It all started with Bombaiyer Bombete. The year is 2002. Sandip Ray, Satyajit Ray’s not-so-illustrious son, announces that he will be making another Feluda film — every Bengali’s favourite sleuth, created by Satyajit Ray. The decision to revisit something so sacrosanct, to put together a new cast, do a modern adaptation, and the choice of novel to adapt for film — Bombaiyer Bombete or The Bandits of Bombay, isn’t exactly the best of Feluda novels — all caused intense curiosity and commotion. Feluda is the ideal man archetype for the Bengali bhodrolok. He has been immortalised on screen, twice, by Soumitra Chatterjee. Many see him, and Feluda himself, as an extension of Ray (tall, fit, handsome, intelligent, gentlemanly, worldly). To think of someone else stepping into those shoes would obviously be a tough pill. Funnily, Sandip Ray had been making Feluda TV films from the nineties, with various casts, but making a feature film is like taking a home video project seriously. Sabyasachi Chakraborty, who had been playing Feluda for TV, was the obvious choice for the role. Honestly, back then, he was the only option for an aspirational role like Feluda. Parambrata Chatterjee was announced as Topshe, his sidekick.
This wasn’t Param’s debut. He had done a feature film before Bombaiyer Bombete, and some TV too. But the film put him on the radar as that cute bhalo chhele (good boy) with a possibility of growing up, and taking over the mantle. And take over he did. Chatterjee has grown up in front of the camera — and as a public figure — to become one of the most effective, talented, and enduring actors of the Bengali industry in the new millennium. Soon to be 40, Chatterjee has starred in over 60 feature films, numerous TV films, and TV shows. His graph as an actor is an interesting one. As he kicked it off as Topshe in Bombaiyer Bombete, the roles that followed were similar “good boy” do-gooder roles that lacked complexity and texture. Interestingly, he starred opposite Vidya Balan in her debut, Bhalo Theko, a favour she returned in Kahaani, his Hindi debut. While he did deliver a sincere performance in the Anjan Dutt diaspora drama, The Bong Connection, and appeared in two more Feluda films, no one was exactly sitting up and taking notice of his acting chops. Until Goutam Ghose’s Kaalbela happened. An arduous opus set against the Naxalite movement, Chatterjee’s character goes through a lifetime of passion, love, heartbreak, and revolution. Chatterjee delivered a performance much ahead of his years with nuance, compassion, and maturity — something that wasn’t being expected of him back then. He followed that up with four back-to-back successes across two years — Baishe Srabon, the cult Bhooter Bhobishyot, Kahaani, and Hemlock Society — establishing himself as a force to reckon with.
Around the time of Chatterjee’s debut, something interesting was happening in the Bengali film industry. In 2000, two years before his debut, Rituparno Ghosh directed Prosenjit Chatterjee, the industry’s potboiler emblem, in a completely different avatar, in Utsab. Prosenjit was subtle and nuanced, and Bengal’s cinephiles — who had given up all hope for commercial cinema — got a rude shock. Prosenjit Chatterjee can act? Ghosh delivered six hits in the next six years, including his bravest experiments with Aishwarya Rai in Chokher Bali, and the outstanding Raincoat. In 2006, he cast Parambrata Chatterjee in the Prosenjit-Konkona starrer, Dosar. Prosenjit had become comfortable with straddling the two worlds by then. Parambrata might just be trying to merge them. Because, although Ghosh had discovered this new Prosenjit, Ghosh’s cinema wasn’t consumed by the masses (although his audience did grow with every film in the country and abroad). So, even Prosenjit was basically serving two different audiences. With the film-makers Parambrata was choosing to work with — Anjan Dutt, Sandip Ray, Goutam Ghose — it seemed like he was trying to find someone who could bridge that gap, and make intelligent cinema with a commercial appeal.
Both him and Prosenjit found a new captain in Srijit Mukherji.
Mukherji debuted with Autograph in 2010, with Prosenjit in the lead. An almost-remake of Ray’s Nayak, the film was a resounding success, finding audiences across the board. The music by Anupam Roy became a huge hit too. Bengali film music was worth paying attention to, again. Also, with millennials finally enjoying some spending power, Mukherji had also tapped into a new generation. On finding Mukherji, Parambrata was able to show the industry and the audience what he was capable of, and the kind of cinema he wanted to be a part of. He delivered top-notch performances in Apur Panchali, Chotushkone, as Tagore in Kadambari, Cinemawala, and most recently, Pari. Barring Kadambari, the other three films will definitely make it to the Best Bengali Films of the Last Thirty Years list.
Chatterjee forms a part of a new brand of Bengali cinema — the ones who made good cinema engaging and entertaining for audiences of all kinds to enjoy. A film industry that had a mile-long wide chasm between commercial and art cinema, today, is an almost merged industry. While Rituparno Ghosh, Aparna Sen, and Goutam Ghose can be credited for keeping intelligent cinema alive during the dark days of the ‘90s and early 2000s, the likes of Srijit Mukherji and Kaushik Ganguly definitely changed the Bengali industry in the last ten years. Actors like Parambrata Chatterjee, Ritwick Chakraborty, Aabir Chatterjee, Swastika Mukherjee, Paoli Dam, Saswata Chatterjee, Raima Sen, Jisshu Sengupta, Rudranil Ghosh, Anirban Bhattacharya, and an ever-growing new crop of talented actors, have been instrumental in making that possibility a reality.
