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Small screen, big stars
Rajdeep Gupta was a DJ at a five-star hotel when he was selected to play Ishaan in Ogo Bodhu Sundori

Gaurab Chatterjee’s life has altered beyond recognition. Until a year ago he was a carefree youngster studying for his B.Com degree and spending hours in the gym to ensure that he was in peak physical condition. Now he’s slogging for 10-12 hours a day at the Star Jalsha studios as the hero of the soap Durga. He has had to drop out of his B.Com course and hopes to write the exams next year. Also, he has cut back on his workout sessions. “I am a fitness freak and I used to normally work out twice a day. I don’t find the time to do that anymore,” he says, sadly.

Noyona Palit is keeping even tighter schedules. The 23-year-old is dashing between two studios and two different small screen identities. She’s slapping on the make-up for her prime role as Brinda in ETV Bangla’s Barir Naam Bhalobasha and also has a smaller part in Star Jalsha’s soap, Kuheli.

Gaurab and Noyona are part of the new gang of youngsters who are making waves on the small screen and being invited into Bengali homes every night. They’re young and fresh-faced and above all, they have a refreshing, bubbly enthusiasm that could propel them into the big league — if they work at it hard enough.

Amazingly, some of these budding stars have fallen into their new careers almost by chance. Ritabhari Chakraborty, 17, who plays Lolita in Ogo Bodhu Sundori (OBS), was studying in class 11 when she was picked for the role after a screen test by director Ravi Ojha. “I did go through a screen test and acting workshop,” she says. “But it’s only now that I have learnt to draw attention to myself in front of the camera.”

Her co-star in OBS is 25-year-old Rajdeep Gupta who has also been plucked from the chorus line and pushed into the limelight, so to speak. Rajdeep, until recently, was a DJ at a five-star hotel. “Initially I was scared of acting with veterans but my fears have been allayed by helpful co-stars”, says Rajdeep. OBS has the highest ratings among all the soaps, so Rajdeep’s stardom is on the ascendant currently.

Manali De (top) plays a village girl in Bou Katha Kou; The actress with Riju Biswas in a moment from the serial

It was a similar story for Sandipta Sen who plays Durga. She landed the lead role in the serial by the same name at a Star Jalsha audition. A psychology graduate, Sandipta was deciding whether to do an MBA when the role fell into her lap. One year later, she is almost a cult figure among the rural and semi-urban audiences of Bengal.

Stardom came suddenly for nine-year-old Oishi Bhattacharya. Oishi is studying in class three and she went for a Zee Bangla audition almost by accident. Now, she’s playing princess Khona in the soap Khona. “She had no make-up or costume and was just asked to test for the part. When she was chosen, we were delighted”, says mother Putul Bhattacharya, who accompanies her spunky star-kid on every single shoot.

But most of the newcomers have been working their way up in one way or another. Take Arnab Banerjee, who has arrived on the small screen after working for four years on the stage. He’s now playing the male lead in Jao Pakhi on Rupashi Bangla and also Shayan, a key character in Ke Tumi Nandini, a new soap on Zee Bangla.

Similarly, Manoj Ojha, who’s the male star in Binni Dhaner Khoi opposite veteran actor Monami Ghosh also slogged it out on stage before landing a plum role on television. Manoj reckons he still has a long way to go and says: “One not only needs to keep focus but also watch films and update one’s acting skills.”

Nine-year-old Oishi Bhattacharya was studying in class three when she went to audition for Zee Bangla’s Khona (in still) in which she plays a princess gifted with the ability to see the future

Making their debut on the small screen has been a life-altering experience for these youngsters. Most were ordinary youngsters till a short time ago, going to school or university and hanging out with their friends. But now that’s in the distant past. Take Manali De who plays a simple village girl in Bou Katha Kou, which has been running for over a year.

At one level, Manali’s life has changed because she’s working almost 14 hours a day. But she’s also now getting used to the fact that she is mobbed for autographs every time she goes shopping with her friends. “It feels wonderful. But people’s expectations have skyrocketed after seeing me perform in Bou Katha Kou.” Manali will be taking her higher secondary exams next year, though she’s not a regular student at school any longer.

(Top) As Durga, Sandipta Sen, a psychology graduate, has almost become a cult figure in parts of Bengal; (above)The actress with Gaurab Chatterjee in the serial
Uttam Kumar’s grandson Gaurab Chatterjee plays Rupam, a mentally challenged boy, in Durga

Are the channels taking a big risk by experimenting with fresh-faced youngsters? The fact is that they’ve made their calculations and have good reasons for casting youngsters in plum roles. Star Jalsha creative director, Yubaraj Bhattacharya points out that it decided to break the rules a bit when it launched the channel last year. Says Bhattacharya: “We purposely decided to launch new faces in prime time soaps. That’s because we wanted the characters to be bigger than the actors in the channel. Everybody may or may not remember Smriti Irani but people do remember Tulsi. Today, everybody recognises Durga, Mouri, Rupam, Nikhil from our soaps.”

