The India Habitat Centre is celebrating a retrospective of Tollywood superstsar Prosenjit Chatterjee, who is also acclaimed for Bollywood outings like Shanghai and is now co-producing the Indo-Bangla Shankhochil (The Kite), directed by Goutam Ghose. And for good reason, because it&’s not for nothing that Chatterjee was identified as “the industry” in Srijit Mukherjee&’s debut film, Autograph. Son of Bollywood actor Biswajit (who cast him at age four in Chhotto Jigyasa), Prosenjit&’s journey from zero to winning the National Award for Dosar, has not been one single leap.
Beginning with formula roles, he worked on building his body, learning to dance and drive and studied the dynamics of Uttam Kumar (his all-time guru, whose childhood he played in the 1970s’ film Dui Prithibi/Two Worlds). More importantly, he honed his skills on the basics of the Tollygunge-based industry and stepped into every vacuum he noticed, thus consolidating a position. Having realised that regional cinema had to match the glamour that marked Bollywood films to survive commercially, he introduced the concept of costume designer or stylist when Bengali cinema was thriving on “dress suppliers”.
He has paired with a stream of actresses from Mumbai — Rameshwari, Anuradha Patel, Farah, Deepika Chikalia, Poonam, Juhi Chawla, Neelam, Sonam and Ayesha Julka — and invited masters from the South to choreograph the fights and dance sequences to ensure his films reach the masses. His performance is a mix of Uttam Kumar&’s graceful delivery, Amitabh Bachchan&’s attitude and Kamal Haasan&’s natural movements. He performed live in distant corners of Bengal for the masses and they’ve rewarded him by turning out in the thousands.
The films being shown as part of the retrospective at the India Habitat Centre in the Capital include Apon Amar Apon (1990), Purshottam (1992), Ami Yasinaar Amar Madhubala (2007), Dosar (2008), Autograph and Moner Manush (both 2010), Shanghai (2012) and Jatishwar (2013). Excerpts from an interview:
You have more than 325 movies to your credit. How do you now look back on a long career?
Yes, it&’s been a pretty long journey and I have been working consistently for the last 32 years. What also makes the journey memorable, looking back now, is that I have done a variety of films — of course, I started with mainstream films and I still believe mainstream cinema has given me a lot of recognition and went a long way in establishing my brand. I think I have around 70-80 platinum and golden jubilee hits and several silver jubilee ones. So it has given me a huge platform but,yes, the most significant thing is that I went on reinventing myself with time —ay, every 10 years I started doing something that nobody else was doing at that point of time. And that is what I enjoy the most, perhaps. I have worked with around 100 directors but at the end of the day, I want to reinvent myself, I want to see Prosenjit Chatterjee in a new avatar in every film, so I go on experimenting with things and if you look at the last seven, eight, nine years, the kind of films that I have been doing clearly reflect it. I have been doing mainstream cinema but in a very different way. And that is a leap not only for Prosenjit Chatterjee but also for Bengali cinema as a whole.
Is there something you wish you had done differently?
You see, there are some good projects that every actor has to let go because you cannot manage time and some other similar factors. I still remember, I did Buddhadeb Dasgupta&’s two films and I was also supposed to do his third film because he wanted me to do so. So you can understand, for an actor to do three films at a time with Budhadeb Dasgupta was a ‘huge thing’, but I really could not make it because of my dates. That would have been a trio, I worked hard to manage dates but I really could not make it. I still miss it. I don’t regret it but I was offered to do Maine Pyar Kiya. My film was seen in Bombay and they wanted me to do it but I don’t regret it, I didn’t do Saajan. But, yes, there are some projects that I really wanted to do but could not because of my dates and commitments. I miss them, to say the least.
You made your debut when you were just four years old in your father&’s Chhotto Jigyasa. What are some fond memories of those early days?
The film was produced by my father but, let me be very honest, it&’s very difficult to recall much of it now. But I know some stories of the time. Madhabi Mukherjee was playing the role of my mother in the film and she was already a National Award-winning actor at that time and she had also done a lot of films with my dad. I was so young during its shooting that it was actually a big struggle for her (whenever I meet her in functions or shows, she fondly tells me) to make me say “Maa”, but even today she considers me her elder son because I was the first one to call her Maa. Chhotto Jigyasa was also partly conducted (I will not say directed) by Hrishikesh Mukherjee and this film travelled to Russia as well and I won the Best Child Actor Award in Russia, (the Bengal Film Journalists’ Association Awards) — that was the most prestigious award at that point of time in India. I think, if I’m not mistaken, Dilip Kumar got the Best Actor and, as a kid, I bagged the Best Child Actor, but all of it was like a game for me at that time. I still remember we used to say “shooting-shooting khela” in Bengali and just for me my dad and mom used to keep the entire unit at our bungalow. Suddenly I used to say I wanted to play “hooting-shooting khela”, the unit would get ready and a scene would be shot immediately. That is an interesting memory.
