Parambrata Chatterjee On Balancing The Actor And Director In Him, And What’s Holding Back Bengali Cinema

‘We tend to consider ourselves as the most cinema- and culture-literate people in the country, and this prevents us from a truer search for good cinema’
Parambrata Chatterjee On Balancing The Actor And Director In Him, And What’s Holding Back Bengali Cinema

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri: When was it that you first thought of entering cinema – you are related to Ritwik Ghatak … how much of an influence was he (of course he had passed away by then)? Give our readers an insight into Parambrata before he became a star.

Parambrata Chatterjee: I grew up with music and cinema and literature … my mother was a film archivist and the cultural editor of a leading Bengali daily. From my early teens, I was fascinated with the processes behind the camera; by the time I was sixteen or seventeen, I was completely immersed in the world of cinema, watching films from all over the world.

But becoming an actor was an accident. In 2000, Anjan-da (Anjan Dutt) picked me to play the lead in a TV series he was making about a Bengali rock band. For me, it was kind of like earning some pocket money. I enrolled into Jadavpur University doing English honours and other offers kept coming. I accepted a few, rejected the others, trying to strike a balance between my studies and this process of earning some pocket money.

It was only in 2002 when I got the offer to play Topshe for Sandip Ray's Bombaiyer Bombete that I told myself: well, you're getting into serious business here and really need to take a call. That is when I decided to pursue this full time.

Shantanu: You are probably the only actor who has and will ever play both Topshe and Feluda (in the web series you directed). What was the experience like?

Parambrata: It was exciting for me at the age of twenty to be playing Topshe, a youth icon for all Bengali kids, working with Sandip Ray, getting associated with the legacy that the Ray family is all about. I also acted in another Sandip Ray film called Nishijapon which was not a Feluda film. By the time I did my last outing as Topshe in 2008, I was older. So, I decided to stop doing Topshe. By now, the films I was doing were a lot more mature in terms of content. In the Sandip Ray films, Topshe is this kind of universal brother and that image of Parambrata was sort of coming into conflict with the other roles I was playing.

It was almost eight or nine years later that I stepped into playing Feluda for the web series that I directed. For me it was a gradual, almost natural progression because Topshe as a character always wanted to emulate Feluda. As I saw it, Topshe could actually grow up to become Feluda, which happened in my case. We also tried to refashion Feluda in the sense that the world Feluda lived when the franchise was created – back in the late 1960s, 1970s – was very different from the world today. I wanted to make Feluda a lot more contemporary.

When I am hired as an actor in somebody's film, it does get tricky at times because I tend to think of it in terms of how I would have done it, especially when I work for new directors who are not yet adept at the craft

Shantanu: As director you are the captain of the ship. As an actor you are, more or less, part of the director's vision – how do you switch from one to the other? More importantly, how do you manage to retain objectivity as an actor when you are directing yourself?

Parambrata: The two roles do overlap. When I am hired as an actor in somebody's film, it does get tricky at times because I tend to think of it in terms of how I would have done it, especially when I work for new directors who are not yet adept at, well-versed in the craft and end up taking way too much time. I tend to come forward and try to make the whole thing a little easier so that we can also go home early. Some of them accept it well, some others think that I'm interfering too much.

I do try to maintain my objectivity and my neutrality as an actor when I'm working with veteran directors, because I respect their style, their way of doing things.

As far as maintaining objectivity as an actor is concerned when I'm acting in my film, I think that comes naturally and also with a bit of experience. Also, I think I have started enjoying acting in my own films. The first time I did it with Hawa Badal, it wasn't a very pleasant experience, it was very stressful. As a director you have to keep a track of everything that's going on, the budget, the other actors, the script, the technical aspects. I have done that a few times now and I've started enjoying it and have managed to develop a reasonable amount of objectivity about my performance.

Shantanu: Tell us about some of your inspirations as a film-maker.

Parambrata: I grew up with the right kind of Bengali influences – Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, who also happens to be someone I am related to, although I wasn't fortunate enough to meet him in person because he passed away before I was born. But yes, that legacy somewhere runs in the family. I'm always reminded of it by my uncles, by my maternal aunts.

