Abhishek Banerjee’s mother is upset with him for playing Hathoda Tyagi

Left disturbed by the trailer, the actor’s mother and wife chose not to watch Paatal Lok [2020]

By Mayur Lookhar

Abhishek Banerjee

He amused you with his theatrics as Jaana in Stree [2018]. He charmed you with his innocence as the celibate Mahinder in Dream Girl [2019].  Cinephiles felt that here was an unconventional actor who is likely to excel in comedy in future.  Delhi born Bengali Abhishek Banerjee, though, is no one-trick pony. One saw a dark shade to him in Sujoy Ghosh’s web series Typewriter [2019].  That was perhaps a sign of things to come.  

After playing the blink-and-miss roles in films like Rang De Basanti [2006], Soul of Sand [2010], Bombay Talkies [2013]. Banerjee, a theatre artiste took to casting to earn his livelihood. He did casting for Knock Out [2010], No One Killed Jessica [2011[] – where he played a pickpocket, The Dirty Picture [2011]. Eight years after struggling to even clear his own auditions, Banerjee rediscovered his touch with the web series TVF Pitchers [2015] that opened doors for acting and few years later he’d earn fame through Amar Kaushik’s Stree [2018].

The man, who one felt is good at comedy, left us stunned with his intimidating, mean act as the brutal hit man Hathoda Tyagi in Amazon Prime Video’s recently launched web series Paatal Lok [2020].  Banerjee and Jaideep Ahlawat have come in for special praise for their stellar acts.

Banerjee is pleased with his performance, but more importantly happy for the whole team for the positive response the show is getting.   He underlines the difficulty of casting and acting in a same project, why his mother, wife have refused to watch the show and more.

Excerpts.

Firstly, after watching Paatal Lok is your family or dear ones around ensuring that that no hammer or any dangerous object is kept around you?

Abhishek Banerjee as Hathoda Tyagi in Paatal Lok [2020]

[Laughs]. Absolutely.  In fact, I have got messages from my friends saying that please don’t keep a hammer in your home.  I’ve told them though that I don’t want to go to jail. 

After watching the trailer, my mother [Sumira] and my wife [Tina Noronha] decided not to watch the show. My father called to say that your mother is very upset and he is unable to explain it to her. She wanted to know who is that shameless person to cast you in such a role?  My wife said forget it, people are scared and so she doesn’t want to be scared either. They are used to the happy, family films and so their reaction is understandable.

I know you are also the casting director, but there must be a story behind you playing Hathoda Tyagi?

I wanted to play the role of Imran Ansari. It is very difficult for a casting director, actor. Imagine you are the casting director, you like a particular character but then how do you put forth your desire? It is an issue of conflict of interest. The producer/director has approached you for casting. They are aware that you are an actor too. In Phillauri [2017], it was easy because Anshal Lal [director] had directly offered me the role [of the character Soma].  When they don’t offer you, that is when it becomes difficult to say.

So was it the director who then asked you to play Hathoda Tyagi?

Sudip Sharma [writer, creator of Paatal Lok],  never called me to speak about Ansari’s role. I, too, never asked about it again.  Once we found Ishwak Singh [who got Ansari’s role], then I realised why he was fit for that role. We had started the auditions, and it was then that Sudip asked me to audition for Hathoda Tyagi.  There were others who had auditioned before but Sudip wanted me to audition for it.  They liked my audition, and deep within, I, too, felt that perhaps I can do this role.

It’s very difficult to tell dark, slice of life stories in a cinema that often takes pride in its escapism.  Having seen the plight of migrant labourers, do you think that has in some way made people more sensitive to stories like Paatal Lok?

Right now, I feel people are more sensitive to the general society.  Now you are getting to read about biggest disease being hunger.  You realise that you are fortunate to have that food.  That ignorance which was there earlier, is now gone.

The sad reality has opened our eyes to a world which many of us were perhaps unaware of before. There is a sentiment that has erupted in this period, do you think that has made people accept hard-hitting content like Paatal Lok more?

Yes. Like I said before, suddenly you realise how fortunate some are and some aren’t. Even if you can’t give money, but most of us do have a sense of empathy towards the migrant workers.  May be now, we are relating to the truth. 

For a character that has barely spoken 5-6 sentences in the entire web series, he then needs to convince with his intensity. What was your method to get into the skin of Hathoda Tyagi?

My method was ‘not to express’.  For me it is a journey where I start realising the character’s social, political issues. If I don’t cover that journey then I am doing a futile job.  I need to be associated at ground zero.  I needed to know what kind of society are they living in? What kind of ideology they believe in? So, there is a history as to what has made them to become what they are now.  I tried to inculcate that into my character.

Were you asked to read up on tragic stories?