The other channels too are taking chances and giving newcomers a break. But they too say that the risks have been carefully calibrated. So they have a smart mix of experienced actors and newcomers. Actors like Noyona and Manoj for example, have been cast along with veterans like Chandreyee Ghosh and Monami Ghosh in soaps like Barir Naam Bhalobasha and Binni Dhaner Khoi.

Says ETV Bangla, channel head, Parthasarathi Talukdar: “We saw the newcomers earlier in very small cameos or in non-fictional programmes. So, after considering their acting potential we decided to cast them in meatier roles for our soaps. In fact, they have turned out to be quite capable.”

However, some channels admit that hiring newcomers can be a calculated gamble and they make sure to hold acting workshops for the newcomers. “You never know whether it will click. We first see whether the looks will match and then take the actors through regular acting workshops since they are inexperienced,” says Neeloy Das, an assistant director for Jao Pakhi.

What do they look out for when they hire freshers? There are no rules to this one, but the one word that crops up time and again when talking to channel executives and young stars, is ‘bubbly’. “Raviji (director Ravi Ojha) just wanted me to play a bubbly teenager for Lolita’s character,” says Ritabhari. Adds Noyona: “I play a bubbly young girl in this soap.” Similarly, Arnab says: “It helps that I can identify myself with the character of Shayan, who is a bubbly youngster.”

Some youngsters are already making the most of their opportunities and are looking out for new shows or even movies where they can prove their mettle. Take Manali, who is busy shooting for a Bengali feature film Achin Pakhi and juggling her shoot timings.

Noyona Palit in a moment from ETV’s Barir Naam Bhalobasha in which she plays Brinda;

And Rajdeep who has made his mark in OBS, aims to get into films after his contract with Jalsha ends. He’s watching both modern stars and the legends of yesteryears as he attempts to build his career. “Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee among Bengali stars and Rahul Bose and Ranvir Shorey are my favourite actors. I try to pick up their mannerisms and acting styles,” he says.

One reason why the youngsters are being noticed is because the new genre of Bengali soaps is more lavishly produced and have therefore clicked. They have slick sets, glamorous looks, better costumes and smart furniture. While Star Jalsha is spending around Rs 1 lakh on each episode, Zee and ETV are spending around Rs 70,000 to Rs 80,000 for each episode. “Earlier, the realistic look was in, so Bengali soaps didn’t have the rich look that Hindi soaps had. Now audiences prefer a designer look in everything. The camera and the lighting have also become far more sophisticated,” says Shaibal Bandopadhyay, director, Binni Dhaner Khoi, which is one of the most popular soaps on ETV.

Manoj Ojha with co-star Monami Ghosh in Binni Dhaner Khoi

It must be emphasised that these youngsters have a long way to go before they make it big time. Most of these new actors are contracted with the channel — and paid about Rs 30,000 per month — to ensure that they stick around. That isn’t a king’s ransom but it’s more than many youngsters fresh out of college earn. Says Jalsha honcho Yubaraj: “We ensure that they get good pay. We pay the producers and they in turn pay the actors. The pay may not be as much as what a doctor or an engineer earns but it is certainly more lucrative than what a normal graduate earns”. Adds Gaurab: “For me, the fact that I got a good break is more important than the money.”

Some directors and producers are sceptical about whether these new crop of actors will last more than a handful of big serials. “I often wonder if these youngsters will remain focused on their work, which is acting for the rest of their lives. Right now, they are very young and many such youngsters have disappeared without a trace,” says Rakesh Kumar, director, OBS.

Arnab Banerjee had a stage background before getting his big break as the lead character in Ke Tumi Nandini

Veteran actor and line producer Arindam Sil has doubts too: “The new league of actors seems to be better groomed and less inhibited than their predecessors. But if they have to survive in the big, bad world of acting, they have to be able to work in different roles and avoid being typecast.”

Survival can be tough in show business. Take a look at Oishi who sometimes works seven days a week. Her mother ensures that she goes to school in the mornings before going for shooting and carries along her school books to the sets. “I don’t think I’ll let her work for a mega-serial soon. I don’t mind her taking up smaller roles though,” says her mother Putul.

Also, there could be many more potential stars coming up in the near future. And, only the grittiest of these youngsters will stay the course. Says Yubaraj: “We provide the launching pad. The rest is upto you.”       

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