As a kid or as a teenager, quite naturally I was more attracted towards Ray. The polish in his films, the immaculate craft, I was also a big fan of his writing and continue to be so.

But as I grew up and matured, I started understanding Ghatak a little more. The almost physical discomfort he experiences with certain social phenomena, which he addresses through regular stories, stories of everyday people. The sort of activism that we encounter in Ghatak's work has had a very strong influence on me as an adult.

I came to admire Ghatak more after I went to the film school in England, after I got into film-making. I realized that yes, in my own very small way, I also might be termed as an artiste with an 'e' at the end, and as an artiste I have to reckon with this little seed of activism that is there in me as well. The things which affect me, the things which bother me have to filter through my work, the way it did with him. Because I am very interested in politics and history, the way Ghatak perceived history, especially that of the subcontinent, has had a tremendous impact on me. The pain of partition that manifests itself in his work has influenced me immensely.

The other director I want to mention is Tapan Sinha. I have always felt that he is tremendously underrated as a film-maker – he really knew how to make sensible entertainment. His stories revolved around middle-class and upper middle-class people, normal characters, things which the audience could easily understand and relate to. At the same time, they were more than just entertainers. I think he managed a wonderful balance which I think we need today.

Shantanu: What are the films that challenged the actor in you? Which performance would you rate your personal favourite?

Parambrata: That's a difficult one … quite a few challenging roles have come my way. The Bong Connection was one, because it was my first big film as a hero of sorts, and I was also working with Anjan-da after a big gap. I was young and we were shooting in America, under circumstances that I wasn't used to. I think Chotushkone was quite exciting, Apur Panchali was, Hemlock Society – the swagger I conveyed in it, I really enjoyed that, but I think Chotushkone was more challenging because Srijit wanted something that was beyond me. The same with Apur Panchali, this very regular, middle-class man, who is now part of film folklore thanks to just one film – it resonated with me.

There's this slightly lesser known film which I really enjoyed, Hercules, where I had a double role. One is this loner who lives all by himself in his house, which he tries to protect with all his heart and might, but he is really a very weak, feeble kind of a guy, a loser in all respects. But then he finds his alter ego in this man who comes to seek shelter in his house, who is a very 'dude, macho' version of him.

And I think the two big Hindi films were demanding. Kahaani because I was working with a big star and I had just come back from England and we were shooting under the most challenging conditions, on the streets in Calcutta, with Vidya Balan, and I was acting after quite a few years. Also, my Hindi wasn't as good as it is now. And with Pari, again Anushka is a big star, working with her, and then it was a very difficult film to make, very intense. Being in the zone all the time, it was just her and myself most of the time, and I had to play this meek, young Bengali middle-class guy who is always distraught and caught between ideas of right and wrong.

Shantanu: Do you think we are witnessing a revival in Bengali cinema – we are seeing a lot of new subjects, genres, being explored in new ways. What do you think are the areas we still need to be better at?

Parambrata: In the phase in which I grew up, the 1980s and '90s, Bengali cinema meant two diametrically opposite kinds of films – crass potboilers on one hand, and rare arthouse films by Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Aparna Sen or Goutam Ghose, on the other. Compared to that, I think yes, Bengali cinema has come a long way in the last ten to twelve years. We are making different kinds of films, new ideas. We have managed to bring a big section of the audience, particularly the middle-class and upper middle-class, back to the theatres.

Having said that, I think there is still a long way to go. I cannot help feeling that midway through this revival, we have also become a little complacent – that we are doing good cinema, but we are not really thinking about it in a global perspective. We are not really keeping an eye open to the kind of cinema being made all over the world, all around India for that matter.

I think we Bengalis do have a chip on our shoulders, we tend to consider ourselves as the most cinema- and culture-literate people in the country, and this prevents us from venturing into more grounded, a truer search for good cinema. We must see every kind of cinema that is being made all around the world, all over the country. We could be a little more rooted in terms of the content that we are producing in Bengali cinema.

