Anasuya Sengupta talks about portraying Renuka on screen, queer activism, and why she does not strategise too much

The June-July Bazaar cover girl has made history at Cannes this year with her Best Actress award in the Un Certain Regard category.

Harper's Bazaar India

There is something about Anasuya Sengupta—the actor who made history by becoming the first Indian to win the Best Actress award in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes this year for her role in The Shameless, directed by Konstantin Bojanov. When I meet her for the first time, she is in an embellished Chanel swimsuit, which blends against the cloudy Mumbai sky like a chameleon. It’s 7:00 am. Juhu Beach is still a little chilly from the downpour last night. Bikramjit Bose loads a fresh roll of film into his camera, and calls her by a name that tells you they’ve known each other since their 20s. She smiles an all-knowing smile between shots, as the waves crash against her thighs. A smile that knows something that you haven’t discovered yet. Sengupta moved away from her favourite city years ago, but her feet hold onto the ground with an undebatable familiarity. The water helps the sand pile up on her toes. They’ve been waiting for her, and she has finally arrived. 


This is Sengupta’s first cover shoot, but she’s no stranger to the cameras, the lights, and the collective excitement. Through her unique sense of style that she has held on to in her appearances at Cannes and other press tours since, she’s got closer to the world of fashion than ever. Her character in The Shameless too holds on to some very fashionable fits while on the run, thanks to costume designer Parul Sondh, lending an exquisite sartorial complexity to Renuka. “Here I am, shooting for Bazaar India, not something I had ever anticipated. I’ve been in films for so many years, tucked away far behind the scenes. I am pleasantly surprised at how much I am enjoying this. It feels like I really belong here,” she chuckles. Sengupta grew up in a standard liberal Bengali home in Kolkata, with a healthy dose of school plays, books, music, drawing lessons, and elocution competitions. “Slowly and steadily it started getting a bit more formalised,” she recollects. “I joined theatre troupes in the city. We were building an artists’ community there while being friends, it was magical.” As she was finishing her literature degree at Jadavpur University, she was determined to become a writer. “The 17-year-old me felt like that was too far-fetched so I wanted to start as a journalist.”

As per plan, she graduated and started her first job at a magazine, only to be thrown headfirst into the world of filmmaking. “There was an Indo-Australian film being shot in Kolkata, and a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to work as an AD (assistant director). I didn’t even know what an AD was! My friend said it requires assisting the director, but if I am good at it, it could be much more.” Sengupta walked into her boss’ office the next day and told him that she wanted to work in films, and couldn’t come back to work. “I told him I could come back after the film was done, but for now he had to let me go. And that was that.” Around the same time, she was cast in Madly Bangalee (2009) by Anjan Dutt. “He had reached out to the theatre group I was working with. Six of us from that group got in.” It was all sort of working out, but she wanted to leave Kolkata, as much as she loved it there, to broaden her horizons. And so she did.  

Dress, Moonray (@studiomoonray); Circle of Life Earrings in silver, Lovebirds (


White swimsuit, Chanel (@chanelofficial)


“I was 21, and I was confident that my work was ammo enough to move to Mumbai. My older brother was already there, working in advertisements. I wanted to act, but even then there were other things I wanted to learn.” With starry eyes, Sengupta hopped from auditions to rehearsals when she realised it wasn’t viable enough to survive in the city of dreams. “I remembered, I was also an AD! I quickly picked up a film and AD-ed for a few years after. I didn’t strategise too much, which in hindsight helped me be open and fluid about the work that I was taking up.” This proverbial take-it-as-it-comes mindset got her in the art department of Deepa Mehta’s Midnight’s Children (2012), with a six-month shooting schedule in Sri Lanka. Before she knew it, she was heading an art production team at 26. “The acting thing got sidelined, but it never left my mind. Something told me to let it happen when it does. I didn’t know the time would only come 15 years later.” 

Mumbai was supposed to be fantastic for a creative like Sengupta, but it was also stifling on days. “I was trying to find different avenues to express myself. I wanted to say a bit more, and feel a bit more.” That’s when she started playing around with the idea of leaving the city. “You don’t work in films and just walk out of Mumbai. I was very nervous and scared. But with a supportive family and a tight circle of friends as encouragement, I left.” She moved to Goa in 2020, with nothing on the cards. And that’s when Konstantin Bojanov reached out to her. “I tried to convince Konstantin how bad an idea this was. I didn’t even have headshots. Despite all my efforts to self-sabotage, he wanted me for the role. I read the script for The Shameless in one sitting—top to bottom.

Vivenda Drape Front Dress, Christopher Esber (@christopher_esber)


Silo Knit Set, Lovebirds (; earrings, own


Wool, tweed red jacket from the 2023/24 Métiers d'art Collection; metal, glass pearls and resin gold and pearly white necklace,


“I immediately knew I had to do it. I felt like I was ready.”

