It's a crumbling, 400-year-old rajbari, often used as a shooting location, in Kalikapur village, thirty two kilometres from Bolpur, West Bengal. We were in this room where a scene from the Bengali children's film Bhootpori was being shot. It's a fairly straightforward scene: the boy, the protagonist of the film, would have to sit on the bed facing the camera, when the thief, played by Ritwick Chakraborty, would appear from under it. They would exchange a few lines. An awful lot of energy had gone into instructing the child: Straighten your arm, Look towards the window (so that the face gets enough light), Bend your knees a little more. It was unbearably humid. But the director, Soukarya Ghoshal, was patient. He gave instructions from outside, where he sat next to the monitor. Chakraborty, who stood closer to him, helped the boy figure out his position. Everybody was pitching in. And then the cameras rolled, and they went at it.
'What were you doing under the bed?,' the boy said his line.
'I'm sick of lying…,' said Chakraborty.
'Ritwick da, can I once say cut?' said the director, his tone a combination of apology, reverence, and request. He wasn't saying cut so much as he was asking for permission.
(You have a scene with Chakraborty and a child, and what are the chances that it's not the latter who makes a mistake?)
'Yeah?' said Chakraborty, with the kind of suddenness with which one speaks after being cruelly woken from sleep, as though still under the spell of the scene.
'Can I once say cut?' the director repeated, sounding as polite as he did the first time.
'Yeah,' said Chakraborty.
'I was saying… the fact that you are coming out from under the bed isn't coming across. If you bend a little…then the framing… keep your head a little low,' he said.
'Yeah… head can be kept low,' said Chakraborty.
He said, 'If you sit up that'll be good enough. I'm saying if you once….'
'Got it…,' Chakraborty cut him short.
Then something happened.
On his second attempt to get out from under the bed, Chakraborty hit a table that had been next to it all along, but which didn't have a purpose in the scene. Now it did. As a result of the collision, the table shook tremendously, dislodging the objects on it with a crash, leaving no room for any doubt that something or someone must have come out from under the bed.
'What were you doing under the bed?' said the boy.
'I'm sick of lying…,' said Chakraborty….
I was impressed by what seemed like a stunning bit of improvisation. Truly, What a spontaneous actor! I thought — an assumption that Chakraborty would casually put down later that evening, calling it something that "just happened when he got up", not making a big thing of it at all. "I was not ready for it either. But when I struck the table, I suddenly opened my turban (a wraparound gamchha) and did that thing with it on my head…," he said.
If I was disappointed at first that it was something that he didn't do deliberately, I realised it was perhaps more revealing of the actor's approach. Even he didn't know that he was going to hit the table, which is obviously better than if it were pre-meditated. But the way he carried himself resulted in a happy accident, and, more importantly, he was in-the-moment enough to naturally respond to that, adding nuances that only enhanced the character. This is what makes Chakraborty 'spontaneous', 'instinctive', 'effortless', and all those words that we use when we talk about his performances. This is why he is never caught 'acting'.
Sometimes he fills up a scene with small businesses. As in Asamapta (2016) (Incomplete; streaming on Netflix), where his character, Indrajit, has a bad cold and a toothache; he's also got OCD. And he is indecisive. He revisits the hill station where he grew up and stays at an old friend's place. Soon after being shown his room, which hasn't exactly been prepared to host a guest, he settles down and opens a packet of biscuits as he hasn't had anything to eat since that morning. He then takes out a strip of tablets and tries to switch on the table lamp to check whether they have expired. He discovers that the lamp doesn't have a bulb, and so has to squint in the dark. When he finds a jug of water on the table – god knows how many days it's been lying there for – he remembers that he is carrying his own bottle, which he then takes out from his bag, uncaps and swigs to wash down his medicine. And just when he thinks he is done, he finds a stray bra lying on the floor. There seem to be no end to his woes.
