On 30 December, 2009, theatre and film director Suman Mukhopadhyay got a call from Aveek Sarkar, Bengali media mogul and then the chief editor of ABP group, which owns two of the biggest newspapers of the state, The Telegraph and Anandabazar Patrika. Sarkar wanted him to pick 'a talent to watch out for' from the world of theatre that the paper was going to publish for their decade special issue and Mukhopadhyay didn't hesitate much before taking Anirban Bhattacharya's name, who nobody had heard of at that time. Mukhopadhyay had auditioned him for the Minerva Repertory theatre and had seen in him "a certain spark" that set him apart from others (they would go on to forge a long working relation, starting with the play Raja Lear in 2010).
Almost exactly ten years later, Mukhopadhyay recalls, he got a call from Sarkar again: Who do you think is the most important actor of our times? Anirban Bhattacharya, or Ritwick Chakraborty? Mukhopadhyay didn't have a straight answer, as he doesn't like the idea of ranking artistes, but the question was telling: Anirban Bhattacharya had arrived. Watching him steal the show, in one middling film after another, has been one of the handful few positives of contemporary Bengali cinema. And his recent debut as a film director with the rich, entertaining Macbeth adaptation, Mandaar, posits him as a creative force to reckon with, a serious artist with a political consciousness working in the mainstream (notably, Bhattacharya, along with other actors like Parambrata Chatterjee, had appeared in a music video opposing the BJP ahead of the West Bengal Assembly elections).
In his early film roles, you get the impression of a classically trained actor with the electricity of a young Shah Rukh Khan. Then there is his Bangla enunciation, which can turn exposition dumps into masterclasses on how to say lines, as in Alinagarer Golokdhadha, where he is cast as a history buff adventurer. Consider his role in the experimental indie Ghyachang Fu, in which his character doesn't speak a single word for the most part – and in the last thirty minutes, appears in a elaborately staged frontal nude sex scene.
Bratya Basu's play Adya Shesh Rajani (available on YouTube, in a version that has been specially shot and performed for the medium) finds Bhattacharya in peak form. He briefly transforms into a sadistic married gay king, an effeminate aesthete who is like a distorted version of the Amjad Khan character in Shatranj Ke Khiladi. Bhattacharya is an exemplar of a Bengali acting legacy – and also a British and American one – of having a career in theatre alongside films.
Add to that, his (female) fan following, which may have its origins in his role as the wayward husband in an attempted murder case in Eagoler Chokh (2016), from the detective franchise Shabor. In what is considered to be his breakout performance, Bhattacharya played the character with an irresistible mix of vulnerability and a bad boy attitude. The character is a baffling contradiction and at one point, even the dour, sarcastic Goenda Shabor, played by Saswata Chatterjee, grudgingly acknowledges his subtly carnal appeal. "He's not that handsome, but there is something attractive about him".
When I got in touch with him for the interview, Bhattacharya was in Purulia shooting a two-hander opposite Kaushik Ganguli in which he plays his wife's lover. Immediately upon his return he was going to perform consecutive shows of Mukhopadhyay's anti-fascist play Mephisto, in which he plays the protagonist Hendrik Hofgen, a talented actor in a left-leaning theatre group in Germany, who, in Faustian fashion, sells his soul after the Nazi party comes to power. I sneaked into one of the rehearsals.
Bhattacharya was in the middle of a scene, in character, storming across the room locked in a heated exchange of words with a co-actor. Couple of days later, on a drizzly, chilly Saturday evening, I saw him in the actual play at a packed Rabindra Sadan. In the climax, his character, torn between conscience and opportunism, pleads to the audience, 'What do they want from me? I am…just an actor.' The play had been revived earlier that year before the elections, and had a good run till the second wave hit. With the looming possibility of BJP coming to power all too real, the audience reaction was much more tense; Bhattacharya told me later that he could hear collective gasps in the auditorium while performing. This time around, even though it was a full-house, the reactions weren't quite the same. That sense of urgency was gone. Bhattacharya wasn't disappointed but fascinated by the experience. "This connection that theatre has with time. Duronto. (Incredible)," he said.
Bhattacharya is a critical thinker. He is unusually perceptive and tends to go deep into a subject. This is not always interview-friendly. In a YouTube chat with a Bangladeshi TV anchor, in which he was a joint guest with actor Chanchal Chowdhury, when Bhattacharya reasoned that the fall of Bengali theatre as an institution was linked to "open marketisation", it got too intense for the journalist – in order to lighten things up, she had to request them both to sing a line each from their favourite song. Back in 2016, after Bhattacharya had tasted a little bit of fame, he had got a call from a food magazine that was launching in the city.
Irritated as he was with inane media requests, Bhattacharya told the interviewer that in a country where people go to sleep hungry and children die of malnutrition, there is nothing more obscene than making money out of pictures of rich people's food. The journalist's response was one of his biggest reality checks. "She said, 'Lovely, Anirban. Thank you. We will definitely publish this," he recalled, imitating her cheery tone. "The fact that you can buy revolution is the true, scary face of capitalism. Any day, Elon Musk may come and join the farmer's protest and say, 'Yes, I support that' – the man who is sitting with half the world population's food."
