As an actor, I go into every element of a film, says Prosenjit about 40 years in cinema

Prosenjit Chatterjee, the numero uno of Bengali cinema, celebrates 40 years as the top leading man in the Bengali film industry. He has also spread his wings to encompass significant work in Hindi cinema and OTT channels. He has recently been nominated for the Best Actor Award by the Critics Guild of India for his magnificent performance as an alcoholic, depressed, retired author in Atanu Ghosh’s Shesh Pata. This critic nailed him down for a detailed interview.

Still from Shesh Pata
Prosenjit Chatterjee in the film Shesh Pata, for which he has received a Best Actor nomination. Photo courtesy: Prosenjit Chatterjee

You are completing 40 years in films. How do you look back on your evolution in the film industry — mainly as an actor?

Over these years, I have passed through tremendous evolution in cinema as an art, as a technique, as an actor’s platform, and many other things. The language of cinema has changed. We have moved from black-and-white to colour; dubbing techniques have changed; sound is now 70 mm and surround sound; we have transitioned from celluloid to digital…

I consider myself quite fortunate with generations across time and space. I, too, had to keep pace with the changes. In alignment with that, acting has also changed a lot. The co-actors today, such as Ritwick Chakraborty and Anirban Bhattacharya, both of whom I have worked with, are very talented.

I have to keep the designscape of my acting in keeping with those of my co-actors. I also watch all kinds of films, and all of this has been a wonderful learning experience.

Actor Prosenjit Chatterjee
Actor Prosenjit Chatterjee, son of the yesteryears matinee idol Biswajit, started out playing the quintessential song-and-dance romantic hero, but has since then embraced the full range of his talent and played diverse characters. Photo courtesy: Prosenjit Chatterjee

What does acting mean to you?

When I began as an actor, I had to struggle alone. It was not always hunky dory, considering that my father [leading actor] Biswajit did not launch me.

Performances in cinema would be theatrical in those days, and I was often compared with my father.

However, I look at acting holistically. Acting comprises everything that goes into the character one is portraying — the costume, the make-up, the dialogue, the fashion, the style, the body language, the relationships with the other characters, everything.

All these keep changing from time to time, from film to film. I personally involve myself in every single one of these departments. This has helped me break away from my father’s style to create my own. For me, acting is not imitating.

Today, when I am portraying a character, I lend my own emotions to the character but in different ways, so that it is convincing, not put on.

In recent years, you have very visibly diversified into different kinds of roles and films, away from the singing and dancing romantic hero. Please tell us why.

It is the audience that decides whether I am a star or an actor. I would love to be labelled an actor, first and last. But I cannot deny the stardom [that] my audience has chosen to thrust upon me. I cannot deny my commercial star identity.

Whatever I am today is due to my commercial films. It was a conscious decision on my part to do films that would give me the opportunity of exploring my full potential as an actor.

I realised this fully when I played Mahendra in Rituparno Ghosh’s Chokher Bali and everyone accepted me and recognised me as an actor. It was based on a controversial Tagore classic; it was an off-mainstream film. Mahendra was a complex character and yet everyone liked my performance.

Let us hear about the most challenging role of your career — Lalon Phokir in Gautam Ghose’s Moner Manush.

You wouldn’t know about the ‘challenge’ if you don’t know about Lalon Phokir. Lalon Phokir is regarded the baul of bauls.

Bauls/Phokirs are wandering minstrels of Bengal who sing their own songs in praise of the Lord. Lalon Phokir was probably born in 1774 in Nadia district, now in Kushtia, Bangladesh. He died in 1890. He lived an amazingly long, productive and devout life, gathering disciples and composing hundreds of songs.

Lalon Phokir rejected the division of society into communities, protesting [against] and satirising religious fundamentalists of all kinds.

It was a role that demanded complete dedication for five to six months, with preparation before the shooting. The only source we have of his appearance is a sketch done by [Rabindranath] Tagore’s brother Jyotirindranath Tagore on May 5, 1889, which was 17 months before Lalon passed away.

Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai (2012) marked your return to Bollywood in a big way. Let us hear about this.

This film was a different cup of tea. It was an improvised adaptation of Costa-Gavras’ French film Z (1969), a political thriller. It was based on Greek author Vassilis Vassilikos’ 1966 novel of the same name. The novel is a fictionalised account of the assassination of Greek politician Lambrakis.

Shanghai has been an eye-opener for me as an actor and also [for] fans familiar with my Bengali films. In the film, I portray Dr Ahmadi, a popular human rights activist, whose influence in the small town where he lives and works is greater than that of any political leader. He is killed for his activism, [and the murder is] designed to look like an accident. After his assassination, things begin to happen. The entire film revolves around this Ahmadi character.

Though many have read the film as a spine-chilling thriller, Shanghai reaches far beyond the surface, hit-and-chase game and killings.

I enjoyed working in the film not only because it was a Hindi film, but also because I wanted the feel of working under the directorial wand of Dibakar and finding myself among a host of Bollywood actors who are extremely talented.

Which films in the recent past would you choose personally and love to mention as having added to your learning curve?

