Abhishek Banerjee is searching for an answer.
My seemingly simple enquiry has thrown him off. Why did you become an actor?
He doesn’t know, or the answer that he has, doesn’t sound deep enough. He stares vacantly at no point in particular as if trying to extract something through sheer force of his gaze.
It’s the same gaze that struck independent filmmaker Devashish Makhijia when they first met. It’s also the same gaze - unbroken, tense, hypnotic - that meets me on the other end of a Zoom call on a drizzly Mumbai night. For a second, I think the screen has frozen, as is now the norm. It hasn’t.
When he’s thinking intently, Banerjee points out, he tends to look at one point for a prolonged period at: this is what got him the role of Dhavle Jr, a drifter in Ajji, the festival-hopping, critically-celebrated revenge drama directed by Makhija.
More recently, it’s the look that terrified millions who streamed Paatal Lok, where Banerjee disappeared into the role of the hotheaded Hathoda Tyagi, who turns skulls into pulp with the nonchalant ease of squishing a mango. Banerjee’s Tyagi is consistently unnerving, his eyes carrying a mix of both, terror and pain. He commits murders with impunity not because he knows he’s protected but because he doesn’t care about being caught.
But before Paatal Lok and before Ajji, there was a short film that Makhija directed called, Agli Baar. In a conversation with HuffPost India, Makhija spoke about the time he narrated the film to Banerjee, with the intention of getting him to cast for the short.
“When he sat in front of me and i started narrating that short, there was this strange, spooky look in his eyes as he listened to me. I felt like he was staring into my soul, and sort of draining it dry. I felt for the first time what Nietzsche may have meant by his quote - when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you.”
Makhija never forgot that look. “I asked him if he knew about the way he stares, and how it can send shudders down someone’s spine. He was gobsmacked. He insisted that girls find him cute and he’s generally a sweet fellow. No one’s ever told him he creeps them out. I knew i could tap something in someone who wasn’t even conscious of its existence within him.”
Makhija and Banerjee went on to have multiple associations, the most recent being Bhonsle.
As for Banerjee, he says that snapping out of characters such as the ones he has played in Ajji and Paatal Lok is easy, it is the getting in that is difficult.
“In Paatal Lok, I just didn’t know how to enter that part. I lost sleep.”
The answer would be found through the show’s meticulous writing and the workshops that followed. “I needed something to anchor his madness. I couldn’t relate to it, obviously. I kept reading and talking to my directors, trying to explore the psyche of this man and maybe find a common link between the two of us.”
And then he found it.
Past is Present
As a single child born in Kharagpur to a mother who was a homemaker and a father who was in the CISF, Banerjee wasn’t particularly good at sports. But for many young boys, pubescent is a time of confusion and discovery and sports often becomes an outlet to assert masculine bravado among their peers. What Banerjee was particularly good at was shot put and discus throw. Though not quite of an athletic build, he somehow managed to torque the heavy ball far off with sheer force of grit and determination. He even managed to score some medals.
As a truant kid, Vishal Tyagi doesn’t show much of an academic brilliance but is the school’s shot put star. As this little detail emerged after the show’s multiple drafts, Banerjee found that elusive entry point. “That was it. The murder scenes were my shot put sessions. I had found a way into that aggression. More specifically, I found the way to communicate the strength of my hands through my face.”
By the end of the shoot, the actor was drained. More so, because the show was shot non-chronologically, the last scene shot in the first three days itself. “To reach the end you need a journey. But when you are starting with the end, you need to be very sure of what the journey was.”
It helped that he had already played a part that involved deep malice and moral deviance in Ajji. He could harvest his past experience and infuse it with Tyagi’s graph for Paatal Lok by inverting it. Fitting, as in Ajji, his is the character that rapes a minor girl. In Paatal Lok, he becomes a killing machine after avenging the sexual violation of his three sisters.
Banerjee reveals that Prosit Roy recommended a specific tune, by the prolific Australian musicians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, which helped sink deep inside the psyche of Hathoda Tyagi. “Tension, despair, doom, lunacy and death are not new concepts to the oeuvre of Nick and Warren,” a Guardian review noted, about the duo’s music. The composition is called Road to Banyon, from the movie The Proposition (John Hillcoat’s breakout hit) and few days into the shoot, the actor would seamlessly zone out after plugging in the instrumental. He has avoided listening to the tune since the shoot.
He talks about growing up in Delhi, internalising the horrors the capital is most notorious for - sexual violence against women - and finding a release in Tyagi. “In the moments when I shot those scenes, it felt like an outlet to the rage and helplessness I had stored as a mute spectator to the violence and threats I had seen and unseen, read about and consumed about abuse.”
