Kolkata: A calendar year in West Bengal’s entertainment industry has had a constant since 1986–a Prosenjit Chatterjee film. At 60, the National Award-winning actor is still plumbing the depths of love, longing, loneliness and all the emotions that define human existence.
He is the romantic hero dancing outside his girlfriend’s house on her wedding day in Sasurbari Zindabad (2000). He’s the alcoholic cop railing against a broken system in Baishe Srabon (2011). And he’s the intrepid detective untangling mysteries in Yeti Obhijaan (2017).
Prosenjit Chatterjee is a chameleon.
“If he says he is the industry, it won’t be inaccurate. He is like the Amitabh Bachchan of the Bengali film industry,” said Aniruddha Dhar, a senior film critic. Like Bachchan senior, he has ridden the crests and troughs of acting life, survived rough patches and delivered flops. Prosenjit, or Bumba Da as he is called, is a hit in every conceivable sphere–films, television and now, OTT.
His dedication to acting is not just a lesson for newer talent, but also his co-actors.
“What I admire the most about Bumba Da is how he constantly reinvents himself. He still gives 15 interviews per day and makes it all look so easy,” said Parambrata Chatterjee, his co-star in Baishe Srabon, the 2011 cult Bengali crime thriller.
After straddling Bollywood and Bengali cinema with ease for decades, OTT is proving to be fertile grounds for the actor. He bagged the role of film producer Srikant Roy in Amazon Prime Video’s period drama Jubilee and played murdered investigative journalist Jaideb Sen in the Netflix series Scoop. Directed by Vikramaditya Motwane and Hansal Mehta, respectively, both shows were released to rave reviews this year.
“Even though the two were not supposed to be released one after the other, the delay in the release date of Jubilee actually became serendipitous. People saw me in two different roles, and what I can do,” said Prosenjit.
This is his OTT innings, and Prosenjit wants to make sure it’s unforgettable.
Bengali Cinema’s ‘constant’
Prosenjit can swagger and fill up the screen if the role calls for it, but can also diminish himself with grace for a fellow actor with a bigger role. In Jubilee, he got under the skin of Srikant Roy, modelled after Hindi cinema pioneer Himanshu Rai.
— Rajib (@Rajibsingha_) May 6, 2023
He is effortlessly charming and cold as Roy. When Roy says, “If I have to choose between saving my marriage or the studio, I’ll choose the studio,” he exudes both ruthlessness and ambition.
As investigative reporter Jaideb Sen in Scoop—based on the real-life experiences of journalist Jigna Vora who was arrested and later acquitted of murder—the actor doesn’t have much screen time. Even with limited dialogues, he captures the heart and soul of his character, a powerful but upright journalist who is ruthlessly gunned down by the Mumbai mafia.
— Prosenjit Chatterjee (@prosenjitbumba) June 4, 2023
National recognition and accolades did not lure Prosenjit away from West Bengal’s entertainment industry. He began this year with a stellar performance in Kaushik Ganguly’s period thriller, Kaberi Antardhan, shot against the backdrop of the Naxalite movement and the Emergency. Here, he plays Arghyakamal Sen, an influential art teacher. Mrinmoy Ghosh (Kaushik Sen), a police officer in Hatimara, known for hunting down Naxal insurgents in his area, is found dead at his residence. Arghyakamal teaches art to Mrinmoy’s son Amartya (Purab Seal Acharya). He soon learns that along with Mrinmoy’s death, his sister Kaberi Bhattacharya (Srabanti Chatterjee) is also missing.
Slowly, Arghyakamal gets embroiled in unearthing the truth behind the mystery. Prosenjit brilliantly portrays his empathy, angst and burning vengeance.
He also teamed up with Ganguly in the hit 2019 film, Jyeshthoputro, to play a role close to his real life–a reigning Tollywood superstar Indrajit Ganguly. But that is where the similarity ends.
The film begins with the death of the patriarch of the Ganguly household. Indrajit, the jyesthoputro or elder son, visits his paternal house, but his stardom precedes him. Word spreads across the small village, and crowds gather to catch a glimpse of him as he navigates the distance that has grown between him and his brother. The family dynamic is on public display because of his stardom.
Prosenjit uses his eyes to do most of the acting in this film. From wiping his face with a handkerchief after being lovingly kissed by a doting cousin to comprehending his brother’s hostility toward him and his fame, he skillfully conveys complex emotions through minute actions.
Prosenjit is to the Bengali entertainment industry what Rahul Dravid was to Indian cricket at the height of his career. If Dravid was ‘the wall’ defending his team, Prosenjit is the dependable crowd-puller. Even when critics predict that his star is dimming, he comes back stronger than ever.
Every project is a new lesson for the actor.
“I consider myself a student of cinema.”
The quintessential ‘masala’ hero
As the son of veteran Bollywood actor Biswajit Chatterjee, Prosenjit had the privilege of easy access to the film industry. But he has honed his craft like a chef sharpening his knives.
From 1986 to 2003, Prosenjit acted in out-and-out commercial films, where he played the proverbial hero, dancing around trees and in the rain, romancing the heroine and fighting thugs. In 1989 alone, he acted in over 22 Bengali romance and masala films.
