Actor Suzanne Bernert talks about her journey in the Indian film industry as a foreigner, and her latest book ‘The Diwali Gift’
German-Indian actor Suzanne Bernert has succeeded in carving a niche for herself in the Indian entertainment industry through her sheer tenacity and hard work. Growing up in a scenic border town near Austria and Switzerland, Bernert had little exposure to any formal training until she turned 16, except for participating in school plays and occasional ballet lessons.
Twice a week, her mother — an amateur theatre artist — used to drive her for her ballet lessons to a place which was 30-40 km away from where they lived. After her initial years of acting in school plays, Bernert was trained by the noted German actress Heidelotte Diehl in Berlin for three years before being mentored by American producer and acting coach Susan Batson who is known for training some of world’s leading actresses such as Juliette Binoche and Nicole Kidman.
Bernert was encouraged by Alyque Padamsee to pursue theatre in India. Interestingly, it was while doing theatre in India that she met her future husband Akhil Mishra, a veteran film and television actor. Over the last decade, she has starred in several Indian films and TV serials.
In this interview, Bernert talks about her short story ‘The Diwali Gift ’ — which recently got published in a book form, challenges of working in the Indian entertainment industry as a foreigner, impact of Covid-19 pandemic, and her upcoming projects.
Tell us about your short story ‘The Diwali Gift’. How did the idea come into being?
‘The Diwali Gift’ was inspired by a chat with author and journalist Nandita Puri last year around Diwali. She mentioned how she would drive to Worli and give a gift to a well known director. I just had this talk sit in my brain and it formed into a story idea, completely fictitious. That is except for one character trait of one of my characters—a very big and generous heart that Nandita has. This year I was looking into a possibility to print it and came across a suitable opportunity, and, voilà, I had my first short story in book form.
Have you written anything else prior to this? How different is writing in comparison to acting?
I have written scripts prior to this and I have been writing on and off over the years. Difference between writing and acting is that in acting I am telling someone else’s story and am working on making my character into a breathable, believable human being. In writing, it is my own story and it evolves on its own — wherein I am both the protagonist and the storyteller. And I never know where the story takes me. It writes itself.
Which of the two do you find more challenging?
Both forms are creative and I would not call one more challenging than the other. But, I feel, to get published and get people to read what you write is a bigger struggle than being a part of a movie or a TV show.
As a German actor working in India, what are the challenges that you have had to face?
Main challenge is to get roles. Many are being written for foreign artists, but it is still not enough. I think the audience is ready to embrace fewer stereotypes and more real onscreen characters. Also, it is interesting that even after being part of successful projects and known as an actor by the audience, makers are not exactly knocking at my door. I do not know if that is because I am a foreign artist, or if it’s age related or about not being part of a group of people.
How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected you at personal and professional fronts?
Covid-19 has affected us the same way as the rest of the world. Similarly, I too have faced all sorts of emotions — from feeling scared to low to being more optimistic. Work wise, it was a disaster but that was nearly for everyone.
How do you compare the film scene in Germany and India? Also, how do you see the impact of Covid-19 in Germany as well as India?
Indian Cinema is a giant… and at the same time intricate and detailed. How is that possible? If you see the vastness of India and look at how many regions exist you might get an idea how many ‘cinemas’ exist. In comparison, Germany has just one language and one audience. My own journey into regional Indian cinema is unlike anything I experienced before. You travel in India to a different state and you enter a new world. It’s distinctively Indian and at the same time you encounter a new treasure trove of language, culture and the art of shooting a movie. An experience I love and can highly recommend. Watch a regional movie and enter a new corner of India.
Having said that, I hardly get to watch German movies these days. I am more into watching Bollywood, Hollywood and British movies & TV shows / web series. I think it is because the OTT Platforms are catering to that here and also Akhil and I watch together. So either in Hindi or English.
Tell us about your upcoming projects.
My short film ‘Cycle of Death’ inspired by the concept of ‘Birth Cycle’ in Bhagavad Gita is doing the festival rounds right now and is garnering attention and praise. The director Umesh Raj approached me first via Twitter, then email, and we began shooting in February this year. It is a very exhilarating and different story on the theme of rebirth that he is telling. Initially I was apprehensive about it, but he was so keen to cast me… how does one resist that? And now after seeing the result — I am grateful he insisted on me as a lead character. I am very sure ‘Cycle of Death’ will go places. Also, I shot my first Malayalam movie and I will be back in front of the camera in November for two web series. Hoping for more work and more stories to tell.
(Cover: Actor Suzanne Bernert with her book ‘The Diwali Gift’)
Murtaza Ali Khan has been a film critic since 2010. He has curated and presented retrospectives and film festivals for various embassies and high commissions in New Delhi. He has also served on the jury for a variety of film festivals. He tweets at @MurtazaCritic