Is there a single point in a professional’s career where they arrive? Or does one have to arrive continuously? Parambrata Chattopadhyay’s 24-year career suggests the latter.
“I have always wanted to be a director, not an actor,” said the 41-year-old Chattopadhyay. “But I have noticed that whenever I wanted to shun away something, it has come to my life with greater force.”
Acting isn’t going away anytime soon from Chattopadhyay’s resumé. His most recent appearance was in the Sony Liv series Jehanabad — Of Love and War, which went on to become one of the most-watched Hindi shows in India. Chattopadhyay got a slow-motion, low-angle entry shot as Maoist leader Deepak Kumar, walking across the jail corridor while his supporters chant “Deepak bhaiya, aagey badho (keep going)”. It is the kind of big-screen hero moment every actor dreams of having in their career. Other scenes in the show offer Chattopadhyay whistle-worthy dialoguebaazi and even an opportunity to quote Plato (after killing an inmate without witnesses, Deepak says, “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing”). Jehanabad follows the infamous November 2005 incident of a Maoist battalion fighting security forces and the upper-caste Ranvir Sena militia to execute an audacious jailbreak and free their imprisoned comrades. Chattopadhyay may not have much screentime but his Deepak looms large over the series.
Unusually for Bengali actors, Chattopadhyay has had a streak of successes with his Hindi-language projects. Jehanabad comes after a string of feature film successes, starting with Kahaani (2012) and followed by Pari (2018) and Bulbbul on Netflix. In 2021, Chattopadhyay starred with Raveena Tandon in Netflix’s crime thriller series Aranyak. In all these, Chattopadhyay’s parallel lead is always the sensible and sensitive man who stands by a strong heroine. Invariably, he steals the show by virtue of not trying to overshadow his co-star. Jehanabad is different and even though Deepak Kumar is a killer, there are unexpected resonances between the character of the well-read Leftist and Chattopadhyay’s own life.
Grandnephew of the legendary filmmaker and screenwriter Ritwik Ghatak, and nephew of great Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi, Chattopadhyay grew up in a Kolkata home where he was exposed to world cinema, the best of literature, and Left-leaning politics from an early age. “When I was seven-eight years old, I remember I’d twirl my hair with my fingers frequently, and apparently Ritwik babu used to do that,” Chattopadhyay recalled.
Despite the pandemic and its challenges, Chattopadhyay has spent the last two years travelling and shooting across India and the world. When in Kolkata, he returns to his home in an art-deco building he refurbished and moved into in 2020. All the furniture is antique and made of teak. His bookshelf includes William Dalrymple and Arundhati Roy alongside books about Indian and international history, including Elections of West Bengal: 1996-2011, and Bengali literary giants such as Humayun Ahmed. The Bengali books look older, the rest new. In between are four decades of an artist’s life.
As a child, Chattopadhyay dreamt of being a director, but, thanks to good looks and legacy, he entered the Bengali film industry as an actor in 1999 with the television serial Half Chocolate. It took more than a decade for him to move away from boyish, coming-of-age, urbane roles in alternative and indie films like The Bong Connection (2006) to becoming a bankable leading man around 2011-2012, when the Bengali films Baishe Srabon (2011), Bhooter Bhobishyat (2012) and Hemlock Society (2012), and the Hindi thriller Kahaani became superhits.
“Until then, I wasn’t really sure I was going to stay a professional actor for the next 15-20 years,” said Chattopadhyay. Between 2009 and 2010, the Jadavpur University English Literature graduate was in the United Kingdom, where he got himself a Master’s degree in Film and Television Production from Bristol University. “I was sure I won’t do acting after returning home and I would concentrate on directing and producing. But suddenly these hits came, and I became a dependable face.”
So began the next phase in Chattopadhyay’s career, which he described as “Param 2.0”. This involved establishing himself as a dependable Bollywood actor alongside addressing his first love: Direction. In 2011, his first release as a director, Jiyo Kaka, followed three cinema lovers kidnapping a leading heroine to fund their project with the ransom money. Since then, he has directed a steady stream of Bengali projects, with varying degrees of commercial and critical success. Highlights include the terrific comedy Hawa Bodol (2013) and the semi-autobiographical Shonar Pahar (2018). He also directed himself in the lead role of Feluda, Satyajit Ray’s sleuth number one, in a radically contemporary web adaptation that drew both praise and flak. Meanwhile, his Bollywood career blossomed.
Jehanabad, which treats him as a Star™, marks a milestone. Is a Param 3.0 on the way? “I hope so,” said Chattopadhyay. “I have already completed some exciting work, and am going to do some exciting work, as we speak.” His upcoming projects include a Sudhir Mishra-directed short film, where he stars alongside Taapsee Pannu; Nikhil Advani-led second season of Mumbai Diaries; Prime Video’s detective series PI Meena; the Hindi films Notary and Walker House. He also has several releases stacked up. March will see him in Shibpur, a political thriller, and the romantic drama, Ghore Ferar Gaan.
Around the Bengali New Year in April, he will be seen in the Arindam Sil-directed web series Shabash Feluda, where he reprises his role as the cerebral investigator. (He has also played Feluda’s deputy, teenager Topshe in the past; playing Topshe and Feluda is a rite of passage for all Kolkata actors aiming to be leading faces). He is also starring in the comedy Bibaho Bibhrat. And he will soon begin directing a Bengali superhero film. Phew.
