Prosenjit Chatterjee, superstar of the Bengali film industry, on the strengths and weaknesses of Bengali cinema, its evolution in recent years and his connection to Satyajit Ray
ON THE MAJOR CHANGES IN THE BENGALI FILM INDUSTRY
That’s quite a long story. When I came into the industry, our Mahanayak, Uttam Kumar had passed away. There was a very big vacuum in the industry as he was such a huge star. It was the worst era for the Bengali film industry. We were like teenagers at the time and entered with a different kind of cinema. For me, it was a challenge to bring in something new, so we initially started with fights and a lot of action in our films and slowly that became a brand due to which those films started working.
Ten years down the line, everything changed… the audience, the technology and the cinematic language. I was doing a lot of mainstream cinema. I have done some 300-odd films. After a certain point, I started exploring myself as an actor; I started working with Ritu (Rituporno Ghosh) and Goutam Ghosh. As an actor, I keep trying to woo a new audience, that’s what motivates me.
I had the fan following of a typical mainstream hero, and there was even a time when people used to toss money at the screen whenever I appeared on screen. But there are people out there who want to watch a good film, a good actor, and I really wanted to explore that. So there was a huge change after I did Chokher Bali. Again, people started watching different kinds of films, which eventually turned into mainstream cinema or a box office hit.
Earlier, there was a huge gulf between mainstream cinema and art-house films. Now, especially after Autograph, a lot has changed in the industry. I am blessed to be a part of films like Sasurbari Zindabad, which were blockbusters of that period, that is, 15-20 years ago. Multiplexes started backing these ‘artsy’ films, a new wave of directors arrived like Shoojit (Sircar), Kaushik Ganguly and others. So, masala films are there, and I am very much a part of them, but meaningful cinema is also doing well at the box office.
People, especially the young generation, are ready to watch them, clubbed with Anupam’s (Roy) music. Most of the music in my film was with Bappida and most of those songs were super hits. My recent hits have been with Anupam, so the difference between the generations is understandable.
People often ask me what made me shift from mainstream cinema. I have a different perspective. I have always chosen films that suit my age. So, for instance, I wouldn’t want to do another Amar Sangi right now, which was my biggest hit. I would like to take up a character that would suit me because I’ve created a brand for myself.
As a mainstream actor, it’s always a high to hear your fans shouting and cheering, “Guru, guru!” It shouldn’t be like people should reject me. I just feel I should give that to my next generation. But I have done it for 30 years and now it’s time to keep my image intact. I am very happy with the work I have done in the last ten years. It’s constantly a challenge to do something different. We are surrounded by technology now. So many TV channels have emerged, people are changing their tastes. That’s the reason Baahubaali has done so well.
ON STARTING AS A CHILD ACTOR
My first film was Chhotto Jigyasa, when I was just 5 years old, and it was produced by my dad. Hrishikesh Mukherjee was the creative director of the film. But my mother wasn’t very keen on me becoming an actor and I was away from cinema for a long time after that. I started my career with Duti Pata and did a lot of theatre after that.
Even though I was the son of a big star (Biswajit Chatterjee), it didn’t help me get introduced to the biggies of the industry. I struggled like any other newcomer. I think that helped me stay in the industry for so long. I used to go for auditions, meet directors and approach people. I would like to tell all the aspiring actors to be patient. Everybody enjoys success but behind that success, every big star including Mr Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, has struggled a lot.
ON THE MEMORABLE MOMENTS OF HIS CAREER
The one person who has given me opportunities and has always been an encouragement for me is Rituporno Ghosh. It was he who took me out of mainstream cinema and encouraged me to do the kind of films I have been doing since then. He gave birth to a new Prosenjit, who was a hardcore mainstream hero. He gave me Utsab, Chokher Bali and that was one of the most memorable phases of my life. I did a small role in Unishe April. Debashree Roy was married to me and she was cast as the lead in the film. I was quite a big star then.