I didn’t read stories, but I started understanding crime better. We read about crime stories but in a passing way.  We never go through the process of understanding why that crime happened?  We don’t ask why is the society seeing such gruesome crimes? What is going wrong? We never want to question that.  Not wanting to question sometimes makes us live a life where we don’t realise the actual reality.  For me, it was important to understand the country, the roots, what leads Vishal Tyagi to do that and why vengeance is important to him?  I felt that the more I express this character, the less people will feel. Tyagi is somebody who is born out of the system.

Usually, bandit groups are perceived to be formed on caste lines.  In that scenario, it was a bit unusual to have a Brahmin hitman in a Gujjar gang. Your thoughts.

I think the writer would be better suited to answer.  If I’m a Brahmin and I have to play a low caste character, I need to understand the pain of that community. Without knowing that, you will never be able to play that character. To go through that journey, we first have to read. Even if we read newspapers, we will get an understanding of what is happening in the society.

Another interesting thing about the character is that on one hand he is a brutal hitman, loyal to his boss but he also loves dogs. And bizarrely, he doesn’t kill Sanjeev Mehra [Neeraj Kabi] believing that people who show compassion towards animals are good.

Well, again the society is responsible for it. For a man, who was rejected by the society, his sisters casually raped, how can such a person forge any relationship with a human being?.  Dogs seeks human love.

But can the love from an animal give a target any character certificate?

Look, all I know is that the animals understand energy, vibes. If you are an aggressive person by nature, or you fear animals, they get those vibes.  Sometimes, you would come across a dog barking in a street. You pet it and it goes quiet. It is that easy to win their trust.  So, when animals love a human being, it somehow tells you that the person has compassion.  Their [animals] love is unconditional.  They don’t care what religion, caste you come from.

This is no criticism but I worry when filmmakers use conspiracy theories like ISI hand to falsely implicate someone in their fictional story. Don’t you think such tropes would give more teeth to the fake-left-liberals, and our enemies across border who don’t hesitate in even putting out fiction as truth to defame India?

As a common man with common sense, I would say that if you can think of such a good plot, then why don’t you start writing. I haven’t read the comments [by trolls] but they are very creative.

Over the last few years, one has been left stunned with the child actors in films and web series.  There was Typewriter [2019], The Family Man [2019] and now Paatal Lok, too has produced some real talented, rustic kids.  What impression did they leave on you?

Kids are raw. Their work is beautiful.  You see them perform, and then you always want to be child-like. I always say that actors need to be child-likeOnly then will you can find that purity and honesty. That is what we see in children. We see them perform and they always bring a smile on our faces.  

Where did you find the child artistes from? Do they come from rustic parts of India?

You can find them from anywhere – city, small towns, theatre, NGOs.  When you are looking for the right cast, you have to leave no stone unturned.  My associate Nikita Grover is the one who found these young talents. She deserves a lot of credit.

For a guy who did theatre to become a casting director. Was that a bread and butter requirement?

Of course. It was.

How tough was it to bag a role? Would you like to recall some early tough experiences?

Stree [2018]

I felt bad initially but I was never desperate. You have to understand that the main roles will not come your way. For me the job [casting director] was important.  I was failing even my own [casting] auditions. And some where I felt that may be, I wasn’t good enough to land a role. The only time I cleared an audition was for TVF Pitchers [2015]. By that time, I had also changed certain process as an actor.  Thereafter, I got offered some short films. Then Devashish Makhija, who had seen my work, offered me Ajji [2017]. Amar Kaushik saw Ajji and then he asked me to audition for Stree [2018].  I’d say it was seamless. Bit by bit, it all worked in my favour.  I took the small roles to learn the craft.  Even when I was casting, I was training myself as an actor.  Look, like sport, if you are in form, you will get to play.

From all the talent that you picked for film/shows, which ones make you feel the proudest that you discovered them?

I think Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Siddhant Chaturvedi, and Priyanshu Painyuli. I’d cast Chaturvedi for Inside Edge [2017], he was then cast for Gully Boy [2019].  Ayyub was cast in No One Killed Jessica [2011[. Priyanshu Painyuli was picked for Rock On 2 [2016], and today we see him in Extraction [2020].  Avinash Tiwari was cast for Tu Hai Mera Sunday [2016] and then he went on to bag Laila Majnu [2018].

Paatal Lok is getting critical acclaim. I read a headline that said Paatal Lok will lift Jaideep Ahlawat and Abhishek Banerjee to swarg lok [heaven]. Do you see Paatal Lok giving a big boost to your career as an actor?

Absolutely.  I am very happy. More than career, I’m happy for all the efforts that we put in is being appreciated.  In terms of casting, we introduced some fine new talents like Jagjeet Sandhu, who played Toppe Singh.  Mairembam Ronaldo Singh is a Manipuri actor and a transgender in real life.  I am happy to get praise from the likes of Anurag Kashyap. A phone call from Manoj Bajpayee, school friends.  You can never plan these things.

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