Actor Dibyendu Bhattacharya’s shop is truly open, and everyone is welcome. Since 2018, Bhattacharya has starred in an estimated 18 projects, which is three times more than the number of roles the actor got between 2013 and 2018. Most of these projects have been streaming shows. You’ve seen him play a prison inmate, cop, gangster, politician, Sufi godman, a scientist — all of them with the ease of a shape-shifter. Whether on big screen or small screen, the characters he plays are invariably part of the supporting cast, which is tasked with making a fictional world feel credible while the spotlight shines on the protagonists and villains. From playing someone who sets up marriage tents in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001), an underworld affiliate embroiled in the 1993 Bombay bomb blasts in Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (2007), to a seedy morgue worker in Prosit Roy’s Pari (2018), Bhattacharya has imbued his performances with sincerity and believability. He will, however, take objection to being described as a character actor. “If we’re the ones playing characters, does it mean that the hero/heroine are characterless?” he asked in jest, during his conversation with Film Companion. Politely but firmly rejecting the conventional hierarchy, Bhattacharya said he’d prefer to just be called an actor.
Growing up in the middle-class neighbourhood of Behala in Kolkata, Bhattacharya grew up more interested in extracurricular activities than in his academics. Being the eldest grandson in the family, he had the privilege of a room with a large terrace attached to it. Here, theatre rehearsals, poster designing and other such activities would take place while studies “went for a toss”. His family was supportive and when in 1993, he won “Best Actor” at the golden jubilee celebrations of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), Bhattacharya felt he had what it takes to be a professional.
In 1994, Bhattacharya joined the National School of Drama (NSD) and it was his introduction to the life of an actor. “We would do rehearsals till 2.30am and then wake up and go to classes at 6am,” he recalled. After completing his course in 1997, Bhattacharya worked in the NSD repertory theatre till 2000. The move was partly because he felt he was stagnating but also because of a new director with whom Bhattacharya wasn’t “very comfortable”. Back home in Kolkata, the work wasn’t particularly exciting and Bhattacharya set his sights on Mumbai. “If I was going to struggle anyway, then why remain stuck in a pond? Let’s go to the ocean, I remember thinking,” he said. It was around this time that actor Gajraj Rao was looking for Bhattacharya. Rao, himself a theatre actor, was involved in the casting of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, which is how Bhattacharya got cast as one of the workers in Parbatlal Kanhaiyalal Dubey’s (Vijay Raaz) wedding decorator crew.
Despite the success of Monsoon Wedding, Bhattacharya was stuck doing blink-and-miss roles for years. For instance, he’s one of the shooters in Maqbool (2004) and Ab Tak Chhappan (2004). His first speaking-length role came as Yeda Yakub in Black Friday (2007). “I still remember how Black Friday had a stay order on it. Anurag said if the film came out and if it did reasonably well, then he would also offer me a part in his next project. As it turns out the film did well upon release, and that’s how I landed the part of Chunnilal in Dev.D (2009).” Kashyap was the first director to present Bhattacharya’s short, stout everyman appearance in a sharply different way. Unlike the string of grungy henchmen that were the actor’s lot in the early 2000s, Chunnilal wore crisp suits in vibrant colours, large sunglasses, his hair was styled and back brushed. It remains one of his most memorable roles till date.
Bhattacharya is an actor’s actor. He stresses upon the “shiddat”, or intensity, as one goes about their job. He enjoys roles that challenge him and force him to think.“Like I’m playing a cop on both Undekhi and Jamtara, but they’re two completely different human beings,” he said, distinguishing himself from the other tribe of working actors who go through the motions with the same moustache, hair, manner of speaking irrespective of the roles they’re playing. Whether they’re a lawyer, cop, nurse or cook, they look and sound the same. Bhattacharya, on the other hand, works to establish differences and a distinctive individuality about every character he plays. He’s also baffled by how much time his fellow actors spend on their smartphones in between takes. “I see a lot of actors playing PubG in between shots. I usually even keep my phone far away and ask the people to not give it to me unless someone says it’s urgent.”
In Rocket Boys, Bhattacharya’s Mehdi Raza is one of the most electrifying elements in the show. Mehdi is the ultimate outsider — too Shia to be spared by the Sunnis; too Muslim for his Hindu neighbours in Calcutta; too rough around the edges compared to his colleagues Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, who appear to be golf buddies with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. He’s a scientist who lives with the stigma of being Muslim and is judged for founding his research laboratory with the help of the All India Muslim League, by his well-heeled colleagues. Mehdi is one of the fictional characters in the show, but he feels like one of the most truthful and compelling elements in this middling account of the Nehruvian era’s scientific innovation, set in a newly-independent India. As Inspector Biswa Pathak in the second season of Jamtara, it’s tempting to think Bhattacharya may be drawing on his own life to play the part of a once-upon-a-time idealist, who made his peace with the ways of the wild hinterland. In many ways, Biswa Pathak seems to embody Bhattacharya’s survival spirit.
The actor has no qualms in admitting his career has seen many dry spells. “It’s just a part and parcel of life. While you wait for your next project, sharpen your skills, live life. Life is not only work, na?” Initially, these lulls in his professional life were difficult to negotiate, especially since the life of a working actor is mostly about being overworked. Eventually, he forced himself to pick up hobbies that he takes seriously. “I love to cook for my wife and children. My wife isn’t allowed in the kitchen when I’m at home for extended periods.” The dry spells are now less frequent since he’s had meaty parts in successful shows like the first season of Criminal Justice, Undekhi and Jamtara, and he’s philosophical about the trying times he’s been through before. “It’s important to have faith in yourself. If you’re around, work will come. When that opportunity comes, you need to be in the shape where you can make the most of it.”
After 22 years in the Mumbai entertainment industry, Bhattacharya has a defiant but philosophical take on his own career. “Maine kabhi kisi ko khuda banne nahi diya, [I never treated anyone like they were a God!],” Bhattacharya said. “I never gave too much weight to these opinions. I always told myself, these people aren’t God! How can they know for sure?” While the growing popularity of OTTs has been good news for Bhattacharya, the actor had a word of warning. “When you celebrate mediocrity, what’s going to follow is only going to be worse,” he said and pointed to the trend of failed ‘heroes’ — those who have struggled to find success in regular, commercial cinema — entering the OTT space. Bhattacharya is hopeful that his “connection” with his audience will not be impacted by the shifting trends and that at least a handful of filmmakers uphold the integrity of the medium. “I take up work for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the role is good, other times the money is good. Everything matters.”