Having shone bright in back-to-back hits, Abhishek Banerjee still believes he doesn’t have the correct judgment to pick a character. Perhaps, it is good then that fantastic roles come to him and not the other way round.

 

Way back in 1991, when a young Abhishek Banerjee entered a cinema hall for the first time, the plan that he and his father had was stalled when the theatre had no empty seats available for the movie they wanted to watch. Instead of going back home, father and son decided to watch Saudagar. Directed by Subhash Ghai and starring silver screen biggies like Dilip Kumar and Raaj Kumar, the film was inspired by the one Shakespeare play that finds adaptations across all film industries – Romeo and Juliet. Not only was the film a silver jubilee success across India, it was also a casting coup – and well, it did launch Manisha Koirala.

Perhaps, it was then that Banerjee decided to become a casting director even though this dream wouldn’t be realised until years later. However, one can definitely deduce that this was when a young and impressionable Banerjee fell in love with Shakespeare.

“I am drawn to complex characters. I love the human mind. I have been a huge Shakespeare fan and his stories and characters were so basic and simple and yet, so complex. I always feel that it is the kind of challenge you want as an actor. I want to write about the human mind, one day. I’ve never seen an actor write about the human mind – that’ll be interesting to see because you get to be so many people,” he says.

Now, almost three decades later, Banerjee is one of the most sought-after casting directors in the business. His casting director credits include the intensely popular The Dirty Picture and the gritty social drama, No One Killed Jessica. He also worked as a casting director for other notable films like Rock On 2, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Secret Superstar, Ajji and the recently famous, Paatal Lok.

For the past few days, Banerjee has been earning plaudits for his role as Vishal Tyagi in the Amazon Prime Video Original, Paatal Lok. In a review, veteran film critic Saibal Chatterjee notes that Banerjee “demonstrates that you do not have to yelp, growl and scowl to play a psychopath”. On Twitter, noted filmmaker Anurag Kashyap says that his “filmmaker’s heart is full of joy” after watching Paatal Lok. He goes a step further and calls it the best crime thriller to come out of this country in “the longest time, maybe forever”.

Abhishek Banerjee in a still from Stree

In a show where Jaideep Ahlawat’s Hathiram Chaudhary towers over the cast like an elephant (pun, intended) and Neeraj Kabi delivers a standout performance as the fame-hungry journalist, Sanjeev Mehra, Banerjee manages to steal the show from some very high noses. He’s had a dream run with Stree, Bala, Dream Girl and Ajji but ask him how he picked these roles and he’ll tell you that the roles came to him and not the other way round.

“Every time, the role chose me. Honestly. Every single time. I never thought I’ll be able to do something in any of these projects. In Stree, I wanted to do Bittu. In Dreamgirl, they approached me but they had locked another actor and due to some last-minute cancellations, they had to cast me. In Bala, I never saw myself as Ajju and Amar (Kaushik) Sir himself called me and asked me to play him. In Paatal Lok, Sudip (Sharma) Sir wanted me to play Hathoda Tyagi. I don’t think I have the judgement to choose a character,” he says.

A still from Paatal Lok

“I was casting for Paatal Lok and Stree had just released. Sudip Sir went and saw the movie and he had also seen Ajji, the film I did before Stree. He came back to me and said “why don’t you audition for Hathoda Tyagi?” I really wanted to play Ansari – when I read Stree’s script, I felt I could play Bittu and similarly, while reading Paatal Lok’s script, mujhe laga tha ki mai Ansari kar sakta hoon. But I never got a positive response for that and none of the directors responded to that plea of mine. Then, one day, they asked me to test for Hathoda Tyagi and that same evening, I got a mail saying that the role was mine,” he adds.

But how does one go from playing an Ajju in Bala to playing a ruthless killer in Pataal Lok? The scene where Tyagi asks a school-going boy to finish his joke before smashing a hammer through his skull sends chills down your spine. How does one, then, get into the mind of a killer?

“I went inside the mind of the human being inside the killer. I wanted to understand Vishal Tyagi instead of understanding Hathoda Tyagi. The show talks about a lot of socio-political issues and for me, it’s a regular practice to attach myself to the socio-political circumstances of the character and what kind of thoughts he attaches to them. These circumstances are going to affect the way you start thinking in life. That was the journey inside the mind of a killer – I started relating to the pain and the angst this guy has and the conditions he was living in. I also felt the emptiness he feels,” Banerjee says.

A still from Bala

He goes on to add that when you first see the character and those dark, deep eyes, you imagine that he is an angry man or a psycho. That’s the notion that Banerjee came with when he first started reading the role. Soon, however, everything changed. As Banerjee took the journey down the seven circles of Hell with Tyagi, all the rage and vengeance that he’d brought with him changed to emptiness, pain and intense angst. Banerjee believes that Tyagi’s behaviour is because of the rejection he faces from society. “It was very important, for me, not to just express him but to keep on feeling what he is feeling,” he says.

And he is right. Towards the end of the finale episode, Vipin Sharma’s character DCP Bhagat tells Ahlawat’s character that from afar, the system (our society) looks like a murky place that begs for change but once you enter it, you realise that it is a well-oiled machine that is running on centuries of discrimination and hatred towards the other. Tyagi, like all of us, is a creature created by the system that is forever churning.

A still from Dream Girl

Paatal Lok’s current fame also rests on the fact that it shows us this system without any embellishments. The issues discussed in the show aren’t mere add-ons or a base leading to a preachy ending.

“When you see content questioning the very society you live in, you realise that you relate to it. You think “yes, this is my city or my village”. Nobody talks about crime – they are more important than gossip. When someone talks about it, we try and decode how stories are presented and I think that’s the joy that everyone is feeling. I would have felt the same joy if I was in the audience,” Banerjee says.

When it comes to casting, Banerjee believes that the mainstay of any good casting director is that they have to love telling stories. If one does not love stories, they will never make good casting directors, he says. And why is that? Because only if you love the story will you have afterthoughts. The eye for talent and the instinct to catch a standout performance is necessary but to be able to re-cast or look back at your decision in a new light is of prime importance.

Also, for someone who has played around with genres, the actor believes that the toughest one to play is comedy. Comedy, he says, doesn’t require rehearsal – it’s a spontaneous act and hence, can go awry. While a well-written script will most likely play out well on the big screen, a punchline may not have the same flavour when it is replayed on screen. And, of course, there’s the question of the mind.

“Fifteen days before I wrapped my schedule of Stree, my dad called me and said he has cancer. When you hear news like that, how do you manage yourself or maintain the humour?” Banerjee asks.

But Tyagi pulled through and what you see is a brilliant performance. Perhaps, that is why, when, towards the end of the interview, he tells me that the post-COVID-19 world will see more compassion and respect, I understand what he means.

“There’ll be more respect for work when everyone realises how much they loved working. And the actors will realise how difficult shooting is and how difficult it is to get one frame right. Because of restrictions, we’ll see creative solutions to deal with shooting,” he says, signing off.

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Dos and Don’ts for aspiring actors – a guide by Abhishek Banerjee

Dos

Read, read and read.

Watch films and most importantly, documentaries because that’s where the real drama is.

Watch films of big directors and actors and of those you like and be inspired by them.

Don’t get influenced by actors, get inspired by them.

Don’t run behind acting, experience life. It is important to live your life in order to become an actor.

Empathy is very important for an actor.

Don’ts

Stop judging yourself and others based on the roles they get.

Stop thinking negatively.

Stop comparing yourself with other actors.

The right training is very important.