Over the past few days, I have had the opportunity to talk to a cross-section of actors, producers, directors in the Hindi film industry. All their stories had one common thread: Abhishek Banerjee. I learnt that a producer had hired him as a casting director, the actor was cast through his company Casting Bay, and the director was delighted to utilise his acting abilities. Everyone loved to work with him, as well as enjoyed his on-screen performance. It clearly indicates that the man has earned everyone’s respect. He is becoming the proverbial potato that fits into most of the film industry’s cinematic recipes. On hearing this analogy, Banerjee broke into peals of laughter, and said he aspires to be like broccoli. A rare, exclusive, and acquired taste.
Today, Banerjee has won appreciation for Paatal lok, Stree, Mirzapur, but he first dreamt of becoming an actor after watching Amitabh Bachchan’s films, namely Deewar and Agneepath. The moment of realisation occurred when he received public acceptance. He says, “Audience’s reaction is the litmus test for acting. When I mimicked on stage for the first time in school, everyone liked my performance, including my teachers. I thought to myself, I must have some talent to deserve this appreciation. I wasn’t that good at studies, but I was good at acting, so I concluded I should pursue acting.” He was a member of Kirori Mal College’s highly popular theatre society named Players during his College days, where he learnt the acting ropes.
In 2009, he moved to Mumbai from Delhi, and did the usual round of auditions, but only felt confusion. Banerjee auditioned for Dev D, where he befriended casting director Gautam Kishanchandani. He began assisting Kishanchandani, and later started his own casting company, Casting Bay, with a friend. Banerjee didn’t give up on his dream to become an actor, but he had a complicated journey because he faced rejection as an actor even in the films he was casting
Banerjee reveals, “Gautam Sir was the casting director while I was the casting associate on Ghanchakkar. I auditioned for Idris’ role, and I was told point blank that I’m not good enough. I knew the director, Raj Kumar Gupta Sir, and I was casting for the film. I thought that if they don’t cast me, no one else will. Sir told me ‘Kuch soch. Kya karega ab’, and I felt the rug being swept from under my feet. Mentally at that point, I had given up on acting. In retrospect, I feel it’s good that I didn’t land the role, else I wouldn’t have learnt.”
He was more or less convinced that he shouldn’t audition anymore. He didn’t move to Mumbai to do small roles, or play the hero’s best friend. He wanted meaty characters. Life had other plans for him, and it all happened over a couple of beers.
TVF was working on its first original web show, Pitchers. The casting director wanted Banerjee to audition for a five-minute role in the show, and he wasn’t very keen on it. She chased him, and when he gave the audition, he landed the role. His dialogue ‘Tu Beer Hai’ changed the way people communicated thereon. In the show, the dialogue’s context was kahin pahuchne ke liye, kahin se nikalna bahut zaroori hota hai. Banerjee couldn’t relate when he said those lines in the show. A director friend, Devashish Makhija, put things in perspective. Banerjee describes how Devashish explained to him: “Abhishek, Tu Beer Hai. You need to come out of the beer bottle, and let the magic happen. Stop going back into your shell as a casting director. Acting kyun nahi kar raha hai? I was deeply affected by what he said, so I continued acting.” The duo worked on films like Agli Baar in 2015, Ajji in 2017, and Bhonsle in 2020.
From this point forward, it didn’t matter whether the role was big or small, positive or negative, he has acted continuously. His notable characters include Janna from Stree, Compounder from Mirzapur, Bushi from Humorously Yours and Mahinder from Dream Girl. He gained popularity for his fantastic portrayal of Hatoda Tyagi in Paatal Lok. Banerjee says, “I’ve realised that gangster roles gain unprecedented popularity. It doesn’t matter if you have acted well in other roles or not. If you have picked up a gun or a hathoda and stabbed people, the audience loves you and your performance. They enjoy watching dark characters. I feel actors should not be typecast, but should play varied characters to the best of their ability.”
Banerjee doesn’t read all scripts that come to his company for casting, but among the ones which he reads, if he likes a character, he asks the makers if he can audition, like he did for Paatal Lok. He wanted to audition for Ansari’s role, but that didn’t work out for Banerjee, else we wouldn’t have got the scary Hathoda Tyagi. Believe it or not, he had to audition for the role of Vishal/Hathoda Tyagi.
Besides Hathoda Tyagi, one of his recent good performances was as Manish in a segment called Vishanu in Unpaused. Banerjee plays a labourer, but at the core, it is the story of a father and a husband who is trying to take care of his family in the lockdown. Talking about his reasons to choose the segment, he says, “Stories like Vishanu, and genius directors like Avinash Arun Dhaware bring you back to the ground, reminding you that there is still a lot to learn. The idea was to play the role from not the labourer’s perspective, but from a father and a husband’s perspective. I was drawing references from what my father would have done if he faced similar circumstances. I was looking through the lens of a guardian who wanted to protect his family no matter what.”
By the end of our conversation, he admitted that he is becoming a bit of a potato; he confesses, “I did a lot of work last year. This year is also packed with acting work and casting jobs. But from the inside, I know I’m broccoli. (laughs).” I think Abhishek Banerjee is both a beer and broccoli —he can be a hit with the masses, and also an indie darling.