on the actor's trail

‘Spontaneous, observant and smart’ he is, but Ritwick Chakraborty is also a chameleon

Ritwick Chakraborty has been the face of some of the best Bengali films since the 2010s, and with good reason.

Who is Ritwick Chakraborty this time?

In Kamaleshwar Mukherjee’s Goodnight City, which was released on Friday, the versatile and unpredictable Bengali actor plays a mentally disturbed killer. This is not the first time Chakraborty has played an unconventional role. When he is not playing a regular working-class man trying to get by in the big city, he is a psychopathic sex offender (Bheetu, 2015), a lonely man infatuated with a corpse (Nirbaak, 2015) or an obsessive workaholic who may have lost his mind for good (Shabdo, 2013).

Chakraborty is aware that a stereotype may have emerged. “It’s true that I do get these roles,” said one of Bengali cinema’s busiest actors. “I sometimes joke that if I am asked to play a medical representative, you will find a chopped off head in my bag. But then, I try to find variety within what I am offered and do my best.”

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Goodnight City.

Instinct, intuition and improvisation have been the three key elements in Chakraborty’s arsenal over the past decade. The 41-year-old actor started off by doing supporting roles in critically acclaimed films in the late 2000s, but the breakthrough came after three of his films won consecutive National Film Awards in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

The first of these was Kaushik Ganguly’s Shabdo, in which he played Tarak, a foley artist who gradually loses his mind and alienates his family by paying attention to distant sounds over people talking to him.

Tarak’s role had been offered to a few Bengali actors before. “Any actor would be greedy to play such a role,” Chakraborty said. “Even when I got the film, I did not realise that I would be the lead. I thought I would be a parallel lead. And I certainly did not expect Shabdo to become such a big hit.”

Ritwick Chakraborty as Tarak in Shabdo (2013). Image credit: Rose Valley Productions.
Ritwick Chakraborty as Tarak in Shabdo (2013). Image credit: Rose Valley Productions.

Pradipta Bhattacharya’s Bakita Byaktigoto, which won a National Award for Best Bengali Film in 2014, was another feather in the actor’s cap. In this surreal docudrama, Chakraborty plays an amateur filmmaker who sets out to find a mysterious village where people are said to have surely found true love.

His 2015 release, Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s near-silent Asha Jaoar Majhe, bagged two National Film Awards besides other international accolades and ran to packed houses in Kolkata. In between, and since then, Chakraborty has been a part of several hits and has forged an enviable resume.

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Asha Jaoar Majhe (2015).

“Coming from a middle-class home where no knew anything beyond a nine-to-five job as a means of livelihood, deciding to quit my job and do acting full-time was a big deal for all of us,” Chakraborty said.

Chakraborty grew up in Barrackpore in North Kolkata and had a casual brush with theatre during his school days. His movie-buff father created an environment where Chakaraborty was exposed to numerous films. “I started to understand what was good acting and what wasn’t back then,” Chakraborty said.

After completing his education, he worked as a medical salesman while appearing in plays on the side. Chakraborty’s friends in theatre had enrolled in the state-run school Roopkala Kendro, and they cast Chakraborty in student films. After working his way into television productions as a scriptwriter, Chakraborty quit his job in 2003. He headlined a series of well-appreciated television films directed by up-and-coming filmmakers at the time, such as Anjan Dutt and Pradipta Bhattacharya.

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Hathey Roilo Pistol, a television film starring Ritwick Chakraborty, and directed by Anjan Dutt.

Perhaps Chakraborty’s career might have been sped up had the first film for which he shot, Indranil Roychowdhury’s Ratul O Rini, had not been stalled.

“It was a crime film about three marginal characters in society who come together to con people,” Roychowdhury said about the 2005 production. “Ritwick was playing one of the three leads.”

Instead, Chakraborty’s debut as a lead was the 2007 song-and-dance melodrama, Pagol Premi, a Bengali remake of the Allu Arjun-starrer Telugu blockbuster Arya (2004). “Seven songs, dancing, fighting, romancing around trees, it was great fun,” Chakraborty reminisced. “I am glad that no one saw it, but it was an experience.”

