Joy Sengupta keeps a low-profile and is the kind of actor who does not wear his rich experience and versatility on his sleeve. He made his screen debut in Govind Nihalani’s Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa but few are aware that he is known as the “Amitabh Bachchan” of English theatre in Mumbai. That has taken him across continents, landed him invitations to teach at high level management institutes and fetched him wonderful reviews in international media like The New York Times. His latest is Bilu Rakkhosh in which he plays the title role.
Excerpts from an interview:
Q What made you accept the title role in Bilu Rakhhosh? The more a character is unidimensional or sweeping, the more it becomes uninteresting to craft out because the complexities and deficiencies make us layered and grey. Therefore I found it challenging to delve into this character.
Q What kind of homework did you put in?
In acting, homework can involve only two elements —direct or shared experience. Direct experience involves experiencing life to the fullest and letting the experience create the stimuli. Shared experience refers to the period or the milieu one is unfamiliar with and one which would give the actor more knowledge from different sources, animate or inanimate. Emotions are universal and do not need a cerebral approach.
Q Was Bilu created from experience?
Bilu demanded a three-pronged approach —the personal, professional and social. My father originally belongs to North Calcutta, very close to where Bilu of the film resides. I know the sounds, tastes, emotional pitch of Karbala Tank Lane. I have gone through a see-saw of emotions within my completely middle-class ambience. I have witnessed the breaking down of my North Kolkata joint family for the right reasons. I have been a part of movements and transitions as we moved from Karbala Tank Lane to Dum Dum and then Delhi. I have experienced tremendous turbulence in my personal relationships, which includes a broken marriage. I have worked with kids all my life and am very attached to them. All such experiences aided me.
Q What about Bilu’s sustenance in the corporate world he is forced into? I interact with the corporate world at a day-to-day level. I have conducted workshops for middlelevel management and a big part of my family has been at the centre of the corporate chain. My sister chucked her lucrative multinational job to follow her heart, sacrificing her financial cushion. So my whole life and shared life experiences link to Bilu organically.
Q You are known as the “Amitabh Bachchan” of the English stage in Mumbai. How do you react to this superlative? The kind of theatre I have done is bereft of the star system. The world of Chekov or Tendulkar, Sophocles or Badal Sircar, cannot afford any ego or any attempt at superseding communication. My training has been diverse, from classical to realism to street theatre, I have done them all. They involved group chemistry. The objective was to communicate the playwright and director’s vision and never showcasing myself. Apart from that, I have always been shy of the spotlight!
Q What has been your overall experience in theatre?
I have been very fortunate in my journey. I have garnered appreciative audiences across continents and got flattering reviews from papers like The New York Times. Even the average theatre-goer has gone on to say that my performance was their first play-watching experience and now they are hooked to theatre for life. I have also been invited by directors from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and Young Vic to join them. It has been rewarding and fulfilling. Yet, every new play, every year, makes me nervous and shaky, excited and jumping all over again.
Q Bengali directors cast you quite often. Why is that?
I think directors recognise that my approach to cinema is less like an actor and more like a student of cinema. I am fascinated and addicted to the medium. So, a young or a new guy looking for cooperative and collaborative approach is more drawn to me than those, who just need brands. I have been taken for a ride too, a few times, for my over zealousness to support new endeavours. Yet, I would rather be enthusiastic than crafty. I know some of my work will survive purely in cinematic and historical terms, than most other work in the market.
Q Would you agree that Bilu Rakkhosh is possibly the most challenging role you have done in Bengali cinema till today?
Bilu Rakhhosh was definitely challenging at many levels. It wasn’t a linear narrative, or a sentimental feel-good film. It involved both cerebral and emotional approach. Its fragmentation of time and space demanded a process of filmmaking and acting different from the usual. Yet it was done on a shoe-string budget with all its constraints. So the level of hard work, cooperation and sacrifice was that much higher.
Q You have spanned theatre prolifically and with great success, television also with some amount of success and cinema with lesser success than the other two. Has this been a conscious choice on your part? Or do Bollywood filmmakers shy away from casting you?
I made my cinema debut in Govind Nihalani’s Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa based on a famous novelette by Mahasweta Devi. It was a political novel and an art house film. This was a time when Hindi cinema was highly formulaic, which slotted stars in either romantic or action roles and there were only star heroes. The multiplex movement had not begun and the digital revolution was far away. I got character roles that I found humiliating but I tried to work out a balance with intelligent cinema married to sensible television and stimulating theatre. I am still doing the same and have neither been slotted, stereotyped or branded. I have never had flash-inthe-pan success. I have not tasted the rise or fall of stardom. But I have had a long career where I have never sat at home twiddling my thumbs, wondering if or when.