It's hard to tell whether these things were in the script, or if Chakraborty came up with them on his own. Either way, you give credit to the actor when he is doing things of not much significance and still holding a scene through gesture, behaviour, and no words. He is the kind of actor who likes to work with little, and work with what he has: adjustments to his facial hair (Ek Phaali Rodh), or the lack of it (Bibaho Diaries); or modifications to his speech. There is no big, show-offy transformation, which has its own thrills, but it doesn't matter because he finds his own way to get to the truth of the character.
It's hard to tell whether these things were in the script, or if Chakraborty came up with them on his own. Either way, you give the credit to the actor when he is doing things of not much significance and still holding a scene through gesture, behaviour, and no words. He is the kind of actor who likes to work with little, and work with what he has
His homework for a character is economical. For the National Award-winning Shabdo (2013), in which he plays a foley artist, and which established him as a leading man, Chakraborty spent one night looking at a professional foley artist and picked up just one aspect of what he saw. "I didn't practise much, and whatever you see in the film is different from how it actually is. But he had a smoothness which he had acquired by working everyday. I took that bit… that there has to be this smoothness of doing a daily job, however passionate he is," he said. A trickier thing to show on screen was how the character, true to his art, begins hearing fewer and fewer human voices and more ambient sounds. "I thought if I can use my eyes to express that this man has a foreground and background of listening," he said.
In between meeting Chakraborty at his South Kolkata home, and then on the set of Bhootpori a week later, he had cropped his hair. It's not something the director had asked him to do. "Thieves with short hair are less likely to get caught," he said.
That he is balding doesn't bother him at all. He makes it sound like the most natural thing in the world — I could do with some of that confidence. He said he sees it as "a great texture" to play different characters. Chakraborty, who is 42, has done a film called Teko, in which a man's attempt to grow his hair by applying a solution before his wedding goes horribly wrong.
During the time I hung around him on the set, I didn't see him trying to concentrate. At one point, standing outside the air-conditioned van — which he shared with the other male actors in the film — he started talking about local thieves who had signature styles, and a sense of humour; he spoke about a guy who would pick up locked bicycles from the streets by lifting them a little above the ground and making them look like he was walking off with his own vehicle. And later, as he waited for his shot — one of the production girls had goofed up the call time — he asked one of men on the floor for a beedi. He did flip through the script, but it was more a means to kill time, as if to say he might as well go through it once. The rest was just chit-chat.
Chakraborty's lightning-speed efficiency has become particularly useful at a time when the Bengali film industry is coping with an economic slowdown. A drop in ticket sales means that desperate measures have been taken to curb production costs, one of them being that a film is now shot in 15-20 days (at least a week short of the basic number of days needed for a feature film). There's not as much money, as a result of which even an actor like Chakraborty, whose stock is on the rise, has to do more films than he'd like to.
This year alone, he has had eight releases so far — and there are more to come. The characters range from a serial-killer in Vinci Da, which he plays with super villain cool, to a journalist who has got wind of a sensational story in Shantilal O Projapoti Rahashya, to the protagonist's adolescent para crush in Parineeta.
"We generally hear that after a very important role an actor needs six months to get out of a character and go into another. That this is not true, Ritwick da has shown. This year he has played so many characters, and he barely got the time to get out of a character and get into another," said actor Riddhi Sen, "Method acting is great, and it is scientific. But it's just not something that the Bengali film industry can afford at the moment."
Sen said that working with Chakraborty has been on his wish list — as it has been for many others. The actor had played his older half in Open Tee Bioscope (2015), and Sen had played his younger half in Vinci Da (2019), but they had never shared the screen together, a chance that came with Nagarkirtan (2019) (The Flute Player and the Eunuch), where they play lovers.
Sen had the author-backed role of a girl trapped in a boy's body, but Chakraborty played along beautifully. His character, who hails from a Kirtaniya family in Nabadwip but works at a Chinese takeaway in the city, is that of a young man who's having his own internal journey of discovering his sexual identity. Growing up with far less awareness in a less-privileged background, he is a man as straight as an arrow — till he sees her. That we are never really shown that he was once straight, but it still comes through, is due to Chakraborty's fine performance as a man whose heart seems to be in constant battle with his conditioning.
