He has more than 100 acting credits on IMDb, but Saswata Chatterjee might forever be remembered by Hindi audiences as Bob Biswas, the mild-mannered contract killer from Kahaani (2012). This says less about his versatility, which he has more than proved with his roles in both Bengali and Hindi cinema, and more about the unnerving power of his 15-minute performance in Kahaani. “I feel that I don’t look like a hero,” he said while talking to Film Companion. “So I need to choose good characters. And villains make great heroes.”
Chatterjee made his debut as an actor in 1996, playing Topshe, the Dr. Watson-esque sidekick to one of Bengal’s most beloved detectives, Feluda. He spent years reprising that role for TV and film adaptations before going on to establish himself as one Bengali cinema’s most reliable actors. Yet for all the work that he’d done in Bengal, it took Sujoy Ghosh and Kahaani to fully realise Chatterjee’s villainous potential. “As an actor, we have a lot to do in villainous roles,” Chatterjee says. “There are many shades of a villain. … So, you get the chance to show whatever you have got inside you.” The actor has since played a range of characters in Hindi films – he was the colourful father figure in Jagga Jasoos (2017); an assassin handler in the Kangana Ranaut-starrer Dhaakad (2022); and a loving father to a cancer-afflicted daughter in Dil Bechara (2020). He’s reliably convincing in all these roles, but there’s something special that Chatterjee brings to playing bad guys. There’s a calm malevolence that becomes all the more dangerous because of his unassuming everyman looks.
In the recently released The Night Manager, Anil Kapoor plays the central antagonist – the deadly arms dealer, Shelly Rungta – but it is Chatterjee’s Brijpal, or BJ, who steals the show as the menacing adversary. As Shelly’s right-hand man, BJ is ruthless, shrewd, cautious and delightfully acidic. Once protagonist Shaan Sengupta (played by Aditya Roy Kapur) infiltrates Shelly’s inner circle, it’s BJ that he has to outwit and avoid — and it’s not an easy task.
Chatterjee says he watched just one scene — to absorb the mood. “I’m a very instinctive actor,” he said — from the original The Night Manager in which Tom Hollander plays Chatterjee’s role. “I didn't want to follow or copy anything. I didn't want to be influenced by any other actor for this role,” said Chatterjee. A notable departure from the original is the friendship between BJ and Shelly Rungta. Hollander’s Corky is rejected with humiliatingly silent exclusion in the original, but in the Hindi adaptation, Kapoor’s Rungta treats BJ with fond indulgence. They’re childhood friends and this shows in their camaraderie. Having grown-up watching Kapoor on screen, Chatterjee was nervous about acting alongside the senior actor. “You hero worship somebody and the next day you are acting with him!”
The actor wanted to avoid playing the usual stereotypes that surround fictional gay men in Hindi cinema and wanted to make BJ “a gay character without underlining anything”. So even though BJ frequently refers to Shaan with a saccharine “sweetie” or “sonu” – calling on more conventional depictions of gay men – the words of endearment are laced with a threat. The endearment is less a come-on and more of a warning. Objectively, BJ is just another male character in Hindi cinema using his sleazy behaviour to intimidate a victim. But instead of the victim being a woman, BJ’s sexuality grants this trope a gender role-reversal – an opportunity Chatterjee seized with aplomb while being careful to not surrender to negative stereotypes. For instance, for all the overt sexuality of his personality — beginning with a nickname that’s a pun on a sexual act — BJ is not a sexual predator. In fact, at one point, his sexuality is used to victimise him.
BJ’s queerness is what drew Chatterjee to the role. “For the first time, I played a gay character, and it is a very important character of the series,” he said. “When I first met Anil Kapoor sir, he told me, ‘You have got the best role in the whole series’.” Kapoor was right.