When Soumitra Chatterjee passed away on November 15, 2020, actor Parambrata Chattopadhyay made a plea on social media: “I request friends in the media not to call and ask for a ‘response’.” The loss, he went on to write, cannot be put into words and it was his alone. Even now, when talking about Chatterjee, Parambrata often uses the present tense and when he corrects himself, he apologizes.
Last year, Parambrata posted another thank you to Chatterjee for his memories, experiences and stories, but, above all, courage. It was July and he wrapped up shooting for Abhijan, a biopic on Chatterjee where the actor, in a rare incident, was playing himself. The actor was traced to Kovid-19 in October and died after a long battle. The film survived and the intervening events took it from a regular fictional biopic to a precious memoir, talking about the actor’s life.
In a recent interview with indianexpress.com, Parambrata spoke on the film, clarifying Chatterjee’s presence and if that story. He also addressed the video where he teamed up with other actors in the Bengali film industry to remind people that the country belongs to them and can change what they say.
In Abhigyan, produced as a biopic on Soumitra Chatterjee, the actor played the role of his old self. It is a strange confluence of a documentary and a biopic; His portrayal of myth-making and its simultaneous dismantling. How did you come up with such an idea and why choose such a specific style?
I did not bring this idea myself. I love co-producers, Navratan Jhawar and Drs. The idea of making a biopic on Soumitra Chattopadhyay was given by Suvendu Sen. Sen is a New Jersey doctor who was translating Saumitra Babu’s prose into English. I wondered why no one thought of doing this at first, and now that there is someone, it is interesting that I am being asked to do so. It also made me realize the value of the man who is in our midst and who is truly a true legend. Just because he is around and working with us, we are not realizing the value of that. That I was willing to take up this challenge.
Although the film may sound like a part documentary, it is not. It is completely fictional but yes the format takes place back and forth from an interview. This is a very accepted format. Honestly, it doesn’t matter to be very novel. For me it was useful because his life is so vast, and his career is so vast, and his interests are so diverse, that to capture him briefly I thought it would be a good thing for the audience — the man himself. Of course everyone knows him because he worked until the very end. But he was alive, giving me the extra opportunity to let the audience see the man we are talking about. I did not want to let him go. This is where the documentary streak comes in. But it is very scripted.
When the film was conceptualized and shot, Soumitra Chatterjee was still alive. Did his involvement with the project choose you to change the story or sanctify the story in any way?
My survival did not interfere with my creative process. He was not the type of person to do so. He had hardly any binds on me. We had several sessions where we were sitting and had a lot of conversation before the shooting of the film started. He was very clear about a lot of things. He never told me how to write anything to me. When I heard her script, she was still quite fine with almost everything.
But then he was also someone we respected very much. And because he was still alive — I am very sorry for using the past tense. I believe she is still among us — we did not want to include anything that would invite unnecessary questions for her in her age and stature. Of course, no human is black or white. They are gray and we have portrayed them in the film as such. He has the human side that came to the fore in the film and that was the idea. I had no intention of making a milk and honey film on Soumitra Chatterjee. I also wanted to explore the personality and the human, and that’s exactly what I did but while drawing some lines.
There is a little bit in the trailer where your character sincerely admits that he is a fan of Soumitra Chatterjee. As someone who grew up watching her and later worked with her, how did you navigate her reverence while directing her? Was the process heavy?
I play a different kind of character in the film, so when my character says that, he doesn’t say that to me. But yes in a way I remain not a ‘fanboy’ but a fanboy. I have been a fan of his work as an actor and also his theater and his general take on life. That I personally am a big fan of his worldview, his sense of right and wrong, his sense of politics and philosophy. However, this character needs a fanboy because of some special characters to be played later in the film.
Can you tell what it was like to go to him?
Luckily I did not have to contact them. My co-producers did it and were considering who to contact for the project. Then they came to me. When he was told about me, he was quite happy. When I told him that this would be my point of view, he seemed quite alright with it. He told me that he was happy that I was doing this because he saw me grow and develop, and was certain that I would be able to do justice to the incredibly complex life he was living.
Your previous films – Jio Kaka (2011), Hawa Bodol (2013) Lorai (2015), Shonar Pahar (2018) and Tiki-Taka (2020) – can be as diverse. How do you think you have developed as a director?
Abhijana Is my sixth film. I really enjoy directing, which is also what I have studied. Making films gives me maximum creative satisfaction. It is through directing that I am getting my own expanse, my craft is something that every artist should have
The actor died after completing the film’s shooting, giving it posthumous memoir status. Do you feel pressured?
Saumitra Jethu He died after filming ended. Their parts were filmed just after the lockdown was relaxed in July. Now that the film will posthumously emerge, there is some pressure. As it happens in most cases, we suddenly start persuading him more and more that he is not around. We took him while he was alive. So yes, there is a little extra pressure but we will deal with it.
You have always been vocal about your political loyalty. Recently, you, along with other actors in the Bengali film industry, participated in a video to get people to vote wisely. Related to an industry where actors always walk cautiously when they enter politics, what have you indicated to do something like this?
I think that making videos gives us confidence in certain philosophies and ideologies. To campaign with or favor them, we believe that it is not necessary to take the color of the party. Furthermore, constitutional politics and partisan politics have taken very little stance in calling names and a complete erosion of citizenship. At the beginning of the elections in West Bengal, we realized that in this whole narrative of ‘Either you are with them or with us’ and people in one fraternity’s jumping ships, from one party to the other, they ignored many important issues Are going
This is not necessarily about us and them, it is also about a very important pillar of democracy-dissent. The line between a political party in this country that controls power, which is exercising governance, and the country itself is constantly blurring. Anything said against the government is considered an attack on the country. But this is the basic basis of democracy. We constantly ask the government questions. It is our duty as citizens of a democratic country.
Such issues and many others – heinous crimes against various sections of society, have come to a standstill in the basic development of society and economics, we have come together for the video. The thing is, before you are jumping on both sides for electoral gains or temporary meditation, you need to be reminded of these. And this reminder had to come from a civil society forum because the word ‘civil society’ is constantly being reduced to an insult. This has been done as a very concerted effort to isolate and eliminate any person from society, especially from the field of art. This whole idea of a thoughtful mind is considered problematic. It is an organized attempt to dissuade people from liking and subscribing.
My loyalty to certain principles is a result of the people I grew up with, the things I read in my book of civics. They come from a country that I am proud of and belong to the Constitution. When these values are distressed, I think they are distressed. So speaking, whenever it has happened, it has been my practice as an artist without any political color. Everyone who participates in the video believes that people should be aware of the time in which we are living.