He started as a child actor for Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Chotto Jigyasa (1968) and won an award for his performance too. But instead of getting caught up in the heady winds of success as a child actor, he stayed away from acting until he completed his graduation from Kolkata’s St Xavier’s University.
By the late 1980s, Bollywood directors were courting him to play romantic leads. At one point, he said no to Sooraj Barjatya’s 1989 mega-hit film, Maine Pyar Kiya, the role that catapulted Salman Khan to instant stardom.
Barjatya offered Prosenjit the role of Prem after his breakthrough role in Amar Sangi (1986). The romantic film was as successful as Maine Pyar Kiya went on to become. One of its songs, Chirodini Ami Je Tumar, still evokes nostalgia and romance. But most of all, Prosenjit became for the Bengali audience what Salman was during the ’90s for Hindi moviegoers–an icon of romance.
As he grew older, Prosenjit turned to the next phase of his career—parallel cinema.
The turning point
He became one of the first heroes in the Bengali film industry to balance commercial and arthouse cinema perfectly. The turning point in his career came with the appearance of Rituparno Ghosh in his life, both as a director and friend. Ghosh offered Prosenjit some of his first major arthouse projects, such as Utsab (2000) and Chokher Bali (2003).
However, the veteran actor’s first brush with parallel cinema came a decade ago with a cameo in Ghosh’s 1994 national award-winning film, Unishe April (1994), where he played the entitled, brash boyfriend of Aditi (Debashree Roy), the daughter of a dancer. Until then, his career was an endless list of commercial potboilers. But the cameo showed that he was capable of much more—and Ghosh was one of the first directors to tap into it.
“I am glad I ignited that fire in you and that you did not let it die out,” Prosenjit fondly remembers his friend and ace director telling him about his film trajectory after Chokher Bali.
Chokher Bali was a memorable film for multiple reasons–it had a bigger budget than any contemporary Bengali film of its time, and starred Bollywood superstar Aishwarya Rai. It won three National Film Awards for best feature film in Bengali, best costume design and best art direction.
Ghosh’s intervention gave Prosenjit’s career a much-needed boost. Instead of going down the path of an ageing romantic hero wooing women half his age, he got the opportunity to take on more layered roles. In 2006, he played Kaushik in Dosar, another Ghosh film, for which he won the National Film Award – Special Jury Award / Special Mention (Feature Film).
The second turning point in Prosenjit’s career came with Srijit Mukherjee’s Autograph (2010). A tribute to Satyajit Ray’s 1966 film Nayak and Bengali superstar Uttam Kumar, the movie was a perfect blend between commercial and cerebral cinema.
Prosenjit played an ageing superstar working with an ambitious director (Indraneil Sengupta), who would go to any length to make his film successful. It crossed more than 100 days of screening in West Bengal, Delhi, Mumbai, and Bengaluru. It premiered internationally at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, the Mahindra Indo-American Arts Council in New York, and the London Indian Film Festival, to name a few. Autograph also received multiple accolades at the Zee Banglar Gourab Movie Awards, Star Jalsha Entertainment Awards and Big Bangla Movie Awards, taking Prosenjit’s career to new heights.
Mukherjee’s next project with the actor was Baishe Srabon (2011), where he was cast as suspended police officer Probir Roy Chowdhury who helps capture a serial killer. His nonchalant delivery of Bengali cuss words became the talking point of the film, further cementing his position as an actor who could pull off any role convincingly.
Bollywood was no Bengal
While he was cresting the waves of the Bengali film industry, Prosenjit also made inroads in Bollywood. He made his Hindi film debut with David Dhawan’s Aandhiyan (1990), the very last film of yesteryear actress Mumtaz. This was followed by Meet Mere Man Ka (1991), Sone ki Zanjeer (1992) and Veerta (1993). But the Midas touch that succeeded in West Bengal failed in Bollywood. None of these films brought him recognition or commercial success.
However, Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai (2012) brought him the visibility other Hindi films couldn’t. Here, Prosenjit played a socialist academic with a questionable dalliance with his former student Shalini (Kalki Koechlin). Like Scoop and Unishe April, he did not have much screen time here, but his performance was always impactful.
“I no longer go by the length of my role or screen time. Look at my roles in Baishe Srabon and Autograph,” said Chatterjee.
Such was the impact of Shanghai that National-award-winning actor Aparna Sen texted Prosenjit to tell him that she thought it was one of his best works to date. And true to Bengali culture, he went over to Sen’s house the day he landed in Kolkata to seek her blessings.
350 films, 4 decades
Up-and-coming actors in West Bengal harbour hopes of working with him. “It’s considered a big opportunity. For many, it’s a masterclass in acting itself,” said one actor who did not want to be named.
Prosenjit has acted in over 350 films in the last four decades, with a gallery of roles to his credit that few stars–not even his father—can boast of.
“It is difficult to pick favourites. How do I justify leaving out some and picking others?” Prosenjit said.
A new generation of OTT viewers is discovering him now with Jubilee and Scoop, but back home, his fans are rekindling their relationship with the actor through Atanu Ghosh’s gut-wrenching drama, Shesh Pata. It was released this year during the Bengali new year, Poila Boisakh.
But Chatterjee is not resting on his laurels. He’s looking ahead.
“The next generation is my challenge,” says the actor.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)