In The Shameless, Sengupta’s character, Renuka is emotionally taxing to watch, let alone embody. A sex worker on the run is the most reductionist description of Renuka that one can offer. It was difficult, of course, but what superseded it was how much she loved doing it. “Right from the get-go, I could see through her. I saw her tenderness, I saw her pain, and I saw her for who she really was. She is an unlikely queer feminist icon, and just like you, I was so emotionally exhausted knowing her story that I felt the need to step up. I felt protective of Renuka, I wanted to stand up for her, and I was rooting for her through and through. It’s almost like I wish I could have done more for her.” Sengupta saw it as an honour to have the opportunity to give a character like this her best performance yet. She had been preparing for this role all along. 

Bojanov, who had read a story about Devdasis in William Dalrymple’s Nine Lives and bought the rights to the book, didn’t know what he wanted to make out of it. He set out to film a documentary with the Devdasi women in Karnataka. It was easier said than done and he quickly realised this was probably not going to work, and that’s when he decided to fictionalise it. “He sat with it for years,” says Sengupta, “and he has met a Renuka, heard about a Devika. I met him for the first time when I travelled to Nepal for filming. He is this Bulgarian gentleman in his late fifties...there was barely any ground of commonality between us. But I was very quickly able to grasp what he was trying to do, and why.”

Denim bustier and trousers, Saaksha & Kinni (@saakshakinni)


Renuka is not only a queer character, but one from a social strata that queer activism in India often overlooks. “We never wanted to box it in. For us, it was a story of a person who has been a victim of extremely unfair circumstances. More importantly, it was a story about love. I am a heterosexual woman married to a man, but that doesn’t mean my heart shouldn’t bleed for the struggles of a queer person. It must.” Even though Sengupta approached the character with as few labels as possible, she was completely aware of the representation it offered. “We didn’t want to over-categorise Renuka. Not to say that I don’t understand the importance of categorisation. I understand why most marginalised communities need to be over-divisive in order to fortify themselves better. I just wish it didn’t have to be this way.”

When Sengupta won the Best Actress award at the 77th Cannes Film Festival, she walked up to the stage with teary eyes, and said, “We don’t need to be queer to fight for equality. We don’t need to be colonised to know that colonising is pathetic. We just need to be decent human beings.” Sengupta’s life changed forever at that exact moment. When I ask her if she ever anticipated this win, she laughs aloud. “I wouldn’t dare! How? For me, it was more than enough that we were selected, and going to Cannes.” The Shameless was screened early on at the festival. Sengupta had initially planned to stay only for the screening and fly back. “When I was planning the trip, I don’t know what made me decide to stay till the end. It wasn’t because I was hoping to win an award—I had never been to any major film festival before. How many production designers get to go to such festivals?” 

Denim dress with bold fuchsia accents from F/W’24 collection, Sculpt, AFEW Rahul Mishra (@rahulmishra_7)


Black and white, double-sided virgin wool blend coat with herringbone motif, Dior (@dior)

Sengupta recalls that the response to the film was amazing. “I kept whispering to Konstantin, ‘I think we made a good film. Everyone seems to love it’.” People started coming up to her on the streets, complimenting her on her performance. And even then, with all the personal gratification, it felt deeper, and larger. This win was bigger than her, it was about so much more. It was a win for a mishmash of identities, and more than anything it was a win for independent cinema. “Soon it was the end of the festival, and Payal’s (Kapadia) film, came in and won—and all of them are my dear friends. Her film (All We Imagine As Light) was an utter masterpiece. That elevated my joy.” All eyes were on this pool of Indian filmmakers. “Everyone thought we were a cool bunch, and all we wanted to say was that we are! We have always been!”

With an Indian release of The Shameless in the works, Sengupta is already onto other things. “I am taking my time, and trusting my gut as usual. That will probably never change!” Scripts and films are waiting to have her, not to mention the gazillion interviews, shoots, and events she has lined up. Then she has her art, and her unending list of behind-the-scenes jobs that she’s exceptionally good at. By the time we have got our last few shots, the day has gone by. The Mumbai sky is an unamused shade of vermillion, as if aware that it’s time for Sengupta to go back home, to her husband and cat in the 105-year-old Portuguese villa in Siolim. But the bunch of ivory clouds that float by know, as well as I do, that she will be back for more. In her own time.

Editor: Rasna Bhasin (@rasnabhasin)
Digital Editor: Sonal Ved (@sonalved)
Cover Story: Jishnu Bandyopadhyay (@jishyouwish)
Photographer: Bikramjit Bose (@thebadlydrawnboy)
Stylist: Priyanka Kapadia (@priyankarkapadia)
Hair and Make-up: Mitesh Rajani (@miteshrajani)
Editorial Coordinator: Shalini Kanojia (@shalinikanojia)
Assistant Photographer: Tushar Tara (@tushartara)
Assistant Stylist: Humaira Lakdawala (@humairalakdawala)
Fashion Assistant: Iram Halai (@iram_halai)

Anasuya is wearing White swimsuit by Chanel (@chanelofficial) 

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