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IBNS: Victor Banerjee is internationally known as an actor par excellence, including for his role in David Lean’s A Passage to India, as well as a talented documentary filmmaker. He was recently in Kolkata at the launch of his Bengali film Raktabeej. Shoma A. Chatterji meets him for tete a tete
Excerpts of an interview:
Victor Banerjee is the only person in India’s entertainment arena to have won the National Award in three categories: As a cinematographer for the documentary Where No Journeys End (which also won the Gold Award at the Houston International Film Festival); as director for the documentary The Splendour of Garhwal and Roopkund; and as an actor (Best Supporting Actor) in Satyajit Ray’s Ghare Baire.
In Raktabeej, you portray a character reportedly modeled on ex-President Pranab Mukherjee
He was my older brother’s classmate at the Presidency College (now University) so I saw him a few times at my brother’s office. Later, we were introduced by Late Siddhartha Sankar Ray, chief minister of West Bengal. I once happened to visit him at his residence in Delhi and was amazed that at that ripe age, he was reading Tolstoy’s magnum opus War and Peace the second time. Being a literature student myself, I haven’t been able to complete reading War and Peace
even once and here he was, reading it the second time. I understood then that he was an exceptional man. In my opinion, the country has hardly had such a sharp intellectual political leader. I respected him a lot.
A file photo of Victor Banerjee in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi. Photo provided by Shoma A Chatterji
The character is scripted along the lines when Mukherjee was the President of the country. He also celebrated Durga Puja at his native home in Kirnahar. Did that draw you to this role and film?
Yes. I didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity to portray a person who, at once was the President of the country and at the same time, performed Durga Puja in his original home following all the rituals which is something Bengalis should be proud of. We are losing over time the value of this heritage. I may be a nationalist at heart, but I am a Bengali in heart and soul.
Raktabeej opens with the President rejecting the mercy petition for commuting the death sentence for a terrorist. But his sister was against it because she believed that forgiveness is the highest human value. Your personal take on the death sentence?
Every nation is governed by its own law-and-order rules which must be obeyed by every citizen, including the President of the country. Viewed from this point, Animesh Chatterjee in the film as the President had fulfilled his responsibility. Personally, however, I believe that we don’t have the right to take the life of a fellow citizen.
Victor Banerjee plays a role inspired by late president Pranab Mukherjee in Raktabeej. Photo courtesy: Windows Production
How was it working with the popular Bengali cinema director-duo Shiboprosad Mukherjee and Nandita Roy for the first time?
I had already heard of the praise showered on this very successful director pair. But I don’t necessarily say ‘yes’ even to famous directors. At the same
I also sometimes agree to do a film knowing well that it’s a bad project if they pay me well and give me respect too.
It’s said that you never watch your own films. Is that true?
Yes, that’s right. I didn’t even watch A Passage to India which was my debut performance where I portrayed the character of Aziz Ahmed. The only film I watched was Ray’s Ghare Baire which I was forced to watch thrice. The first time Ray forced me to see it. The second time, Dame Peggy Ashcroft wanted to watch it with me in London. Then, when my uncle in London got to know I had escorted her, he wanted to know why I couldn’t go with him. Lots of women fell in love with the character. It almost got me the best actor award at Cannes. But David Lean, with whom I was shooting, wouldn’t let me go and the winner had to be physically present to accept the award.
Screenshots of Victor Banerjee in A Passage to India
You have done some wonderful work for the welfare of junior artistes in the industry but you refrain from talking about it
First, I hate to call them ‘junior artistes,’ I prefer calling them ‘co-artistes’.When I was new to films, I noticed that they were very ill-paid because the agent would take a big cut from their already low payments. They were given poor food and sometimes had to put in long hours without even a cup of tea. I tried to raise their payments after a lot of arguments and also tried to raise their standards of food and things improved to some extent. I observed that the conditions of these co-artistes were quite the same abroad. No one appeared to be moved by this discrepancy in payment and food standards. I was moved enough to try and better their situation as much as I could. But how much can a single man achieve in adverse circumstances?
You are fluent in English, Hindi, Bengali and Assamese. How Assamese?
I have spent much of my boyhood in Shillong. I have a special affinity for the people of the North East. I have observed that the people of the North East have a completely different mental make-up from that of the rest of India. They are warm, friendly, secular and open-minded but people from other parts of India are not aware of this because they don’t know them.
Screenshots of Victor Banerjee in A Passage to India
What kind of homework do you do for a film?
That depends entirely on the demands of each role and the expectations of the director. For example, my role as ‘Peter the Cheater’ in Anjan Dutt’s Bow Barracks Forever is one of my favourites. But the film didn’t do well so it went unnoticed. I worked for months to play the trumpet for my character. In appreciation of my work, the director gifted me the trumpet as a souvenir. I also loved my work in My Brother Nikhil. The great thing about Nikhil was I could connect him to my own life. My father was a well-known sports person during his time. He brought me up under strict discipline like the ex-Army man that he was. I remember once during a football match I got hurt. He didn’t console me. He just let me carry on. But he was a very loving person. He always wanted me to confront adversities and override them.