There is a childhood memory I can recall vividly – of a neighbourhood film commune – redolent of a time when single-income familes saved a buck to watch heavy-handed slapsticks at grimy single-screens, munching on greasy potato chips in transparent packaging.
Most Sunday evenings, a group of women gathered at the house we stayed in at that time in the '90s to watch whatever fare was playing on the landlady’s TV. On most days it would be a Bengali film belonging to a dubious genre; on some, it would feature the reigning Romeo of the time – Prosenjit Chatterjee – the fresh-faced young son of veteran actor Biswajit Chatterjee who was trying to make it big in the highly competitive Bengali cinema industry that the city press called Tollywood in a desperate attempt to put it on the same map as Hollywood and Bollywood.
I recall the remarkable reaction of the women-only group if not the name of the film. The 70-year-old, paan-chewing matriarch’s face would light up as she nodded in approval. The eyes of the mother-of-two next door would glaze over while the pre-teens would nudge and giggle.
Prosenjit, or ‘Bumba-da’ (his nickname) to the whole of West Bengal, was a rising star who would later go on to appear in formulaic family dramas which were huge commercial hits, relegating other male actors after him to share the second rung for most of the next decade.
When I met Prosenjit in Delhi, it struck me that in so many ways the man was not the superstar whose face was once plastered over walls in remote heartlands of Bengal and whose romances on- and off-screen kept the tabloids running. For a man approaching his mid-50s he's kept himself in great shape – the result of a strict regimen of diet, exercise, giving up the four packs of cigarettes he would smoke a day, and keeping drinking limited to a glass of wine.
“I never want to do botox”
He is no longer the insipid hero in his 40s with growing bags under his eyes. The changing face of cinema has meant that he has chosen a fitter lifestyle and trained his body to compete with a swarm of new actors, half his age, auditioning for good roles everyday.
“You know, I took up a huge challenge for myself. I decided I won’t do botox. My biggest challenge was fighting age. With time and age, maintaining my looks without compromising Brand Prosenjit,” he says.
He has shifted his focus to his 10-year-old son (self-admittedly, he is a fussy and over-protective dad), accepting tricky roles and trying to market Bengali cinema outside the state. He’s finally outgrown his nickname. He recalls his childhood.
“Those were tough times. At an age when a guy enjoys himself, dates women and hangs around with friends, I was forced to grow up,” Chatterjee says. The story of his teenage years -- his father’s abandonment and his mother’s struggle to bring up two kids -- is widely known. As is the fact that he turned down the films Saajan and Maine Pyar Kiya which went on to become mega hits that would transform the lives of Sanjay Dutt and Salman Khan.
Prosenjit says his life is an open book. “I have nothing to hide. When I was 16, if anyone asked me about my dad, tears would well up in my eyes. Soon, I learnt to avoid such questions. And later I used to bluntly face them. 'What do you want to know about my dad? Come, ask me' I would say.”
This was the time his father Biswajit, already an established name in the Hindi film industry in Mumbai, had walked out, leaving a teen Prosenjit to fend for himself, his mother Ratna and his sister Pallavi, who is also an actress.
“I changed the way I smiled because people would compare it to my father’s”
“While shooting the first few films, people would say I looked and talked and smiled like my dad. People used to compare me to Biswajit. So I consciously changed my smile and my voice. My looks are genetic, I can’t change that, but I wanted to establish Prosenjit Chatterjee as an actor. In 30 years, I’ve heard people say I chew my dialogues, but that’s my style,” he says with a smile. “I don’t mind all that.”
“We had every comfort growing up and suddenly one day, it was all gone,” Chatterjee, who turned 53 on September 30, said.
“I had to start my life all over again at 16,” said the poster boy of Bengali commercial cinema credited with backing the industry during a period of acute financial slump and leadership crisis after the death of legendary Bengali actor Uttam Kumar.
I still remember when I bought my first flat, someone asked me 'is it even possible to buy a house with what you make in films?
“Uttam Kumar had just passed away and we were still struggling to get a toehold. People used to refer to the Bengali industry in the early 80s as ‘shoshaan’ (crematorium). I still remember when I bought my first flat, someone asked me ‘is it even possible to buy a house with what you make in films?’”
The hot-blooded Prosenjit who had locked himself in his house, refusing to see anyone after his first wife Debasree Roy left him, says he is a different man now – much more relaxed, focussed and getting the best work of his life in his 50s.
"I’m not a characterless guy"
“Yes, I’ve married thrice. I have always married for love. But no one, not even my exes can call me a characterless guy. I’ve owned up to each of my relatioship. I am emotional, I get hurt often and I always made it a point that my audiences should be a part of that journey. Nothing should be hidden,” he says. It’s not entirely untrue. The minutest details about his life are recorded in the tabloid press, often offered by Prosenjit himself – his three marriages, a daughter he had to give up, a rumoured affair with colleague Rituparna Sengupta and a successful marriage to actress Arpita Pal, who is 17 years his junior.