He came up to me one day and asked me if I would do a small role in the film. I said yes without thinking twice. But, after the film released, I found out the entire media writing about my performance which they had never seen on celluloid before. It was a big kick for me. So it was Ritu’s karishma that have helped me discover a different actor inside me. That’s how I started exploring myself.
ON WHERE BENGALI CINEMA IS LACKING
Let me be very honest about what I feel about being in the Bengali film industry. The problem with us is that we have a lot of intellectual people. We have Tagore, Ray, etc, and this has made the people believe that they are intellectually strong. There was a huge gap between commerce and creativity. Though we are the world’s largest-speaking community, we have never been very aggressive while marketing our films. We have received the maximum number of National Awards. Even outside the country, when people talk about Indian cinema, they speak about Bengali cinema first, because of Ray and Ghatak. And the legacy was maintained by Ritu and Aparna Sen.
But, in today’s times, I can see with the new set of filmmakers, things are changing. Even in Marathi cinema, they make wonderful films but they too don’t market their films well, the way Tamil-Telugu movies have done even though they are regional industries. I think we are a little late but the way Bengali cinema is moving, people are thinking in a progressive way. We have nation-wide releases as well as movies coming out internationally. We are not weak filmmakers; it’s just that we don’t promote our films the way they should be promoted. Budgets have increased as well, and with technology, it is not possible to make a small film.
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF FESTIVAL FILMS
We simply do not have enough cinemas. So, when it comes to a niche film or a film made for a festival, those films do not get much space in cinemas. But, in the last few years, we have seen that films that garner acclaim have an audience for them. Even if we have ten good theatres for a film like that, and not 30, there is a regular audience for these films.
For example, when Goutam Ghosh and Buddhadeb Das Gupta made films, they used to get a lot of awards, and the films were highly acclaimed. But they didn’t get much recognition at the box office. Today, when a Kaushik Ganguly or a Srijit Mukherjee film releases, it has a certain audience, who make these films box office hits. My film Moner Manush got a National Award, an Indian Panorama Award, and my performance was acclaimed. At the same time, it was a huge box office hit. People are now willing to watch and learn about their culture from films.
ON THE WEST BENGAL GOVERNMENT’S SUPPORT
We don’t have a rule like Maharashtra does, where the government has made it mandatory for exhibitors to give an apt window to its regional films. But, yes, our cinema halls and multiplexes are pretty supportive of our films. It’s like a family. It is a small industry. We know everybody so well. It’s not that they don’t want to give our films a good position but, obviously, when a Shah Rukh Khan film releases, they have to allot space for a film like that.
ON HIS BOLLYWOOD VENTURES
I did two to three films after Aandhiyan, like Meet Mere Man Ke. Then I also did Veerta with Sunny Deol. But I had already done films like that. And then I came back. I had a lot of offers in Bombay at that time. In fact, Maine Pyaar Kiya was offered to me first, officially. Surajji (Barjatya) knows this. I couldn’t take it up because I was over-committed to Bengali cinema. This is destiny and I don’t regret it at all. I’m very happy with my life because people know me outside Bengali cinema as well. My last Hindi film was Shanghai, which was appreciated.
ON DOING MORE HINDI MOVIES
I am very open to doing meaningful cinema. Ten or 15 years ago, I used to be a top mainstream star in Kolkata. And it’s the same with a lot of Tamil- Telugu superstars. If I leave my own region, I would have to challenge someone like Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan. Dibakar Banerjee made me understand that when he wanted me to work in his film as an actor, not as a star. If someone comes up with something good that will make me stay in that race and I can do good work, I am open to such offers. A lot of journalists from Mumbai still say to me, Aap aajaiye Mumbai mein!
