Anirban Bhattacharya is in a rare position in the Bengali film industry: his pet projects not only get greenlit, but he also has creative control over them. One of Kolkata’s most exciting talents has worked across cinema, theatre and music. The buzz surrounding his latest movie has as much to do with him as the subject itself.

Athhoi, scheduled for a June 14 release, is a screen adaptation of the superhit play of the same name, which in turn is based on William Shakespeare’s Othello. The SVF-Jio Studios production has been written and directed by Arna Mukhopadhyay, with Bhattacharya serving as creative director. Mukhopadhyay plays Othello/Athhoi, Bhattacharya Iago/Gogo and Sohini Sarkar Desdemona/Diya.

Shakespeare is a recurring factor in Bhattacharya’s career. His first notable film role was in Aparna Sen’s Romeo and Juliet adaptation Arshinagar (2015).

Bhattacharya’s early acclaim accrued from theatre. The 37-year-old Midnapore native acted in as well as directed a string of plays starting in 2005. Bhattacharya’s popularity peaked during the coronavirus pandemic. This period saw Mandaar, a series adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that Bhattacharya co-created and directed for the Hoichoi streaming platform.

In 2022, Bhattacharya’s directorial feature debut Ballabhpurer Rupkotha, a supernatural fantasy based on a Badal Sircar play, was a hit. In 2023, he was creative director for the eighth season of Hoichoi’s Byomkesh. All three productions were backed by SVF, Bengal’s most powerful studio, with whom Bhattacharya has developed a steady working relationship.

Also in 2023, Bhattacharya starred in the Hindi-language Mrs. Chatterjee vs Norway alongside Rani Mukerji. Back home, his Bengali films were drawing praise as well as raising hopes that he might help revive the industry’s dwindling fortunes.

Bengali cinema has been overshadowed by Hindi productions. Many Bengali films are dead on arrival at the box office. Noteworthy Bengali arthouse films have been few and far between.

Bhattacharya is aware of the challenges ahead, even as he focuses on “jotno”, or the dedication with which he approaches his work. “I have never overestimated or underestimated myself and I’m aware of my limitations,” Bhattacharya told Scroll. “My only responsibility is noting that jotno doesn’t go away from my work.” Here are edited excerpts from an interview.

Star, filmmaker, actor, singer – is it tough to multi-task?
I am not a star. I am a popular actor, recognised by a reasonable section of viewers. A star has to generate euphoria, like Rajesh Khanna, Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Uttam Kumar, Prosenjit, Dev, Jeet.

Stars give wish-fulfilment stories. My first major film character was Mercutio [Monty in Arshinagar]. I played a controversial character in Dhananjoy, someone disturbing in Dwitiyo Purush. I did graphic nudity in Ghyachang Fu. I have played Byomkesh and acted in Tagore adaptations. This is not the graph of a star. People like my work, but that doesn’t make a star.

Secondly, I don’t multi-task. When I am acting, I don’t write, sing, ideate or think of directing. From 10-15 days before the shoot to the end of shooting, I don’t do anything else besides acting.

When I direct, the intention is to spend between nine months to a year to work on it, but since I’m an actor, I can’t sit idle for that long. Acting, like gymnastics, requires constant practice. My tools and sensibilities will get rusty if I don’t keep acting. I try my best to stay free two-three months before shooting and during post-production.

And I am a creative director, in the sense that I bridge the gap between the creative team and the producer. Like I am a creative director for Arpan Gorai’s upcoming Romeo and Juliet adaptation, written by Durbar Sharma and starring two new kids.

Athhoi (2024).

There is a belief that you are Bengali cinema’s white knight. What do you think?

The other day, someone called me Mr Dependable. I don’t take these labels seriously. It’s all about the work. Work creates the brand.

Calcutta is a big, sparkly city. Those of us who from the mofussil are always told to not get carried away. Stay grounded, enjoy my success but not lose my way – that’s something I have always tried to maintain. I must ensure that my hunger for good work never goes away.

The building in which SVF is located is also the venue for the Times Fresh Face award, which has been a launch pad for young television and film actors. The contrast is interesting.

When I came to Calcutta, there was only one mall, Forum, on Elgin Road. It’s a coincidence that I am in this building and I have worked mostly from here in the last eight years.

My acting journey was totally different – studying theatre at Rabindra Bharati University, doing group theatre, working with Minerva Repertory Theatre, then a freelancer, and finally starring in Aparna Sen’s Arshinagar. For the generation that grew up in the 1990s, the effects of liberalisation and globalisation came much later. Our actions and reactions were defined by that time.

Our point of view with a younger filmmaker is vastly different, because we remember that time. Some have erased that time and claimed that history did not exist. But if it stays in your memory, it will show up in your work. It’s like Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which Japan and Germany have won the Second World War, but someone out there knows there is an alternate world.

Mandaar (2021).

What is the origin of 'Athhoi'?

In 2015, my university senior, Arno da [Arna Mukhopadhyay], tells me, if you don’t do this role, it’s impossible to make it. I listen to the script. Very exciting.

