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We have to reinvent ourselves, mannerisms don’t work today
His father, the dandy Biswajeet, was one of Bollywood's most popular matinee idols. But Prosenjit says he wasn't a typical star kid. He struggled to find a place for himself in Bengali films, became a star, drew flak for introducing Kolkata audiences to Bollywood-type song and dance sequences, and then, remarkably enough, became the face of Tollywood's indie cinema. 'Utsav', 'Chokher Bali', 'Dosar' and 'Moner Manush' - Prosenjit has done some of the most acclaimed films coming out of Kolkata in recent years with directors like Rituparno Ghosh and Buddhadeb Dasgupta. But he is also a mainstream star. His latest Bengali pot-boiler is 'Bikram Singh'. He also has a role in Dibakar Banerjee's soon-to-be-released 'Shanghai'. Bengali cinema, he says, is now ready to integrate with the Hindi film industry.
Your father Biswajeet was an established name in Bollywood. Yet his son is a self-made star. How did his career help you to grow?
My father was an established hero, in Mumbai and in Bengal. He co-starred with Asha Parekh, Mala Sinha and Mumtaz;acted alongside Uttam Kumar in Chowringhee. But I wasn't a typical star kid. I did act in Chotto Jigyasa as his four-year-old son but I wasn't launched the way Sanjay Dutt was in Rocky for example. I didn't get that opportunity, so I crafted my own career, starting when I was 16-17.
It was a struggle, even painful at times. But now I realise it gave me a solid grounding and helped me grow. I worked at Star Theatre for Rs 500 a month. My first movie was with Uttam Kumar in Dui Prithibi;my debut film as a hero was Duti Pata which was a big, big hit in 1983, when I was still a teen. But for three-four years no one cast me. I had moved away from the trademark 'Bangaliyana' of Uttam-Soumitra, I had integrated Bollywood elements of song-dance-action in my films. This was criticised by many then but it proved to be the way to go. Amar Sangi (1987) established this by crossing 75 weeks in the theatres. There was no looking back after that.
What was your focus when you started out - to be Tollywood's Hero No 1 or the most respected name in Bengali cinema?
I wanted to be a hero, then I wanted to be an actor. But always I wanted to be respected as a good human being. That's why I wanted to do Autograph. Srijit Mukherjee's script, which had Nayak for its take-off point, portrayed the good human being behind a highly successful star. I've always maintained that Bengali cinema should regain its position in national and international cinema. I've gone through phases where I did 16 or 18 films a year, then only three a year, and then finally I bounced back to an 18-film regimen. Today people say that I represent Bengali cinema. To me Soumitra Chatterjee is still the face, the 'banyan tree', of Bengali cinema but even he has said that because of my multiple interests in the field of filmmaking, I am the new number one.
Your character in Autograph says: Arun Chatterjee is the industry. When did Prosenjit Chatterjee become the industry?
I don't think you can really mark a turning point. It has been one continuous journey. Today stars have management experts steering their careers, deciding their endorsements, and so on. When I started out fewer films were made, Tapas Pal would feature in six, I, in six. That was it! I always tried to add value to my presence in Tollywood, study trends and figure out the shape cinema would take in 25 years. While doing the blockbuster, Shashurbari Zindabad, I went to Prasad Laboratories, learnt all about colour correction, and came back to apply it in my films.
As the head of Ideas, I had backed Teen Yaari Katha 7-8 years ago - even before Delhi Belly - because I anticipated a change in tenor. A star must reinvent his appeal. Mannerism will not do, even your body language must change if you wish to ride the waves. That's one reason why I enjoy working with first-time directors. They're bringing in fresh ideas, new ways of seeing life, and telling stories. Some day I'll take to direction. I might direct only 10 films as opposed to 300 films I've acted in.
What's special about Shanghai? Will it bring Bollywood alive to Prosenjit's talent?
I'm not thinking: 'I'm No. 1 in Tollywood, now I must be No. 1 in Bollywood. ' I've no sense of regret about Aandhiyaan sinking without a trace, and acting in a Hindi film will not raise my stock in Bengal. For me, the language is secondary;the director, the script and the role are important. Yes, I do want to do films in Hindi if they let me do something I won't get to do in Kolkata. I wanted to work with Dibakar Banerjee because of the films he's been making. He has said on record that he wanted a mainstream actor who had faith in a different kind of film and he was sold on my 'honest' eyes.
You'd worked so hard to play Lalan in Moner Manush. Were you disappointed when the National Award eluded you?
Yes. I'd read not only Goutam Ghose's script but also Sunil Gangopadhyay's novel and Lalan's songs. I'd adapted myself to the earth, water, forest and sky that were the Fakir's life. After the shooting I had difficulty returning to jeans and T-s. I'd gone vegetarian, slept on the floor. . . An award would have been an official recognition - and all awards are energising since not all films are done for money. But I wasn't crestfallen since it has enriched me as an actor.
Why do you keep doing both, mainstream and other cinema?
I've always tried to balance art with commerce. That way I enjoy both, the satisfaction of cracking new challenges as well as joy of doing meaty roles in commercial cinema. Films that everyone can watch and take back something from, will ultimately keep the industry in health. And, though it's not recognised as one, few industries are as big as ours.
You've long felt that Tollywood needs to make films in Hindi as well. Now Sahara is planning bilingual films. What are the advantages?
I've always said that we must do local cinema but not lose sight of national appeal. That's the way New Theatres, L V Prasad, Gemini Studios operated. I still want to know why our predecessors didn't make films like Saptapadi in Hindi as well. That would've widened our market. Just look at Kahaani. I'd said to Sujoy (Ghosh): 'Why don't you make your film in Kolkata? You know the city, and it would be cost effective. '
Why haven't you taken to production?
At one point of time, most of my films were successful, so I could have launched a production house. But had I done that, I would not have grown as an actor. Even today when my film is released, I find out its collection at theatres on a daily basis. My final ambition is to turn director. I'd directed Purushottam, the Bengali-Oriya bilingual, and in 1992, the cinemascope film was much talked about. But at this point I can't give 8-10 months to one film.
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