Russian actor Chulpan Khamatova is known internationally for key roles in “Good Bye, Lenin!,” and more recently Aleksei Alekseivich German’s drama “Under Electric Clouds,” and Ralph Fiennes-directed Rudolf Nureyev biopic “The White Crow.” Last month, as Russia was deep in lockdown, Khamatova found herself embroiled in controversy sparked by TV series “Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes” in which she plays a young woman deported to Siberia during the Stalin-era purges.
Produced and aired by Russia Television and Radio, “Zuleikha” has scored a massive more than 36.5 million TV viewers and more than 30 million digital viewings in Russia, while serving as a catalyst for the country to contend with its past. Chulpan, in a rare interview, spoke candidly to Variety about this aspect of the show being presented to international buyers during the Roskino Key Buyers Event: Digital Edition market. Excerpts from the conversation.
As a bestselling book “Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes” had caused a bit of a stir due to its portrayal of Soviet repressions, and also issues pertaining to national identity in the largely Muslim region of Tatarstan where you come from. Did these aspects draw you to the project?
For me the most important thing in deciding to do this series was the Stalin-era tragedy. That was the trigger; that’s why I said: ‘I’m in.’ I think Russia still has no answers about this time. What I loved about the book, which was also very popular, is the fact that the life of this simple little woman, and her very private personal story, played a part in the huge historical canvas of my country. How, initially without having any rights, she started developing her own voice. And she started making decisions and being responsible for her life and the life of her son.
There’s been this big backlash since “Zuleikha” went on air in May. A social media firestorm coming from both Soviet-era nostalgics and Muslims. What’s your reaction to that been?
For me it’s been really strange how fast the perception of this problem, of this trauma, over the past 15 years has shifted to the opposite side. I starred 17 years ago in a film about the Stalin-era and the reaction was completely different. There was no question, then, that this was a very bad time for my country. But now the reaction was very different. A lot of people thought that we were depicting history from just one side…they thought Stalin was a hero! That he led our country toward becoming more industrialized. And all those victims were okay because the country needed a great leader. I think that’s a really very dangerous view. It means that we can’t remember all the lessons of our history. We really need to do something to explain to people how it was; why it was. There was no reason to deport millions of people and break up their lives for this very strange type of economic success. They were likes slaves.
What about reactions from Muslims from the region of Tatarstan, the region that both you and the character Zuleikha come from?
I was ready for that because there had been the same reaction on that when the book was published…I was completely ready for that. There is a specific type of Muslims who are against this story…For them the problem was that a Tatar girl (at that time) cannot fall in love with a Russian guy. Which in my opinion is really stupid.
How strong is your personal connection to “Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes”?
I was born in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, during the Soviet-era when there wasn’t any Tatar language…and without any Muslim tradition. I was a Soviet child without my past, without my family roots, because at the time it was forbidden to explain anything.
But my grandmother had – and still has – the special small teacups that they use in Tatarstan. And she told me this little story (about them)…there were all these little details that I had forgotten, that were part of my childhood. When I started to read the book they all started surfacing in my memory. And it was a really very important experience for me because I started to understand that actually I have no past. I was a child who grew up without knowing about my great great grandfather, or grandmother. Some of my ancestors also died under the Stalin machine. During Soviet times it was really dangerous to explain what happened in the family. So I will always remember when we started to shoot this very new, very important thing, that I said to myself: ‘I’m really proud that I am a Tatar girl.’ I want to keep this moment etched in my memory for my whole life.
And as an actor what was your main challenge playing “Zuleikha”?
It was very interesting to create this arc from the beginning to the end. At the beginning she is subjugated by her husband, like an animal without even having any of her own wishes. But by the end she’s a woman who can really fight for her rights and the rights of her son. She’s found language, step by step. I made three episodes in which I did not even speak a word. Then, as the drama unfolds, Zuleikha starts to realize that she has to do something for herself; by herself…She’s like a flower. She had been living without any love from her family; or from her husband. And then this feeling springs up in her because she is responsible for the life of her son. So the challenge for me was to create this progression and also to answer the question: what does love mean? In this story I think that love means to be responsible for your son.