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“Native stories have a better chance at succeeding”

After appearing in a slew of Bengali films, actor Abir Chatterjee recently scored a double whammy at the box office with not one but two iconic detective genre films – Badshahi Angti and Byomkesh Phire Elo, which released on the same day. Despite releasing with Aamir Khan’s much-anticipated film PK last year, both films managed to hold their ground at cinemas. The actor, who also had a brief brush with Hindi films, playing Vidya Balan’s husband in Kahaani, speaks to Sagorika Dasgupta about his films and the Bengali film industry

There was a lot of speculation about the performance of your films clashing with one another as well as with PK. Now that they have both done well, does it feel surreal?

Absolutely! I had obviously not expected this as the odds were against me. It’s common knowledge in the film industry that when two big films release on the same day, each one is bound to hurt the other’s business, no matter what. Both my films also belonged to the detective genre and I was portraying two of the most popular and iconic characters that we have in Bangla literature – that of Byomkesh Bakshy and Satyajit Ray’s Feluda. As if that wasn’t risky enough, both my films were releasing on the day PK released! Trust me, I was sweating bullets before the release. (Laughs)

Didn’t you try to convince either producer to advance or postpone at least one film?

No, because despite so many years in the industry, I still consider myself small fry. I don’t think I am powerful enough to dictate release dates. My films were in the hands of really able directors and I had full faith in them. Sandip Ray, who is Satyajit Ray’s son, directed the film Badshahi Angti, and I knew he would not mess around with his own legacy. Similarly, I have portrayed the character of Byomkesh Bakshy in my previous films with Anjan Dutta, who is one of the most reputed Bengali directors in the country. It was not a planned strategy. I shot for Badshahi Angti from March 2014 and for the Byomkesh film in February 2014. The latter got delayed and so they both locked the same release date.

Feluda is a treasured character among Bengalis and the role has been portrayed by some of the most well-known actors like Soumitra Chatterjee and Sabyasachi Chakrabarty. Were you nervous about comparisons?

Yes, interestingly, it was Sabyasachi himself who recommended me to the director. His sons are like brothers to me and we are very close family friends. And he was the one who told me that he felt I could pull off the role. So I am glad I landed the part but it was a very challenging one. The brief that the director had given me was not to watch any of the previous films in the series, so that I wouldn’t copy the previous actors’ characteristics. But I know that every Bengali has watched every Feluda film and, like them, I had too. I am a big Feluda fan and I have read all his stories. The big differentiator of this film is that it is a reboot of the Feluda series. Badshahi Angti is the first story in the Feluda series, so there was a fresh take on everything including my character. It was a very challenging role also because it is an established brand and audience expectations were huge. Also, since the director Sandip Ray was planning to reboot the series, the future prospects of a sequel too depended on how I performed in this film. So there were a lot of artistic as well as business risks riding on this film but I am glad the audience accepted me as the new Feluda.

Your filmography boasts commercial films as well as these author-backed films. Have you consciously tried to create a balance between the two kinds of cinema?

Not really. I am an actor and my job is to entertain the audience. So I want to be a part of all kinds of cinema. I am an ardent Hindi film buff and I grew up on a healthy dose of ‘90s films. I loved films like Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahi etc. These were entertaining films yet they had big stars but I don’t think you can classify a film on the basis that it is commercial or art any more because all kinds of cinema can become a hit at the box office these days. I want to do more middle-of-the-road films like Dil Hai Ke Maanta Nahi, which were good stories and hits too. They should have good sensibilities and not be over-the-top. The audience is certainly demanding more stories like these, which are driven by a strong storyline. And I am not referring to the urban audience alone. It is also true of the rural audience. My films Bojhena Shey Bojhena and Baishe Srabon have a wide appeal because the content of these films was intellectual, fresh and had universal appeal too.

What kind of films work well for the Bengali audience?

We have a wider audience in Bengal now because even non-Bengalis in Bengal prefer watching Bengali films. So all kinds or genres emerge as winners, which is why there is a lot of experimentation in the industry. The younger audience, aged between 15 and 27, is the repeat audience. These are the people that make films successful. But, unfortunately, we are also giving rise to ‘urban villages’. I used to read a lot as a child and my parents encouraged that, which is why I had a deep connect with my roots and the stories of my land. Unfortunately, kids these days don’t read due to the Internet. Any film which reflects the culture of the place and is rooted is bound to work well in that region. That’s why Bhooter Bhobishyat did very well at the box office in Bengal but when it was remade in Hindi, it was a disaster.

Ritwik Ghatak once said that every film should connect with its roots. Filmmakers need to realise that we have ‘lukono rotno’ or a vast heritage in our literature, which is a treasure full of stories. Films based on these native stories will always rank higher. Thankfully, for a film like Badshahi Angti or Byomkesh Phire Elo, the TG cuts across 8-80 years. Any film with relatable characters also appeals to the audience, but the important thing is that the audience is very well informed these days and cannot be fooled. They will want their money’s worth when they spend Rs 190-200 on a movie ticket. But we still have many more proud miles to go.

You began your career with TV. Do you have any plans to do television again?

I recently did a very famous telefilm but, as of now, I don’t plan to go back to the medium because it’s a way more hectic medium than films.

You also played a small part as Vidya Balan’s husband in Kahaani. How did that film happen?

(Laughs) I died for Kahaani! That’s our inside joke. Sujoy Ghosh had actually seen a poster of one of my films and told his casting director that he wanted me to play Vidya’s husband on screen. He told me that it would be a small role but I was busy then. I had seen Sujoy’s work and I liked Jhankar Beats a lot. I met him and we got along like a house on fire. He has a very twisted sense of humour and I really liked that. I loved the story of Kahaani but couldn’t manage the dates. I guess the film was in my destiny because Kahaani got delayed as they didn’t get the permissions to shoot on the Metro. When the schedule was being re-shot, they contacted me again and this time I managed to do it. But Kahaani was like a Bengali film because Sujoy, the DoP, the cameraman and most of the crew were Bongs. Vidya was the only one who was not a Bengali but she speaks the language fluently and insisted that we only speak in Bangla on set!

Would you consider more roles in Hindi films now?

Not really. I am too busy with my assignments here and Hindi films require bulk dates, which I cannot afford to give at this point in time. I love the Bengali film industry. But then again, you never know… (Smiles)

Dibakar Banerjee is making a film on Byomkesh Bakshy in Hindi. What do you think of the trailer?

Dibakar is a fantastic director and if he has decided to take on the mantle to direct a Byomkesh Bakshy film, rest assured it will be a different ball game. I know most of the cast and crew that are part of the film including my co-star on many films, Swastika Chatterjee, who is playing the female lead. I do have a fair idea of the script and I know Dibakar has taken it notches higher. It is a new story and he has taken the liberty to drift from the story because the film is targeted at a wider national as well as international audience. All I can say is that I expect it to be a fantastic film. Byomkesh Phire Elois my last film in the franchise, and I was sad about it. But I am happy that Dibakar will be carrying the legacy forward.

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