Abhishek Banerjee in (from top to bottom) Dream Girl, Rang De Basanti, Stree (inset) and Paatal Lok

His first Bollywood role was a fleeting one in Rang De Basanti, the iconic politically- and socially-charged film of 2006. Fourteen years later, actor Abhishek Banerjee is making waves with his chilling yet humane portrayal of a serial killer in Paatal Lok. A series that also boasts his prowess as a casting director – he’s done what Sacred Games didn’t: cast a transgender person to play one. 

“The other side of the camera happened because there were no acting jobs in Mumbai – it took me 10 years to crack an audition,” says Abhishek over a Zoom call one stormy afternoon, as the Wi-Fi fluctuates threateningly. 

No friend-zone, please! 

Six months after moving to Mumbai in 2008 to pursue a career in acting, Abhishek struggled to even land an audition. “I realised aise nahi ho payega (it won’t work like this). I couldn’t pay my bills like this. I had done a casting job in Delhi, so it seemed like the next best thing to pursue,” he says. 

He kept an eye out for roles though, rejecting “dost waala acting roles (roles where I had to play a friend).” Then, he wanted to play Manu Sharma in No One Killed Jessica, but didn’t land the part. “I was particular about what I didn’t want to do. At the same time, I was a casting director who was scared of giving auditions. But you can’t always wait for the right role or vibe,” he smiles. “When small roles get appreciated, actors get hope.”

Take a chance  

Paatal Lok was like coming up for air. The release not only changed Abhishek’s life during lockdown but also stacked victories for him as a casting director as well as an actor. 

“It taught me that you should at least attempt to go for what you really want,” says Abhishek, referring to his stubbornness to find a transgender to play ‘Cheeni’ in the series. When they failed to find anyone fitting in Mumbai and Delhi, they sent a team to Manipur. “I remember the day I got the audition tape, I jumped like a child. It felt like I had found gold in a treasure hunt. Then we had to convince the family a little and it worked! As a casting director, this is my greatest experience so far,” he beams with sheer excitement. 

The serial killer vigilante

“Hathoda started off as a dark character, till I realised he’s above worldly emotions and is just empty. So, he doesn’t want any more ‘Hathoda Tyagis’ in the world and he tries to ‘clean the society’ via the killings, sans any satisfaction,” explains Abhishek. Besides, the socio-political scenario of the country was important since Hathoda Tyagi came from an “oppressed section of the society.”

Abhishek Banerjee in (from top to bottom) Dream Girl, Rang De Basanti, Stree (inset) and Paatal Lok

The desi Thor?

How popular is Hathoda Tyagi? “Ninety per cent of my DMs start with, ‘Hathoda; Hathoda bhai; kya kar raha hai (what are you doing) Hathoda?; aye Hathoda; arey Hathoda; Hathoda, nice pic, bro’; or just ‘Hathoda’! I think I’m actually going to forget my name!” Abhishek laughs. 

What’s new is the personal connection from so many strangers. “And talking to you as if they know you. It’s a tad worrying too, because voh haq dikhta hai unka (that ownership is visible in them),” he sobers up, before bursting into laughter. “The best part though? Someone has photoshopped a picture of me and Thor, and is calling me the desi Thor! I’ve shown it to everyone. My wife, Tina, just smirked,” laughs the Marvel, Thor and Chris Hemsworth fan. 

On Playing Hathoda Tyagi: “Someone has photoshopped a picture of me and Thor, and is calling me the desi Thor! I’ve shown it to everyone. My wife, Tina, just smirked.”

What about inquiries into his personal life? “People are saying things like, ‘Arrey iski bhi gf ho gayi, meri zindagi barbaad hai (even he has got a girlfriend, my life is over now),’ on pictures with my wife,” says a thoroughly amused Abhishek. 

 2020 is…

“The year of web series.” Indian creators need to up their game now as the demanding audience is consuming oodles of international content. “A complex show like Dark is #1 on Netflix. Which tells us that the audience is really looking for heavy content these days. Even a relatively slow-paced show like Paatal Lok is being binge-watched. I couldn’t do it!” says Abhishek.

He is planning to rewatch Dark, though. “Do baar mein hi samajh aayegi (Watching it twice will help understand it) properly,” he grins, before listing his favourite non-fictions: Documentaries about the Roman empire, world wars, and one about a guy from Colombia who wanted to buy a submarine from Russia. “Log kamaal ki cheezein karte hain (People do amazing things)! Gangsters actually landed a chopper in the middle of the road in Moscow! Reality is stranger than fiction,” he exclaims.

India on a plate

The other thing he’s doing during lockdown? Cooking for his wife. He’s made aloo posto, kosha mangsho, aaloo-phulkopir torkari, Delhi chhole and paranthas, mutton sukka, chicken Chettinad, Bengali-style chicken biryani and chowmein. “The other day I woke up with a jump, thinking, ‘Oh no! Chhole bhigoye thhe raat ko (had soaked chickpeas at night),’” he chuckles.

Hathoda Tyagi’s chhole nightmares. Sounds as absurd as desi Thor, no?

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From HT Brunch, August 9, 2020

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