There's a sequence towards the end of Srijit Mukherji's Shahjahan Regency in which a shattered Sam (Abir Chatterjee) walks back into the hotel he had left. His body language here is a standout for what it conveys in an understated manner. It also offers an insight into what I have always believed Abir to be: a thinking man's actor, seldom given to grandstanding.
When I broach the subject of his favourite roles, I half-expect him to come up with names that would be a surprise. And he does not disappoint. Though he is probably the only star in Bengali cinema to have acted in three super-successful 'franchises' – Felu-da in Badshahi Angti, Byomkesh (which he has made his own over seven films), and now Sona-da in the Guptodhon series – his first response is: "Well, my personal favourites are a bit different from public perception. You may not even have heard of some of these… The Byomkeshes and Sona-das are important for me and for the industry on account of the revenue they generate. They have given me a certain profile and saleability which is important for a star, but the ones I've picked give me what the actor in me craves."
For Abir, acting kind of ran in the family. His father Falguni Chatterjee and mother Rumki Chatterjee have been well-known names in Bengal's theatre and television circles. Abir was doing his MBA from ICFAI, Kolkata, when during the second year semester break he got a call from Debangshu Sengupta. "It was only when the shoot ended that I realized that the telefilm, Scandal, was actually an extended screen test. Debangshu-da, whom I consider my guru, wanted to cast me in his mega serial, Banhishikha, which proved to be my breakout role. The serial ended in 2006 but even after all these years, Kamaal Mullick remains one of the most challenging and intriguing characters I have played… A character who is bad for the sake of being bad."
My personal favourites are a bit different from public perception. The Byomkeshes and Sona-das are important for me and for the industry on account of the revenue they generate. They have given me a certain profile and saleability which is important for a star, but the ones I've picked give me what the actor in me craves
Even as Banhishikha was creating waves, Abir landed a job with Indiabulls Securities. "I would be at work from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and then proceed to my shooting commitments till late at night, and be back in office again at 9 the next day. It helped that my immediate boss and the regional head were both film buffs and very supportive of my acting career."
A telefilm he did eventually ended up as his first feature film, Cross Connection, directed by Abhijit Guha and Sudeshna Roy. The film ran for over seventy-five days and established Abir as the new heart-throb of Bengali cinema. Here he picks his five favourite roles:
I left my job in 2012 and we started shooting this film in 2013. I remember I had just become a father. During the narration I realized that Abhirup Banerjee is a character to die for. He is the typical meek Bengali middle-class man we all recognize, aware of his limitations but unable to break out till the 'mysterious' Anjan (Jeet) enters his life. It was a challenging role in terms of the body language it demanded – the tucked shirt, the lack of confidence, the unsure walk when he is summoned by his boss, the slight paunch (which I actually developed for the role along with the moustache which I grew. I am not comfortable with wigs and make-up), the way he plays with his handkerchief, fiddles with his phone, and then when he breaks free thanks to Arjun.
It was difficult because it needed me to break my ego as a 'hero' … I had to keep reiterating to myself: You are not the hero. The climactic scene on the bridge, where the character unravels, shook me in the way it explored the insanity that is intrinsic in all of us. At the same time, it required me to walk a fine line to ensure I did not go overboard because the role offered great scope for histrionics.
Like Abhirup in Royal Bengal Tiger, Abhijit Mukherjee in Hrid Majhare is a conflicted character. And like Rajesh Ganguly, Ranjan too was a first-time film-maker – and both films were marked by an organic energy that debutantes bring to the table. Interestingly, one of the first things that Ranjan told me was that he had seen Baishe Srabon and felt that Raima (Sen) and I ought to be paired together more often.
Hrid Majhare is an innovative take on Othello, with an interesting twist. There is no Iago. The character has a terrific trajectory … as he moves from a practical guy, who swears by logic, to a completely irrational one, fighting his inner demons, dealing with the Iago within him. On the surface he is very confident, almost cocksure of his ability to work his charm – at the same time, he is jealous, insecure, but he won't accept that too. The inner conflict tears him apart. This is particularly tough to portray on screen, because there are no physical aides at your disposal.
One of my contributions to the film was its the dual ending. I wanted to keep it open-ended. Maybe it was the frame of mind I was in after the birth of my daughter, Mayurakshi, that led me to suggest an alternative ending – retain something positive in what was a relentlessly bleak film. Ranjan wasn't quite convinced, but went along with my suggestion. I think it gives the film an ambiguity that goes well with my character.
