Abhishek Banerjee is really good at playing the bad guy. In the new Amazon Prime series Paatal Lok, created by NH10's Sudip Sharma, he's the hammer-wielding gangster Vishal 'Hatoda' Tyagi, whose laundry list of offences include kidnapping, ransom and 45 murders. The actor's earlier villainous turns include Devashish Makhija's Ajji (2017), in which he plays a violent predator, and the sly Compounder in Mirzapur, who finds poetry in slitting men's throats with a razorblade.
In between working on his craft, Banerjee's also been co-running casting company Casting Bay with friend Anmol Ahuja for the past 10 years. The two have cast films such as Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017), The Dirty Picture (2011) and Secret Superstar (2017). Now, with a lockdown in effect due to COVID-19, he talks about the effect it's had on business and what actors can do to hone their talent at home:
Tell us about your character in Paatal Lok. What does it take to get into the mindspace of a gangster?
The name is everything – Hathoda Tyagi. It can be interpreted in many ways, as a weapon, as a source of strength, as motivation, determination. There's also that saying, 'Strike while the iron is hot.' He has a strong commitment to his work, even if it's crime. I've learnt a lot from him, especially patience. I had a lot of jail scenes and now in lockdown, I'm taking cues from what I used to tell myself in character during those scenes, to just be patient. And that's working amazingly.
I spent a lot of time questioning the character, circumstances, ideology, socio-political relationships. During one workshop, I was locked inside a dark, empty room for 15 minutes. I couldn't see or hear anything. That emptiness really hit me hard. My way of seeing the character changed, I related to him so deeply that I started crying. Once, I told Sudip Sharma and (director) Prosit Roy to talk to me as if I were Hatoda Tyagi and I'd answer in character. The questions went from surface-level to questions about his emotions, his thoughts. I broke down then too – the pain I was feeling at that moment for another human was the trigger for all of Hathoda's angst and anger you see in the character.
It's a very heavy character. I was under tremendous pressure. Not because I had to act, but because I had to feel what he felt. Without understanding the kind of society that gives birth to such criminals, I don't think my performance would have had honesty. It's not just about anger, about bashing a head with a hammer 20 times and blood splattering. It's about understanding why you get there.
Is playing the bad guy always this heavy? You were one in Ajji of course, but it felt like you were having so much fun as Compounder in Mirzapur.
I didn't have fun on Ajji. I hated the character. I would tell Devashish, 'Why are you making me do this? I don't want to see your face, I just want to go.' It was quite depressing to go to those locations and do that difficult performance. I'd always want to get out of the character.
Mirzapur has this hawabaazi or Dabangg style that is the core of Indian audiences. They want to see that. It's a lot of fun to play those characters because you know you can obviously never feel that power in real life. I've been a fan of such characters, like what Irrfan did in Haasil (2003). After watching it, I'd always wanted to play a character in this student politics space and Compounder came my way. It had a nice twist in the tale because he was such a good friend. With all his flaws, he was still human at the end of the day. I had no expectations, I was doing it for money and because (showrunner) Karan Anshuman was a friend. But it's crazy how the meanest, the most cynical character is the most loyal in a city where no one is loyal to each other.
In your early acting days, you had small parts in Rang De Basanti (student giving an audition), Bombay Talkies (man at bhurji stand), Inside Edge (drug dealer), No One Killed Jessica (pickpocket). What did you learn from those experiences?
I had a very clear plan – that I could not go to FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) or NSD (National School of Drama) and spend time learning from teachers. I told myself I had to learn from life. I'm not from a family that would pay Rs 2.5 lakh, which were the fees at FTII at that time. I didn't have the resources. So I acted to learn acting. Those small roles were my acting classes. They rejected me for major parts but were sweet enough to give me small parts, one-scene roles. After being rejected for the role of Maneesh in No One Killed Jessica (2011), I got offered the role of one of the friends. And they're big parts. But I wanted to play the pickpocket because he had his own journey. (Actor) Tushar Pandey is a really good friend because we were classmates and also belong to the same theatre group. His brother, Sunil, was the assistant director on Rang De Basanti (2006). He called us to be part of the crowd and I was like, 'Chalo, even this is acting.'