Examining the complexity of human life, according to Bhattacharya, is precisely what the artist is supposed to do. "You can choose to say, 'I like things uncomplicated,' but as an art practitioner, I have learnt otherwise. Our job is to scratch the surface of everyday life and get into its insides," he said. We were at the National Mime Institute in Salt Lake, where Bhattacharya was rehearsing for a play by Jean-Paul Sartre he was directing for his group Sangharam Hatibagan. He was on the director's chair as the actors performed. His instructions were minimal and he smiled when they did something surprising. Later he would tell me how the rehearsal session had a power dynamic going on. As did the Mephisto rehearsals I had attended last week, in which he got the best treatment among the actors. "This is coming from a power structure. Because there is a certain perception in society about me," he said.
A post-truth world, climate change, digital explosion – it's not unnatural that a sensitive artist like Bhattacharya has been in a bit of a doomsday mood. The pandemic only worsened it. And yet it is from this bleak state of mind that Mandaar emerged. Somewhere it has made its way into the story of the fictional coastal town of Geilpur, described as "a fish eats fish world", in which nobody really loves anybody – or even if they do, don't show. It's in the transactional nature of the relationships, or in the Che Guevara T shirt of a character "who has no idea who Che Guevara is". "If you ask me where it comes from, no it doesn't come from the sand and sea that you see in Mandaar. It comes from contemporary society," Bhattacharya said.
Uncompromising in its artistic vision, the five episode series on Hoichoi is also cannily tuned to the popular tastes of the times. There is revenge, there is violence and sex, and there is language laced with profanity. Apart from being well received by critics, it has also been announced as the streaming platform's biggest show of 2021. Despite that, Bhattacharya is not entirely uncritical of his own work, a rarity in an industry that doesn't seem to introspect. "We failed to communicate that a Dalit kills Mandaar. It got diluted in the supernatural stuff. It's almost as if an emerging neta is walking the streets and a naked kid exposes him. It didn't become a political statement, and that's a failure," said the 35 year old actor-director who grew up in Medinipur.
Bhattacharya's closeness to SVF, the most powerful production house in West Bengal, puts him in a tricky position to comment on the state of affairs of Bengali cinema. On the one hand, unlike others industrywallahs, he doesn't pretend that everything is alright. At the same time his deep commitment towards the fraternity forbids him to say certain things. As a result, there is a duality, a contradiction, a conflict. Bhattacharya's high standards and his credibility as a truth-teller means his answers didn't follow the usual incestuous back-patting that has become the industry norm ("The last Bengali films I really liked were the short film Bhalobashar Shohor, Bakita Byaktigato, and Herbert. I cried watching The Japanese Wife"; or "Bangladesh is way ahead of us right now"). He has no qualms in saying that he owes all his artistic integrity to theatre. ( "All my learning has pretty much stopped after getting into cinema. Here they ask for something, I deliver. There is only give, no take.")
It would be followed by something out of character and conservative with convoluted logic like "the film industry should solve its problems internally – it doesn't need to acknowledge openly because it's a projection-based industry", or "SVF and Srijit Mukherji are the establishment, and sometimes people are anti-establishment for the sake of it." But by and large, Bhattacharya agrees that something's rotten in the state of Denmark and those problems are systemic. "It's not going to go overnight. We need five back to back good films, and maybe the game will change," he says.
Bhattacharya is on his way to becoming a part of that establishment – if he already isn't, that is. He has two projects coming up as a director already, the "quirky and pop" Bottolar Goyenda and the horror-comedy Ballavpurer Roopkotha. "Now I have to enter the factory. That's the rule of the Bengali industry," he said, with a resigned cynicism when I asked him, 'So, now what?' You need someone within the system to change it, and maybe Bhattacharya is our best man. Mandaar is a shining example that high quality entertainment can emerge from within the constraints of the Bengali film industry, which has serious infrastructural issues. What it lacked in budget and equipment, it made up with creativity, symbolic imagery and technical improvisation. There's a scene, for instance, when to signify that the main characters' world has turned upside down, the camera turns 360 degree. With the absence of an ARRI Trinity that can give you that movement, DOP Soumik Haldar moved the camera manually. ("If you notice, there is a slight jerk," Bhattacharya said).
But where Mandaar had the luxury of an actor doing a one-off directorial project, his future films may not. With a focus on specifically looking for lead roles, and a Hindi debut on the cards with Mrs Chatterjee versus Norway, Bhattacharya is only going to get busier. Either way, it's a new innings. "He has scored a century, and now he has take a new guard and score a second one," said Mukhopadhyay, "He is getting famous, getting known, getting acknowledged, and exploring other forms of his talent like direction. I have seen the growing of this young actor into a versatile personality."