Our first of two conversations was over Zoom. Chattopadhyay spoke from a hotel in Gangtok, where he is busy with the shoot for Shabash Feluda, due to release in a couple of months. “The shoot and post-production are going on simultaneously,” he said. “This was supposed to be shot in November but the weather was too bad and we had to postpone.”
Life frequently doesn’t work out the way you want. Coming from a certain educational and social background, Chattopadhyay found himself to be a fish out of water in his early years in the entertainment industry.
“I was an opinionated fucker and I still am,” said Chattopadhyay. “The industry slotted me as an aantel [intellectual], over-smart. So, I rubbed some people off the wrong way, or ended up stepping on people’s shoes, and I think that’s why I still feel under-acknowledged and underappreciated in Kolkata. By the industry, mind you, not the audience, which has always loved me. I have tried to do diverse work. I have worked with fresh filmmakers, studied filmmaking, directed films. And yet, instead of generating praise from my peers, it has only annoyed them.”
Chattopadhyay says he did try to mingle, not appear as snooty as others thought, but one can only try so much. “I tried to strike a balance, be a bit like them, taught myself to be mainstream, and it did bring some functionality to my career, but no matter how much I tried, it didn’t work. Because I am alert, aware and I speak my mind, I’d get a ‘Oh baba, Param, o to abar’ [Param? Watch out for him].”
Just as a professional with a degree from the West jumps a few steps in their career, a foothold in Bollywood quickly burnished his image in Kolkata. “Overnight, people were like, ‘That Param… I always knew he had it’,” he said with a laugh.
Mumbai has given him tough love, for which he is grateful.
“In Kolkata, there’s the risk of becoming self-indulgent because here if a producer likes your idea, your script is finished seven days before shooting,” said Chattopadhyay. “In Mumbai, your script will be challenged by everybody, from management graduates who have nothing to do with art to professionally-appointed script doctors, financiers, producers, fellow filmmakers. That is incredibly helpful because it keeps you grounded and makes you more aware of what you really want to make, so you keep polishing your script and get the husk out.”
Working in the Hindi film industry has also brought him more respect from peers and “highly respected seniors” in addition to recognition among the audience, who find it difficult to get a hang of his Bengali name. “They botch it,” Chattopadhyay said. “If you are going to Devnagarise it properly, it should be Paramvrat, right?” Please note, fans.
A constant struggle for finding love and respect has pushed him to the edge often, but describing himself, the June-born Cancerian said, “I am a hardened person on the outside, although I am very emotional inside.” The one time he recalls crying inconsolably was after his directorial, Shonar Pahar, turned out to be an unexpected superhit in the first weekend itself. This came after a two-year bad patch in his career. “I broke down completely at the steering wheel near Ruby [hospital], where I used to live with my mother, and I drove like that till Gariahat, while people stared from outside, and I kept getting congratulatory messages,” Chattopadhyay recalled.
Shonar Pahar stars Tanuja as an old widow, who has a fraught relationship with her son (Jisshu Sengupta), and has withdrawn from life until she develops a beautiful bond with a seven-year-old orphan boy. Chattopadhyay lost his father, critic and tabla player Satinath Chatterjee, in 2001. His mother, film critic Sunetra Ghatak, died in 2017.
Echoes and obsessions from his personal life silently recur in his artistic choices. Take, for instance, the plot of his directorial debut Jiyo Kaka, in which three guys are desperate to make a film. He frequently plays Leftists, or, at least, progressive rebels of some kind. Goutam Ghose’s Kaalbela (2009), in which he plays a conflicted Naxalite in 1970s' Kolkata, is one of his best films.
In Proloy (2013), Chattopadhyay played real-life activist Barun Biswas who was murdered for fighting local criminals in rural Bengal. Or take the film Hercules (2014), where he plays an orphaned simpleton who has to fight property developers and goons trying to snatch away his ancestral home. In Samantaral (2017), he plays a transperson who is misunderstood by his family. A love for the underdog and an aggression towards oppression is what Chattopadhyay naturally gravitates towards.
Chattopadhyay’s worldview spills out into his offscreen life. He had an active role in the anti-Bharatiya Janata Party tide within Kolkata prior to the 2021 Vidhan Sabha elections in West Bengal, which the Trinamool Congress won. During the second wave of the lockdown, he set up five safe homes for patients in Kolkata’s outskirts and helped with, among other things, oxygen cylinders.
Currently, while he is in Kolkata, he is extremely busy with dealings regarding property, production house, and meetings — things he sums up as “worldly matters”. How does this busy man — whose eyes dart during a conversation, as if constantly searching for the right frame for his answer — relax, other than having good girl Nina around? Chattopadhyay picked up Nina (she’s named after the iconic American singer and civil rights activist Nina Simone) as a little puppy while he was shooting Aranyak in Himachal Pradesh. Now, Nina is over two years old.
To answer the question, Chattopadhyay opened his liquor cabinet. There was Welsh whisky Penderyn, Connemara from Ireland, Auchentoshan from Scotland, a 21-year-old Johnny Walker collector’s edition. “I don’t smoke at all except during a meeting, or right now, because I have had coffee,” he said. “Otherwise, I like to spend on really good malt whisky.” Smells like home.