HT Brunch Cover Story: A love so fierce
All siblings tend to squabble. (Age no bar.) Few, however, take it as far as actor Patralekha Paul, 32, and her sister Parnalekha, 28, born four years apart, who “bash” each other to such an extent that, after their last fight, they did not speak to each other for five whole months!
That doesn’t mean, however, that they don’t fight for each other just as fiercely when the need arises. Which was why, when Parnalekha felt the need to ‘come out’ as bisexual, Patralekha was the first person she told.
“I was 18 when I realised that I am bisexual,” says Parna, a stock market investor. “It was very organic and natural; nothing I felt ashamed of. But back then, I realised the implications of talking about it. For me, it was crucial that I come out to someone I feel absolutely safe with. And Patra has always been my safe space.”
The news, when Parna broke it, came as a shock to Patralekha. Not because of her younger sister’s sexuality, but because it came out of the blue—Parna had been dating boys so far, and suddenly being told over a phone call that she would be dating girls as well, was a bolt from the blue.
“My roommate in Assam Valley School was gay, so I knew what Parna was saying,” says Patra. “I was very much aware that sexuality is a spectrum; not something that one can change or do anything about. I had had long conversations about this with my roommate and I know how difficult it is to come out to your family. So, when Parna told me, I made sure I was there for her.”
Those were still formative years for Parna and it was Patra’s and their parent’s unconditional support that allowed Parna to bloom into the person she is today. But it wasn’t easy.
“We didn’t have representation. There wasn’t much conversation around the LGBTQIA+ community back then. We didn’t even know what a Pride flag looked like. But Patra totally accepted it,” says Parna. “Also, Shillong is a very forward-thinking society, open and accepting. I think that also helped me to come out.”
Born into a Bengali family in Shillong, Patra and Parna have always been a strong unit. Their parents ensured that.
“We fight a lot! In fact, you will find us fighting with each other most of the time. Once, when we were kids, we had beaten each other so badly that our mother had dragged us out of the house and shut the door on us. We had to patch up to get back in. It was cold and dark outside and we were too scared to continue with our fight!” guffaws Patra.
Fiercely protective of each other, the two of them become a single impregnable shield when faced with any kind of adversity. This is evident in the way they handled their father’s recent untimely demise.
“He was the wind beneath our wings, the pillar of the family—emotionally, financially, in every way. He had a CA firm; he had gone for an audit in Shimla and suffered a stroke and passed away before any of us could even reach him. We went back home. We didn’t know anything about anything, apart from our personal loss and grief; we had to take care of baba’s firm, his clients, and his finances,” recalls Patra. “But it was the peak of lockdown and I had to come back for a shoot. So, Parna put her life on hold and took over everything. She has been in Shillong for almost a year and a half now. For someone preparing to become an actor, time is crucial, and she didn’t think twice before making this huge decision.”
Parna chafes against Patra’s praise. “She would have done the same,” Parna points out. “It is just that she was already shooting for a film and had to go back. She has worked so hard to reach this point and now that she has these films, I don’t want her to lose momentum. Also, I was doing it for our dad. I would love to see myself on-screen but family has always been my first priority.”
Despite this protectiveness about each other, the sisters fight as though the world is about to end and only victory will mean anything at all.
“But viscerally, we are connected. Neither of us would let our egos or anything else come between us if we know that the other person needs us at that point,” says Parna. “When we were in the Assam Valley School, Patra was my senior, and I never got ragged because I had her!”
Patra was 12 when she left Shillong for the boarding school. Parna joined her when she was 10. Even though they made their own sets of friends and rarely spent time together, the two never stopped looking out for each other.
“It was when she left school that I truly understood her importance in my life,” says Parna. “I had always felt protected around her and suddenly there was this huge void. That’s when the real challenge started for me in school.”
Patra is having nothing of her sister’s self-deprecation. “But she was the school captain! She was the first girl school captain ever! She thrived there!” she says.
While Parna is candid, Patra is cautious. She has been in the movie business for too long to not be apprehensive about showing personal scars to a journalist. And when it comes to her little sister, she is naturally a little extra careful.
