In the star system that operates in Indian cinema, it is extremely difficult to cull out a best-of list. More so, when box-office prowess often tends to overshadow the actor, and where financial security considerations often force him to do more films than the actor in him can do justice to. Then there's the question of: how do we decide which film is worth including? Apur Sansar is a must in any list of Soumitra Chatterjee films, but does one discount him jiving to 'Jibane ki paabo na' in Teen Bhuvaner Paare just because it is 'commercial' and more entertaining?
In his autobiography Khullam Khulla, Rishi Kapoor makes the point that in his first twenty-five years as an actor he was merely changing jerseys and humming songs; it's only in the last decade or so that he has received the kind of roles that have challenged the actor in him. He might well have been talking of Prosenjit Chatterjee, the one actor who can lay claim to being a superstar in Bengali cinema after Uttam Kumar.
Wikipedia and IMDB list at least 276 films starring him. These include films with titles like Sinduer Adhikar (1998), Baba Keno Chakor (1998), Sindurer Khela (1999), Santan Jakhon Shatru (1999), Sasur Badi Zindabad (2000). His association with directors like Swapan Saha and Sujit Guha will never be counted among the many classic actor-director combinations in the world. However, the phenomenal success of their films not only created a true-blue box-office star in a cash-starved industry, but also enabled the star to eventually break out and experiment with roles that have made him the go-to actor for any Bengali film-maker who wants a bankable name to kick-start an offbeat film. And that's what makes Prosenjit special.
For almost fifteen years after he made his debut as a star in the 1980s (he debuted as a child star in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's 1969 film Chhoto Jigyasa, when fetched him a BFJA award for most outstanding work), Prosenjit was synonymous with Bengali potboilers that blazed through the screens of B and C towns in Bengal. It was Unishe April (1996) that marked a shift in his approach. Without turning his back on the kind of films that made a star of him, he carved out a niche for himself as an actor unafraid of pushing the envelope. Here then is a list of five of his most memorable films that will stand the test of time.
Almost every person I spoke to for this piece – Arindam Sil, Srijit Mukherji, Jisshu Sengupta, Birsa Dasgupta – not only included this in the list of Prosenjit's best films, but also made it a point to underline this as his finest act. And it's not difficult to see why. Confined to a hospital bed for the most part, this is a performance marked by silent reaction shots (look at him responding to his wife breaking the news of the death of his lover or handing him a box of condoms found in his luggage after his life-altering weekend tryst with her). He has hardly any dialogue and is largely immobile – both tough acts for an actor to pull off, particularly in the Indian tradition of stardom. But Prosenjit delivers and how.
For a star like Prosenjit to render himself unrecognizable is never easy. In Moner Manush he does just that and more, moving so far away from the trappings of stardom so as to render it impossible to imagine that this is the same singing and dancing star of a hundred hard-core blockbusters. Birsa calls it "probably his most challenging" role – not only because the star had no reference points for this but also because he essays it without making a saint of, without sacrificing the basic human nature of the fakir. Kudos to director Goutam Ghose and to the actor for the fearlessness with which they address contentious issues of sexuality in the life of a real-life fakir with a cult following, who occupies a special space in Bengal's devotional tradition.
To take on a role essayed by Uttam Kumar in a 'remake' of a film still fresh in the minds of audiences – that in itself would have been daunting. That Prosenjit did this in a film by a first-time film-maker (Srijit Mukherji) makes it that much more commendable. As superstar Arun Mukherjee, he not only conveys the arrogance of a superstar (just watch him say, 'kaak daak, kukur chillaye, aami obhinoy kori' – crows caw, dogs bark, I act), but also provides the audience an insight into a vulnerable core that enhances the portrayal immensely. Though I was sorely tempted to include Srijit's next film Baishe Srabon (2011) here, Autograph won over that; one, because Baishe was more a director's triumph, and two, because, as Birsa says, "he dared to play a role kind of similar to what Uttam Kumar had done and with autobiographical elements, which is never easy to do".
My personal favourite of the star's performances, this is the kind of film that fills one with awe and reverence, both for the actor and the director who has envisaged this. When he first comes on screen in a rundown library in a mofussil town in Bengal, it actually took me a few minutes to recognize him as Prosenjit, in a way that was different to Moner Manush. In the latter he had the crutches of make-up to fall back upon; in Jatishwar, there's none of that. The meekness, the vulnerability that he brings to the character torn between his everyday self and his belief about being a reincarnation of Anthony Firingee is heartbreaking. Then there's his self as the kobi gaan specialist, where every movement, every spoken word is choreographed to perfection, providing a fascinating counterpoint to his present-day Kushal Hazra. Interestingly enough, this is another role that Uttam Kumar had immortalized.
I know, this will open me to brickbats aplenty – after all there are at least half a dozen films that one can reel off that should be here (not least Chokher Bali, Drishtikone, Shankhachil, Mayurakshi). Amar Sangi finds a place neither because the film broke any new ground artistically nor because of Prosenjit's performance. If anything, the film harked back to the mainstream Hindi cinema of the 1960s and a million other rich-boy-poor-girl romances that have been the staple diet of Indian cinema. But this is one for the past. This is the film that launched the 275 others, and even after thirty years, Prosenjit rendering 'Chirodini tumi je amaar' is a memory that endures.
Arindam Sil: Bumba-da's perseverance has enabled him to break away from the set acting pattern that existed in Bangla cinema for a while. My selection of the best five films of his is based on his ability to create believable flesh-and-blood characters: Unishe April, Chokher Bali, Moner Manush, Jaatishwar, Mayurakshi.
Jisshu Sengupta: It's his passion and dedication towards his craft that makes him the star he is … he eats, drinks and sleeps films. My list of favourites: Dosar, Chokher Bali, Jaatishwar.
Birsa Dasgupta: He is fearless, dedicated, he can sense tomorrow, and he is still "younger" than any of us. An inspiration. My list will include: Unishe April, Chokher Bali, Dosar, Moner Manush, Autograph.