Abhishek Banerjee also revealed that while playing the role he understood that lawyers are also performers.
Abhishek Banerjee is probably one of the busiest actors in the industry. This year he was seen in Netflix anthologies Ajeeb Daastaans and Ankahi Kahaniyan, and ZEE5 film Helmet. His next is the sports drama, Rashmi Rocket, which will once again prove that his tryst with streaming content is nothing but a boon to his skills. Here, will be seen as the lawyer to Taapsee Pannu’s Rashmi, an athlete who is fighting against gender testing in sports.
In a conversation with OTTPlay, Banerjee spoke about playing a lawyer for the first time, the practice of gender testing, and working with Pannu in the film.
Having back-to-back releases, do you think the fear of being forgotten by the audience goes away in an actor?
Oh, no no, that's a fear I realize once you become an actor then happens. That fear is not instilled early when you are struggling and facing rejection, feeling that they'll watch you someday. But when they have watched you, they have liked you and they have appreciated you, say kind words, then the fear gets instilled that if I don't do good work, I will be forgotten. I have to sign at least a few projects every year, these calculations are very real and very true. To be honest, I want to reach a stage where I don't want to think like this. Even if I star in a film after four years, obviously I wouldn't do that, I'm a workaholic. But you know, even if I am late, people will remember me. So I want to reach that stage, eventually, in life, that will be so relaxing.
You play a lawyer in Rashmi Rocket. What kind of prep did you undergo for the character?
I just learned how to talk fast and with clarity because I realized that in court you don't get time. I don't like to take judges' time, and timing is very important in a courtroom. This is what I've understood in my research because you only get one slot and you have to put your point then and there. I have to put forth my point regarding the case before the next adjourned date. For that, one has to talk very fast, also convincingly and with clarity so that the case that you're presented is coming across to the courtroom. That was one of the bits which I did and talked to lawyers, trying to understand how they react in courts. I also understood this very unique thing about lawyers while preparing is that they are also performers. They are rehearsing their lines, shadow practising and also rehearsing on which words to stress or which sections to be more loud and clear. They draw inferences, do research and also study the previous cases. They do character study, learn history; in fact, they need more rehearsals than us actors. For me, that was very unique, about playing a lawyer that I'm dealing with a character which is a performer and I'm an actor, also the performer. So I had to learn how to bridge the gap between performing and not looking like you're performing.
Rashmi Rocket is about the uncomfortable practice of gender testing. What are your views on this issue?
The only thought I think I got after reading it or after performing it was that it is a rubbish law. It's a law that is not required in today's time and age. That's my personal opinion as a citizen of not only the country but also as a citizen of the world. Whichever countries have these laws, it's not required. It was made during the 1900s, it was meant to stop men posing as women and you cannot question somebody's body, you cannot question somebody by whatever levels and data you find. We call the fact that a female body is a female body. So, to have these kinds of laws, when we talk about modernization and globalization, I don't know where it comes from, and I don't know who takes care of them. I don't know why they're not amended. Thank God for some lawyers like my character and thank God for a brave, courageous woman like Rashmi. They can fight this law, and can question at least the system about the relevance of this law.
Was it a surprise when you were approached to play a lawyer?
No, I don't think so. I was not surprised, because honestly, I think our filmmakers are very smart. I mean, no matter how much we try to tell them that they like to stereotype, but they get it, they understand who they can experiment with and who they can't. So I have always been approached by directors who have told me, 'Listen, this is something which is completely different from what you've done before. We want you to try this and that.' That's what I love about filmmakers, they can imagine you the way you can't imagine yourself. That's one thing, which I find very mesmerizing, let's put it that way. I know that I will get offers of a lawyer or that in the future, I'll be playing a cop, that will happen very soon. With my voice and body type, I know which characters will be easily offered to me and I know for which I will face difficulties. So my job as an actor is to find both and say yes to both kinds of roles, one which will come easily to me and one, which I know will not come to me, so I will have to take that risk.
Over the years, we have seen a lot of actors playing lawyers on screen. Is there any performance that has stayed with you?
