Remember ‘Bob Biswas’ in Kahaani? Even though it was a bit role, it became the talk of the town. But in Bengali cinema, Saswata Chatterjee is already a name to contend with. Here’s the actor, in conversation with Sagorika Dasgupta, on his journey to stardom and his latest film Meghe Dhaka Tara
Your film Meghe Dhaka Tara released in Mumbai yesterday. What is the kind of response you’re getting?
I am the happiest person these days. The film released a few weeks ago in West Bengal and the response was overwhelming. Many of the veteran actors of the Bangla film industry including Madhabi Mukherjee (Charulata), appreciated my work. I don’t know how the film has been received in Mumbai and other places outside Kolkata because I don’t carry a cell phone, so it’s a bit difficult for people to reach me. (Laughs)
The film has the same title as director Ritwik Ghatak’s masterpiece of the same name. What attracted you to the role?
This film is like a biopic of the famed director Ritwik Ghatak. It was a very challenging role to play since it is about a real person, who people know about. That’s the challenge with most biopics. I had to get all the nuances right. When you play a fictitious character, you have the creative freedom to portray it according to your whims. But with a biopic, you need to enact what the character really was like.
Unlike Satyajit Ray, who has been written about extensively by the media, Ghatak’s life was a mystery…
(Cuts in) Yes, that’s why the challenge was even bigger. There is very little media coverage about the man. So I read up a little about him and watched his film Jukti Takko Aar Gappo to watch him on screen. I was very nervous to play his character. Since he was a very prominent director, I thought that there would be some apprehensions from the audience. Either they will love it or they will not, but they will not be able to ignore it.
The director Kamleshwar did a fantastic amount of research and the script was really good. Ghatak had a stupendous level of energy. He was ahead of his time and when we were shooting, we felt as if we were in a trance.
Your father Subhendu Chatterjee was a famous Bengali actor. Was acting a natural career plan for you?
Not exactly. I was very laid back in my youth. I joined college just for the sake of it. I was into rock culture in a big way, and would while away my time just sitting around or playing music. One day, my dad asked me what I wanted to do in life. Since he was this big actor, and I was too lazy to give my career any serious thought, I told him I wanted to become an actor just like him. I was not serious, of course. He told me that just because I was an actor’s son didn’t mean I had the talent to become an actor. I had to learn the nuances of acting. And so I joined a theatre group called Charbak.
I enjoyed doing theatre and was actively involved in some major plays for six to seven years. My plays began getting recognition and soon I was offered my first TV series titled Topshe, which was a famous detective series by Satyajit Ray and was directed by his son Sandip Ray. It aired on DD Bangla and it became so successful that soon I got my first offer to do a film.
Were you ever in awe of your father’s success in the Bangla film industry?
I was totally unaware of how great Bangla cinema was. I was very callous about my father’s work and the success he enjoyed. When I was young, I was an ardent fan of Mr Amitabh Bachchan and was heavily influenced by Hindi films. During the ’70s and ’80s, when he was at the peak of his career, I watched almost all his films and desperately wanted to copy his trademark hairstyle with the long sideburns, which became a rage with the country’s youth at the time. Unfortunately, I had very sparse hair and didn’t succeed! (Laughs)
When did your perception about Bengali films change?
When popular Bengali directors or a great actor like Uttam Kumar would visit my house, I never saw them as these big famous actors. He was merely my Uttam jethu (uncle). I saw this whole human side to him and that’s how I would behave with him – lovingly yet casually. But it was only after his death in 1980 that I realised how big a star he was. All of West Bengal went into mourning. On the day of his funeral, there was sadness wherever I looked. The streets were filled with crowds and there were people crying over the loss of their favourite superstar. I was shocked to see how much people cared about him. It completely changed me as a person. I realised how ignorant I had been.
At the time in Bengal, the cinemas began re-releasing his films and I got an opportunity to watch them. I was absolutely drawn in by the beauty of Bengali films and that’s when I realised that I had unearthed a pool of visual gems.
Is that the reason you also began taking your career more seriously?
Absolutely! I literally rose like a phoenix from the ashes. I started working with some of the pioneers of the Bengali film industry like Sabyasachi Chakraborty. I started doing all kinds of roles as long as I was convinced they were meaningful. I began assisting a few directors and tried to understand every aspect of filmmaking. As a result of this, I was not at all nervous during the first time I shot for Feluda and enjoyed the shoot.
Which medium do you enjoy more, films or TV?
Both, actually. When we did TV, we would shoot for a long time. We had to build a bank of episodes. A character can evolve through various episodes in a TV series, but in films, characters are quite limited by the screen time. They cannot be explored and fleshed out to their fullest. But some films give you a chance to play characters which can woo the audience with a mere 10-minute screen presence. That is what I experienced when I did Sujoy Ghosh’s film Kahaani. I never imagined that a 10-minute role could get so much attention from the audience.
Then again there’s a con to TV also. TV has become like radio. People turn the TV on and go about doing their household chores merely listening to it, rather than actually watching it. People don’t watch scenes any more, they listen to scenes. There are so many channels now, so if you don’t produce good content, people will simply flip to the next channel. TV is not the same any more.
But how has the Bangla film industry changed?
Bengali films are becoming rich in content. There was a time when Bengali cinema was dubbed ‘intelligent cinema’. But it went downhill during the late ’80s and ’90s, when everyone was busy making South Indian remakes. They were merely interested in the commerce aspect of cinema, not in the art. When you start focusing only on commerce, art takes a back seat and you cannot sustain art by being greedy about commerce. That’s when the cookie began to crumble. That’s when variety began to creep in and cinema underwent a renaissance. Now you have all kinds of films, masala potboilers as well as content-rich, meaningful cinema and they are all doing well. That’s what’s happening in the Hindi film industry too.
How did Kahaani happen, and will we see you in any more Hindi films?
A common acquaintance suggested that I meet Sujoy Ghosh. I knew of his past films like Jhankaar Beats, so decided to meet. He was very easy with me and told me he knew my father. That was another reason I agreed to do the film. After Kahaani, I got offers from Madhur Bhandarkar for a role in Heroine, but couldn’t accept it. Hindi films take a long time and require you to allot bulk dates, which I am not able to give at the moment. But I am getting quite a few interesting roles.
You are getting lead roles too, not character roles any more.
Yes, but like I said, even a character role can attract eyeballs. I mean, they even thought of making a movie based on Bob Biswas’ character and also had a comic book on him. So you see, no role is small as long as it’s meaningful.
Will we see you in Kahaani 2?
That is entirely up to Sujoy!
How different are the two industries – Bangla and Hindi?
Films don’t need language. Cinema is a composition of human emotions and emotions are the same anywhere in the world. Good cinema is that which can hit the right chord. The only difference between the two industries would be the sheer size of budgets. Hindi films are obviously more expensive than Bengali films since they reach out to a bigger audience. Professionalism is slowly creeping into both the film industries.