You may not have noticed him as a student auditioning for a documentary role in Rang de Basanti or as a pickpocket in No One Killed Jessica but you just couldn’t have missed him as the inimitable Jana in Stree, the ruthless killer Hathoda Tyagi in Paatal Lok or the eccentric drug lord in Kaali 2. When he is not acting, Abhishek Banerjee is busy casting actors (he runs Casting Bay with Anmol Ahuja) for ads, films and web series. Born in Kharagpur, Banerjee excelled as a shotput and discus thrower in school who played hockey and cricket too. Remember, his character in Paatal Lok was a shotput thrower too.
Acting bug bit Banerjee in class XII and kick-started the journey of an actor who today aims to leave an impression on each and every viewer with his skills and craft. Today, he is not just an actor. He runs Casting Bay with friend Anmol Ahuja where they cast actors in ads, films as well as web series. He has been the casting director for No One Killed Jessica, The Dirty Picture, Rock On 2, Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Secret Superstar, Kalank and Paatal Lok. He will next be seen with Kartik Aryan in Dostana 2. Excerpts from an interview:
What made you choose the role of Hathoda Tyagi as he didn’t even have any dialogues?
I never chose it. In fact, while reading the script initially, I didn’t even notice this character as there were no lines for him. It was when Sudip (Sharma) sir and Karnesh (Sharma) sir told me to audition for the role that I realised of it being an extremely challenging character to play. I took it as an opportunity knowing well that I shall have to work really hard which I did. I had heard you have to bring the character in your being and not speech. I am happy I could do so.
Your favourite Paatal Lok character and why?
Hathi Ram Chaudhary played by Jaideep Ahlawat for his journey. From the first to the last episode, this is the story of a person from the system who wants to bring out the truth about the system. For an actor to play and experience such a character is incredible. It must have helped Jaideep bhai understand himself better and to put in many of those thought processes which he has acquired as a human being. This is what I want to do. I want to learn from my life and put it to use in my craft.
Tell us about Kaali 2…
Kaali 2 is special as I did a project in Bengali for the first time. It is about drug lord Jinliang (my character), arriving in Kolkata to take revenge from the protagonist, Kaali. He is a storyteller who has his own menacing ways. He acts cool and pretends chilled out in tense situations. He has a huge ego too. I enjoyed playing this character. More than anything, my parents were happy as they always told me why didn’t I do anything in Bangla, I did this one for them.
Your experiences at Delhi’s Kirori Mal College (KMC) dramatics society…
I joined KMC as I was a huge fan of Mr Amitabh Bachchan, an alumni of the institution. It is where I got my first chance to understand theatre, learn the nuances and basic techniques of theatre. But more than acting, it was the thought process that transformed. I became more aware as a human being. It opened my mind and made me question things I ignored earlier. These behavioral changes in the foundation years helped me as an actor. After KMC, I also taught theatre at College of Business Studies, Gargi College and facilitated theatre teams at some schools that wanted to make a play. I also did one theatre play with Safdar Hashmi’s group.
What was your parents’ reaction when you broke the news of wanting to make a career in the film industry?
My dad was very, very angry with me. Mom seemed worried but supported me. I had to do a lot of convincing before dad gave his consent. Today, my mom gets angry with me as I spend more time away from home and dad has slowly become proud of me.
When did you decide to leave for Mumbai? Was choosing to be a casting director a planned move or coincidental?
Though I wanted to move to Mumbai, I had to stay back in Delhi after college as I did not have enough money to start my life there. This meant I needed to earn money. As I knew people in Delhi, I started acting, beginning with a TV serial for DD1. It was around two years later that I met casting director Gautam Kishanchandani, in Delhi to cast for Dev D and I went there to give an audition. He told me to assist him and give cues to actors. He motivated me a lot and told me I should be in Mumbai. And if not anything, I could join him as a casting assistant. Soon, I moved to Mumbai. I had never thought I would be casting one day but it was the first job I got and I went for it. Moreover, it gave me an opportunity to be closer to my love, acting. Moving to Mumbai was planned but becoming a casting director was coincidental. However, casting kept me going as when I gave cues to actors, it taught me a lot of nuances as an actor.
To become a casting director one needs to…
…be in love with stories, characters and vision directors have. You need to have your own ideas about the world, about society. You need to be rooted to understand it all and need formal awareness. Casting is a selfless process; it is a lot of learning for yourself.
Conventionally, casting directors do not have a great image. Your take.
One needs to break clichés. I can’t be keeping everyone happy, it is not my job. My job is to finish the casting of a project and make the director happy. It is time people start accepting that casting directors are doing a great job and that is the reason so many good actors are on screen these days. You have to give it to the casting directors.
A TV actress recently said that being fair is a major demand for every role in the industry and performers with darker tones get limited exposure. Your reactions.
Colour and race has nothing to do with the industry, it is about society. I have heard such reactions. If you are talented, the colour of skin doesn’t matter. There will be prejudices but one needs to ignore people with such mentality and don’t work with them.
OTT vs films vs television. Your preference as an actor and a casting director.
The content is more mature in films and OTT than television, always targetted at the GEC group. Given a chance to work in a film or OTT, I will choose the story. OTT gives you the opportunity to experiment with the stories, the characters and you can be true to your story.
Plans for future…
I want to go back to training and train myself harder, learn parts of acting I feel I still need to explore. I am also listening to and reading some scripts.