"As an old man, I would like to die knowledgeable more than anything else," Abhishek Banerjee tells me as a matter of fact during our tete-a-tete. There's confidence in his voice and most importantly, there's a zeal to offer something new on the table.
The actor first caught everyone's attention as Rajkummar Rao's best friend Jaana in the horror comedy Stree and since then, he has been constantly springing surprises one after the other on screen. His performance as Hathoda Tyagi in Amazon Prime Video's critically acclaimed web series Paatal Lok still sends shivers down the spine.
In an exclusive chat with Filmibeat, Abhishek gets candid about the pregnancy angle about his last release Rashmi Rocket, his approach towards his roles, OTT platforms and much more.
Excerpts from my conversation with him...
'It's Important To Pose Questions To Understand A Character'
Q. Taapsee Pannu in her recent interview, said that it was a conscious call for not using the pregnancy card to win the gender testing case in Rashmi Rocket. But you know, your character does reveal in the end that his client is pregnant after making his final argument. Abhishek, do you feel the scenario would have been a little different if this revelation wasn't made in the court at all?
A. You know, the revelation part was necessary because it's very important to make the general audience understand that hormonal imbalance doesn't mean the genes have changed. When Taapsee Pannu's first look from Rashmi Rocket was revealed, some people trolled her and called her body 'masculine'. It's easier for people to pass such comments. So, the only way to differentiate between a boy and a girl is through the reproductive system. It's very important to bring to the notice that even if somebody has a high testosterone, that person can be pregnant. This thing was important to be highlighted to address the shame in the court room. It was essential to give that reality check. The notion that pregnant woman cannot do anything needs to be shattered. A woman is very strong and can do a lot of things. That's the beauty of womanhood.
Like you know, Neha Parti Matiyani, the DOP of Rashmi Rocket was six months pregnant when she shot the film. She never told this to anyone on the sets because she didn't want any extra treatment. You see, this reality is a bigger story. She was shooting since three months and nobody knew that she was pregnant. It was only after the wrap-up when she refused drinks, she told the director that she was expecting. After that also, she went on another set and finished a film when she was eight months pregnant. So, she actually finished two films. That's the kind of strength we are talking about and it was necessary to show this in the film.
Q. You started your career as a casting director. Does that experience come handy when you approach different characters because you know the drill inside out?
A. Of course, it does when you are reading so many scripts, screenplays and characters. My interactions have always been around how I discuss the characters and establish them. This has always remained constant in my mind. When I enact any character or meet a director, maybe my casting experience comes handy to extract extra information which I might not have been able to if I was just an actor. It's important to pose questions to understand the character. Because of my casting experience, I know the right questions which need to be asked. I may not need long explanations to understand things. Casting has always helped me and it continues to do so even today.
Q. When I look at your journey so far as an actor, the one thing what I have observed is that you have a knack for picking up stories where your character dwells on certain emotions/ dealing with certain complex situations; be it the serial killer vigilante Hathoda Tyagi (Paatal Lok), Manish (Unpaused) or Sushil (Ajeeb Daastaans). Do you subconsciously get attracted to such roles?
A. (pauses and thinks) I don't know yaa...I haven't thought about it but yes, probably people think of me as a complex guy (laughs). So, that's why they offer me these roles. But if you ask me, I am also someone who tries to understand the complexities more than what the character is on the face. So, this is my own effort during the readings wherein I am curious to know the problems faced by the characters and how he deals with them. When I reach the tone of those complexities, it's only then those characters come alive for me.
While I understand that Vishal Tyagi (his character is Paatal Lok) is an extremely dangerous man, his love for dogs comes across as a general thing. He goes around killing people but his love for animals shows that there is still love present in him. He has love inside him but he has been taught to hate people. These complexities make it easier for me when it comes to characterization wherein I exactly know that I won't behave humanly; instead I will act exactly like one who loves dogs. For me, that's the core and then, it's the audience who makes the character immortal. The same holds true for my character Manish in Unpaused. What complexities will you show in him? You know he is a worker but his behaviour with every person is different because he belongs to a lower-strata. A person like him cannot do just one thing. He has to change his relationship for every person. So for me, that's the complexity of that character. Similarly, you have Sushil who is in love with a woman but he is stuck in a situation and cannot do anything about it. He knows that his girlfriend is being abused but he can't do anything. The conflict is more internal.
'Straight Line Characters Turn Out To Be Boring'
Q. Abhishek, I remember you once mentioning in one of your interviews that as casting directors, we look at how much an actor can surprise us. Now, when you are on the other side of the spectrum, does this surprise element also play a major role when you are picking up your scripts?