But the man who was known for his whirlwind romances, says he’s calmed down and taken stock of his life. Well, most of it anyway. Except for one thing.
"My son. I lose all sense of reason where he is concerned. I just need to know he’s ok." Arpita, his wife of 12 years, has been the long suffering victim of his overprotective nature. Prosenjit can't seem to stop talking about her.
"Arpita, she's very mature," he said, as the actress hung around in the background, chatting with his guests at the closing ceremony of his film retrospective at the Habitat Centre in the capital.
“Arpita knows how I get, which is why I am not told so many things about my son. I'd worry. But I have improved so much now,” Prosenjit said breaking into laughter. “I only overreact occasionally now.” To avoid being mobbed, he drives into shopping malls after they’ve shut for the day, to pick up clothes for his son. "Arpita does the day-to-day stuff, but there are some duties that are solely mine. Like packing Mishuk’s (his son Trishanjit’s nickname) bags before he goes off to hostel. I've been picking up new clothes for him since he was a day old. That’s my job.”
The petit 36-year-old actress has had to settle into the rhythm of the actor’s life, balanced at knife's point between fanatic adulation as the state’s only bona-fide superstar of the last three decades and scathing criticism from a cynical press that once wrote him off, faulting everything from his acting to his diction. He was the golden boy of Bengali cinema -- Amar Sangi (1987), his first blockbuster was running to packed halls when he was offered Maine Pyar Kiya.
“I honestly don’t regret turning it down. The more I was ridiculed, the more stubborn I got. I tried to establish the mainstream first. Ritu, (late director Rituparno Ghosh) who was such an arthouse director, also had huge respect for hardcore commercial cinema. I was asked why I didn’t pack my bags for Bombay. Here's why: People had invested in Brand Prosenjit. The small-time producers who would make 12-13 films a year, who put their money on me and made me a star in West Bengal -- I couldn’t leave them to seek greener pastures.
There was a time, Prosenjit would sign 25 films at a time, often to help out struggling producers who rallied around him during his worst crisis.
“Suppose I go to Bombay, and I don’t become an Aamir Khan or a Shah Rukh Khan, I won’t do justice to these people, for me those producers were very important -- they sold me as a brand.”
But now, 30 years and 350 films later, things are very different. “Now I can do a Hindi film because I don’t have anything to prove. Today I can do a Shanghai or Traffic. Now I want to grow as an actor.” Though successful, his hardcore commercial films have often been dismissed by critics as tawdry and his acting average.
“Ritu gave birth to me”
When Rituparno Ghosh approached him for a cameo role in Unishe April (1994), it laid the foundation of a friendship that lasted the next two decades and subsequently resulted in a complete up-hauling of the actor.
“Ritu gave birth to me,” he said. “We fought like husband and wife, Ritu and I. We both knew, if either of us are ever in any real trouble, we can run to each other. I have a whole generation of stars looking up to me as a father figure, and I have my seniors like Soumitro Chattopadhyay whom I respect. Ritu had a unique love for me. I have lost my friend and peer. I told him to come back to direction, to do what he does best, to stop experimenting on himself, he would not listen," rued the actor.
Rituparno died of a massive heart attack in 2010 at the age of 49. “They (critics) were wrong. Ritu made me understand that I had a soul as an actor.”
He's acted in Ghosh's Utsab (2000), Chokher Bali (2003), Sob Charitro Kalponik (2009) and Dosar (2006) which was premiered in the 60th Cannes Film Festival in the Les Cinema Du Monde section. It won him a National Film Award - Special Jury Award/Special Mention (Feature Film) for his role as the philandering Kaushik Chatterjee.
Today, as Tollywood is seeing a new wave of smart films with tight scripts and talented youngsters, the veteran actor has clear understanding about the role he plays in the present scheme of things. He’s producing films now and trying to get the big bucks to Bengali cinema.
“There’s no reason why you have to stay poor. There’s perfect harmony between content and box office. A niche film can be super-hit. Baishe Srabon, Autograph, Chander Pahar has proved that. Who thought that Sashur Bari Zindabad could bring in 2 crores in 2000? Or Chander Pahar make 9 crores?
“We need to open the market”
“We haven’t expanded the market, we haven’t catered to Bangladesh, we are dependent on Bengal. And Bengal has traditionally not avoided Hindi cinema like industries in the south. We’ve never been language-oriented, we’ve never kept out other languages. We were not corporatised. Now things are getting better,” he said.