry – from the spot boy to the top producer – wants to sleep with you with the promise of a role. But even after that there is no guarantee that the role will come. Most often it doesn’t.
“I am an actress and not a prostitute”
It is true that nobody rapes you in the film industry and it is your choice if you want to warm up anyone’s bed. But now more than a choice it has become something like a norm. But what I find ridiculous is if women are with men they are quickly branded as “bad women” and talked about while men get away with the light tag of “industry playboy”.
I have chosen not to bow down to this norm and have suffered immensely. But I have ensured a peaceful night’s sleep that way although I have been called a “jobless actress” many times.
“One influential man with connections in the film industry asked me if I was a virgin”
One powerful man even asked me that why am I behaving like a virgin in a place like the film industry. I told him on his face that I just didn’t like him so I refused to be with him. I was laughing to myself in my heart because I knew about his waning influence in the film industry although he tried hard to convince me that he had the real passport to my fame in Mumbai. I know there are plenty of women who still believe him.
“If Hrithik comes up with a proposition I will definitely consider it”
I don’t want to project myself as a Sati Savitri (pure chaste woman). But the thought of being with ugly, pot bellied men, with no knack for a conversation is truly repulsive. It is repulsive to think that I will be with these men to get a role, and as I said earlier, a role that does not come with a “guarantee card”. But if someone like Hrithik Roshan or Brad Pitt tells me the same in return for a role it is definitely worth considering.
“During my almost 4 years stay in Mumbai I went for more than 800 auditions”
While in Mumbai I did one telefilm, one reality show called Sarkaar Ki Duniya and a few ad films but I must say every audition was a harrowing experience. I had to stand in long queues all through the day and then people handling the auditions often had no respect for us and misbehaved. As the days passed by I realized that when they were looking for a new face acting prowess was the last thing on their mind. But after an audition sometimes it happened that they pulled a chair for me and offered me water and spoke respectfully. I think that was my moment of truth and I would cherish those moments. Of course, the role always went to someone with good connections. Chances were no one standing in that long queue got the role.
“Being alone in Mumbai is the toughest thing”
After a day like this where you are pushed and shoved at every audition when I came back to an empty home I felt the walls came to gobble me up. Then money was a major issue. I had to count every penny and spend carefully. Something I was not used to doing in my fairly cushy home in Bhowanipore in Kolkata. Also it is very hard to find real friends in Mumbai who would care for you without a motive.
When I used to have differences with my ex-boyfriend he would often tell me I had gone mad but I never told him anything of that sort in return. I knew he lived alone and it was extremely upsetting to go back to an empty home and keep questioning your own sanity and credibility.
“Sometimes I have been mentally tortured”
This has happened in Kolkata even when directors have misbehaved with me on the sets and told me I am not good enough. They have compared me with other actresses and told me they were better.
But thankfully I have had directors who have told me that they are my fan. I choose to cherish those words and ignore the rest.
“My family saved me from the brink”
By God’s grace I have a family who were always with me even when I was alone in Mumbai. I could pick up the phone and talk anytime to my mother, sister, uncle or father. I think this connection helped me immensely. I always knew that whatever happened I could go back to Kolkata, to my home, and I would not be judged by my family.
With time your perspective of life changes. When I was going through these phases I started questioning myself if I am the one who is running against the tide? I read up books, I did meditation and reiki and realized that at the end of the day I have to be at peace with myself. Now that I am back in Kolkata I am also thankful to have some true friends.
“I have never contemplated suicide”
After being constantly rejected in the film industry and having a break-up with my boyfriend my confidence reached the nadir. But I always believe in re-incarnation and my soul is the only connection with God and I have no right to harm this soul. Now that I am in a better place mentally I know I have to stay mentally and physically fit for my own good.
“If my life is a book I want to read till the end”
Every experience, be it bad or good, teaches you something and enriches you. I think my experiences make me the person I am. I don’t believe in giving up and I have to read the book till the end to know how it all ended. I want to know what the future finally has in store for me.
(Koneenica has recently worked in two Bengali films Kapurush O Mahapurush and Ganesh Talkies.)