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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?”