Parambrata Chatterjee on artists uniting for anti-hate music video ahead of elections: ‘I felt endangered’

screenmixApril 7, 2021

When Soumitra Chatterjee passed away on November 15, 2020, actor Parambrata Chattopadhyay put out a plea on social media: “I request friends in the media to not call and ask for a ‘reaction’”. The loss, he went on to write, cannot be put in words and it belonged to him alone. Even now, when talking about Chatterjee, Parambrata frequently uses present tense and when he rectifies himself, he apologises.

Last year, Parambrata had put out another post, thanking Chatterjee for giving him memories, experience and stories but, above all, courage. It was July and they had just wrapped the shoot of Abhijan, a biopic on Chatterjee where the actor, in a rare occurrence, was playing himself. The actor was diagnosed with Covid-19 in October and after a long battle he passed away. The film remained and the intervening incidents has transmuted it from a regular fictional biopic to a precious memoir, the last instance of the actor talking about his life.

In a recent interview with indianexpress.com, Parambrata spoke on the film, Chatterjee’s presence and if that sanitised the storytelling. He also addressed the video where he along with other artistes from the Bengali film industry feature together to remind people the country is theirs and nothing anyone says can change that.

Excerpts

In Abhijan, framed as a biopic on Soumitra Chatterjee, the actor played his older self. This is a strange confluence of a documentary and a biopic; a depiction of his myth-making and a simultaneous dismantling of it. How did you come up with such an idea and why choose such a distinct genre?

I did not come up with the idea myself. I was pitched the idea –making a biopic on Soumitra Chattopadhyay–by co-producers, Navratan Jhawar and Dr Suvendu Sen. Sen is a doctor from New Jersey who was translating Soumitra Babu’s prose into English. I wondered why did nobody think of doing this before, and now that someone is, it is sort of interesting that I am being asked to do it. It also made me realise the value of the man that we have in our midst and who actually is a true legend. Just because he is around and working with us, we are not realising the value of that. That got me interested in wanting to take up this challenge.

Although the film might look like part documentary, it is not. It is entirely fiction but yes the format does go back and forth from an interview. That is a very accepted format. It is not something, to be honest, very novel. For me it was useful because his life is so vast, and his career is so vast, and his interests are so varied, that in order to capture him in essence I thought it would be a nice thing for the audience to see– the man in person. Of course everyone knows him because he worked till the very end. But that he was alive gave me the extra opportunity of letting the audience see the man we are talking about. I didn’t want to let go of that. That is where the documentary streak comes in. But it is very much scripted.

When the film was conceptualised and shot, Soumitra Chatterjee was still alive. Did his involvement with the project alter the story you were choosing to tell or sanitise the storytelling in any way?

Him being alive did not intervene my creative process. He was not the sort of a person to do that. He barely had any bindings on me. We had multiple sessions where we sat and talked much before shooting of the film commenced. He was very candid about a lot of things. He never ever told me how to write something. When I narrated the script to him, even then he was pretty okay with almost everything.

But then again he was also somebody we respect very much. And because he was still alive–I feel very sorry to be using the past tense. I believe he is still amongst us–we did not want to include anything which at his age and stature will invite unnecessary questions for him. Of course no human being is black or white. They are grey and we have portrayed him in the film like that. There are human sides to him which have come up in the film and that was the idea. I had no intention to make an all milk and honey film on Soumitra Chatterjee. I wanted to explore the personality and the human being as well, and that is exactly what I have done but while drawing some lines.

There is a bit in the trailer where your character disarmingly admits he is such a fanboy of Soumitra Chatterjee. As someone who has grown up watching him and later acted with him, how did you navigate your reverence while directing him? Was the process overwhelming?

I play a different character in the film so when my character says that, it is not me saying that. But yes I have remained a fanboy but not in the ‘fanboy’ sort of a way. I have been an admirer of his work as an actor and also his theatre and his general take on life. That is what I am personally a bigger fan of–his worldview, his sense of right and wrong, his sense of politics and philosophy. The character, however, needs to be a fanboy because of certain developments that happens later in the film.

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Can you share how was it to approach him?

Fortunately I did not have to approach him. My co-producers did it and were toying with the idea of who to approach for the project. Then they came to me. When he was told about me, he was quite happy. When I told him this will be my approach, he seemed quite okay with it. He told me he was glad that I was doing it as he had seen me grow and evolve, and were certain I would be able to do justice to the incredibly complex life he lived.

Your past films–Jio Kaka (2011), Hawa Bodol (2013) Lorai (2015), Shonar Pahar (2018) and Tiki-Taka (2020)– are as diverse as they could be. How do you think you have evolved as a director?

Abhijan is my sixth film. I really enjoy directing, that is what I have studied as well. Making films give me the maximum creative satisfaction. It is through directing that I find an extension of myself, my craft which is something that should happen for every artiste

The actor passed away after completing the shoot of the film, granting it the status of a posthumous memoir. Do you feel the pressure?

Soumitra jyethu passed away well after filming ended. His parts were filmed right after lockdown was relaxed in July. Now that the film will come out posthumously, it is a bit of pressure. As is in most cases we have suddenly started celebrating him more now that he is not around. When he was alive we kind of took him for granted. So yes, there is a bit of extra pressure but we will deal with it.

You have always been vocal about your political allegiance. Recently you, along with other actors from the Bengali film industry, participated in a video entreating people to vote wisely. Belonging to an industry where actors always tread cautiously when it comes to politics, what made you sign up to do something like this?

I think what made us do the video is our belief in certain philosophies and ideologies. In order to propagate or side with them we believe it is not necessary to take up a party colour. Also, constitutional politics and partisan politics has stooped a little too low in calling out names and in an absolute erosion of civility. At the onset of the elections in West Bengal, we felt that in this whole narrative of ‘either you are them or with us’ and people from our fraternity jumping ships one from one party to the other, a host of important issues were being overlooked.

It is not essentially about us and them, it is also about a very important pillar of democracy–dissent. In this country the line between a political party which controls power, which is exercising governance, and the country itself is being constantly blurred. Anything being said against the government is being taken as an attack on the country. But this is the fundamental premise of democracy. We are meant to constantly keep asking questions to the government. It is our duty as citizens of a democratic country.

Issues like this and many many others–heinous crimes against various sections of the society, the basic development of the society and economics have come to a standstill, made us come together for the video. Thing is, before you are jumping on either sides for electoral gains or temporary attention, you need to be reminded of these. And this reminder had to come from a civil society platform because constantly the word ‘civil society’ is being reduced to something of a derogation, like a blasphemy. This has happened as a very concerted effort to alienate and blemish anybody from the society, especially from the field of art. This whole idea of a thinking mind is considered problematic. It is an organised effort to impede one from liking and subscribing to people who think.

My allegiance to certain principles are a result of the people I have grown up with, things I have read in my civics book. They come from a country I proudly belong to and the constitution. When these values are endangered, I feel endangered. So by speaking up, whenever that has happened, has been my practice as an artist without any political colour. Everybody who participated in the video believe people should be aware of the times we are living in.