Jisshu Sengupta: The Reluctant Actor Who Would Be King

On the eve of his forthcoming Puja release Ek Je Chhilo Raja, the Bengali actor talks about being an accidental star, over telephonic conversations interrupted by call drops, bad network, and a dash to the airport
Jisshu Sengupta: The Reluctant Actor Who Would Be King

"I never wanted to be an actor … I still don't want to be one," Sengupta is emphatic as I ask him when it was he realized he wanted to be an actor, the moment of epiphany, if any, when it dawned on him that This is it! This is what I want to do. As a talented eighteen-year-old cricketer playing for Bengal Under-19, that is what he wanted to do. Also a brilliant drummer in such iconic Bangla bands as Parash Pathar, and his own band called Haze, music and cricket were very much the twin themes of his teenage years. Till, as they say, fate intervened.

"My father was an actor, and as far as my mother was concerned, one actor in the family was enough. It was the summer of 1998," he says on his way to the airport. "The makers of the TV series Mahaprabhu were looking for an actor to play the young Chaitanya and approached my father to ask if I would be interested. It being the off-season for cricket, I thought, why not – it seemed a good way to spend the summer and make some money too." What began as a lark went on to become a career. The serial made Sengupta a household name.

However, the success of Mahaprabhu didn't translate into film stardom immediately. What followed were a series of indifferent films with little to show in terms of either critical acclaim or commercial success. The tide would turn only towards the end of the decade, with Rituparno Ghosh in a string of acclaimed films. These included Shob Choritro Kalponik (2009), Abohoman (2010), the sumptuous adaptation of Tagore's Noukadubi (2011) and of course, Chitrangada (2012), where Sengupta's portrayal of a junkie was one of the finest performances of his career. Little wonder that Sengupta credits Ghosh with everything he has achieved as an actor. "Ritu-da was my mentor … He was brilliant in the way he would act out a scene as a reference – I have never seen any other director as good, particularly when it came to understanding a woman and acting that out for his actors. And then he would say, "Ekhon tui eta nije kor (now, do it yourself)." It was with him that Sengupta developed an understanding of films, scripts and stopped doing everything that came his way.

Sengupta in Mahaprabhu, and Rajkahini (left to right)
Sengupta in Mahaprabhu, and Rajkahini (left to right)

Ghosh's untimely demise naturally came as a shock to the actor. It took him over a year to return to the floors – this time with Srijit Mukherji who gave his career a new lease of life with the National Award-winning reincarnation drama Jaatishwar (2014). Playing a Gujarati boy driven by love to not only learn Bengali but also compose songs in the language, he admirably held his own against superstar Prosenjit Chatterjee who had the author-backed role. Since then, Sengupta has been part of every Mukherji film, pushing the envelope with each.

For instance, in what was one of the most chilling portrayals of evil in Bengali cinema, the gentle-faced actor was cast against type in the partition drama Rajkahini (2015). The nonchalance with which the character talks about what is to be done to the women in the whorehouse – 'Do you want them just raped or dismembered or their breasts cut off, in which case the right one or the left, or a rod inserted in the right place?' – a manic grin through khaini-stained teeth all the while, or as he hums Lalon Fakir's 'Buker bhitor achin pakhi' while leading his pack of rioters looking for their prey, is testimony to how far the actor has travelled. He followed it up with another standout performance in Zulfiqar (2015), as the slimy, safari-suit-wearing, paan-masala-chewing fixer angling to take over Kolkata's underworld operations. There was the recent Uma, where Sengupta and his daughter Sara were cast as father and daughter.

Given that almost no star from Bengal – Uttam Kumar and Prasenjit tried with little success, Soumitra Chatterjee never attempted it – has made it big in Mumbai, what does he think of his chances? "How can you say that," he retorts. "What about Mithun Chakraborty? Does it get any bigger than that?" Point taken.

Which bring us to Ek Je Chhilo Raja, Mukherji's take on the notorious Bhawal Sanyasi case that rocked Bengal in the 1930s. Sengupta describes it as his most physically challenging role ever. He had to transform from a well-to-do zamindar to a half-naked fakir, "shooting in 5 degrees wearing practically nothing, bathing in the Ganga at 5 in the morning in the height of winter, sitting next to corpses in burning ghats." What made it even more difficult is that this is a story rooted in history, in facts, and well-documented ones at that. 'Yes, in this case, like in Manikarnika (Kangana Ranaut's film on the Rani of Jhansi, where he plays the queen's husband Gangadhar), you don't have ready references in terms of people who have seen these characters. You can only read about what's been written about them and try to interpret it, make it believable. For example, the raja of Bhawal has many shades to him – he is a large-hearted man, a just ruler, a loving brother … yet there are many grey shades to his character. It helps that I am a director's actor. I am not so much a workshop-and-rehearsal actor – I follow the script, go to the floors, take in the ambience and leave it to the director to guide me about the character graph.'

A still from Ek Je Chhilo Raja
A still from Ek Je Chhilo Raja

By now, Sengupta has reached the airport but I still have a couple of questions to ask and so he says he will call back in a bit after he has checked in. He does and I ask him about his tryst with Hindi cinema. Here is someone who started off with Shyam Benegal's biopic on Subhas Chandra Bose, The Forgotten Hero (2004), and has recently starred in bit roles in Mardaani (2014) and Piku (2015). In fact, he is on his way to Mumbai to shoot for Mahesh Manjrekar's Devidas Thakur. And then there's Manikarnika, a film he is eagerly looking forward to. Given that almost no star from Bengal – Uttam Kumar and Prosenjit tried with little success, Soumitra Chatterjee never attempted it – has made it big in Mumbai, what does he think of his chances? "How can you say that," he retorts. "What about Mithun Chakraborty? Does it get any bigger than that?" Point taken.

What about films that have influenced him as an actor, or any recent ones that blew him away."Where's the time … I don't watch films at all, barring the occasional Govinda film which I love. I watch a lot of Tom and Jerry…I find it extremely relaxing. Otherwise, I don't even get time to spend with my family.' He reels off the line-up for the next couple of months … off to Mumbai for Devidas, then a stint for Manikarnika, shooting for the new season of the reality show Sa Re Ga Ma which he has been hosting successfully for years, then the NTR biopic, the promotions for Ek Je Chhilo Raja – he is almost out of breath by now – and then of course Mahalaya, a film he is most excited about since he plays Uttam Kumar in it. Given that his mother-in-law Anjana Bhowmick starred opposite Bengal's Mahanayak in a number of films, and that the star continues to live in public memory, he is naturally anxious about the public and critical response to the film. 'I am sure a lot of people will have a lot of things to say about it … it's scary.' 

But with the way things have panned out for Sengupta as an actor in the last few years, one is sure he has nothing to fear. He is all set to soar like the flight now calling him to board.

Watch the trailer of Ek Je Chhilo Raja:

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