In the star system that operates in Indian cinema, it is extremely difficult to cull out a best-of list. More so, when box-office prowess often tends to overshadow the actor, and where financial security considerations often force him to do more films than the actor in him can do justice to. Then there’s the question of: how do we decide which film is worth including? Apur Sansar is a must in any list of Soumitra Chatterjee films, but does one discount him jiving to ‘Jibane ki paabo na’ in Teen Bhuvaner Paare just because it is ‘commercial’ and more entertaining?
In his autobiography Khullam Khulla, Rishi Kapoor makes the point that in his first twenty-five years as an actor he was merely changing jerseys and humming songs; it’s only in the last decade or so that he has received the kind of roles that have challenged the actor in him. He might well have been talking of Prosenjit Chatterjee, the one actor who can lay claim to being a superstar in Bengali cinema after Uttam Kumar.
Wikipedia and IMDB list at least 276 films starring him. These include films with titles like Sinduer Adhikar (1998), Baba Keno Chakor (1998), Sindurer Khela (1999), Santan Jakhon Shatru (1999), Sasur Badi Zindabad (2000). His association with directors like Swapan Saha and Sujit Guha will never be counted among the many classic actor-director combinations in the world. However, the phenomenal success of their films not only created a true-blue box-office star in a cash-starved industry, but also enabled the star to eventually break out and experiment with roles that have made him the go-to actor for any Bengali film-maker who wants a bankable name to kick-start an offbeat film. And that’s what makes Prosenjit special.
For almost fifteen years after he made his debut as a star in the 1980s (he debuted as a child star in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1969 film Chhoto Jigyasa, when fetched him a BFJA award for most outstanding work), Prosenjit was synonymous with Bengali potboilers that blazed through the screens of B and C towns in Bengal. It was Unishe April (1996) that marked a shift in his approach. Without turning his back on the kind of films that made a star of him, he carved out a niche for himself as an actor unafraid of pushing the envelope. Here then is a list of five of his most memorable films that will stand the test of time.
Almost every person I spoke to for this piece – Arindam Sil, Srijit Mukherji, Jisshu Sengupta, Birsa Dasgupta – not only included this in the list of Prosenjit’s best films, but also made it a point to underline this as his finest act. And it’s not difficult to see why. Confined to a hospital bed for the most part, this is a performance marked by silent reaction shots (look at him responding to his wife breaking the news of the death of his lover or handing him a box of condoms found in his luggage after his life-altering weekend tryst with her). He has hardly any dialogue and is largely immobile – both tough acts for an actor to pull off, particularly in the Indian tradition of stardom. But Prosenjit delivers and how.