Two against the world
Now that Parna has chosen to follow in her sister’s footsteps and is auditioning for roles, is there a competition brewing at home?
Patra laughs. “You know, when you are growing up, you are always pitted against your siblings. Relatives would point out how good Parna is in everything, but all I felt was pride. We never had any competition or jealousy between us and I don’t see that changing ever,” she says.
“When we were in school, I was much into theatre. I remember this one play where I was the lead, and Patra was sitting in the audience cheering me all through it!” remembers Parna who was the first of the two to actually act while they were growing up.
“I am very comfortable in my space. I am never too bothered by other people’s journeys. I am inherently not a jealous person. But when I was trying to find a foothold in the film industry, going for two or three auditions every day with nothing working out, I was rather dejected,” says Patra. “Parna has always been my agony aunt. One day, when I was cribbing to her about other people getting the roles I should have got, she sat me down and said: ‘Listen, you can either waste your time and life thinking about what others are doing or getting or keep doing what you are doing and get there’. Those lines have always stayed with me.”
And now that I am on the same journey, she often rehashes my quote and uses it on me!” Parna chortles.
Patra, the City Lights actress, is now busier than ever with work. She has an Amazon series called Gulkanda directed by Rahi and produced by Raj & DK, a Hotstar series, Kabhi Aar Kabhi Paar with Aditya Raval, a web film called Heer Sara Aur Pondicherry with Maanvi Gagroo, and the Luv Ranjan produced film, Wild Wild Punjab. Then there is the biopic on Savitribai Phule, written and directed by Ananth Narayan Mahadevan, and co-starring Pratik Gandhi, in which she will play the title role.
But Patralekha has no qualms admitting that she has not been an overnight success and she is still not among the top actresses in Bollywood. It is her love for the craft, the high that being on a film set brings, that keeps her going.
“Initially, I would get very anxious, but after almost eight years, I have learned to enjoy the journey. It is always a challenge to get the next job, but that’s also kind of a nasha [high]!” she explains.
Having been part of the Bollywood hustle, seeing the industry from the inside, and living through its challenges, is she worried about her sister taking the same path? Did she ever try to dissuade her?
“The path doesn’t determine the journey. I have seen my co-actors, and my husband (actor Rajkummar Rao) have their own specific journeys. Also, I have learned the art of letting go a bit while being protective. Maybe I have failed at something, but that doesn’t mean she will too. Parna’s journey will be her own,” says Patra.
Parna is the reason that Patra and Raj got together in the first place. Eleven years ago, after Parna and Raj did LSD, they began working on a film for the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), and Patra joined them as they travelled from Mumbai to Pune to work.
“Parna refused to sit next to Raj, so I was made to sit in the middle. We bonded over small talk,” says Patra.
“In fact, Patra texted our mom, complaining that I was talking to him!” laughs Parna. “Anyway, I left them together and went to meet my friends, and three days later when I met them again, they had something else going on!”
“I was really enamoured by his love for cinema and acting. He was so true to the art form. Acting seemed to be his meditation. There was this honesty about him, which is rare to find,” says Patra.
Perhaps it is because of this that Parna and Raj share a special bond. After the release of his movie Badhaai Do, Parna put out a heartfelt post on Instagram, saying: “Finally, my community has a film, wherein, two girls are not sexually objectified for being two dykes in love, and two men aren’t being called ‘meetha’ and ‘chukka’ for being homosexual studs. At the end of the day, it’s all about the sensitivity in ‘the gaze’ and not only about ‘the gays’ in LGBTQIA+ films. Really appreciated the ‘absence’ of the ‘male gaze’ in this sensitive queer outing.”
Parna is openly ‘out’ about her bisexuality, but believes she has been doubly lucky in that, apart from her immediate family, she has found a support system in her brother-in-law.
“Raj always knew about me but never treated me any differently. Your family may stand by you, but it is rare for someone outside the family to accept you unconditionally, especially in India,” Parna says.
From HT Brunch, August 6, 2022
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