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Victor Banerjee on Raktabeej: ‘I played the role of the president modelled on Pranab Mukherjee’

The veteran actor shares his memories of working with Satyajit Ray, David Lean, James Ivory and Ismail Merchant

Soujannya Das And Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri Calcutta Published 17.10.23, 05:34 PM
Victor Banerjee in Raktabeej

Victor Banerjee in Raktabeej

He has Satyajit Ray, David Lean, James Ivory, Shyam Benegal and Roman Polanski on his resume. So when Victor Banerjee returns to Bengali cinema playing the president of India in Nandita Roy-Shiboprosad Mukherjee’s political thriller Raktabeej, there is palpable excitement around the film (releasing on October 19) and his role. A conversation with the veteran actor, who lives up in the hills in Landour and makes the occasional trip back to his Kolkata home.

You are returning to mainstream Bangla cinema after a while. What was it about Raktabeej that prompted you to say yes?

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Victor Banerjee: The enthusiastic team. They are good people making good films. One needs a bit of respect and there’s nothing more rewarding than being able to reciprocate that respect. I hold them in high esteem because of their work, integrity, honesty and their attention to detail. Those are unique qualities, especially in today’s Bengal.

Tell us something about your character and the film…

Victor Banerjee: I play the president of India who comes to his home to perform Durga puja. I have a sister (played by Anashua Majumdar) who is part of the president’s story. She has a charitable approach to life. I have a more practical approach.

What is it about Shiboprosad Mukherjee as a director that appeals to the actor in you?

Victor Banerjee: The fact that he knows what he wants. He has done an impeccable amount of research for the film. He is very sincere, honest and, also aesthetically, I have confidence in his choice. I respect his integrity and honesty.

Tell us about working with your co-stars in this film…

Victor Banerjee: Abir (Chatterjee) is a lovely young boy. He is again very sincere. He takes his job more seriously than he takes himself. I have known Anashua for years. She is a sweet and charming actress. I haven’t had many scenes with Mimi (Chakraborty) but I’m sure she’s a delightful person.

What kind of preparation did this role call for? Any particular incident that you would like to share with us?

Victor Banerjee: Nothing. What do you prepare? If I actually start being like the real president, walk like him, talk like him, it will be a pain in the butt. It will be totally unnecessary. So I was just a man who was the president of India and played the role modelled on Pranab Mukherjee.

Standing on a hot tarmac is one terrible memory I have from the film. I was walking barefoot on the tarmac which was melting in heat!

You have worked with Satyajit Ray, James Ivory, Shyam Benegal, Roman Polanski and David Lean. No actor in India has that enviable roster of filmmakers. Could you narrate some experiences of working with them?

Victor Banerjee: Manik-da (Satyajit Ray) was a very professional man. He had his own style of filmmaking, his own discipline. He was aesthetically perfect. David Lean in my opinion was one of the best storytellers in the world. He was a very dry person though.

I didn’t get along with Roman Polanski too much as he was having an affair with a woman who he was fighting with almost every day. He wasn’t communicating with anybody. Shooting used to get cancelled. She became his wife afterwards.

Shyam Benegal is like a family friend. I haven’t worked with him for years. He is an educated person. James Ivory had the biggest collection of Mughal miniatures. He was a great art connoisseur.

Ismail Merchant was probably an experience of a lifetime. There has never been a producer like him in the world. You should pick up the obituaries written about him. Everyone on earth hated Ismail. Everyone on earth admired Ismail. Everyone admitted there would never be another Ismail. He achieved what nobody else could. He was a fantastic man… These are priceless people.

There is a film called Zorba the Greek. The cameraman Walter Lassally won the Oscar. He was one of the best cameramen in the world. I enjoyed working with him in Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures (a Merchant Ivory film).

What do you think of contemporary cinema in Bengal?

Victor Banerjee: I am not very familiar with it. I don’t watch movies. I don’t even remember the actors and actresses anymore. I have no knowledge to base an opinion on. The posters right now look quite uninteresting. There’s something that is missing.

As someone who has been part of international cinema, what do you think of the presence of contemporary Indian cinema in terms of quality and impact?

Victor Banerjee: A film that I saw after some 27 years in the theatre and was completely awestruck by was Bahubali 2. I couldn’t believe how good the production value was. It was so fantastic. I have two grandchildren who are half-American, and to this day they watch Babubali in America. The film has nothing but fun. It doesn’t have any distasteful dance or song.

When it comes to Hindi movies, you are dealing with an uneducated innocent audience who believes that things their heroes do are to be emulated and are achievable. The uneducated audience believes in the fantasy that Bollywood creates. Bollywood culture is not Indian culture.

People in the south are very professional. They all know that they are replaceable assets. No technician in the south will ever dodge or not do their work because they will be replaced the next day. In Bengal, they don’t pay. They say that they have run out of money. Windows Productions is an exception.

How do regular viewers get to see your films like Thinking of Him and The Answer?

Victor Banerjee: It might be somewhere online. I would really suggest you watch the film called Dev Bhoomi. I had such a lovely experience working with the team. It got an international award. The Answer got 17 international awards. The fact that I was accepted in The Answer is a huge thing. Two weeks ago I got a message from the writer saying, ‘Sir, we still worship you.’ Till date I’ve not got bad reviews for any performance which includes all trashy films too.

What excites you about acting now?

Victor Banerjee: Acting has always been a hobby. When you pursue a hobby, you enjoy it. Every film is another chapter. I look for something unique in every role that I play. Once I understand the character well, I don’t act, I live that part. I told Manik-da (Satyajit Ray), ‘Apni Ghare Baire amar theke bhalo chenen ebong bojhen, kintu Nikhilesh ke apnar theke bhalo aami bujhi (You understand Ghare Baire better than me but I understand Nikhilesh better than you).’ He used to direct Soumitra (Chatterjee) before every single shot but he never directed me. Once I’ve understood the psyche, my every gesture, every look will be that of the character.

What are your upcoming projects?

Victor Banerjee: I might write or direct. Let’s see! I am working with Sirsha Ray on his directorial venture. The film is called Sultanate. He is a very good cinematographer. He narrated my role a few days back. He has got Kay Kay Menon and Kaushik Ganguly for the film. It is going to be shot in Hindi and in Madhya Pradesh.

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