How was the experience of working under your father?
Of course, plenty actually! My father directed a film called Raktatilak, where he was acting. Uttam Kumar was also there and there was a very small but important role of my father&’s childhood and I said suddenly that I wanted to do this role. The first thing he said was you will not be able to do this because this is a very tough role and there are so many things you can’t do. But I insisted and said that I would be able to do it. Then when I was on the set (imagine how the crew members must be pampering a star&’s son), everybody was pampering me all the while. Once during the shoot I went crawling on pebbles and my knees were bleeding and then all these people came around but I stopped them and told them to please let me finish the scene. It was a surprise for my dad, too, because we were brought up very lavishly and it was then that he first said there was no doubt I was going to become an actor.
It is said you began your career with simple roles and then worked on building a body, learning to dance and drive and also studying the dynamics of Uttam Kumar. Can you tell us how an actor of your dimension built himself?
Very simple roles, side roles, negative roles. Even the negative roles were not really strong. I started like any other newcomer, I used to do stage, I went to plays and I did quite a lot of theatre because I thought that stage was very important. Then I did a lot of second lead, third lead – basically all kinds of roles. In the meantime I knew my target, I just went on studying my seniors, actors like Uttam Kumar. Basically one point was very clear in my mind that I had to be noted as an actor. You see, there are a few elements like glamour but for Bangla cinema you also need to project yourself as an actor. Only dance and songs are not our content… our content is very different, so the way I fought was… like my first challenge was to overcome the identity of my father. Even today when people see me they often say, ‘You look like your father.’ Well. That&’s in my genes, I can’t do anything about that but over the years Prosenjit has created his own brand.
When I say namaskaar or hello, people are awestruck and they recognise this voice as Prosenjit&’s and not a legacy of my father. I could not change my genes but I thought that I should create my own brand. That was a big challenge. Another problem was that I was from the family of a star and I used to go to Xavier&’s and all that. Bangla directors used to say, ‘You are too good looking, you should go and try for Bollywood films – you look like a Hindi hero!’ Then I started working on my looks and realised that to thrive in Tollywood I had to look like a Bong! And in the process, I must add, I have worked very hard.
It seems to me that you have sort of given more preference to Bengali cinema than Bollywood. Of course, you have starred in Bollywood films but never at the expense of Tollywood. How would you define your attachment to Bengali cinema and the people of Bengal?
Yes, indeed! Till today my main focus has been Bengali cinema. I think this is something I can’t explain because, honestly speaking, when I began it was a time everybody was saying cinema was dead, it&’s finished and similar stuff. This was the scenario in the industry when we joined as hero. From there we revamped the industry. It&’s been a really long journey of ups and downs — and I am humbled that people have stood by me throughout. Believe me, there was a time when, even if I used to go for a week&’s outdoor shoot 18 -20 years back, technicians from Kolkata would call me back and say, ‘Dada, aap wapas aa jaao, studio khali para hai!’ I used to do around four- to five-shifts a day —I think I have got a record of releasing 22 films in a year, no other actor anywhere in the world has released as many films. My average used to be 17-18 films every year. It has been a very sensitive attachment. We took the responsibility of revamping the industry.
Bengali cinema or literature, for that matter, has always had the tendency of been seen as “intellectual” or “serious matter”. Do you think this classification is right?
Not really! But, of course, in Bangla cinema content is king and literature is very strong! There was a period when our cinema went out of literature and that affected us in a way. Again, I am saying Bengali cinema is not all about literature and serious matter. We have a great legacy of Sen, Ghatak and Ray and they are the prime Indian figures on any of the global stages. It&’s a legacy we’ve maintained but it&’s not always that we do only art films. But, yes, our content is king and our subjects are very strong.
How has Tollywood, in your view, contributed to the overall cinematic growth of the country in contrast to Bollywood and other regional films?
It&’s a big history I have to talk about. Say, for example, the Kapoor family. They began in Kolkata. See, the list of tremendously successful directors, most of them are Bongs. Even today there are lots of fantastic directors from Bengal working in Mumbai. If you see the level of cameramen, six out of 10 best cameramen in Mumbai will turn out to be Bongs. The same with art directors, music and so on. There used to be a time when even heroines — there were plenty of Bengali beauties in Bombay. So Bengal has always had a great contribution to India&’s overall cinematic growth.
Tell us a little on your forthcoming role in the Hindi film Traffic.
Traffic is basically a road film where Divya Dutt is playing my wife&’s role. There is also the iconic Manoj Bajpai, it&’s a combo actors’ film. I will not reveal much of the subject now but my character is like a superstar — like Salman Khan. It&’s a great character who believes that where I am there, I am there. Let&’s wait for it.