Sen said his character "had many shades to play with" — it won him the National Award for Best Actor — but this wouldn't have been possible had his co-actor not given him "the space to unfold gradually."
He puts Chakraborty among the new breed of actor-stars such as Rajkummar Rao and Ayushmann Khurrana in Mumbai, who have got synonymous with quality entertainment. He added that if it weren't for them, a "whole new generation of actors" like him wouldn't have been in the movies. "The audience wants to see a story, and whoever suits the story… I want to relate to someone. I can't relate to someone who looks like a Greek God. I can relate to Ritwick Chakraborty more," he said.
He (Riddhi Sen) puts Chakraborty among the new breed of actor-stars such as Rajkummar Rao, Ayushmann Khurrana in Mumbai, who have got synonymous with quality entertainment. He added that if it weren't for actors like Rao and Chakraborty, a "whole new generation of actors" like him wouldn't have been in the movies.
But is Chakraborty, besides being a superb actor, also a box-office draw? I went to watch his new film, Parineeta, in Priya Cinema, a single screen in South Kolkata. A few minutes before the interval, Chakraborty's character kills himself, an incident that gives a shocking jolt to the plot. It felt akin to watching the team's best batsman get out, his potentially match-saving innings cut short by a freak run-out. But something unexpected, preposterous, but much-needed, happens in the second half.
Chakraborty is brought back onscreen, as a figment of the protagonist's imagination, and through bits of previously withheld information, now revealed in the form of a suicide note. Cinema allows you to bring back your best batsman after all, even after he has been dismissed. It's not even that Chakraborty does the big hitting here, for he appears only in flashes, but his presence on the other end helps sail the film through. When I asked the young couple next to me in the theatre why they had come for the movie, they both said that they "like Chakraborty's acting", and that Parineeta looked unlike the director Raj Chakraborty's other movies — formulaic commercial outings, many of them successful, including remakes of South-Indian blockbusters.
The math was clear. In these trying times for the box office, when even he has had to shift gears towards the so called 'content-driven cinema', the director needed Chakraborty. And right now, no Bengali actor promises quality as much as Chakraborty does.
Ever since his brief turn in Anjan Dutt's Chalo Let's Go (2008), where he jumped out amidst a crowd of good performances, Chakraborty has not only improved films by just being in them, but has also represented the best of current Bangla cinema. Surely it says something about his knack for choosing the right scripts, but it's also a result of his openness in working with new directors.
"I don't think any other actor gets as many scripts from new directors as I do," he said.
Chakraborty said he tries not to discriminate between old and new directors, except that a renowned director, sometimes, gets priority simply because he may not know much about a newcomer. He talks about a guy who has never made a film in his life, but has a great idea about a story set in his village. "It's this place beyond Burdwan which is almost an island, which is surrounded by water from all sides but is connected to the land. It's a story about a few personal experiences in that village. He showed me a few videos about a village in Africa as a reference… but I also saw that it is difficult for him to make a film. He wants to do it, but he doesn't know how to," he said. Chakraborty said that he has lost track of the guy, who hasn't got in touch with him since. But he has told a couple of people about him, and he said that he is still enthusiastic about it "if it can be materialised in some way".
Chakraborty's articulation about his work can be a little abstruse — he says it himself, "Since I don't have, what you call, training, it's difficult for me to speak clearly about craft". But he said some unique things. He said that he tries to think of the audience not as one whole unit, but as different individuals, all of who are having different experiences in their heads. The effect is a lot like reading, where a lot is left to the imagination — or any good work of art for that matter. "It's like I have read War and Peace, and you have read War and Peace, but the impact it had on us is different," he said. He likes to think of himself as "the best supporter" for his characters. This best comes across in characters that do terrible things, but he still gives them a dignity and soul.