To be honest, I just love John Travolta in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story. So that's the most recent one, which I like. Loved him, but not the way he did it and he was not a good lawyer. But just the way he was performing that, I was mind blown. Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men, I mean, I know everybody talks about Jack Nicholson, he was the best thing about that film. But Tom Cruise the way he performs, one of his very less spoken about performances, but I think it was great and that's one thing which has always stayed with me. If you talk about Hindi films, I think I will never forget what Rajkummar Rao did in Shahid, that was very inspiring. If you talk about Bollywood masala, obviously no one will forget Sunny Deol from Damini. Of course, Amitabh Bachchan in Pink, what he did in Pink, only he can do; that's the grandeur of that man.
You are also a casting director, does that help you as an actor?
Spending more time with actors, respecting them, understanding that they come from a normal home, a normal family like yours. Also, reading scripts, interacting with directors, understanding what characters are and taking criticism about your understanding of characters, reading a lot of stories and characters - there are so many pluses as a casting director. I can write a book on it and one day I will. That's why I always tell young actors that there is nothing wrong with assisting a casting director. You just understand what goes behind the camera. We can be trained to understand what we're going to do in front of the camera. But how do we train ourselves to understand if you're not from film school? If you are, okay, then I'll give it to you so that you understand what is happening behind the camera. You still don't understand how the industry works, but at least how the system works.
Which role of yours would you consider as a turning point in your career?
It has to be Hathoda Tyagi from Paatal Lok because it made me popular, let's just put it that way. It gave me a public eye and a sort of recognition amongst the crowd. But I also think that Jaana from Stree is one of the roles which I really think is also a big major turning point. It gave me a lot of crowd love, but probably that was not reflecting so well or deeply till Hathoda happened. When Paatal Lok happened, many people went back to Stree and then suddenly, I started getting compliments for both equally. There's a huge number of people out there who love me for Stree and another set of people who love me for Paatal Lok. So it's just amazing because they call me by my character names and they now have a face to it and a name to it. So definitely, these two characters are my turning point.
Your co-star Taapsee is also known for playing unique characters in all her films. What do you have to say about her career trajectory?
Taapsee and I have known each other for a long time now. I practically started my career when she was starting her career and I have followed her trajectory. I have spoken to her at many locations, I have known the girl and I know the actor she is. I always believed in her as an actor and she knows that. She pulls my leg by saying, 'Arre cast kar de yaar' and all of that. She knows that I always respected her as an actor and that's why I was always in touch with her. She is one of the few girls I know in the industry who has not changed with time. She's still the same and she talks the same. There is no starry attitude which people might talk about and might try to make that a thing. But I don't think that's happened to her and that's one thing, which is very nice. She has got more clarity in what she wants to do. She has found her ikigai, she has found her calling. Taapsee knows exactly what she's doing; we can only wonder and be curious about what's next in store for her. The way she is going I think she's going to be one of the most respected actresses of all time because of the kinds of films she's choosing, it's unbelievable.
Do you think theatrical releases will have an adverse effect on OTT platforms?
No adverse effect at all because OTT is not dependent on only films and it's not dependent on only films which are made for halls. It has its ecosystem of web shows and original films. They buy regional and international films, so there's a lot of content which you see on OTT. I don't think the trend is going to change where people are not going to release their films on OTT. Many of the films in the future might have a parallel release and also films that will run for a few weeks in theatres and then will be premiered on OTT. It's already happening with international films, there's already an international boom that has happened with this medium. What's happening is that the artists or the filmmakers think that this is giving a lot of creative freedom to them. But in the same way, I mean the magic of cinema theatres, it can never go. I don't want to watch my friends only on television, I don't want to watch by myself on phones and laptops. I want to watch myself on the big screen and want to watch a good performance on the big screen. You will relate to that performance, you would probably clap, whistle and that whole energy that's what I think a performance stage is. Finally, the performance stage is a hall, it's a theatre, it's a community. The culture of community viewing can never go, it has been happening for centuries. There have been a lot of discoveries and inventions that never changed it, why will it change now?
What are your upcoming projects?
I have Aankh Micholi and Bhediya. I also have a very interesting short film called Vakeel Saab and I played a lawyer in that as the title suggests. But it will be interesting to see whether I have been able to pull off a different lawyer because he's a different human. It's directed by Sumit Purohit, the writer of Scam 1992. Yeah, I'm quite excited about that project. I am starting two web shows now, and I am starting a film next year. Yes, a lot of work and I'm trying to just tell myself to not be lazy and a little proactive.