Abhishek Banerjee has a reputation for playing the hero’s chattering buddy in a series of hit comedies – Stree (2018), Dream Girl (2019), Bala (2019). In the upcoming Amazon Prime Video web series Paatal Lok, Banerjee will be seen as the violent Vishal “Hathoda” Tyagi, who hammers people to death.

Hathoda Tyagi is the most dreaded among a gang of four killers out to assassinate media tycoon Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi). Before they can carry out the job, they get arrested. The investigation is handed over to policeman Hathi Ram Chaudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat). The series, created by Sudip Sharma (NH10, Udta Punjab, Sonchiriya), will be out on May 15.

Banerjee, who is also a casting director and was working on Paatal Lok in that capacity, initially wanted to play Hathi Ram’s assistant, a role that ultimately went to Ishwak Singh.

“Here I was subconsciously putting myself in that position of being the sidekick again, until Sudip Sharma saw Stree and offered me Hathoda Tyagi’s role instead,” Banerjee recalled.

Known mostly for comic characters, Banerjee’s work as a sexual predator in Ajji (2017) and criminals in the web series Mirzapur (2018) and Typewriter (2019) has flown under the radar.

“The thing with the film industry is if you become popular in one kind of role, you keep getting cast in the same thing,” he said. “My first full-fledged role was in Ajji, then I played a bad guy in Phillauri, but they weren’t hits like Stree, which came later. So if Hathoda Tyagi works, you may find me doing dark roles one after another.”

Paatal Lok (2020).

Asked to describe Hathoda Tyagi, Banerjee simply said: “All I can tell you is that his name defines his personality. And playing him took a toll on me as he’s a pretty intense character, very different from me. I had to understand his sociopolitical truths, question everything as he did, and then with the answers I found, I put myself on the screen.”

The 35-year-old actor made his debut as a goofy student auditioning to play Bhagat Singh for a documentary in Rakeysh Mehra’s Rang De Basanti (2006). At the time, Banerjee, who had grown up in Chennai watching Rajinikanth movies and nurturing dreams of becoming an actor, was studying in Delhi’s Kirori Mal College, where he was a member of the theatre group Players.

Abhishek Banerjee in Rang De Basanti (2006). Courtesy UTV Motion Pictures.

Banerjee began to audition, but found himself being asked to give cues to other aspiring actors. Dev D casting director Gautam Kishanchandani took him under his wing.

Banerjee’s performance in Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai (2010) impressed director Milan Luthria, who then gave him his break as the chief casting director in The Dirty Picture (2011). Banerjee later set up Casting Bay along with Anmol Ahuja, which has handled several projects, including Tripling, one of the earliest Indian web series.

The demand in Bollywood for professionals dedicated to matching the right face to the right part emerged in the 1990s, Banerjee said. “Gautam Kishanchandani, Honey Trehan were the first-generation casting directors; Mukesh Chhabra and I are the second generation,” he added.

However, the acting bug remained. Banerjee often coveted roles in projects for which he was casting.

One example is the gun-toting Manu Sharma in Rajkumar Gupta’s No One Killed Jessica (2011). Banerjee wanted the part, but was “terrible” in the audition. He enrolled his college senior Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub instead – a decision that transformed Ayyub’s career.

Then there was the feisty thief Idris in Gupta’s Ghanchakkar (2013): “Imagine Rajkumar Gupta telling me, I have found my Idris on seeing me, and then he asks me to get other actors nonetheless for shortlisting. So with the faith that I was best for the role, I also auditioned against the best actors I had chosen myself. I was again terrible, and for the next two years, I gave up acting.”

In 2015, The Viral Fever’s Nidhi Bisht insisted that Banerjee play the corporate drone Bhati in the web series Pitchers. Overnight, his character’s three-word dialogue “Tu beer hai”, delivered to a disillusioned co-worker in a bar, got a permanent spot in Indian memedom.

Abhishek Banerjee in Pitchers (2015). Courtesy The Viral Fever.

Over the next five years, acting gigs co-existed with casting jobs. Casting Bay handled web series such as Thinkistan (2019) and Panchayat (2020), and films such as Phillauri (2017), Secret Superstar (2017), Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (2017), and Pari (2018).

About Pari, he had this to say: “I want to let everyone know through this interview that another Abhishek Banerjee wrote Pari – everybody thinks I’m the writer.”

These days, Banerjee finds himself in a double role on project, as casting director and actor. There is no conflict of interest, he explained: “If I am doing a role in something which I’m casting, it’s because the makers wanted me for it.”

In Paatal Lok, casting directors such as Jogi Mallang and Aasif Khan have substantial supporting roles.

Abhishek Banerjee in Mirzapur (2018). Courtesy Amazon Prime Video/Excel Entertainment.

The mark of a truly great casting director is when people remember the smallest scenes, moments, and characters, Banerjee said. As examples, he cited the contributions of Gautam Kishanchandani to Black Friday, Mukesh Chhabra to Gangs of Wasseypur, Shanoo Sharma to Dum Laga Ke Haisha and Nandini Shrikent to Gully Boy.

Banerjee’s own discoveries include Priyanshu Painyuli, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Siddhant Chaturvedi, and Avinash Tiwary. Is he ready to join the ranks of the greats?

“Too early to say,” Banerjee said. “You can call someone great if the chosen actors go on to do great work or survive in the industry for 10 to 15 years. Sometimes, you choose people who instantly become stars, and sometimes, they take time to reach stardom.” Among Banerjee’s latest discoveries is Dheerendra Kumar Gautam, who played the younger brother of Ayushmann Khurrana’s hero in Bala.

Sometimes, Casting Bay has made unusual placements, such as veteran actor Sudhir Pandey as a benevolent butcher in Ajji and singer Anup Jalota, who has a “very important role” in Paatal Lok.

“What happens sometimes is you hit a roadblock with certain roles, then you have to think out of the box, which is how Anup Jalota happened,” Banerjee said. “Other times, we tap into our inner film buff, and find good roles for actors whom we grew up watching in our childhood, like Sudhir Pandey, or Tinnu Anand, whom we cast in a superb ad for Sony Max.”

Tinnu Anand in a commercial for Sony Max.

Juggling casting with acting has helped Banerjee draw insights from both professions. “Earlier, if I picked an actor for a role, I would be 50 per cent sure and rely on opinions from others, but now my instincts are 100 per cent correct,” he said. “Casting has taught me the importance of each character in a script, while acting has taught me to understand a character from within. That way, I can spot who has got the character right during an audition.”

With the lockdown in place, casting gigs are on hold. The actor in Banerjee has more to offer: “Dostana 2, Umesh Shukla’s family comedy Aankh Micholi, Helmet, starring Aparshakti Khurana and Pranutan Bahl, and the bilingual Zee5 series Kaali season two, which I did because of my love for Bangla, and in which I again play a dark character.”

The quality of the role, rather than its length, now matters more than ever before. “What has changed now is today a young actor knows that even if he gets four good scenes in one episode in a web series, or one good scene in a movie, or five good scenes in a short film, that’s work that matters,” Banerjee observed.

However, actors are still plagued by fears of getting typecast or working outside their comfort zone. “Sometimes, actors let go of opportunities waiting for the one right project, but that is like waiting for the right life partner – nothing is right,” Banerjee said. “You have to make it right. Only if you keep working with whatever you get, will you get noticed in the industry.”