And in Bheetu: Coward (2015), in which he plays a sexual pervert, a waiter at a restaurant, who stalks his boss's son's girlfriend and often tapes her secretly, the way he beholds her, bathed in street lights, a guitar strumming in the background, becomes a touching version of the dreamer and the dream. There could be red balloons flying.
The room in his house where we sat was filled with books: the Naseeruddin Shah autobiography on a shelf, and collections by the Bangladeshi author Humayun Ahmed, and Nabarun Bhattacharya, among others. There was a DVD of Ritwik Ghatak's Ajantrik under the TV. The room had a curious choice of wall colour: black ("It gives it the feel of a den," he said). And amidst all this were his son's board games, soft toys and a Jagannath idol from Puri — a strange co-existence of middle class and edgy.
His wife, actor Aparjita Ghosh Das, who had been taking a nap, came to say hello. I told her how much I love Bakita Byaktigato (2013) (The Rest is Personal), a surreal, beautiful film in which a loveless, amateur filmmaker (played by Chakraborty) goes to a village where every visitor inevitably falls in love. There he finds the character played by Ghosh Das, a face he has seen before, and a face he will see again (it's one of the film's elements of absurd). Chakraborty and Ghosh Das were practically living together by then, while Pradipta Bhattacharyya, the film's director, and one of their close friends, lived in the other room of the flat.
He met Bhattacharyya in Roopkala Kendro, the film school he didn't study at, but where he honed his craft by acting in student films. It has resulted in a creative partnership that has produced a fascinating body of work, including experimental shorts and telefilms — their new film Rajlokhi O Srikanto, a modern take on Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay's classic hero, releases this week.
According to Bhattacharyya, what sets Chakraborty apart is that he is more than just an actor. "He will write something, and show it to me, or Aparajita. He can have a an amazing discussion with you on a drawing. He will sit with you on the edit and give suggestions. He is an overall creative person. That's why his observations are very sharp," he said. Bhattacharyya added that unlike him, Chakraborty, despite his busy schedule, is "watching something or the other all the time." (Chakraborty's the kind of cinephile who has seen all Fahadh Faasil films but can't remember most of their names).
Chakraborty seems to have a grass root-level understanding of Bengal and its people — this is another area where he scores over his more urban contemporaries — a spirit that reflects in many of his characters. Before he started working in films, he did a bunch of jobs. When he left Barrackpore for Kolkata to do theatre, he was running a small business of printing Bangla cards on the side. He had been a medical representative before that — an experience that made him realise that he is not cut out for a nine-to-five job.
But earlier in his life, he did odder, more interesting things, for pocket money. One of them was going canvassing on behalf of publishers in College Street to the interiors of West Bengal, where he had to meet school teachers and pitch them new books for the syllabus. When he was even younger, he assisted a local magician and ventriloquist, who would travel to different villages as a part of the cultural shows organised by the Directorate of Field Publicity of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. When the magician would take a break before his ventriloquism set, Chakraborty would perform mimes for the audience. "I think it has had a tremendous impact on my life," he said.
When I met Chakraborty later in Bolpur, we drove down from the shooting location in the evening (his parts for the day were shot in daylight). It was random, but fun. We got down at a famous sweet shop on our way and tried out the warm baked rosogolla. With his yellow T-shirt, loose trousers and a sling bag, Chakraborty could pass off as a student — except that a couple from Krishnanagar approached him for a selfie, which he awkwardly obliged.
After the car reached his hotel, we walked down the dark road, which had nothing but fields on both sides — the director and actor Abhijit Guha, who has a role in Bhootpori, had been with us as well. We wanted to go to the tea shop a few minutes away, where we could sit and do the rest of the interview. The shop had shut, but served us tea anyway, and a good thing that came out of it was that the moon became the only source of light. It was a scene from a Bengali village, too lovely to be true.
But there we were.