Bhattacharjee in a play
London, July 21: Why did Paul Bhattacharjee, probably the most successful and versatile British Indian actor of his generation, take his own life just when he appeared to be in the prime of his career?
A possible explanation emerged yesterday when the Mirror newspaper reported that the 53-year-old actor “was declared bankrupt in the days up to his suspected suicide”.
The Mirror revealed that Bhattacharjee “went bust on July 9 — the day before he was last seen”.
It added: “A bankruptcy order was made under his full name — Gautam Paul Bhattacharjee — which described him as an ‘actor’ on the Insolvency Register. The petitioner is named as HM Revenue & Customs.”
A spokesperson for HM Revenue & Customs said she was aware of the obvious implication in the Mirror story that Bhattacharjee was somehow hounded to his death by the tax authorities — a very serious allegation to make — but would only say: “For legal reasons we are unable to comment on any taxpayer’s affairs.”
It is certainly the case that tax inspectors, aware of the difficulties faced by ordinary people at a time of recession, are usually reasonable in allowing those in debt to reschedule their payments. But it will be for the inquest to provide chapter and verse on what drove Bhattacharjee to take such an extreme step.
However, in recent years, the tax authorities have been slammed for pursuing individuals — seen as “soft targets” — while allowing multinationals to get away with paying very little or nothing.
Inevitably, comparisons will be made between Bhattacharjee and Jacintha Saldanha, an Indian nurse at King Edward VII Hospital in Paddington London, who hanged herself in December last year.
It is no exaggeration to say that the British Asian arts fraternity is shattered by Bhattacharjee’s death. He had been around long enough for most actors and actresses to have worked with him at some point in his long and exceptionally distinguished career.
He is currently being described as a “Bond actor” but his part in Casino Royale was minor. He was also in the popular soap EastEnders for a couple of years but Bhattacharjee was really known for his theatre work.
His friends are trying to build up a picture of his movements in his final hours. He walked out, seemingly without troubles, at 6pm on July 10 after rehearsals at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, London. His body was “recovered from cliffs at Splash Point in Seaford, East Sussex” on July 12.
It is known that he was a man with strong social convictions and Left wing inclinations. It is likely that this is something he inherited from his Bengali father.
A detailed obituary by well-known theatre critic Michael Coveney in the Guardian pointed out: “He was the only son of Gautam Bhattacharjee, a software researcher who was a member of the Communist party in India and was forced to leave the country after his part in the naval mutiny of 1942. In Britain, Gautam met Anne, who was herself from a migrant family of Russian Jews, and their son, Paul, was educated at state schools in Harrow, Middlesex.”
Coveney called Bhattacharjee was “one of the country’s leading British Asian actors”. Perhaps it would have been more accurate to have called him one of the country’s leading actors.
Bhattacharjee, said Coveney, was “a key member of Jatinder Verma’s Tara Arts, a regular at the Royal Shakespeare Company — he was last seen in the West End last year, playing Benedick opposite Meera Syal in the RSC’s Much Ado About Nothing — and a popular television and film actor whose roles included Inzamam in the BBC soap EastEnders, an immigration officer called Mohammed in Stephen Frears’s Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and parts in the Bond movie Casino Royale (2006) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011).”
Coveney said: “Perhaps his most unusual and remarkable performance was in Complicite’s ensemble production, directed by Simon McBurney, of A Disappearing Number (2007), in which the mystery of maths at the highest level turned out to be a thing of real beauty. The hinge of the dramatic dissertation was the friendship, around the time of the First World War, between the Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy, who believed that mathematicians were only makers of patterns, like poets and painters, and the Brahmin vegetarian autodidact Srinivasa Ramanujan. The air of magical contrivance was sustained by encasing this friendship in the expositions of a narrator physicist — played by Bhattacharjee — and a Hardy disciple many years later.”
He went on: “Having toured with this highly acclaimed production to festivals in Vienna and Amsterdam, in 2008 he plunged into two years of EastEnders”, before returning to the RSC in Dominic Cooke’s Arabian Nights (2009) and Much Ado About Nothing (2012).
“In the past decade he had appeared regularly, also, at the Tricycle theatre in Kilburn in Nicolas Kent’s series of verbatim documentary dramas, notably as Moazzam Begg, one of the detainees of the US military in Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom (2004), and in The Great Game: Afghanistan (2009) cycle of short plays and the two-part meditation on the nuclear threat, The Bomb (2012).”
Coveney concluded: “He was a break-through actor par excellence, associated with many innovations and adventures in our theatre, and fondly remembered for his television appearances, not only in EastEnders, but in many other shows including Spooks (2004-08) and The Bill (1992-2004).”
Bhattacharjee was married to Arti Prashar, Jatinder Varma’s sister-in-law, by whom he had a son, Rahul, now 24. After their divorce, he had a long relationship with a British Bengali actress, Shreela Ghosh.
His most recent girlfriend, Emma Mckie, 23, whom he met last summer while working on Much Ado About Nothing, apparently received a final text with a message along the line: “I am glad we are together... and I am sorry.”
It is also believed that Bhattacharjee dropped in on his elderly mother, who is in an old people’s home in Sussex.
A thoughtful assessment of Bhattacharjee’s prodigious talents came from Madhav Sharma, himself a distinguished actor — he was Leonato in the cast of Much Ado About Nothing last August.
“In his life he did many good things, he was courageous, he was a consummate professional, and I have never seen him behaving in any way that was odd.”
Sharma continued: “He was an extremely reserved person. He wouldn’t share his emotions with any body. He would try to make everything into a cerebral or a political argument although in his later years he was getting a bit more interested in philosophy generally and certain aspects of faith even though he would not like to call it faith. His political commitment to the (Left wing) causes he believed in was very, very strong indeed, almost an inflexible certainty about his political beliefs.”
Sharma said: “Paul, because he never sentimentalised things, was more moving because a lot of Indian actors tend, by western standards, to sentimentalise their emotions and indulge them a bit but Paul had the English ability of conveying emotion by not indulging it. Indians, by and large, tend to show their emotions more, particularly when they are acting. Paul relied more on stillness and allowing people’s imagination to do their own work. So, in that sense, he was very much a British actor.”
“The truth is the majority of actors are vulnerable but if you happen to be a brown skinned actor you feel doubly vulnerable because the liberal directors, if they want to make a point about multi-culturalism, tend to use a black actor in the sense of an Afro-Caribbean so the Indian is in a very difficult position. But people are afraid in the current economic climate to speak their mind,” said Sharma.
“Paul chose his work fairly carefully but in recent years he has been doing very, very well — his career was doing better than almost any other Indian actor at the moment. But the thing about Paul is there was always a distance between him and everybody else. Physically, he was very interested in yoga these days and very interested in tai chi — he was a very sensitive soul but he thought it was a weakness to show it outwardly so he had this mask which was quite tough.”
A friend who had known and pretty much hero worshipped Bhattacharjee for 35 years summed up: “Actually, I am very angry with him that he did not approach any of us. We are all devastated.”