For a while now, behind a successful woman in a Hindi film, there has been Jisshu Sengupta. The Kolkata-based actor has been frequently cast as the partners of independent-minded heroines through the 2010s.
There’s his recurring role of Bikram Roy, husband to Rani Mukerji’s tough-talking police officer in the Mardaani movies, and more recently, the husband of Kangana Ranaut’s fire-breathing Rani Lakshmibai in Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (2019).
Shakuntala Devi, which will be streamed on Amazon Prime Video on July 31, features Sengupta in probably his meatiest Hindi film role yet. His character will be shown in his thirties to his seventies, he told Scroll.in. Anu Menon’s film follows Vidya Balan as the eponymous math genius. Sengupta plays her husband, Paritosh Banerji, while Sanya Malhotra plays her daughter, Anupama.
Banerji’s homosexuality inspired Shakuntala Devi’s 1977 book The World of Homosexuals, in which she took a compassionate look at the gay community. The marriage reportedly ended in a divorce in 1979. Unlike Shakuntala Devi, not much is known about Banerji, which makes Sengupta’s role a mystery.
The 43-year-old actor was reluctant to speak about his character, only saying that all will be revealed on July 31. “Because anything I say right now can reveal a lot about my character,” he reasoned.
Like his contemporaries Parambrata Chatterjee, Paoli Dam, Saswata Chatterjee and Swastika Mukherjee, Sengupta came to Hindi productions after having produced a significant body of work in Bengali cinema. This includes collaborations with the illustrious Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh, and the hit machine Srijit Mukherji.
Sengupta insisted that he wasn’t a “Bengali actor” but an “Indian actor”, as Ghosh once instructed him to be. “Ritu da said that we all make Indian films, just in different languages, so I believe I am an Indian actor making Indian films,” Sengupta said about the filmmaker, who died in 2013.
Sengupta’s recent work justifies the claim. In addition to Bengali and Hindi productions, he has been in three Telugu films in the past year and a half. In NTR: Kathanayakudu (2019), directed by Krish with whom Sengupta worked in Manikarnika, he played the real-life character of filmmaker LV Prasad, who introduced NT Rama Rao (Nandamuri Balakrishna) as an actor in the 1949 film Mana Desam.
This was followed by Aswathama (2020) and Bheeshma (2020), in which he played villains, in keeping with the tradition of actors from the north of the Vindhyas playing baddies in southern producitons.
“Working in Telugu films is amazing and eye-opening as cinema is like religion there,” Sengupta observed. “Their films do so well there, and everyone, from the spot-boy to the producer, is treated with respect.”
Jisshu Sengupta, the son of Bengali actor Ujjwal Sengupta, aspired to be a cricketer. But at the age of 19, he became a television star in Bengal overnight after playing the 16th-century reformer and mystic Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in the Doordarshan Bangla serial Mahaprabhu.
“My mother used to tell me that there’s already one actor in the house and another’s not needed,” Sengupta recalled. “And I was totally involved in cricket. In those days, and this was 1997, summer cricket wasn’t around in Kolkata. Our cricket season began after Durga Puja, around October, and ended by March-April. So summers were free, and I got a call for an audition for this show. It turned out that I was the 117th Mahaprabhu who was auditioned. I took it up for easy pocket money.”
Over the next decade, Sengupta transitioned into movies in both the leading and supporting roles. Commercial and critical acclaim came only in the late 2000s, when he was cast by Rituparno Ghosh.
Sengupta evolved into an actor of note, delivering solid performances in such films as the National Award-winning Abohomaan (2010) and Noukadubi (2011). Sengupta also played the lover to Ghosh’s protagonist in his film Chitrangada: The Crowning Wish (2012).
“While working on Abohomaan, Ritu da asked me a question which changed my entire approach to acting,” Sengupta said. “He asked, when you act, do you understand why you are acting the way you are? I said, no, I just react to the situation as I feel it, according to the script. I asked him, am I wrong? He said, no, it’s good that you are spontaneous, but perhaps try to forget the script, and create a backstory to your character, think of his childhood, did he grow up in a happy family or not, things that shape your adult life. Up until then, I had no training in acting, so what Ritu da said shocked me, and it has stayed with me since.”
Among his collaborations with Ghosh, Sengupta ranks Chitrangada the highest. The National Film Award-winner starred Ghosh as trans woman choreographer who begins a relationship with a drug-addled drummer (Sengupta) and wants to undergo a sex-change operation to be able to legally adopt a child with his lover.
“I think the film was ahead of its time, and it’s a film that will be remembered and appreciated even 20 years from now,” Sengupta said.
Ghosh’s untimely death at the age of 49 in 2013 left a vacuum in Bengali cinema, as well as halted the tide of well-written and nuanced characters that the filmmaker’s frequent collaborators such as Sengupta and Prosenjit Chatterjee enjoyed.
“Well, change is the only constant in life, so I guess we have to accept it” Sengupta said. “When Ritu da died, I went into a shell and did not act for eight-nine months. It was Srijit Mukherji who cast me in Jaatishwar, and then I began acting again.”
Unlike Ghosh’s films, where Sengpta played a range of middle-class Bengali characters, in Mukherji’s films, he found himself cast in oddball roles with theatrical mannerisms.
In Mukerji’s Partition-era drama Rajkahini (2015), Sengupta played an over-the-top contract killer. In the Julius Caesar-based crime thriller Zulfiqar (2016), he gave arguably the film’s most watchable performance as the Cassius-inspired Kashinath Kundu.
“While shooting Rajkahini, I kept telling him that he has made a mistake casting me, but the 10-minute role brought me so much appreciation,” Sengupta said. “What Srijit Mukherji gave me was the confidence to play characters I kept avoiding thinking I can never play them.”
Among his upcoming releases are Mahesh Bhatt’s Sadak 2, about which Sengupta said he had only one thing to say: “After Ritu da’s passing, I kept searching for an anchor, and I think I have found that in Mahesh Bhatt.”