Tota Roy Choudhury first got to know that he would be working in Darjeeling Jawmjawmat next when Srijit Mukherji took the team of Jawto Kando Kathmandute out to dinner at a restaurant in Thamel, Kathmandu. “We were nearly finished with Jawto Kando Kathmandute and he was happy with our work. After a bite of the tasty Cantonese roast duck, he leaned towards the trio and said, ‘Next we will have momos in Darjeeling!’ Personally I was very happy because that is one of my favourite Feluda stories,” smiles Tota. The Telegraph chat.
How did you start preparing after that?
I believe that preparation for a role should begin with the body since that is the vehicle in which the character would be traversing. I was shooting for another film where I had to put on weight and just had 18 days to lose that extra two kilos. I was so committed that I lost two-and-half kilos within that period and got to the weight that I was in during the previous seasons. I also read the story once again and went through the script, carefully highlighting portions and taking down notes in a separate notebook. I would regularly refer to that notebook during the shoot.
How did you get into Feluda’s headspace for Darjeeling Jawmjawmat (streaming on Hoichoi)?
To me Feluda is analytical in nature. He deals with facts and proofs. Though emotion is important to him he never allows it to come in the way of truth. He also deals with the darker nature of man and because of it he knows how diabolical the human mind can be and hence he doesn’t place his trust easily. He is also extremely disciplined, much like Ray himself.
Do you remember the first time you had read Darjeeling Jawmjawmat?
I first read it in the very year of its publication, 1986; possibly in Sandesh magazine. Since I used to go to Darjeeling every year during the Easter vacation, I could identify the landmarks Ray had so accurately mentioned in the story.
On the day of the script narration, when Srijit read the scenes between Lalmohan Ganguly and Pulak Ghosal, I laughed so hard! I suspect that the reason Srijit chose this story was because of his immense love for Jatayu.
How was your shooting experience in Darjeeling?
Darjeeling was hectic! It was the peak of tourist season and the town was packed to the rafters! Our make-up call every day was at 5am so I had to wake up every day at 3.30am. But the weather was great and I was playing the character of my dreams with my favourite director so I enjoyed it to the hilt.
Any fond Darjeeling memories?
I did my primary schooling in Kurseong so I have many fond memories of Darj! Every Easter I used to go there for my vacation and also go with my school team round the year, to play football and basketball matches against other Darj school teams. Being a bookworm I used to frequent Oxford Books at the mall to browse and buy. And on the way down also buy a box of cream rolls and chicken patties from Glenary’s.
Since it is set in 1986, did you keep in mind certain things while shooting?
Without getting into the hows and whys, I think 1986 was the year when the hills lost its innocence. I was a kid then but still recall the vibrant cultural scene. WHAM, Cyndi Lauper, breakdancing, white sneakers, Stallone, Madonna and Maradona posters… I could go on and on! People became more confident and demanding. These are what went into my back-story construct.
There is a scene where someone pushes you and you almost fall off the edge. How did you shoot it and make it look so authentic?
There was a stuntman from Chennai to do the stunt as my body double but I insisted on doing it myself. C’mon, if I’m to play Feluda I should deserve to play him! Mentally I broke down the stunt into exact components: leaping off the edge, breaking the fall with my right hand and landing on my back just ahead of the bush, tumbling backwards over the bush and reaching out to hold the branches as I hurtle down. Before each shot, and Srijit took eight shots, I very calmly went over the mechanics of each component and executed the movement. The Chennai stunt team was impressed and clicked selfies with me!
Didn’t you feel scared while doing the stunt?
Yes I was scared but not for my well-being but that the shoot would be stalled if I got injured. We had to wrap up the full series comprising six episodes, within 13 days and didn’t have the luxury nor the budget for even an extra day. So I was laser-focussed.
What’s been the toughest action stunt in your career so far?
At the beginning of my career I leapt off a three-storey building. Those days we couldn’t afford air mattresses and had to make do with cottonwool mattresses spread over card board boxes. I was young, foolish and filled with adrenaline. Barring a few minor injuries I was lucky enough to escape unscathed. When I look back now, I feel like kicking myself for my foolishness. Had I broken my back, it would have ended my career for good.
Please take us through those moments when you solve the mystery. With so much dialogue how tough was the sequence to shoot?
The climactic scene between me unwrapping the crepe bandage and delivering the last line with the statue of Balagopal, was done in one single shot. Yes, you heard that right. Srijit said not to worry since he would cut the shot at where I would get stuck and resume thereafter.
But I wanted to keep the energy flowing and culminating into a crescendo. Any interruptions would hamper that. So I mugged-up the nearly five pages of almost a soliloquy and did it in a single shot. The duration of the shot was 20 minutes plus a few seconds. After the shot was over there was pin drop silence on the floor for three seconds and then the unit burst into a spontaneous applause. I felt chuffed. Over the microphone Srijit said, ‘Very nice, Tota! Very well done!’ And then made me do the shot 15 more times from different angles, all in a single shot and I had to be right at the exact marks of the first shot!
What was the most challenging scene for you?
The most challenging scenes were the one where I was pushed off the road into the abyss and the final scene where I solve the mystery in everyone’s presence.
How did it feel to be directed by Srijit? What sets him apart from other directors?
I am very fond of Srijit. After Rituda (Rituparno Ghosh) he is someone I will forever be indebted to. He is a hard taskmaster and a perfectionist. He will push his artistes to give their best and he will accept nothing less. He also loves his artistes and will fight for them if the need arises. The best thing about him is his absolute devotion to the frame. He is a workaholic and his mad passion is infectious. No wonder he gets the best out of his actors.
Did you get to interact with Barun Chanda, someone who had acted in a Ray film. Did you have questions for him?
Barunda has aged like the finest wines. It’s always a pleasure shooting with him. During the shoot he had shared some Ray anecdotes. I am waiting to read his book on the maestro.
People on social media are saying you are more at ease as Feluda, you are effortless. What are your thoughts on this?
To me, the primary attribute of Feluda is his rigidity of character, which is also manifested in his physicality. If you check out the sketches of Ray you will find that he has a ramrod straight posture. It is to signify that here is a man for whom compromise is never an option nor is it acceptable.
I have always visualised him as an ultra confident man, possessing the stillness and the incisive gaze of a panther. I had tried to imbibe that essence in my portrayal of the supersleuth during the first two seasons and also modulated my voice accordingly.
But many Bengalis found that portrayal a tad unsettling and uptight so this time I played him as a more approachable dada who smiles often and purposely softened my voice. That is exactly the reason why people are finding me ‘effortless’ but in actuality it’s just a different approach.
What’s the feedback so far since the series started streaming?
The numbers are mind boggling! It is the most widely watched series in the history of Bengali OTT! As far as feedback and reviews are concerned, out of 100, 80 are effusive, 10 like it with a few observations and reservations, five don’t like it mainly because they have compared us to the insurmountable Ray classics and five are vitriolic and agenda driven! We are elated with the 80 plus 10. That’s our critical mass and they are exactly the ones who matter to us.