Saswata Chatterjee: The scene-stealer
In Jagga Jasoos, which released in July, the most important role after Ranbir Kapoor is played by Saswata Chatterjee. The Bengali actor plays Badal Bagchi, who adopts Jagga, an orphan. Early on in the musical, Bagchi tells a young Jagga, scared into silence by his stammer, that the human brain is divided into a logical left side and a creative right side; if the left one doesn’t speak, he says, let the right one sing. Jagga takes his advice, successfully replacing regular speech with singing, rapping and beatboxing. He grows up under the influence of Bagchi, who disappears mysteriously one day. The rest of the movie is about the journey Jagga embarks on to find him.
Those who haven’t seen Jagga Jasoos might find it hard to imagine that Chatterjee is the same actor who played the equally alliterative but very different Bob Biswas, the meek insurance agent who moonlights as a deadly assassin, in Kahaani (2012). The impact of that role, which had barely a few minutes of screen time, was sensational—it generated hundreds of internet memes, fan pages on social media, and resulted in a commercial for an online classifieds site based on the character. Anything else in Chatterjee’s consistent filmography as an actor may hardly ever match Bob Biswas in terms of popularity.
So far, he has played the drunk, tortured film-making genius in the Ritwik Ghatak biopic Meghe Dhaka Tara (2013); a man with a mid-life crisis who gets his hands on Aladdin’s magic lamp in Aschorjyo Prodeep (2013); a one-armed ghost of a local goon, Haatkaata Kartik (One-armed Kartik) in Bhooter Bhabishyat (2012); the wife-beating uncle, who isn’t so bad when he is drinking beer with his US-returned nephew, in The Bong Connection (2006). One of his early roles was that of Topshe, the innocent and always curious young-adult sidekick to Satyajit Ray’s fictional detective Feluda, in the TV movies made by son Sandip Ray in the late 1990s. Ten years later, he played Ajit, Byomkesh’s friend and assistant in Anjan Dutt’s take on Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s dhoti-wearing Bengali sleuth, in the four films from the series.
In a new Bengali web series called Dhimaner Dinkaal, produced by Ekta Kapoor’s digital streaming service Alt Balaji, Chatterjee plays a man who doesn’t use a cellphone—the premise is straight out of his own life. The story begins when he is gifted a smartphone by his office and is told to be available 24x7 on WhatsApp.
“My physical appearance is very average. So I can’t keep giving people the same thing and still (believe) they’ll like it,” he says when we meet at his south Kolkata residence. “But that’s a plus point too. You can mould me into many types of characters.”
Chatterjee’s ability to leave a lasting impression in roles of all shapes and sizes has made him one of Bengal’s favourite character actors. The director of one of his films, after editing out a scene involving Chatterjee, guiltily justified his decision saying that it “would have killed the hero”.
Over the last decade, however, he has transitioned from someone who could potentially “kill the hero” to the hero, from the sidekick to the detective.
In Ebar Shabor (2015), he plays Shabor Dasgupta, a laconic police detective who finds himself at the centre of a murder mystery. The film, which came out the same year as two other Bengali detective films on Feluda and Byomkesh, ran for 100 days. It has turned into a franchise, with the third instalment under way after the reasonably successful sequel, Eagoler Chokh (2016).
Chatterjee has learnt from great stars how to artfully turn imperfections into style statements—Amitabh Bachchan, for instance, growing his hair to cover his rather long ears, or the late Rajesh Khanna wearing guru kurtas to conceal his waistline. Chatterjee used to be duck-footed. And when he started out as a film actor in the early 2000s, he was deemed too regular-looking to be considered a commercial Bengali film hero (although he played the lead role in one of the longest-running Bengali TV serials, Ek Akasher Neeche). “I look like a typical Bengali. Whereas the qualities people were used to seeing in heroes were dance and action, which aren’t really Bengali characteristics,” he says.
But with the rise of middle-of-the-road films that are more culturally rooted, he has carved out his place as a leading man who wears his middle-class Bengaliness on his sleeve. His Shabor Dasgupta, for instance, isn’t super-fit, but is fit enough to chase criminals with his aviators in place. Lost in thoughts about a case, he forgets about dinner, cooking alu sheddho-bhaat (mashed potatoes and rice, the definitive Bengali comfort food) for himself.
Chatterjee recognizes an actor’s need to look good on screen while playing certain roles, and the cinematographer’s contribution to this. “I have learnt over the years to know which camera angle makes me look better,” says Chatterjee, who is a big fan of Uttam Kumar, Bengal’s ultimate matinee idol. A framed photograph of the late actor hangs on the wall of his drawing room. Sirsha Ray, the cinematographer of A Death In The Gunj, who has shot four films with him, says Chatterjee is one of the most technically sound actors he has worked with. “When an actor has a sense of editing, it immediately becomes very easy to work with him,” says Ray. There have been times when it was just the two of them shooting in a crowded street—Ray never had to “communicate more than a few words”.
Chatterjee’s grounding in cinema comes from the fact that he is the son of the late Bengali actor Subhendu Chatterjee, who played Sanjoy, the most inconspicuous of the four friends who go on a trip to a forest, in Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Dinratri (1970). Saswata, whose nickname is Apu, was part of his father’s theatre group Biswarupa: “There have been times I have stood in for women,” he says.
He has grown up on a staple of classic Hollywood, Hindi and Bengali cinema. He recalls his father taking him to watch Kramer Vs Kramer when he was in school, despite his mother’s objections to the nudity in the film.
Kahaani director Sujoy Ghosh puts him in the “league of actors who can make a character their own and make it better than what the director imagines”. Ghosh’s brief to Chatterjee for Bob Biswas was to look “humble”; Chatterjee added a paunch, thick-framed spectacles and a mop of hair to make his character even more unassuming, more eerie.
Chatterjee’s own little touch helped him pull off his role as Ritwik Ghatak, with whom he has little physical resemblance, in Meghe Dhaka Tara. He added a buck tooth, more prominent than Ghatak’s, to get closer to the spirit of the character. “He would smoke beedis, go to good hotels and keep his feet on the sofa, and stand with his hands on his waist. There was a fire in his eyes and I took note of the way he smiled,” he says. “I went and bought a false tooth from my neighbourhood. It had a strange effect.”
Chatterjee considers Ghatak his most challenging role yet. It hurt him when the film didn’t do too well (it’s available on Amazon Prime video). “I’ll never forget how the two screenings at the Kerala film festival were full, one at night and the other early next morning, just for Ghatak. In my eyes, it put the cinema lovers of Kerala ahead of the cinema lovers of Bengal,” he says.
Chatterjee isn’t overly eager to work in films outside Bengal, but he believes “offers will come from outside if you are a good actor”. He let go of an offer to play Subhas Chandra Bose in a Tamil film because he didn’t have the dates.
Have his roles in Jagga and Kahaani, both Hindi films made by Bengali directors, created a perception that he can only play Bengali characters? His Kahaani director, Ghosh, thinks that working on his Hindi would help him expand his market. “He can fill the void in Hindi cinema that has been created by the departure of someone like Utpal Dutt,” Ghosh says. “He has that calibre. He can do anything.”