Abhishek Banerjee discusses transition from casting director to a 'semi-famous' lead actor

Abhishek Banerjee, who was last seen in Ajeeb Daastaans, looks back on his struggling days and how Paatal Lok's Hathoda Tyagi changed the course of his career

Seema Sinha May 05, 2021 13:33:08 IST
Abhishek Banerjee discusses transition from casting director to a 'semi-famous' lead actor

Paatal Lok’s Hathoda Tyagi, has come a long way from small roles in multiple films to becoming a household name with his latest outings. Abhishek Banerjee who once developed a fear of auditions after being rejected several times now has more than half-a-dozen projects in his kitty. Banerjee, who rose to fame with roles in films such as Stree, Dream Girl, Bala, and most recently Ajeeb Daastaans, is part of Bhediya, Dostana 2, Aankh Micholi, Helmet, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s anthology…just that there is no certainty about when some of these projects will roll, or release considering the current scenario with the second wave of pandemic looming large in the country.

“Actually I have not been able to enjoy my success since last year. When Paatal Lok came out in May last we were under lockdown. Again, Ajeeb Daastaans came out during the lockdown a few weeks back. That overwhelming feeling last year..I couldn’t enjoy all that. But my success appears very trivial in the present situation. And how can you enjoy when people around us are suffering, you feel guilty about having this pleasure. Last March/April I was going through tough times because for someone who has just started his career as an actor, you have started to taste success but not achieved it and suddenly things shut down. Last year feels like yesterday because everything is happening all over again. I had a lot of projects lined up last year, I had said yes to a lot of regional films -- Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil...because I want to be a pan India actor and not just be part of one industry. Also, I know these languages,” says Banerjee, who celebrates his birthday today (1 May).

“I was victimising myself,” he furthers. “I was feeling bad for my career, for my life. But I felt hopeful when Paatal Lok teaser released sometime end of April last, and the trailer was out on my birthday and that is when I felt God has given me a gift. I felt ecstatic when the trailer was shown to the world. It changed my entire life,” says Banerjee.

While the actor slips into both, comedy as well as intense characters with remarkable ease, he relates more to his angst-ridden roles like what was seen in Paatal Lok, and most recently in the anthology Khilauna (opposite Nushrat Bharucha) which was part of Ajeeb Daastaans. “I have been through those turmoils inside so it becomes easier for me to perform such roles. I was discussing with Avinash Arun (Director, Paatal Lok) that probably I am living life with a little bit of angst because I come from a lower-middle-class family and if you come from that section of society you are always looking at others wondering why don’t you have it and why others have it so easy. And I am sure after these times if any character comes my way which is of a common man I will do much better. I am realising too many things now which I didn’t realise or think of earlier. I also realise that even my lower-middle-class self was privileged in its own way. So I am waiting for another common man character to come my way,” says Banerjee.

Abhishek Banerjee discusses transition from casting director to a semifamous lead actor

Abhishek Banerjee in a still from Paatal Lok | Amazon Prime Video

Nonetheless, the role of ‘Jana’ — the eccentric best friend of Rajkummar Rao and Aparshakti Khurrana in the 2018-release blockbuster horror-comedy, Stree might have been a big turnaround for Banerjee though he never thought he was funny. “It is something I am discovering through my performances. I never thought I have that funny bone or have the timing to be a comic actor. Though in theatre, on stage I have done a lot of comedy plays, I never got an award for my comic roles. I always got the best actor award for serious parts, or a character which was blind, or a very emotional part which I played. I always felt I am made for intense parts, the darkness, the broodiness. But I realised I have this funny side and I am using it better."

"I did not know when I did Stree, or Dream Girl, or Bala but now when I was doing Bhediya (Amar Kaushik-directed horror-comedy co-starring Varun Dhawan-Kriti Sanon) I knew better. So when I was on set this time it was easier, more comfortable, I was improvising a lot and I was on my front foot. I am changing that about myself, I want to believe that I can do comedy,” says the actor, who has completed two more comedies – Umesh Shukla’s Aankh Micholi (co-starring Paresh Rawal, Sharman Joshi, Abhimanyu Dassani, Mrunal Thakur and Divya Dutta), and Satram Ramani’s Helmet (co-starring Aparshakti Khurana, Anurita Jha, Ashish Verma, Pranutal Bahl).

However, Banerjee doesn’t want to reveal much about his character in Bhediya. “It is a hush-hush character; it’s a complete top secret. Once you see the film you will realise why I am saying so,” he says, furthering, “But for me, doing Bhediya was like going back to my theatre days because everyone was together in one place for two months. This can happen only in theatre, whereas, in films, we work on small portions with many breaks in between. Rehearsing for two months, living with the director, actors, crew..has happened with me for the first time. And then there was Amar Kaushik who is like my guardian in this industry with whom I share a lot of comfort.”

After working with Varun Dhawan, Banerjee’s views on ‘big stars’ seem to have changed. “I had no idea what Varun is like, what he is all about. I only knew him as a big star. You don’t know anything about superstars until you meet them. You always have this image that they will wear big dark glasses, have loads of style, someone will bring them a chair, an umbrella and they will order things around...But I realised he's such a chilled out star. I was really in awe of him. It was like meeting a college friend. In the film, our characters are very close to each other for which we needed that kind of chemistry and comfort. Initially, it was very difficult for me to build rapport with someone you don’t know and someone who is in a very different stature but he made that effort without saying anything and made it easier for me. He came into my space and brought me into his space which was very beautiful about him. I have become his big fan,” says Banerjee.