The actor points out that these parts are wildly different from his roles in films such as Stree, Bala and Dream Girl, three hit movies where he had supporting roles that mostly served the purpose of comic relief. “There, I’m able to find a natural rhythm and mine from my own life. For Jana (his character in Stree), I spent time with my parents because that part reminded me of my early life: naive, unassuming, sheltered. At home, they call me Gola, that’s my daak naam (nick name). Jana too is like that, he lives by his nickname.”
In the early 90s, Banerjee’s mama (his mother’s brother) was getting married. The preparations were done and the ceremony was about to begin in the family’s Kharagpur house. But Banerjee’s father and his other uncles were nowhere to be found. He was sent, as kids often are, to get them to hurry to the mandap. Just when he entered, Amitabh Bachchan’s voice engulfed the room. “Poora naam, Vijay Dinanath Chauhan, baap ka naam, Dinanath Chauhan…”
The fathers and uncles and the cousins were there and they signalled him to stay still. Bachchan was on the screen and Agneepath’s most iconic dialogue was underway. Marriages could wait. Little Abhishek joined them even as impatient family members yelled at them to come down at once.
But not before the scene was through.
Ever since then, Banerjee wanted to be Amitabh Bachchan. Although it was a time when Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan and Akshay Kumar had arrived on the screens, Banerjee would watch and rewatch Bachchan on television, convinced that their lives were connected. Such was his outsized influence, he even enrolled in Delhi’s Kirori Mal college, Bachchan’s alma mater.
As the country’s markets opened up and cable television entered most households, Bachchan’s movies became companion pieces to lunches and dinners, his baritone mimicked endlessly, his dialogues used out of context in lost cricket matches and innocuous birthday bashes. “I saw Deewar and pretty much lost my shit. What a wild movie. Now here was an actor who wore a coolie’s outfit but had the swag of a gangster. I mean, what the fuck? How is he doing it? My mind was like boss, ye banna hai (need to be this guy).”
In college, Banerjee secured a spot at Kirori Mal’s highly popular Players Theatre Society, a collective that’s birthed talents such as Satish Kaushik, Sushant Singh, Ali Abbas Zaffar, Viktor, Mohammed Zeeshan Aayub, Himanshu Sharma (writer) other than Bachchan himself. “It’s a place that opens your mind, implores you to question, expands your worldview. They’re also very professional. It isn’t just about getting your friends to act. Everybody auditioned, workshops were conducted.”
It was here that he got acquainted with the works of celebrated playwrights and writers such as Harold Pinter, Anton Chekhov and Vijay Tendulkar. “The art of taking an international piece of literature and localising it to your milieu, we learnt there. Even when you localise, where do you set it? Kolkata or Lucknow. If it’s a World War 2 play, what’s a parallel Indian reference to it? If it’s a play about football hooliganism, what’s the right setting for it? That place unlocked my mind to new ways of storytelling.”
Until then, his idea of ‘acting’ was restricted to mimicking Bollywood tropes.
After graduation, he spent two years in Delhi, doing odd gigs like dressing up as a mascot in a shopping mall to teaching theatre to school students and helping out film productions that were filming in the capital. While auditioning for a small part in Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D, he befriended casting director Gautam Kishanchandani, whom he’d go on to have a long association and deep friendship with.
To his friends, Banerjee, always the actor, didn’t say he’s going to ‘struggle’ in Mumbai. “I acted cool, I was like, you know, I’m going to Bombay to spend some time, discover the city….” he laughs.
After landing in Bombay in 2009 he realised that half the people he thought he knew didn’t even bother to return calls. At audition studios in Andher’s Aaram Nagar, the lines were long and the way it was being handled at the time, confusing. “They’d say, act this scene out the way SRK did in Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani. Having studied acting, I knew this isn’t how it’s done. I called up Gautam and he was sweet, helpful. I started assisting him and to be honest, this was my way of staying in touch with what was going on. I’d cast and audition at the same time but eventually auditions tire you out. You get lazy and disillusioned and want to find a way around it”
He was exceptional at giving cues and would often perform scenes with the actors he was auditioning. Impressed with his dedication as an associate in the 2010 crime sage, Once Upon A Time in Mumbai, director Milan Luthria recruited him to handle The Dirty Picture by himself and from thereon began a career as a casting director which’d ultimately lead to the inception of Casting Bay, the company he runs with his close friend, Anmol Ahuja. Together they’ve worked on films such as Secret Superstar, The Sky is Pink, Toilet Ek Prem Katha and shows like Panchayat.
About casting itself, Banerjee makes one thing clear: the casting director never casts for the poster. Which is to say that marquee names are pre-decided by the director-producer and while streaming companies have caused a slight shift, it’s still a minor dent, not a major cavity.
“Our job is to cast for commissioned, green-lit films that often come with their primary cast.”