As someone who has been a part of the Bengali film industry for the past 20 years, where do you think it stands today, in regards to other regional film industries?
In terms of quality of content, I think it’s fairly up there, because there is a lot of innovation happening. Although I don’t have a lot of in-depth knowledge about all the regional industries, one gets to know about the ones in the south, and the heights that those industries have managed to scale. I would have loved it if our industry had also managed to do that, which we haven’t. There’s a bit of a lack of satisfaction, discontentment there. I would have loved the kind of reach that Southern cinema has, and in terms of ideation, although I do say that Bengali cinema is doing quite well, but I think the best ideation still comes from Malayalam cinema.
Who have been the most impressionable directors in your journey?
It has been different at different stages of my life, and I’ve learnt something or the other from all of them as I’ve grown. When I started my journey with people like Sandip Ray, from the word go, I learned about the core craft of acting from him. I hadn’t been to film school then. As I grew up, I also grew to unlearn that craft a little bit. When I worked with Dutta, I learnt a lot of nuances of film writing. I have learnt several things from several people, and I also contributed, considerably. I think it’s been a very mutually reciprocative relationship.
The Bengali film industry was applauded for being smarter, sharper and more modern a decade ago. Where do you think it stands now? How has the growth been in the past decade?
A lot of responsibility of an industry lies in the hands of the people who’re watching it. I strongly believe that it’s like the government of a country, which the people choose. Similarly, the film that an audience chooses is what you get. I believe that a lot of Bengali people staying abroad should set aside their cynicism about Bengali cinema, and come forward and pay and watch Bengali films. The smartness that was attributed to us a decade ago came through us, our generation. We brought in newer technique, newer ethos, but now, we need to take that inwards. In order to increase the market with tremendous competition from OTT, it is really for the NRI Bengalis to come forward and support Bengali cinema. The southerners living abroad show such great enthusiasm for their films, which, I believe, is a little lacking in Bengali NRIs. We can boast about the great Bengali cinematic legacy, but we also need to be extremely supportive of the new things happening.
What are the challenges faced by regional film industries?
The first challenge is getting branded as regional. I have grown up alongside a healthy dose of Bengali cinema, but I think this demarcation between national and regional industries has only put a stamp on us that India is a land of Bollywood. In that whole process, the idea of cinematic plurality goes for a complete toss. When we go abroad to shoot something in Bengali, they come and tell us, “Oh, are you going to have singing and dancing like in Bollywood films” and it has given us a very weird tag.
Do you think web streaming has been keeping the Bengali audience away from theatres?
Not at all. If you go by last year’s numbers, it was a good year for Bengali cinema and a lot of films actually worked, and a lot of people came to watch films, even for non-festive releases. That was very enthusing, and we were expecting to have an even better year this year, but the whole world has been turned upside down due to the coronavirus. I do think the Bengali cinema world has become a little city-centric. In the villages, in the remote suburbs, the practice of going to the films and the theatres have completely stopped. They would rather watch the big, mainstream films on television rather than go to the theatres.
How do you think the film industry will change once the lockdowns are lifted?
We have a mandate here (in Kolkata) to start shooting by June 10, with certain guidelines. A lot of things are going to change, not just in health and safety measures, but in economics. I think everyone has gone through a tremendous amount of loss. In terms of OTT acquisition, it’s obviously the biggies that are prioritised. For regional films with stars who are fairly big in their circuit, it takes a lot of time to get a mandate from the OTT board.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
I would have loved to say a lot of things but because of this COVID-19 situation, I don’t really know. I was looking at producing and directing more, and acting in very select films. But let’s see, for the next three months, I would hold my horses. These three months will probably have an effect that could last for the next three years. I will review of the situation in the next three months.
Do you think Bengalis are still in love with nostalgia?
Nostalgia for Bengalis is a necessary evil. It has its detrimental sides, and it has its great sides. Without nostalgia, without the old-world charm, Bengalis wouldn’t really stand a chance. Without its old-world charm, Calcutta wouldn’t be Calcutta. I still like to call it Calcutta. I’m one of those people who has sold off his swanky apartment for a 1966 art-deco house that I’ve restored. That is what Calcutta is about — it’s about nostalgia, old-world charm, about the dereliction and decadence.
My Top 10 Favourite Films Of The Decade
Baishe Srabon by Srijit Mukherji
Cinemawala by Kaushik Ganguly
Meghe Dhaka Tara by Kamaleshwar Mukherjee
Aasha Jaoar Majhe by Aditya Vikram Sengupta
Maacher Jhol by Pratim Gupta
Proloy by Raj Chakraborty
Dhananjoy by Arindam Sil
Herbert by Suman Mukherjee
Abosheshey by Aditi Roy
Ghawre Baire Aaj by Aparna Sen