Look, I have given my audience not less than 300 hardcore commercial films. My film Ram-Lakshman ran for 50 weeks and the audience asked, ‘What is coming next?’ I now feel that I owe it to the next generation of actors to give them this position and I need to re-build my own image.

Over the past 10-12 years, I have taken on films where the characters are not only different from each other but also different from the ones I have done before in the musicals, the romances, the action stuff, and so on.

You had 22 releases in 2004. Don’t you feel that the burden of carrying the commercial Bengali film industry on your shoulders was too heavy?

Of course, the burden was very heavy at that time. But I had no choice because all of them were hits. My producers and directors were waiting for me to deliver.

Later, thankfully, with the entry of a few young men in the cinema circuit, like Dev, Jeet, Anirban Bhattacharya, Ritwick Chakraborty, I could cut down on my assignments to concentrate on fewer roles.

I want to do at least two very good films every year that will take me into the festival circuit. Yet, all said and done, I think I have achieved much more than I deserved.

As the numero uno in Bengali cinema for several decades, what do you feel responsible for — to the film industry, to your producers and directors, to your own contribution as an actor?

I have given 40 years of my life to Bengali cinema. I feel a sense of great responsibility towards the Bengali film industry, which has given me a lot and I have given it back, too.

Many of my films have been great hits — Amar Sangee, Shashurbari Zindabad — and even somewhat off-mainstream films like Autograph and Baishey Srabon were big hits.

I have some kind of a responsibility to create scope, and even try and discover the massive talent that lies untapped in Bengali cinema today. I also take on Indian cinema as a challenge.

There is this story that you take care of every department of the film you are acting in. Is that right?

Yes, that is right. I am just made that way. I involve myself in the marketing and promotion of the films I work in; the stylisation and mounting of the posters; the costume changes within the film; the music, the songs, the song picturisation; everything. This leaves me with very little leisure or time with my family. But that is the way it has been.

Look at how the scale of production has changed. A Bengali film would earlier be made at a total budget of INR 5 to 6 lakh (about USD 7,300 at current conversion rates). Then, it rose to INR 16 lakh. And then, Haranath Chakraborty’s Refugee, decades ago, was made on a budget of INR 2 crore.

I feel my responsibility does not begin and end with acting. I am responsible for how the film fares at the box office, how I look in each film since most films are commercial. I could easily get typecast as the typical masala hero. Today, especially, it is a constant fight for me against getting stereotyped.

How have directors like Kaushik Ganguly, Srijit Mukherji, Atanu Ghosh, Goutam Ghose, Budhhadeb Dasgupta, and Rituparno Ghosh shaped you as an actor?

Today, I am not overly concerned about my star image. I do not believe in the label “Superstar”, because it is a baggage that impacts an actor’s performance negatively.

Superstars fit themselves into a pattern, which becomes a trap they find they cannot get out of. About the directors, I have worked with them all. They have their distinct ways of treating cinema and I learn from them all.

Prosenjit in Chokher Bali
Prosenjit Chatterjee in Chokher Bali, directed by Rituparno Ghosh, one of the landmark films in his career. Photo courtesy: Prosenjit Chatterjee

Rituparno Ghosh made me understand that I had something inside me that remained untapped; he helped me bring that out.

Goutam Ghose made me go through nine months and one year to internalise Lalon [Phokir] within me before we began to shoot.

Atanu Ghosh and Srijit Mukherji can make me do things I have never done before. I go to them like a lump of clay and tell them to shape me the way they want.

Kaushik Ganguly has given me not only quite unusual roles, but has also pitted me against powerful co-actors, which was a different challenge.

You have been shortlisted for the Best Actor Award for Shesh Pata directed by Atanu Ghosh. Your comments?

I have been nominated, not won the award yet. When Atanu narrated the story to me, my question to myself was ‘How will I do it?’ Balmiki was a very different cup of tea. He is a writer but is suffering from a huge writer’s block since his actress wife’s dead body was found in a field. He is highly educated but he is a failure and an incorrigible alcoholic, a loner and a social recluse.

Prosenjit Chatterjee in the film Shesh Pata
Prosenjit Chatterjee in the film Shesh Pata. Photo courtesy: Prosenjit Chatterjee

I had to work on the tonal quality of my voice and had to display a semi-bald pate. Atanu and I worked on several models with which to blend this single character who has created an alternative world and lives within italone. I loved it.

How are you experimenting with Bengali cinema as a whole?

I wish to break down the narrow walls of regional Bengali cinema and extend its borders to reach national cinema. This can be achieved by making Hindi films in Bengal; or, by bringing Hindi directors to Bengali cinema.

Or, [by] asking Bengali directors to make films in Hindi within and without Bengal. I know this is possible and I can see this dream being realised in another five years.

What about Bollywood?

I have never tried to break into Bollywood. Bombay directors know their job and they are quite familiar with my work, too. I do not have any challenges to face and I have nothing to prove.

If assignments come to me, as they have, [that is because] the directors have already seen my work. Even [for] the OTT platform I have recently broken into in Hindi [with] Jubilee and Scoop, the directors had seen my films.

I am quite optimistic about the OTT platform, because it is a new kind of entertainment, and this is very important for any actor.