Is it a biopic? A documentary? A self-reflexive movie that draws attention to its methodology and artifice? All of the above, suggests the trailer of Parambrata Chattopadhyay’s Abhijaan. The Bengali movie about Soumitra Chatterjee stars Soumitra Chatterjee as himself. Jisshu Sengupta plays Chatterjee’s younger self. Chattopadhyay is a director who is interviewing Chatterjee for a film.
Abhijaan pays tribute to a man who was much more than an actor, Chattopadhyay explained in a telephone interview. “It is absolutely impossible to encompass a life like that into a little over two hours,” he added. “His was a life lived for 85 years that included films, theatre, poetry. The conversation modality was the only way I could get the audience to spend time with the Soumitra Chatterjee of today. I was fortunate to have him there.”
Abhijaan was among Chatterjee’s final projects before his demise on November 15, 2020. The legendary actor had a lengthy association with Satyajit Ray, beginning with Apur Sansar in 1959. Chatterjee appeared in several other acclaimed movies, including Akash Kusum, Kshudhita Pashan, Atanka, Teen Bhuvaner Pare, Koni, Dekha and Belaseshe. Chatterjee’s refined performances were celebrated the world over, and his death was mourned widely.
Parambrata Chattopadhyay, who has balanced direction with acting assignments in Bengali and Hindi cinema, had known Chatterjee for years. Chattopadhyay was recruited for the project by the film’s producer, Navratan Jhawar, and researcher Shubhendu Sen. An oncologist from New Jersey who also gave Soumitra Chatterjee medical advice, Sen has written the screenplay with Chattopadhyay and Padmanabha Dasgupta.
“We have known each other for a very long time, and what you see in the trailer is based on three months of research for the film,” Chattopadhyay said. Disinterested in a traditional biopic and keen on exploring Chatterjee’s liberal worldview, Chattopadhyay and Sen sought to convert the research and interviews into a workable screenplay in which the actor talks about his career, legacy and family in the present alongside flashbacks to his formative years.
Chatterjee is speaking scripted dialogue in the film that is based on the conversations with him, Chattopadhyay said. Abhijaan is aiming for a release in May.
Chatterjee reacted positively when Chattopadhyay’s name came up as a possible director in the early stages of production. He didn’t intervene in the script, Chattopadhyay added: “He was a very objective personality who never mixed the personal and the professional.”
But the veteran actor did have ideas about who should play his younger self. He set aside a list of suggestions and came up with two candidates: Chattopadhyay himself and Jisshu Sengupta.
Chattopadhyay demurred: he wanted to focus on directing the movie and playing the role of Chatterjee’s interviewer. “I would have needed a lot of effort to get into his mode, especially when directing a film of this magnitude,” the 39-year-old actor-director aid.
Jisshu Sengupta, who, like Chattopadhyay, has appeared in both Bengali and Hindi productions, thought that he was being offered a cameo. When told that he would be playing the lead, he said he was “screwed for dates”, but a call from Soumitra Chatterjee was all it took to convince him, Chattopadhyay recalled.
The movie has a busload of cameos, among them by Bengali movie star Prosenjit as Uttam Kumar. “Seventy per cent of the cast comprises guest appearances by actors who were pleased and proud to be part of the film,” Chattopadhyay said.
The filmmaker Q plays Satyajit Ray – an inspired casting choice. Q was cast as Ray in a project that didn’t take off, Chattopadhyay said. On the recommendation of Abhijaan’s costume designer Sabarni Das, Chattopadhyay looked at photographs of Q taken for the previous production and decided that he had found his man.
The title of the biopic refers to one of the 14 Ray films that starred Chatterjee. Abhijan (The Journey), made in 1962, features Chatterjee as the taxi driver Narsingh who has a life-altering encounter with the dancer Gulabo, played by Waheeda Rehman. Abhijan was one of Chatterjee’s personal favourites even though he felt that it didn’t get the attention it deserved, Chattopadhyay revealed.
The Ray-Chatterjee association, which is among the most celebrated partnerships in the history of cinema, was the result of “stars aligning” and a “deeply personal and yet artistic connection between two individuals in which a lot remained unsaid”, Chattopadhyay said. “They had a connection beyond their work – a tremendous frequency between their wavelengths,” he added.
Through what he described as his “most ambitious film” till date, Chattopadhyay hopes that Chatterjee will be regarded as an artist, rather than a mere actor.
“There is no dearth of great actors in the world, but there is a dearth of artists,” Chattopadhyay said. “An artiste is somebody who, at every stage of his or her life, represents his or her time and philosophy. Such people can effortlessly blend one form of art with the other. It makes their artistic umbrella a lot bigger. They become more human.”