The young and handsome convict’s first day in prison is going as badly as expected. But then he meets a man who offers advice about protecting himself from sexual predators.

Make sure you stay away from Layak Talukdar, he has a thing for delicate-looking men like you, the man suggests.

The convict asks his benefactor who he is. Layak Talukdar is my name, he says, and breaks out into a sinister grin.

Months after Criminal Justice was launched on Disney+ Hotstar in 2019, Dibyendu Bhattacharya hasn’t been allowed to forget his chilling performance in the web series, He is still getting hate messages from people who are convinced that he is as dastardly as his screen character.

“I get messages like, I will cut you down if I ever meet you, you are terrible,” Bhattacharya told in a phone interview. “People takes these things very seriously.” He doesn’t mind the negative attention at all – it is actually a seal of approval, the ultimate proof that his efforts have borne fruit. “This is my real remuneration, my reward,” he said.

The feedback to Bhattacharya’s latest project is likely to be just as passionate but also far more effusive. In the SonyLIV series Undekhi, which was released on July 10, Bhattacharya is in top form as a police officer from Bengal who travels to Manali in pursuit of two murder suspects, only to walk into a case involving another unnatural death and an attempt to cover it up.

Undekhi is seething with degenerates, cowards and traitors. Bhattacharya’s Barun Ghosh is the show’s conscience and hero. The wide-waisted, fleet Barun sees what is hidden from view, hears what is left unsaid and stays on course despite tremendous pressure. Bhattacharya credits his ability to bring out Barun’s humanity and complexity to the strong concept and screenplay, by Sidharth Sengupta, and the direction, by Ashish R Shukla.

“Half your job is done when you have such a good script,” Bhattacharya said.

Barun is a “complete outsider”, which creates tensions between him and the other characters and adds a frisson to his performance, Bhattacharya noted. “He is not wanted, he is not needed, he is a stranger to the situation,” he said. “He disturbs everything. His arrival is like casting a stone in water and watching the ripples – that is the beauty of the character. Sometimes, you don’t know what he is up to, and sometimes, he is vulnerable and helpless.”

Bhattacharya especially liked Barun’s interiority, the manner in which he thinks as well as behaves, the way in which he reveals himself “like an onion you keep peeling off”.

Undekhi (2020).

Bhattacharya is, of course, being modest about his own contribution to shaping Barun Ghosh. He was among the last actors to be cast for the series, he said. Bhattacharya was approached by casting director Kavish Sinha. The show’s producer, Applause Entertainment, had previously produced Criminal Justice and was therefore familiar with Bhattacharya’s work. Plus, he knew the director, Ashish R Shukla, from when Shukla directed the making-of video for Anurag Kashyap’s Dev.D (2009).

Kashyap’s contemporary retelling of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s 1917 novel Devdas had many instances of clever counter-casting. Among these was picking Bhattacharya for the part of Chunnilal, Devdas’s aristocratic drinking buddy in the novel. In Dev.D, Chunnilal is a nattily attired and sympathetic brothel owner.

Playing Chunnilal was a hugely satisfying experience even if it wasn’t one of the main roles, Bhattacharya said. Since his debut in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding in 2001, Bhattacharya has been frequently recruited for what are called “character roles” in the film industry. Some of these might be nothing more than a walk-on part, but the 49-year-old actor says that size actually doesn’t matter.

“I want to play every kind of character – every one of them is important to me,” he said. “I don’t have a fascination for a particular kind of role. If I do even a small role and people remember it, that is enough. Of course, it is great when people offer you a meaty role or a lead role – that is what you really want.”

Dibyendu Bhattacharya in Criminal Justice (2020). Courtesy UTV Movies.

Monsoon Wedding, in which Bhattacharya played one of the employees of Vijay Raaz’s wedding organiser, was filmed in Delhi. Bhattacharya had already spent several years in the capital. He trained at the National School of Drama there after acting in and directing plays in Kolkata, the city of his birth. Bhattacharya enrolled at the prestigious drama school in 1994 and, after graduating in 1997, spent three years in its repertory theatre company.

“Theatre is the mother of acting, and NSD is the mother institution,” he observed. “I had great teachers.” Among the lessons he has never forgotten from his National School of Drama days is to “stay connected with life, whatever its highs and lows, with everything”.

The real world and its pleasures and problems continue to inform Bhattacharya’s performances and make them relatable and credible. “Whatever is happening in your body and mind is an experience, it is being stored in your emotional bank,” he said.

Acting can be a deeply intellectual exercise, but “you need heart to understand the pulse of a character” and “to catch the psychology, the very core of a human being”, he added. “You have to relate to life, be agile and alive. Observation is important too. You don’t have to be judgemental, but it is very important to observe.”

Dibyendu Bhattacharya in Dev.D (2020). Courtesy UTV Movies.

His own methods of staying firmly rooted include frequently entertaining friends and cooking for his family. “Nobody is allowed to enter the kitchen when I am cooking,” he said. “When I cook and people praise me, I feel, this is a performance too.”

And then there’s the f-word that actors often forget as they attempt to balance the meat and the potatoes with the creme brulee, the professional compulsions with the love. Bhattacharya remembers National School of Drama professor Kirti Jain, who would him ask after every performance, are you having fun?

“It was only later that I realised that this was a correct question,” Bhattacharya said. “Fun is very important, that is when learning happens.”

Bhattacharya’s enjoyment from his work has produced some memorable screen characters. These include the Mumbai gangster Yeda Yakoob from Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (2007) and graveyard caretaker Johnny from Ajay Bahl’s erotic crime drama B.A. Pass (2013). Bhattacharya’s experience has recently resulted in roles in web series, including Selection Day (2018) and Delhi Crime (2019).

In 2020, Bhattacharya had a prominent role in the acclaimed Netflix series Jamtara. He played a member of a police team investing a phishing scan being run by a bunch of young men and women.

There is no confusing the cop from Jamtara with the cop from Undekhi, Bhattacharya pointed out.

“All the characters are different human beings, have a different attire and body language. I am lucky that I have not been typecast so far.”

Dibyendu Bhattacharya in Jamtara (2020). Courtesy Netflix.

There have also been the odd role in Bengali productions. Bhattacharya was born and raised in Kolkata. He relishes the opportunity to leave his present residence in Mumbai and work in Kolkata when he gets the opportunity. His Bengali credits include the recently released ZEE5 web series Laalbazaar, in which he plays the gangster Abbas Gazi.

“My mother says I need to work in Bengali since she can’t watch me in Hindi,” Bhattacharya said. “Whenever I get a good offer in Bengali, I try and take it.”

The lockdown because of the novel coronavirus pandemic has meant that Bhattacharya’s fans will have to wait a bit longer to see him once again on the screen. Some projects that he had accepted have been stalled, and at least one has been shelved.

“You do feel helpless, but hopefully things will get better,” he said. “We will bounce back eventually.” The operative word is fun and its corollary, positivity. Whatever the circumstances, Bhattacharya seems to be in a good place, finally getting the attention for which he has worked very hard.

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Review: In web series ‘Undekhi, murder is foul and its cover-up a stink operation