From Kolkata to Cannes: How Anasuya Sengupta became the first Indian to win 'best actor' at the film festival

Making history on the global stage, the actor says 'it's about time' women of colour got their due in cinema


Somya Mehta

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Photos: Shashang Iyer
Photos: Shashang Iyer

Published: Mon 24 Jun 2024, 9:28 PM

Last updated: Tue 25 Jun 2024, 4:19 PM

Exactly a month ago today, the 77th Cannes Film Festival came to a close and as our social media feeds got inundated with red carpet looks featuring the who’s who of the entertainment world, netizens sparked debates on how the spotlight on fashion was taking away from the festival’s primary purpose—celebrating cinema. But amid the buzz about “who wore what”, there were some exceptional projects that made history on the French Riviera.

From groundbreaking awards to fashion with a cause, Indian artistes, in particular, had quite a moment at the annual film festival, prompting the world to take note of cinema emerging from the Indian subcontinent as a potent platform for diverse social commentary wrapped in artistic brilliance. An integral part of this success story was Anasuya Sengupta, who clinched the Un Certain Regard Prize for Best Actress for her role in The Shameless. Hailing from Kolkata, India, the 37-year-old actress made history as the first Indian to receive this prestigious award.

Anasuya Sengupta (left) with co-star Omara Shetty at the 77th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Photo: AFP
Anasuya Sengupta (left) with co-star Omara Shetty at the 77th edition of the Cannes Film Festival. Photo: AFP

With Indian filmmaker Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine As Light also becoming the first Indian entry to win the coveted Grand Prix—the second-highest honour at Cannes—it was a significant moment in the history of Indian cinema, with women filmmakers, storytellers, and actresses leading the show. “It’s about time that women received their due recognition. As an artiste and a woman of colour, I feel privileged to stand on the shoulders of those who persevered with their beliefs, often without receiving their due recognition,” Anasuya tells Khaleej Times over a Zoom meeting, recalling the historic feat.

“Being there alongside Payal, her cast, and my co-star Omara [Shetty], among other women in our film, it truly felt like our moment had finally arrived,” she adds. “There are numerous actresses in India today whom I deeply admire for their contributions and the impact they bring to projects. There are more than enough capable women to lead and showcase projects on global platforms. Let this unfold.”

Directed and written by Bulgarian filmmaker Konstantin Bojanov, The Shameless revolves around Renuka, portrayed by Anasuya, who escapes from a Delhi brothel after killing a police officer. “With The Shameless, this may technically be my feature film debut as an actor, but I’ve practically grown up on film sets,” says Anasuya.

From acting to production designer

Anasuya’s first acting role actually came in Anjan Dutt’s music-themed production Madly Bangali, which premiered in 2009. Landing this role immediately after graduating from university, she soon moved on to her next project, working as an assistant director (AD) on the Australian production The Waiting City, which was being filmed in Kolkata.

With these two experiences under her belt, Anasuya felt it was the perfect time to move to Mumbai—home to the Hindi film industry. However, upon arriving in the city, she realised that there were more opportunities for her behind the camera than in front of it. As a result, the aspiring actor naturally gravitated towards production design on film sets, an experience she now looks back on as pivotal in shaping the person she is today.

“I’ve been on sets since I was 20 years old, gaining a unique perspective from the filmmaker’s side. Being in production design, we work with large teams and that experience absorbed me for many years. It’s no secret that our country has many different social brackets and I really enjoyed work that could transcend those barriers, allowing me to form beautiful relationships with people I might not have otherwise known,” says Anasuya, who graduated from Jadavpur University in Kolkata.

Her impressive credits as production designer include Netflix’s Selection Day and Ray, along with feature films like Chippa. Despite concentrating on production design, she continued to refine her acting skills through occasional appearances in commercials and short films. “As a young girl coming from [erstwhile] Calcutta [now Kolkata] to Mumbai, you quickly realise that what is easily accessible to you is often very limited.”

“However, I personally didn’t feel too discouraged because I saw that almost everyone faces similar challenges. For acting, the initial breakthrough is probably even harder than behind-the-scenes roles due to the higher demand.

“I tried to grasp the reality of all this and remained open-minded, keeping in mind that I had so many other areas of interest as well,” she adds.

New beginnings

After nearly 15 years of living in Mumbai, Anasuya made the decision to move to nearby Goa. And as luck would have it, that’s when her dream role fell into her lap. “It feels magical to me that it was around this phase of my life that the opportunity for this film came to me,” she recalls.

“I was trying to make some space. I had managed to create that space, and that’s when Konstantin contacted me. It took me seconds to realise that I wanted to do it. I read the script in one sitting. I completely fell in love with the character, Renuka, and I felt ready at that moment because I had also started enjoying seeing myself as a multidisciplinary artist in some ways. So, this was the perfect next chapter.”

Oftentimes, a change in environment can profoundly impact one’s state of mind. “There came a point, perhaps as I grew older, where I felt artistically compelled to make space for new expressions or explore different avenues,” says Anasuya. “My decision to leave Mumbai was a significant move considering I had spent my entire twenties and early thirties there. I consider myself as much a Bombay [Mumbai] girl as a Kolkata girl, but something drew me to Goa.”

“Immediately, my art flourished. I began illustrating more than ever before, discovering a new artistic version of myself,” says Anasuya.

Making history

From her Bengali film debut to now, gaining critical international acclaim for her acting chops, it’s taken 15-odd years for the actor to get validation—and it comes from the world over. “It’s clear to me that this was my path,” the actor mentions. “It’s hard to define what a set path is because I wouldn’t trade how things eventually happened for anything now.”

Would she have preferred things to move more swiftly? Absolutely. “But there’s always the could have, should have, would have. I feel quite charmed by how and when it eventually happened,” says Anasuya. “Personally, I believe the growth I’ve experienced in my life has contributed to the actor I am today. The acumen and maturity with which I approached this project and character would have been different before.”

Without explicitly stating her struggles or the hardships she faced, the actor has made a profound statement that resonates as an inspiration to many young women in India and across the world. “And that’s the genuineness and authenticity I can feel when people come across my story.”

“Yes, there were struggles and disappointments, and I don’t want to dismiss any of that. But what worked for me, perhaps, was that I never found myself over-strategising too much in my early years in Mumbai. Whether I wanted to be there as an actor or an assistant director—and I don’t think any actor would agree with that statement—didn’t matter to me at the time. And for whatever reason, I allowed myself to grow within that space,” she says.

Message to young girls

Speaking to young girls following her journey—both in South Asia and world-over—the actor has one underlying message she wants to share. “The ultimate goal always needs to be, to be yourself. It’s not an easy journey; it takes steps, sometimes several, to reach that point of authenticity. So, I think that’s a non-negotiable goal for all young women (and men, but let’s focus on the women for now). The aim is to become so connected with yourself that you wouldn’t trade that for anything. When you grow into who you truly are, things will naturally start falling into place. It’s bound to happen; that’s my belief.”

When asked when we can expect her in the UAE, the actor responds, “Hopefully, very soon. I don’t want any borders or boundaries limiting me. I don’t want to categorise what is commercial, non-commercial, more artistic, less artistic, international, or Indian.”

“Bring me over. I feel ready to do it all. Let’s collaborate and create great work together,” she signs off.


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