Many might recognise Suzanne Bernert as Queen Helena from the popular television show, Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat. But, that’s not her only claim to fame or the only show she did. The German-born actor has spent almost two decades in Indian cinema and television.
Suzanne, born in Detmold in Germany, was fascinated with acting from quite a young age. She was 19, when she enrolled for an acting course at Heidelotte Dehl and took guidance from American producer Susan Batsan in Berlin. She also trained in western classical ballet. Her father is a retired customs officer and mother is jewellery designer, and she has a brother too.
So, how did the actor end up in the Indian entertainment industry? Suzanne reveals, “While I was shooting for Destined Hearts, my first English film by Anant Duseja in Dubai, I met production controller Raj Puthran, who has always been quite helpful. After that, I met Ajay Sinha and he asked me to come to Mumbai — and my first serial for Zee TV was as a firangi bahu who could say thoda thoda Hindi aati hai — and so that is how I started off.”
But things weren’t all that easy for her—she wasn't taken seriously as an actor. “Being a foreigner, I was not taken seriously. In the TV serial Jeete Hai Jiske Liye along with Renuka Shahane, I was playing the role of a police chief, but the director was quite sceptical about whether I could carry it off. But after I started saying dialogues properly, like Tum Qatil Ho, he was surprised and asked the spot boy to get me tea and offered me a chair to sit on, which was not done earlier. It’s a bit upsetting that in spite of doing many serials, I was still not recognised or taken seriously by most people. When I entered the sets of the epic serial Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat, I told the director that I was playing the role of Queen Helena. But he did not listen to me and asked me to wait. I repeated the same, and told him that since I was playing Queen Helena I should be given a separate room and proper treatment. I told him if you don’t believe me, you can call someone or I will who can confirm that… He did, and only after that I was offered my rightful place.”
Recalling another stressful incident during an awards function, Suzanne muses, “Most foreigners in the industry are used as glamour dolls and are not taken seriously. During another awards show, I was invited as a VIP guest, but the gatekeeper did not allow me to enter the enclosure as he did not recognise me. I had to fight for it and ultimately, I was allowed to enter the VIP enclosure. Later, surprisingly, I was invited on stage to present an award to my co-actor. If you don’t speak out when it is necessary, people will just walk over you. If Kangana [Ranaut] considers herself as an outsider, where do I stand?”
She further states, “After doing the series 7RCR on television as Sonia Gandhi, I was auditioned and then did rehearsals and workshops for The Accidental Prime Minister and then I was okayed. But I was asked to stay away from the Press and asked not to speak to any media person. I was kept out of all the press conferences, but later when people came to know that I am playing Sonia Gandhi, I received media attention.” But Suzanne does have a bone to pick with the media too. She says, “I have essayed different roles, but the media can’t differentiate or recognise me. They think it is some other actress. Incidentally, I am the only blonde actress in the industry.”
If you don’t speak out when it is necessary, people will just walk over you.
Suzanne was also a part of Ekta Kapoor’s long-running daily soap, Kasautii Zindagi Kay (2001). “I did meet Ekta but since my Hindi was not all that good, there was not much of an interaction. But her mother Shobhaji was always kind and warm.”
The actor didn’t limit herself to television or Bollywood. She has spread her wings in regional cinema as well. Recalling her work in Aparna Sen’s Bengali movie Iti Mrinalini, she says, “When I was first told about it, I felt somebody was playing a prank. But when I received a call from Aparna Sen, I was finally convinced. It was a wonderful experience to shoot in Kolkata and work with Konkana Sensharma.”
Continuing about her journey in the regional cinema, Suzanne says, “I have played diverse characters, and getting into the skin of each of them has always been exciting. In fact, in the Marathi film Gallit Gondhal, Dillit Mujra, I even played the role of a lavani dancer, which was well received by the audience.” Suzanne today has her own theatre group, which she has formed with her husband, actor Akhil Mishra.
Most foreigners in the industry are used as glamour dolls and are not taken seriously.
So how are things during this scary pandemic? Suzanne says, “I have got offers but I have refused them as I don’t want to take any risks. What I regret most in the pandemic is that I could not attend the Golden Jubilee wedding anniversary of my parents in Germany — but had to make do with a lot of video chats.”
As for India, Suzanne has got a huge chunk of the country in her heart and soul. “I am happy to tell you that I have learnt to wear the sari on my own. I have also done the inner engineering course of Sadhguru and practise Isha Kriya that keeps me grounded in this difficult phase,” she signs off on a happy note.