Abhishek Banerjee is not someone who can be described by one adjective. What defines his abilities as a new-age casting director and prolific actor, is his command over characters and a knack for experimentation. His characters in recent hits have brought a unique flavour to those films which had mass appeal and were critic-friendly.
Inspired by Rajinikanth
What brought this Delhi boy to cinema? “I grew up in Chennai and was very much influenced by Rajinikanth’s stardom and the importance of cinema in Tamil culture. My story is similar to every ordinary Indian boy’s tale. My father wanted me to become an engineer or a professional but I was sure that I had to be in the Hindi film industry. I joined college through the quota for extra curricular activities but I am still not a graduate,” he chuckles.
His film career started with a small appearance in Rang De Basanti, when he was in his final year of college, before joining as a casting assistant to his mentor Gautam Mirchandani on Dev D . “I went there to give an audition, but he asked me to give cues to the actors and that happened in Chak De! India too. Later, I assisted a few other casting directors before starting it full-time to sustain myself in Mumbai.” The success of No one Killed Jessica and The Dirty Picture brought him his share of the limelight and he is doing the casting director’s “job” happily.
The last decade has seen the rise of casting directors as important stakeholders in the film industry, as ‘content-driven’ cinema has created a huge requirement of talent, which was otherwise not seen by the audience. “It started happening when people started seeing themselves on screen,” says Abhishek, who runs casting company Casting Bay with Anmol Ahuja.
As an actor, he has been applauded for his roles in Stree , Bala , Dream Girl , and Amazon Prime’s web series Mirzapur . His choice of characters echoes his sensibilities as a person and he insists on bringing his own flavour to whatever is offered to him. “All my characters have their own political thoughts of the world around. If it is not in the script, I put it into them so that they become rooted to the local flavour. Mahender from Dream Girl sees the world in a rosy way, but he is righteous in deciding his position on a situation. Ajju from Bala is not confused when people make sexist remarks on Yami Gautam’s character when she leaves Bala,” he explains.
Along with Aparshakti Khurana, he has emerged as the new ‘friend’ of the Hindi film protagonist. “The friend in a film acts as a shadow of the lead. If you omit that character, the main actor has to speak to himself. It will not be interesting. There is no other reason for a friend to be there in the film. I think writers should create characters who are human and have a character arc of their own.”
He believes that a school of thought is necessary for an actor to voice opinions and have their own approach towards craft. “I come from Kirori Mal College’s theatre society called Players. It corrected my existing thoughts and gave me a direction. It allowed me to be open to change and question everything like my personality, characters, putting thoughts in front of the director or into the script, which, I think, is required for growth,” he says.
Channelling his existing knowledge of theatre into the medium of cinema required a lot of unlearning, and he waited for that to happen over a period of time, considering the requirements the medium poses. “Theatre is about your body. Your synchronised body movements and the amount of voice thrown at the audience play a big role, as you have to perform for everyone. But in films, you perform for the camera that opens the opportunity for a lot of other gestures to emote the feelings of the character. You have to pay attention to the way you speak, as sometimes it becomes theatrical, which people take as melodrama,” he explains.
As someone who trains and cultivates new talent, he believes in training and workshops for actors. It is said long rehearsals diminish unpredicted surprises and unrehearsed acting is labelled as ‘subtle’. Abhishek differs, “I agree performances which remain with you are those which are felt at the time of the shoot. This is why spaces are important and the environment around your film set has a bearing on your performance. If the set is in Benaras or Agra, you cannot imagine that in a workshop in Mumbai, but some kind of chemistry-building workshop for actors to build a rapport is necessary, to build a base before they go to the ‘real’ setting.”