A. Yes, for sure. I hate straight line characters; they turn out to be very boring. I always try to pick up different characters. Sometimes I get offered limelight-based characters but they are not powerful enough. I realized that even if I take them up, there have been actors before me who have done such roles and those characters lack another dimensions. I have no interest in doing characters which people have portrayed well in the past. I want to take up characters which you have never seen before. When I am told that a lawyer like Isheet has never been seen before, I feel happy about it. But if you tell my performance reminded you of someone else, there won't be much happiness in me. So, I always try to dabble with such characters which people have not seen before at least in Indian format.
'I Won't Lie That I Do Get Nervous About How People Will React To My Work'
Q. Stree was a major turning point in your career. After that, there has always been positive adulation for you from all nooks and corners. But does this also get nerve-wrecking for you at times because now people expect you to come up with an impressive performance every time you show up on screen?
A. I think a little bit and I feel that now. The good thing is I don't take all the pressure. I am not somebody like that. For me, it's important to have fun. When I am on the sets, I forget what I had done before and what I will do later. For me, it's more important that today I am playing a particular character on a particular set for a particular film and I only need to impress the director. I don't see anything else. When I am performing, the people on the sets are the audience for me at that particular moment and they should like my performance. When they like it then I am happy. So, I take it very day to day. I won't lie that I do get nervous about how people will react to my work. It's always there. Thankfully, I just enjoy acting...there's nothing more to it. I just love this art form. I have been living to act and have been doing this since I was a child. So for me, it's more like getting up every morning to do what I like and also getting paid for it.
'OTT Makers Need To Understand That They Should Not Be Making Shows To Mint Money'
Q. I spoke to Jimmy Sheirgill a few months ago and he said that you should treat the OTT platform in a proper cinematic way just like how you make a two-hour film. Because if you start taking it for granted and provide sub-standard kind of stuff, it's only going to corrupt the platform. With the influx of content in the OTT platform especially in the last few years, do you think it might reach a saturation point someday?
A. Oh it will. I think it is already happening right now with people making similar shows, dialogues and characters. I have been offered many shows wherein the characters are similar to what I have portrayed before. Well, that just shows the lack of creativity in writers and directors. It's as simple as that. They need to work hard. I always say that they need to understand that they should not be making shows to mint money. I think the day they get a clarity on this, this problem will get solved. The problem arises when you start making content just to please the audience, thinking you just need to release the content irrespective of how it turns out to be. Everybody just sees money. I understand that money is important. When you arrive in this industry, you work for money in the beginning. You work for your passion and you want to prove yourself as a creative soul. I think one shouldn't forget that.
Secondly, while making shows for OTT platforms, it's important for us to keep in our minds that we are competing with international content. The audience who is watching our show, is also watching Squid Game. So, you need to understand their high expectations. If we provide them sub-standard content, we are putting ourselves in the spot. We need to understand that the audience is very smart and they understand a lot of things now. They want to see different content. So, the saturation point will definitely arrive because of money and business. But I still feel that there will be a few good men who will keep doing stuff which is out of the ordinary.
'It's A Myth That Good Actors Can Salvage Bad Scripts'
Q. You had once said that it's not about heroes and villains anymore; you have to choose the right character for yourself. As an actor, how do you achieve this? Is it a gut feeling or an intuition or an experience-based process?
A. For me, it's all about the team. I always look forward to working with a good team; that's important. When somebody comes to me with a film, I ask them, 'Who is the director?' Always. That's the first question I ask anybody who comes to me with a script. If the director is someone whose work I have never seen before, it doesn't fit in my immediate thoughts. If he is a director whom I know, agree with his art or have seen his work before, it becomes easier for me to take the call. For me, a film is a director's medium. Only he knows what kind of shots need to be taken and other aspects. That's how I choose my projects where I see the role, which team is making it, who are the writers and the co-actors involved. All these things decide how I select my work.
Q. But what if the story is really that appealing...
A. I will still not do it if I don't agree with the director's thoughts or haven't watched his work before or didn't enjoy while discussing the film with him. A story might be the best but if the director doesn't know how to direct it, then there's no use. It's a myth that good actors can salvage bad scripts. An average film can be improved but you can't save a bad script. An actor needs support from script camera, dialogues, co-actors, editors and on top of that, the director's. An actor solely can do nothing. So, the team is very important in an actor's life. That's why in the west, there are many director-actors or producer-actors who have teamed up on many projects. The collaboration between them is very strong.
'I Want To See Myself As An International Actor'
Q. Ten years from now, where do you see yourself as an actor?
A. I want to see myself as an international actor. I want to see myself as an actor who has broken boundaries and done movies in different languages. I don't want to stick to one industry because I am not here to work in an industry; I am here to act. That's my goal. My goal is just to act with different filmmakers, work with different writers and co-actors and learn different languages. I feel acting has enriched me as a human being. I have learnt about different cultures and people. That has happened only through acting.