It isn’t entirely surprising to learn that the actor who played Bob Biswas lives in an analogue world. Like the baby-faced ruthless contract killer from Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (2012), Saswata Chatterjee is full of surprises. The acclaimed Bengali actor doesn’t use a cellphone, and lets his wife, a teacher at one of the most elite convents in Kolkata, handle his appointments and his social media.
Biswas has been off the Bollywood radar since Kahaani, but he is all set for an encore in Anurag Basu’s upcoming caper Jagga Jasoos. The July 14 release stars Ranbir Kapoor as a detective in search of his mentor Bagchi, played by Chatterjee. Also starring Katrina Kaif and scored by Pritam, Jagga Jasoos has been in the making for four years and is one of 2017’s most highly anticipated films.
In a room packed with books and DVDs and walls lined with pictures of Bengali icon Uttam Kumar and a solitary photograph of Chatterjee and his father, Shubhendu Chatterjee, with Satyajit Ray (he had acted in several of Ray’s films), we get the lowdown on how Jagga Jasoos was put together.
How did you become a part of ‘Jagga Jasoos?
As you can see, I only use a landline. Anurag – I had been introduced to him earlier – called up. My wife took the message. I called him back and he said he wanted to discuss something with me in person. So he came over one evening, sat down exactly where you are seated right now, and told me that he was doing a film and there was a very important character that he wanted me for.
There was no script. But I knew the character was important and interesting. The shooting schedule was fixed, and we shot over a really long time. But you will not know even when you see it. There are a lot of computer graphics. It is a massive project and we shot in Bombay, a small village near Siliguri, Africa.
What made you agree to appear in the movie?
It was the character. I cannot reveal too much, but the film starts with a true story, an incident that even made headlines in newspapers, and moves to an imaginary, fantasy world. It is about a father and a son. Rather a father figure and a little boy’s bonding. It’s very mishti [sweet], very interesting. When you have such an important role in such a big-budget film that you could never even dream of... I was like, when do we start?
The trailer suggests a lot of special effects and technical wizardry.
It is technology combined with emotion. It is not absurd with androids roaming the streets and aliens. It feels like a story that happens next door. The technology comes naturally. It is a very emotional, sensitive story with dialogue that will touch people. It talks about little things we overlook in life. It is not like Transformers. But there is an inherent simplicity, realness to it.
For instance, the child looks at this man and says, you are lying. The man does not realise that something has happened to his body. He cannot explain the change, but the child has spotted it. And it strikes him, the child is right!
It is not a straightforward film, neither is it obtuse. The visuals are surreal but so real that you will want to go there.
What was the filmmaking process like when there was no script to work with?
Everything was in the director’s head. One day he suddenly decided to shoot two different climaxes. We had shot one part and then discussed the other one. Then we dissected both climaxes. Eventually Anurag decided to follow his instincts, – which were not different from what we had all suggested.
We all knew the story graph. Before shooting a particular scene, Anurag would explain where and how it would be placed in the story. He never imposed his ideas on us. Every shot was decided only after discussions. Sometimes shooting would be stalled for days so that everyone could get on the same page.
Besides, if the director is absolutely clear in his head, it is always easy to work with him. Sometimes he would say: should I write the dialogue or will you just say them? Why don’t the three of you figure it out? I would say, hey, Hindi is not my mother tongue, you better write it down. Ranbir often joked, who gets paid the for screenplay credit? That was the kind of banter on the sets.
But you also need to have great levels of trust in such a director.
Yes, we did. All of us did. It was blind faith. Ranbir told me, we didn’t know how Barfi! was made. We just requested Anurag to show us the film before it was released. Anurag told me that even during promotions, none of the cast and crew could say much about the film.
We are now anxious to see Jagga Jasoos too. At one point we were desperate for the film to wind up.
It took almost four years.
Yes. A standard joke among us was that we could keep track of the film by measuring the age of Shah Rukh Khan’s youngest son, AbRam. Someone said, the film is now three years old, since AbRam is now three. So yes, we started when AbRam was born and here we are now.
How were your interactions with Ranbir Kapoor?
He is the prince of Bollywood. And when someone has nothing to lose or gain, has everything in the world for himself, it shows. He has no ego, no pretensions. He looks deceptively simple, a boy next door, but is super sharp. You cannot fool him. We had adda sessions on the terrace of the Windermere hotel and we chatted about many things. If you can reach out to him, he can be a brother to you, a good friend.
Given the adulation you received for ‘Kahaani’, what took you four years to come back?
The popularity of Bob Biswas was a huge responsibility. I was nominated for the IIFA awards that year and the award went to Rishi Kapoor for Agneepath. But I remember Anupam Kher hugging me and telling my wife, your husband is a fantastic actor. She froze in the middle of a mouthful of food.
It was heady. I received many offers and scripts after that. Two were so bad I told them I had no dates. For one of them, I really had no dates. The film was released and got washed out and I was thankful. Most offers were meant to typecast me. One was so bad I could not finish reading it – about an assassin in the Bihar underworld.
Maybe Jagga Jasoos was waiting to happen. After Bob, whatever I did had to be better, different. So here I am, as Bagchi. The “B” seems to have stuck.
What made Bob Biswas such a sensation?
We had decided Bob would look like anything but a killer. If someone looks so obviously like an assassin, as it happens in most of our films, he should be behind bars. Bob is just a face in the crowd. You do not even notice him until he kills for the first time. He is an insurance agent who looks timid, is sloppy, and cannot even run. Even when he introduces himself, “Namaskar, ami Bob Biswas, ek minute,” you do not suspect anything. And then suddenly he pulls out his gun and bang.
It was the characterisation that was the masterstroke, not so much the acting. It was the concept that clicked.
You have become synonymous with Bengali thrillers, having played several detectives. What keeps you coming back to this genre?
Even Jagga Jasoos is a musical thriller. There is a jasoos in each one of us. And when we watch a good thriller, we are always trying to beat the protagonist or the detective to the resolution. Even as we chat here now, I am trying to guess if you have guessed what happens in the climax. A good thriller, well told, will never fail, which is why I like it.
‘Kahaani’ was a genre-defining film in that sense.
Yes. Which is also why Kahaani 2 did not work. Sujoy made a mistake by calling it Kahaani 2. Maybe they were trying to cash in on the success of the previous film. But there was nothing in the film that could meet the audience’s expectations from a Kahaani franchise. You cannot change the characters in a franchise. You cannot make a James Bond film and call him James Atkinson. Many people asked me why I was not a part of Kahaani 2. I told them, I died, remember?
From playing Topshey in the Feluda series to toplining the mega serial ‘Ek Akasher Neeche’ and the biopic ‘Meghe Dhaka Tara’, you have an eclectic body of work. How do you choose your projects?
My father was an extremely good looking man. And you see this man [points to Uttam Kumar’s portrait handing over his head]? No Bengali, including me, has been able to get over him. I knew that there was no way I could be accepted as a good-looking, romantic actor. I did not even to try to go that way, but decided to deconstruct and break myself down and do unglamourous roles. I wanted to go in a completely different direction.
I am unambitious and happy with the work I have done for 20 years. Let’s see what happens after Jagga Jasoos.