Abby Sen is a lyrical film with an element of whimsy that is endearing. I often liken the experience of watching it to reading a poem, something that only Atanu-da could pull off with such assurance. On the surface it is about time travel and many people at the time sniggered, "Is this what you call a sci-fi film, you take a pill and go back in time?" But that's exactly the point. This is not Back to the Future, though there's a hint of a romance with his mother-in-law instead of the mother!
This is not a sci-fi film. The elements of sci-fi, time travel are merely a peg to tell a story of changing times and relationships, and how despite our love for the past – the Calcutta of the 1980s, with its load-shedding, landline phones – some things do not change. Abby is essentially a loser, but lovable all the same. Abby is not street-smart, but there's a basic goodness about him; at the same time, he is not someone you would call a 'kebla', a dumbo. Again, these are aspects difficult to put across in a performance.
What I also love about the film is its understated humour and the romance involving Abby and Paroma (Raima Sen). After the premiere, Arunima (Ghosh), who plays my wife, came to me and said, "Abir, I am feeling very sad! I wish Abby and Paroma could unite in the end." Imagine, this is the actor playing my wife! That's the kind of romance one longs for, full of unspoken yearning.
Raima's delectable final wave of the hand still resonates in my memory … and yet again, the open-ended narrative, with just a hint of ambiguity: will they get back together, did this actually happen, has Abby returned to 2013 from 1980 … It's a film that leaves you with a strange ambivalence – mon kharap howa bhalo laga (something you love so much, it leaves you sad).
This was my first film with Kaushik-da after many aborted attempts, and that alone made it worthwhile. It began with a call from Kaushik-da asking me how long it takes me to grow a moustache. I responded, "Why? What's cooking?" He was cagey: "Hochhe, hochhe, don't shave for a few days." During the narration, I discovered that the film was to star Param (Parambrata Chatterjee), Raima, Churni (Ganguly) and Kaushik-da himself. Param and Raima were a hot pair at the time, and for all practical purposes, Param was the film's hero. It got me thinking: You are not the protagonist … why are you doing this? All actors have this insecurity. I realized it was not going to be my home ground, but then everyone remembers Sourav Ganguly for his century at Lord's, don't they?
I am glad I played Arjun Dasgupta – probably the most inscrutable character I have essayed. You never quite know what he is thinking, what his motivations are. His relationship with his wife is over and he is aware that he is losing her to someone else. Then there is his physical disability, the limp as a result of an accident which has destroyed the family and for which he blames himself. One of my favourite scenes is the one with Param where Arjun gets sloshed and the character's vulnerability comes through in a monologue. At the same time, being an ex-army guy, there's a certain swag he has … in fact, every time I would get ready for a scene, Kaushik-da would utter just one word, "Abir, mejaj." It's impossible to translate that in context, but one could say, a certain temperament, you know, how we Bengalis say "rela". One of Kaushik-da's biggest contributions to the character is the voice modulation he demanded of me. It took me five days to dub for the film, and I am proud of what I achieved with my voice.
I owe almost everything to Byomkesh. The fact that I am now able to talk about all these other films – none of it would have been possible without Byomkesh. Even after seven films, I still find it surreal when people call me Byomkesh. And to imagine that I was just one film old at the time – in fact, I was dubbing for Cross Connection when I got a call from Anjan-da (Dutt). I still remember the day it released, 13 August 2010. The next day I got a call from my boss at Indiabulls, saying, "Arre, tui ki korechhis!" (What have you done?) I thought I had goofed up at work. But no, he was waiting outside a hall and just couldn't get a ticket. I told him to wait while I arranged for one, but he didn't want a ticket. He was happy to stand outside the hall, watching the houseful boards.
The challenge of playing Byomkesh is not that others have played him before, or will play him in the future, but how I could play him differently. This is particularly true of the films with Arindam Sil, each of which has a different shade. In Har Har Byomkesh, you get Byomkesh the lover, in honeymoon mode, sharp and intelligent, no doubt, but leisurely. In Byomkesh Pawrbo, he is more focused, on national duty, hence more responsible, more edgy. In Byomkesh Gowtro, he is confidence personified. If you think back on the film, he could have prevented Satyakam's death, but he does not. In many ways, he and Satyakam can read each other's vibes. We were very clear about the character graph we would trace over the films – it's almost like equating Byomkesh with Neelkantho, whereby in dealing with criminals and crime he is also imbibing the poison of society. Yet, he is totally in control, relaxed. As Arindam told me: "I want you to be laidback." And that's visible in the way I say my lines.