Prosenjit Chatterjee: Beyond the Frames

— Ratnottama Sengupta


Six months into 2016 Prosenjit Chatterjee is on screens across India and abroad too. He will be given a special award at the North American Bengali Conference (NABC) – being held in New York from July 1 to 3 – for his contribution to the flourishing of Bengali cinema in recent years. He has co-produced, with Habibur Rahman of Bangladesh, Goutam Ghose’s Shankhochil that takes a humanitarian look at the constant flow of people across the porous border carved out in 1947. Prakton, directed by Nandita Roy and Shibaprasad Mukherjee, teams him with Rituparna Sengupta after probably Rituparno’s Utsab to take a look at contemporary marital equations. And the ambitious teleserial Mahanayak is poised to take him to every small screen the larger than life story of Uttam Kumar, complete with Paoli Dam as Suchitra Sen.

It is not for nothing that Prosenjit Chatterjee was identified as ‘The Industry’ in Srijit Mukherjee’s debut film, Autograph. Born to yesteryear’s Bollywood actor Biswajit (who had cast the four-year-old in Chhotto Jigyasa), Prosenjit’s journey from zero to hero to superstardom has not been one single leap: he has worked to gain every inch he claims in popular imagination.

Beginning with formulaic roles at a time when actors like Tapas Paul were major draws at the box office, he worked on building a body, learning to dance and drive, studied the dynamics of Uttam Kumar (his all-time guru whose childhood he played in the 1970s film, Dui Prithibi/ Two Worlds). More importantly, he studied the basics of the Tollygunge based industry and stepped into every vacuum he noticed, thus consolidating his position as not another run-of-the-mill actor. He always explored avenues to develop the industry. He realised that to survive commercially regional cinema must match the glamour that marked Bollywood films, and introduced the concept of costume designer or stylist when Bengali cinema was thriving on Dress Suppliers.

To remain at the top he had to be versatile. Guiding the industry forward he changed the outlook and presentation of his films. At one time, with 15-20 releases a year, he understood that viewers would tire of them if he paired with the same actors repeatedly. So he encouraged producers to invite a stream of actresses from Mumbai – Rameshwari, Anuradha Patel, Farah, Deepika Chikalia, Poonam, Juhi Chawla, Neelam, Sonam, Ayesha Julka... If fights and dances were needed to reach the masses, he ensured that masters from the south lent their panache to his films.

In his own performance he combined Uttam Kumar’s graceful delivery, Amitabh Bachchan’s attitude, and Kamal Haasan’s natural movements to emerge as a thinking actor for the paying masses. For them, he performed live in distant corners of Bengal. And they rewarded him by turning out in thousands: 20,000 in districts, 50,000 in towns was the average. This March, when he was shooting in Bangladesh, thousands turned up to watch him act before the camera, and hordes lined up the road even at 6 am simply to wave a welcome.

After scaling the peaks of popularity, he moved to content based films under directors known for experimenting with each new production. He worked under maestros like Buddhadev Dasgupta, Goutam Ghose and Rituparno Ghosh and also new entrants like Bappaditya Bandopadhyay, Subhadra Chowdhury and, most successfully, Srijit Mukherjee. Simultaneously he convinced a leading production house like Shri Venkatesh Films - makers of his trademark hit Sasur Bari Zindabad, which introduced cinemascope in Bengali films – to pepper their repertory of Tamil and Telugu remakes with landmarks like Chokher Bali, Iti Mrinalini, Meghe Dhaka Tara.

Prosenjit himself has taken to producing films by young directors who are exploring new themes like single mothers, among others. This has changed the profile of not merely Prosenjit’s filmography but the character of the industry. In Kolkata today, Alternate Cinema is indeed the Mainstream.

8Ratnottama Sengupta is the curator of Hyderabad Bengali Film festival. She is a well-known name in the industry for her writings in the newspapers, like The Telegraph, The Indian Express, and The Times of India. She has worked with The Times of India as the Arts Editor for a long time. During this stint she has extensively studied Indian art & culture and written about them. She won the National Award for Writings on Cinema in 2001.