And yes, Bengali cinema has always been a little on the verbose side. I don't really mind that because I think there is a certain aesthetic to these 'chatty' films also, which should be taken into account. Also, we have to work around budget constraints in a regional setup, and that too one not as big as a Tamil or Telugu or even Malayalam industry. We have to compensate for the lack of opulence, lack of grandeur, with a lot of rhetoric, with dialogue-based discussion, which the Bengali audience likes.

Shantanu: From your first film to Sonar Pahar, how do you think you have evolved as a film-maker? Do you analyse yourself?

Parambrata: I don't think there are mistakes you make as a film-maker … making films is an evolutionary process, just as you grow old, you grow more mature, you know your craft, your art also matures, like old wine, or even like good whiskey, good malt. Yes, there are certain things that if I had to look back and re-evaluate, I would have done differently in Jiyo Kaka, but they weren't mistakes. Now, in retrospect, I might find them not so correct, or I might want to change them around a little, but at that time that is what I wanted.

However, I see a distinct evolution, or a distinct change, in my own craft. My personality has changed, the craft will also change. I have become a lot less neurotic, I have calmed down quite a bit, become more mature, but I'm sure ten years from now, when I make another film, and I sit to re-evaluate Sonar Pahar, I will feel that my craft has become much more different now and I would have done something differently if I was doing it now. Ten years from now that's what I'm going to think about Sonar Pahar as well.

I think we Bengalis do have a chip on our shoulders, we tend to consider ourselves as the most cinema- and culture-literate people in the country, and this prevents us from venturing into more grounded, a truer search for good cinema

Shantanu: Soumitra and Tanuja in the same film – one immediately remembers 'Jibane ki pabona' (Teen Bhuvaner Parey). What was it like to get them together again?

Parambrata: I was kind of toying in my head with the probable cast list. The thing is there are fantastic actresses here like Sabitri Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, or Aparna Sen, whom I spoke to for this film, but in the end, it didn't really work out. I was also talking to Tanuja aunty but I didn't know whose dates I was going to get. I'm glad that I finally went with her because she brings this very desired freshness, which a Sabitri aunty or a Madhabi aunty might not have had, because they are regulars on television and in films.

Tanuja aunty is somebody Bengali audience have seen and have loved over the years, but she has not done a Bengali film in a very long time. Upma, the character, is a woman who wouldn't exactly come across as adorable when you look at her the first time. I wanted Upma to look a little rough, a little scruffy, a little angry maybe, a little annoyed, but you slowly discover the soft core in her and that's exactly the case with Tanuja aunty as well. I was very scared to meet her for the first time, but she is a sweetheart.

As for Soumitra Chatterjee, that is a casting decision I made completely out of greed. I admit that. You know, when Tanuja aunty agreed to do the film, I just called him and said, 'Sir, will you do it?' It's essentially a guest appearance, but with a nice flavour to it. He asked me who was playing the woman, and I said Tanuja aunty. He responded, 'Really, Tanu, that will be nice, I will be meeting her after quite some time and we can chat about old memories and old things.' The day he came to shoot, just looking at these two people in the same frame made me feel so good. I almost felt like I was a part of a legacy, a history.

Shantanu: What does Parambrata do when he is not making a film or starring in it? How do you unwind?

Parambrata: I don too many hats. I am a regular actor, I direct films and I also have a small production outfit, we have only started. It's been about one and a half to two years now. We are quite heavily into making content for OTT platforms – web series, short films; we are planning to venture into making full-length feature films. It's a lot of work, and I think I unwind from one kind of work by doing another kind! So, when I'm acting, when I'm doing films constantly for two or three months, I unwind by donning a producer's hat. When I'm producing for too long, I unwind by directing a film. When I've finished directing a film, I unwind by being on somebody else's set working as an actor – so it kind of goes around in circles! The only other thing that resonates with me or makes my life better is music.

My typical day when I'm not shooting would entail waking up in the morning, going to the gym, coming to the office by 11:30-12, looking into the creatives. In the evening, I hang out with the boys in office, discuss ideas, chit-chat a little and then go back home. That's my kind of a typical day, I like working, I like being in the middle of action, that's how it is.

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