Abhishek Banerjee discusses transition from casting director to a semifamous lead actor

Still from Ajeeb Daastaans

Karan Johar’s Dostana 2 (directed by Collin D'Cunha) sequel to the 2008 film, has been in news lately with reports doing rounds that the film’s male lead Kartik Aryan has been ousted from the film due to the latter's fall-out with Johar and there would be a replacement. Banerjee, who plays an integral part in the film, says he has shot for 13 to 14 days out of the 20-day shoot that has already happened. “I know only as much as you know about Dostana 2. I called a few people from the production team to ask if they were going to make this film or not and they were very optimistic about it. Approximately 35-40 per cent of the film has been shot and not 60 per cent as reported. There are plans to shoot again and I feel when you have put in so much effort into something it will be very difficult for them to pull out of it completely. There will be some emotional decisions but they will take the decision in favour of the film. But we don’t know if the film will start this year, or next year since there is a delay due to pandemic,” says Banerjee.

Rashmi Rocket (sports drama with Taapsee Pannu in the lead) is complete and I am happy that I could complete at least one film during the pandemic. Then I have Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s anthology in which I play the lead. It is such a beautiful story and I loved working with Ashwiny. I spent only seven days with her but I developed a very strong bond with her. Today I can pick up the phone anytime and ask for her help. I was going through that transition period..from just an actor to a semi-famous actor after playing Hathoda Tyagi. I was trying to play the lead, the main protagonist’s role in her short and she was constantly helping me, not only for the film but what all I need to do outside the film to become that. And, of course, I also bonded with Nitesh(Tiwary) Sir,” says Banerjee.

Banerjee loves the era of the OTT and wants to just act without thinking about the box office of the film. “Now because of the new medium, there is a new audience. Probably it is not the same audience that is going to the theatres, and also probably not the same audience that is watching shows on television, there is a complete new generation. Earlier nobody knew Jaideep (Ahlawat), or Pratik Gandhi, or Dibyendu Sharma..but suddenly they have become overnight stars and people are talking about them. That is the beauty of this medium and it will continue to be like that. There are going to be bigger stars, those money churners at the box office. That won’t change. They are going to get their share of the audience but that doesn’t mean that new, fresh actors can’t come with their project and create magic on screen. Earlier filmmakers would say, ‘Arre, who will come to watch these people', but now it is all about content. If you make good films people will definitely come to watch,” says the actor.

When Banerjee moved to Mumbai, in 2008, opportunities were sparse and to make ends meet, he started casting. His first assignment for casting was Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai when he worked under casting director Gautam Kishanchandani. Further, Banerjee, after establishing his own company, Casting Bay, with close friend Anmol Ahuja, has scouted talent for over 60 to 70 films. “I came to Mumbai to become an actor but never got the chance to become one because nobody cast me so I felt if I don’t have it in me I will do something to survive. I wasn’t qualified to do anything else. I continued with casting for a long time. I was greedy in the beginning. I was hopeful that because I am a casting assistant or somebody who is close to directors I will get the opportunity (as an actor) but that didn’t happen and that is when I realised that it isn’t so easy to act in films."

"You have to really work hard on yourself, make a lot of efforts and only then will directors have faith and belief in you. Eventually, that happened and it took me eight years to get that first break. I was working with some very good directors during my casting days but they never gave me a chance but the minute I improved they gave me the opportunity. It is a very fair journey,” says Banerjee.

Abhishek Banerjee discusses transition from casting director to a semifamous lead actor

Abhishek Banerjee, Rajkummar Rao in a still from Stree

Sometime in 2017, Casting Bay was approached to scout for Stree, the directorial debut of Amar Kaushik. Abhishek couldn’t take up the assignment and was instead offered an acting role in the film. “Stree was a big turnaround. Jana was an important role and I had to audition for it. It gave me the recognition amongst the filmmakers, whereas, Paatal Lok gave my career that push that I needed to get more opportunities," he says.

Banerjee has often said that casting has helped him in his acting career as many of the auditions he conducted helped him understand acting. “I tested Jaideep in my first film (as a casting assistant) Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai. He auditioned for Randeep Hooda’s part and I always say that Jaideep’s audition helped me understand acting. The audition was mind-blowing. When you see this guy perform in front of you, you realise I am not even close to him. There are several other actors who I know and who I have seen in the audition...Shreya Dhanwanthary, when she used to audition for us I would always wonder where she has come from and why she is not getting work. Many of the present generation actors started their acting career when I started my casting career. I have seen their journey very closely and when they would get a break I would get hopeful about myself. Many of us are friends since many years and we are doing good for each other and that is what we want. We want an industry where the community sense is higher than what it has been in the past,” he says.

Although flooded with acting offers, Banerjee wants to continue casting. “I finished one film at a time and didn’t take any other project coinciding with the other. Instead, I have left one project for another. For Bhediya I left one very big web show though both could have been done. I have learnt lessons from last year that there is no race, you must have time for your family and also have time for my casting, so I finish one and only then move on to the next. But again we are all jobless in the month of May,” he concludes while hoping that all the projects he has completed releases this year.

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