Chakraborty received attention as a dependable character actor in 2008 when he played the hot-headed Shekhar in Anjan Dutt’s road movie Chalo, Let’s Go. As Shekhar, a gambling-addicted musician who is at loggerheads with his father, Chakraborty made his presence felt in a film populated with a strong ensemble cast. Five years later, Shabdo happened.

Among Chakraborty’s most frequent collaborators is Pradipta Bhattacharya, for whom the actor has appeared in over 10 short films, television films and a feature. Bhattacharya was already at Roopkala Kendro when Chakraborty landed up at the institute as an actor for hire. The two became friends and were roommates for six years, and together produced outstanding underground work, some of which is available on YouTube. One of their best collaborations is the 24-minute short film, Biswas Nao Korte Paren (You May Not Believe), where Chakraborty plays Shyamal, whose life goes for a toss when he is mistaken to be a man named Salim.

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Biswas Nao Korte Paren.

“Ritwick is very spontaneous, observant and smart,” Bhattacharya said. “He picks up things from the films he sees, the books he reads, and the people he meets, and adds it to his creative reservoir.”

Indranil Roychowdhury, who eventually worked with Chakraborty in two films, agreed. “While discussing a film, he can draw a lot from the half sentences spoken and other peripheral chat around the project and figure out his character,” Roychowdhury said.

Both Bhattacharya and Roychowdhury feel that Chakraborty’s lack of formal training is a plus. “Except for very good actors and directors, few can break out of the grammar drilled into you in film school,” Bhattacharya said. “Ritwick is free to make and break his own rules and he has the knack to try out new things because he is curious of every little experiment and process.”

The actor dissects his acting process in simple terms. “An actor’s job, pure and simple, is to communicate a script,” Chakraborty said. “What’s important is not the actor’s inherent skill, but if he is communicating that particular script well or not at the moment.”

For example, in Shabdo, to show that his character is concentrating on every single sound, Chakraborty would move his eyes erratically to signal that he has just heard something.

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The Violin Player (2016).

Bauddhayan Mukerji, who directed Chakraborty in The Violin Player (2016), also noted how instinctively the actor approached his character, as opposed to his co-star Adil Hussain, who had his methodical approach. “But this process has its cons,” Mukherji said. “The problem here is that for such an actor, he can’t be in character all the time. Sometimes, he lost touch, and in a few lines, I had to push him back into character.”

Chakraborty’s upcoming releases include Pratim D Gupta’s June release, Ahare Mon, where he plays a flashy thief, and Gupta’s next film, Ink, where he plays a journalist. Chakraborty is a flute player in Kaushik Ganguly’s Nagar Kirtan.

Other projects are at various stages of completion, such as Pradipta Bhattacharya’s Rajlokkhi O Srikanto, a contemporary take on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s four-part novel Srikanta, and Indranil Roychowdhury’s untitled film.

“The reason Ritwick continues to do interesting work is despite all the glory, he has not become an industrywallah,” Roychowdhury said. “You stay in the industry for a while, and you worry about what you should do, how you should look, and all that, but Ritwick does not mingle much outside his work. Then, he reads, he chats up regular people on the streets, all this adds up.”

Mukherji recalled how Chakraborty slacked off and chose to miss a trip to the Raindance Film Festival in London where he had been invited as a Best Actor nominee for The Violin Player. He does not mystify acting or have pretensions about his work. He makes it look as easy as the nine-to-five job he came to despise, or at least, that is how it appears.

“Of course, there is a struggle in acting,” Chakraborty said. “To stay relevant in any profession, you need to constantly update your skills. Improving as an actor is a lifelong pursuit and it should never stop. Then, there is the uncertainty of the job. And, of course, being an actor is not enough. You need to be liked by people. What is the point of it all if people don’t give you love for the person you are?”

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.