In Go Goa Gone (2013), I played a guy selling condoms. (Director) Amar Kaushik needed someone so I went to Goa just for that one scene. I did Bombay Talkies (2013) only because I wanted to be in a film that Amitabh Bachchan was also in. The idea was never to do big parts or films that would become big, the idea was to do things with honesty and to find the truth in these parts.
You've said casting should be a compulsory internship for most actors, even if it's just for a month. What are some things casting teaches you about acting?
Everything. It's all about characters. I've been a casting director for the past 10 years and I've only been thinking, eating, talking and dreaming about characters. My day-to-day life involves visualizing different characters, then explaining to actors, in detail, what the characters are so they understand without having to read the script. Then I have to make them perform according to that character. Finally, my own gut feeling helps me shortlist them before finalizing them with the director. During this process, I am only thinking about characters. As an actor, when I get a character that has one dimension, I try to bring out many other dimensions of that character. I compare it to every other character I've read or heard about, seen other actors perform or even performed myself. I start understanding the different layers the character could have. And you can't do that if you're not living your life among characters. My life has become that. If I'm at a coffee shop or in a meeting, I imagine the people as characters in a meeting that I've cast. My brain has autotuned itself that way. It's fun, it's like a 'game on' mode.
How do you negotiate between the actor and the casting director in you? When you see a part you think you're right for, what do you do?
If I feel like I'm right for it and I know the makers well, I'll tell them. I'll be embarrassed and awkward about it, but I tell them first thing. I'd auditioned for the role of Maneesh in No One Killed Jessica, which Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub got. There have been many times when my partner Anmol has auditioned and rejected me. It happens. But I've never been desperate to play any character I've read as a casting director. My first job was casting and that's why a company formed by two young boys has survived this industry and has the reputation of being one of the good casting companies in this city – because we always believed in honesty and fair play. I've never used it as my launch pad or tried to use my influence to get roles. That doesn't happen. In fact, people will make fun of you if you're a bad actor.
You've said that now, more than ever, acting as a profession is being taken more seriously. What changes are you seeing as a result of this?
Because of the exposure to international web shows, the audience is watching all kinds of content from across the globe. We need to understand that these platforms aren't just national, they're international. Look at a show like Money Heist. It's a Spanish show. Many, many more people are going to watch these shows if they're made well and made keeping the global standards in mind. Our cinematography has changed so much since the 90s only because people keep talking about 'the look', now people are talking about acting only because they're seeing so many good performances on streaming and drawing direct comparisons. People are bored of routine performances, of watching the same things. So there's a pressure to deliver a performance that isn't routine. I can't do a character that's similar to Hathoda Tyagi now. Even if I get offered a character who has a hammer in hand, I can't play him the same way because people will keep referring to what I've done before. So this typecasting which used to happen before and that actors were very happy with is slowly being broken.
Our work has reduced by 80%. People just aren't doing anything right on. Even for those projects that are technically on, nobody knows when they're going to happen. We're doing a few auditions but nothing full-fledged. It's too early to say what's going to happen. We're doing auditions for web shows but we don't know how fruitful those will be. We're getting self-taped auditions, maybe we'll have to move to Zoom soon. We're also making and sending self-tests so people have a reference and they can shoot theirs accordingly. This is the best time for writers though. They have all the time, no deadlines and they can create something amazing.
What can upcoming actors do at home to hone their skills? What do you recommend they read or watch?
They need to watch documentaries. There are so many on these web platforms. International documentaries like Tiger King (2020) and The Central Park Five (2012) are well made. They're narrated like stories and the characters are real, but there's still so much drama. As an actor, the learnings I've got from documentaries is that sometimes you don't need to create drama, the drama is in the situation, the story, the conflict. So documentaries teach you how not to act. They also educate you in terms of helping you understand different characters and how many layers a single human being can have. Watch historical documentaries on what the emperors did and the mistakes they made. They'll help you understand decision making, how societies are formed. If you watch nature documentaries or documentaries about our planet, you'll see how everything is connected, how similar our lives are, how to co-exist. Everything will help you when you're doing a role.