ON THE BENGALI INDUSTRY
ADAPTING TO DIGITAL PLATFORMS
The digital platform is yet to be understood, even by people in Mumbai. This media has just arrived and there are a lot of hopes and negativity as well. I realised that the digital platform is the future but there is no roadmap because this is not a very ‘tried and tested’ method. It is being followed because of Netflix and Amazon is coming in, so there is a lot of buzz about it. But nobody truly understands it.
Even down South, they are not exploring the digital platform the way the industry in Bombay does. But, again, in Bombay, people can take risks because they have a huge market. In regional industries, we have to see where we stand, the return on investments, etc. In Calcutta, SVF (Shree Venkatesh Films) is starting its own channel and all the big stars will be working for it. As a revenue model, the digital platform has a long way to go but there will come a time when people will earn good revenue from digital content. Now, we don’t make films; we are essentially content providers. Earlier, we had just one screen – the cinema screen – but now we have so many screens.
ON THE STARS OF TODAY
There are a lot of young boys working very hard, whether Abir Chatterjee, Dev, Jeet. They are trying their best. They have to be patient. For me, I have been focusing on acting for 30 years. Even Mr Bachchan is an actor first before any other business he does. I mean, we have the liberty to think about production etc but at the peak of my career, I have focused only on acting. Shah Rukh established his company only a few years ago. For the first 20 years, I aimed at only being a star. I am sure they will be there for another 30 years.
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTENT-BASED FILMS TODAY
I always felt that directors from Bengal tried to inherit or carry forward Ray’s legacy. Every director has a little bit of Ray inside them. That is their final inspiration. But everybody cannot be Ray. The economy has to work. When we talk about Ray’s films, we can’t deny Uttam Kumar-Suchitra Sen’s Saptapadi also. This on-screen pair has given so much money and hits in Bangla cinema. These were actually mainstream cinema actors directed by Ray at the time.
So mainstream cinema will be there, it has to be there. Every director has the vision of Ray. In Bombay too, whether Shoojit or Sujoy, they are influenced by that person. They are so inspired that they want to follow in his footsteps. And not only Bengalis, filmmakers all over the country are inspired by him. He is the final institution.
ON SATYAJIT RAY’S CONTRIBUTION
Let me tell you a simple story. Two years ago, I was in Cannes, and there was a seminar that kind of represented Indian cinema. All the big producers and directors from our film industry were present. And the backdrop of that platform at the seminar had Madhabi Mukherjee’s poster with a pair of binoculars, a scene from Ray’s Charulata. So when we talk about Indian cinema, it is about Ray, Ray and Ray! Every film of his has been a lesson to me. But, for me as an actor, I have always dreamt of doing a film like Jalsaghar. That’s one of my favourite Ray films!
ON HIS EXPERIENCE OF MEETING SATYAJIT RAY
Yes, yes, yes! I didn’t get an opportunity to get to work with him because it was too early. And he passed away when we were just getting into the industry. We were like family. My sister was getting married and I remember going to his place, to personally invite him. He opened the door for me himself, he was a very humble man. I went inside. I was around 16-17 years old. I can’t express in words what it felt like, sitting in front of Ray.
My mother could not come with me, so it was just me with my sister’s wedding card, sitting next to him. All I could tell him was that my sister was getting married and I needed his blessings. Later in life, when I used to shoot in studios like Indrapuri and if I would get to know that he was around, I would go up to him and meet him.
His personality was of such gravitas that whenever we would meet him, we would be in awe of him. It’s the same with Mr Bachchan. Everybody is star-struck. You can’t avert your gaze. Looking at him is an experience. I used to visit him on the sets just to see how he used to shoot. Since I belong to this industry, I was allowed to meet him. That sums up my experience.
FILMS THAT CHANGED THE BENGALI FILM INDUSTRY
Pather Panchali, Chokher Bali, Autograph, Baisey Srabon, Saptapadi and 36 Chowringhee Lane.
ON CHANGES NEEDED IN BENGALI CINEMA
Marketing, exhibition… cinema halls should increase and tie up with Bangladesh.
– As told to Suranjana Biswas