2016, March 5, Rabindra Sadan, we debut with Athhoi. After the first five to six shows, we have only had houseful shows. It became a sensation. A young crowd, a repeat audience.

During rehearsals for our play Ghare Baire a couple of years ago, Arno da told me he had turned the stage play into a screenplay. We took it to SVF’s Shrikant Mohta. He liked it. We invited him to our last stage show. April 22, 1 pm show, Rabindra Sadan. Twelve hundred seats full. Shrikant was mighty impressed. End of April, the film got greenlit.

What was the shooting like? Bengali film shoots are notoriously chaotic because of abysmal budgets.

Never below 16 to 17 hours a day. There will be three days in the schedule where we have to shoot for 21, 22, 24 hours straight. For Ballabhpurer Rupkotha, we once shot 26 hours straight. For Atthoi, 22 days.

Budgets in Bangla films have always been low. These discussions have increased because of the internet, but it was always like this.

Tapas Sen, the legendary stage lighting designer, would put light bulbs inside coconut oil tin cans to create the effect of a coal mine in Utpal Dutt's play Awngar. An artist will recalibrate his technique according to resources. If Picasso is asked to draw on a napkin, he will. Just like Ganesh Pyne can paint on this table in front of us or paint a giant building using ladders.

Ballabhpurer Rupkotha (2022).

Is poor funding the only reason the Bengali film industry is in the doldrums?

Discussing budgets and not talking about cinema viewing infrastructure is like bothering about the design of the window grill or the wood for furniture instead of building the roof first.

We shot Athhoi in Bankura, where there were four theatres 10 years ago. Today, there are none. Anybody in Bankura has to travel miles to Durgapur to watch Atthoi.

Bengal has possibly the worst ratio of theatres per square kilometre in India. Films run houseful only at [the state-owned] Nandan and Radha, where tickets are priced at 30 or 70 rupees. Only policy can save Bangla cinema. Either the government or some private entity has to set up theatres in Bengal.

This talk about making films like the South, like Bombay – such films cannot and should not be made in Bengal. We should make Bangla films like Bangla films.

What are the other reasons Bengalis are turning their backs on cinema?

In the last 15 years, our industry’s image has taken a hit. A lot of people from the arts got involved in a political movement with good revolutionary intentions, but what followed, combined with IT cells and online trolling, has caused massive damage to our reputation. We lost goodwill.

Earlier too, politics was big in our lives. There’s a saying that during the Communist regime, the local committee knew what was cooking in your kitchen. Now, there is open collusion between politics and artists.

Plus, the pandemic broke us. There is massive depression. Everyone is tense: will I remain employed? No good work comes out of fear.

And climate change. Our Eastern region is particularly screwed. We step out of our cars and we are gasping, drenched. How can we shoot for 20 hours?

Heat, poor health, financial tension, rampant inequality, one particular community being cornered, insufficient aid and ration in our state. I ask myself, are films even important now? Do people really need cinema?

What is necessary cinema? Ritwik Ghatak saw cinema as a political tool, for example. Steven Soderbergh said that cinema is anything with a “specificity of vision”. It can be an Instagram reel for that matter.

There is no necessity in cinema. When we came into the arts, there was no culture of dictating what you could or could not make, or making something pointedly political. I don’t think cinema has the power to change society. It never did.

If any creation can be called cinema, then cinema is everywhere now. But I feel that people are happy without cinema. They already have a bulk of content on their phones.

Tomorrow, if Bangla cinema is no more, sure, there will be outrage but they won’t miss it after two months. Perhaps someone will write a history book about us. A listicle: five reasons Bangla cinema died. International media will ask, how did cinema die in the land of Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak? Anurag Kashyap will be called for a bite.

Any response to Kashyap calling contemporary Bengali cinema ‘ghatiya’, terrible?

I did not find that comment serious in the first place. He talks about Ray, Ghatak, Sen. He doesn’t talk about Ajay Kar, Tapan Sinha, Rajen Tarafdar, Tarun Majumdar. He spoke of three legendary yesteryear filmmakers, and then suddenly, two new films, of which he said he watched Herbert, and he didn’t find the time to watch the other.

Perhaps he knows some things about Bangla cinema, but as a comment in itself, what he said is not serious.

Dwitiyo Purush (2020).

How do you deal with the pressures of your profession?

I do feel sad if my film flops. But I don’t have insecurity. I have fear. Fear about the consistency of the quality of my work. All this pressure, heat, low budgets, lack of resources, intolerance and inequality in society – I fear that they might make me depressed or indifferent.

Our entire profession is chaos. Filmmaking is chaos. I fear that this chaos will tire me out.

Have Hindi filmmakers been knocking on your door?

At the success party of Mrs. Chatterjee vs Norway, some guy in casting or talent walked up to me and said, you’ve gotta do some PR, dude.

I have pride and affection about being a Bengali. I have spent a lot of time and have worked very hard to study the Bangla language. So I will stay here even if the audience decreases. Just because my roots are not doing well today, I won’t leave them.

My filmmaking, thinking, creativity emerge from bhasha, language. If that’s taken away from me, I am half of what I am.

Nirobotay Chhilo, Mitthye Premer Gaan (2023).