Spandan Banerjee’s Talking Head is about actor Dhritiman Chaterji, but it’s also about what he represents: a certain kind of politically charged films made in Calcutta in the 70s and 80s, and the city itself—carefree and cosmopolitan, vibrant and exciting, even as the unrest of the workers agitation brewed on. Anecdotes abound, as in stories about the holy triumvirate of Ray, Sen and Ghatak—all of who he had worked or interacted with; or more personal ones, like Chaterji’s son, Pablo, reminiscing his parents’ bohemian lifestyle and their house parties with colleagues from advertising: “My strongest memory is the smell of marijuana,” he says.
Chaterji currently lives with his wife Ammu in Goa, where Banerjee is also based out of, and their interactions have the candidness of a visit from a neighbour on a Sunday morning. The filmmaker says over email that he finds Chaterji to be “an actor unattached to the frills of stardom”, and the film has a style that goes with it. Shot by Saumyananda Sahi (Eeb Allay Ooo!, Nasir) and Ravi K Ayyagari in pristine black and white in a 4:3 aspect ratio, it has a spare, minimalist look, enhanced by Banerjee’s large and airy villa with its whitewashed walls that serves as the venue for the majority of the film. “I wanted to show Dhritiman the way he was introduced to cinema,” he says, about choosing black and white.
Naturally, a chunk of Talking Head is dedicated to Ray’s Pratidwandi, Chaterji’s first film, that completed 50 years last year while the documentary was being made. In that film, Chaterji played a most unconventional Angry Young Man, raging against a system that had no jobs to offer. Actor-director Tinnu Anand, who was assisting Ray on the film, remembers being surprised by his casting choice, judging Chaterji by his “unheroic” physical appearance, but being floored by his performance at the ‘look test’.
As Banerjee points out, Chaterji is the “antithesis” of a movie star. One of the defining faces from the glory days of Indian parallel cinema, he’s a low-profile personality, approachable and friendly.
As Banerjee points out, Chaterji is the “antithesis” of a movie star. One of the defining faces from the glory days of Indian parallel cinema, he’s a low-profile personality, approachable and friendly. Talking Head shows him talking about Rajinikanth, Amitabh Bachchan (without naming him) and Uttam Kumar, and by bringing in megastars into the conversation, the film also becomes some sort of a critique on stardom.
Chaterji has done more films in the last twenty years than he had done in the first twenty of his career—appearing in Hindi films such as Black, Guru and Kahaani—and I wish the film had delved a little more into this aspect of his: Has he got less choosy with age? Is it the money? One of the funniest anecdotes in the film is about how the Barjatyas approached him for Piya Ka Ghar, and Chaterji showed interest as well; but things started getting weirder when Chaterji was told that he will be confirmed for the film only after ‘Mother’ from Pondicherry, who the producers were devotees of, saw his photo and gave her approval.
The documentary doesn’t let Chaterji complete his story; instead, it incorporates a scene from the film between Jaya Bachchan, the film’s female lead, and an astrologer, that ends with the camera zooming into a photo of Anil Dhawan, the actor who would eventually replace Chaterji. The film is punctuated by multiple such film clips—a device Banerjee has used in English India (2015), his documentary about the relationship between the Indian working class and the English language–as well as old photographs from Chaterji’s personal and professional life.
Banerjee’s previous works include Beware Dogs (2008), where he hung out with Indian Ocean for a day at their Delhi pad, and To-Let (2012), a film about moving houses. In the latter, when he is with the artist couple, Sarnath Banerjee and Bani Abidi, at one point a doorbell disrupts Abidi’s piece to camera, but Banerjee continues to record.
The interviews in Talking Head are conducted in a similar fashion, where interruptions are welcomed into conversations while the subject is talking, as in when a plumber rings the bell during an interview with Ayesha Sayani, a lifelong friend of Chaterji’s, and an ex-lover. Or when Chaterji is interrupted by a landline ringing at Banerjee’s place, prompting him to remark on the strangeness of a landline phone in 2020. (When the filmmaker leaves to receive the call, we see Chatterjee talking to the house cat). It’s not just these interruptions; throughout Banerjee bares the nuts and bolts of the documentary filming process. We see the actor being applied make-up by Banerjee’s wife as he is being interviewed. Despite the title, or perhaps it, he keeps subverting the traditional ‘Talking Head’ style.