Unless there’s a film like Laila Majnu, which introduced new faces in Avinash Tiwary and Tripti Dimri or the ensemble of the indie gem Tu Hai Mera Sunday, most major films come with stars attached.
Many directors recognised that he had preternatural talent for spotting acting talent for supporting parts - which is how he secured casting gigs - but his drive to perform in front of the camera was higher than staying behind it. Casting was stressful but paid the bills. “Not like I wanted to buy a BMW. Honestly, I just wanted to get by.”
Interestingly, for somebody who’d go on to make his name as a casting director first and then as an actor, it’s appropriate that his first shot for a film involved giving an audition. In Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti, Abhishek Banerjee was an ‘extra’ - he’s there for barely 20 seconds, giving a cringey audition for the part of Bhagat Singh.
In the film within the film (he was cast because a friend’s brother was involved in the casting) he was rejected for the part spawning a journey that’d see many rejections, including getting rejected by the filmmakers for whom he worked as a casting director.
Like it happened with No One Killed Jessica (2011) and Ghanchakkar (2013). The staggering irony of casting his own replacement wasn’t lost on him. But he did so, carrying the knowledge that those who’d eventually get the roles (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub as Manu Sharma in NOKJ, Namit Das as Idris in Ghanchakkar) were better actors. What eluded him was the fact that he himself wasn’t as good as he thought he was.
“Gautam Kishanchandani told me I lacked the maturity of the character. You are fit for a student-type role, he said. In my head, I was like, sir ko acting ke baare mein pata nai hai. I told Gautam, come on, yaar, I’ve done so many plays in Delhi, I’ve won so many awards!”
After being rejected in Ghanchakkar, a role he had pinned all his hopes on, Banerjee would realise that Kishanchandani was right. The ‘acting’ he picked up in Delhi was still raw and for it to fit in the mould of Bollywood’s idiosyncratic demands, required a lot of unlearning
“I was overdoing it.” It took him some time to reckon with his own inadequacies. “I wasn’t a good judge of myself,” he said. “I had learnt from theatre and was performing for theatre, not for the camera. There’s a big difference. When I lost out on Idris’ part in Ghanchakkar, it allowed me time to introspect my own flaws, break them down and fix them.”
It was only in 2014 when casting director Nidhi Bisht reached out to him for a part in TVF’s Pitchers that Banerjee exploded on the scene. It was what he calls a ‘5-minute’ role and he didn’t want to do it because Bisht wanted to audition him for it, something he saw as a serious disrespect. “Audition for a 5-minute role? Not going.” She chased him down, he eventually gave in and his line, “Tu Beer Hai” would go on to become an inseparable part of the ever-shifting world of the Internet lexicon.
As TVF would solidify its position as one of the early players to speak the right language of streaming, Banerjee’s star would also rise, parallel to the aesthetic growth of the India viewer who was hungry and sought an alternative to Hindi soap-operas and star-driven Bollywood fare.
“I think the impact TVF had on Internet culture was humongous. The response to that 5-minute part in itself was so huge, I felt a new surge of confidence, energy.”
He still auditions for parts and did so even for Paatal Lok. Before that, he has been rejected for roles in Sacred Games 2 and Chhapaak. “I had to audition for Paatal Lok not because they doubted my skills but they needed to see that I can do that specific part.”
“I feel every part that I play is my audition to other filmmakers. I’m essentially telling them that look, I can do this, this and that. Because ultimately you want to reach a place where directors want to cast you without having to audition you. You want to implant your performances in their mind and get author-backed roles.”
While Banerjee’s movie career is on a steady rise, as a casting director, who is he the most proud of ‘discovering’?
Sidhant Chaturvedi, the actor who blew up on the scene as MC Sher in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy.
Banerjee and his team cast the Mumbai-born actor in a Coca Cola ad first and then in the Amazon show, Inside Edge, where he played a Dalit cricketer.
“We saw that energy and range a longtime ago. In Inside Edge, he’s a meek, under-confident guy facing oppression within the team. But you see him in Gully Boy, he’s on the other end of the spectrum. Another actor, I placed my bets on, a longtime ago, was Jaideep Ahlawat who I saw in a short film. It’s took him a long time to get where he has. It’s a matter of pride for us to see them do so well.”
Today, he balances casting gigs alongside acting and has a bunch of comedies lined up for 2020/2021. But nothing has beaten the reception that Paatal Lok got? I half-jokingly ask him it’d be a great ending for the piece if there was, say a letter, a message, a tweet, that came from Amitabh Bachchan.
Did it? “No. Not yet.”
Did he buy the BMW?
A smile engulfs the screen, his eyes, genuinely surprised at the fact that his casual reference earlier stayed with me.
“I did. A few months ago.”
Does he now have an answer on why he became an actor? He does and it is deceptively simple.
“To be famous.”