Zee5’s upcoming howdunit Black Widows shows two of West Bengal’s most recognisable faces in one shot, Swastika Mukherjee and Raima Sen. Directed by Bengali filmmaker Birsa Dasgupta, the Hindi series stars Shamita Shetty, Mona Singh and Mukherjee as leads along with actors Parambrata Chattopadhyay, Sabyasachi Chakrabarty, Sen and many other familiar Bengali actors.
In one of his memorable roles this year, Chattopadhyay, who plays a sensitive young doctor in Clean Slate Films’ Bulbbul, released in June on Netflix, has just treated the young lady of a manor for a mystifying injury that has broken both her legs. When it is time to leave, the zamindar (Rahul Bose) says imperiously to Paoli Dam (the sycophantic sister-in-law) to ensure that doctor babu is suitably compensated. While Bose has long straddled the world of Hindi, Bengali and English films, it is heartening for Bengali film fans to see actors like Chattopadhyay and Dam effortlessly sliding into a very Bengali story told in Hindi. Dam’s Binodini is an especially complex character, as much a victim of the patriarchal zamindari system as a facilitator.
Tollywood’s other darling, Mukherjee, on the other hand, has received rave reviews from peers and viewers alike for her role in Paatal Lok as Dolly Mehra, the anxious, pill-popping, neglected wife of Sanjeev Mehra (Neeraj Kabi) who loves her furry friends.
In Zee5’s Durgamati, leading Bengali actor Jisshu Sengupta plays a cop. Seen throughout 2020 in several OTT releases, including Shakuntala Devi and Sadak 2, as well as in films like Mardaani 2, Manikarnika and Piku, Sengupta is a recurring Bengali face on screens pan-India.
Other familiar actors who have been seen in memorable roles are Riddhi Sen in Helicopter Eela, Tridha Choudhury in Bandish Bandits, and Anindita Bose who played the pivotal Chanda in Paatal Lok.
Zee5’s crime drama Laalbazar, named after Kolkata’s police headquarters, boasts of a cast that is nearly all Bengali, Kaushik Sen, Gaurav Chakravarty, Sauraseni Maitra, Dibyendu Bhattacharya and scores of others. Bhattacharya, in particular, has been noticed in many productions, what with his appearance in the Emmy-winning Delhi Crime and a filmography that includes Selection Day, Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday, Criminal Justice and Undekhi. His role in Criminal Justice especially had him receiving a flood of hate messages for playing a sexual predator called Talukdar.
This long a roll-call does beg the question, are Bengali actors having their moment?
“Well, I would like to think it will last longer than that,” jokes Swastika Mukherjee, who poimts out that it is not just actors from Bengal. “You can make four series or films for an OTT platform in the time it takes to make one feature film. With so much content being created, the makers have to look beyond the 10 friends and family members in Mumbai. No wonder all of us are getting cast. Not just from Bengal and the South, but also small towns and regions like Bundelkhand.” Raima Sen agrees: “There is so much talent here. And OTT platforms allow for a lot of creativity and it is easier to work without the pressure of raising the money back.” According to Parambrata Chattopadhyay, OTT platforms are very content- and consumer-driven. “It is why we are seeing an upsurge of people from different corners of the country. Not just actors but directors, music directors and more,” he says.
It has helped that since Kahaani (2012), a lot of films were made in the city. “When directors Shoojit Sircar and Sujoy Ghosh shot in Kolkata, they involved the local film industry. Perhaps it started with Chokher Bali when Rituparno shot with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in old Calcutta homes,” says Madhuja Mukherjee, filmmaker and professor of Film Studies, Jadavpur University. “Kolkata and small towns with their specific regional characteristics have become the new Switzerland, the new exotic for the Mumbai film industry at present. Which is why there are so many films and shows set in specific regions, like Mirzapur.”
There was a time when actors from Bengal ruled the screen. Sharmila Tagore, Rakhi, Mithun Chakraborty, and, way before that, Biswajit Chatterjee, among others. So, are Bengali fans going to see a revival of those days?
“I don’t think it is right to look at it through that prism because times have changed. This was a time when there was no other audio-visual medium apart from cinema. So it may be unwise to state unequivocally that Bongs are back,” says Chattopadhyay. Mukherjee, too, makes it a point to steer clear of “regional bias” and suggests that the contemporary actors’ comfort with the Hindi medium may also be a factor. Raima Sen, granddaughter of yesteryear icon Suchitra Sen, is more confident: “That was a different era, but there sure are a lot of Bengalis on the digital platform,” she says.