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Meet Chandan Chatterjee from Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani

It is Bengali cinema’s somewhat side-tracked actor Tota Roy Chowdhury who is being cheered and applauded for the role and his two dance numbers in
Interview of actor Tota Roy Chowdhury
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For those who have already watched Karan Johar’s Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahani, will not forget the intriguing character of Chandan Chatterjee, the screen father of “Rani” in the film. He is a Bengali man who is a trained Kathak dancer and runs classes at his home; he struggled with his father to choose dancing as a career. It is Bengali cinema’s somewhat side-tracked actor Tota Roy Chowdhury who is being cheered and applauded for the role and his two dance numbers in the film. Let us take a look at this new jump-start in Tota’s career through this film and his long journey till now.

SC: How did Karan Johar happen out of the blue?

TRC: One day, out of the blue, I got a call from this casting director asking me to audition right away for a role in a film. I thought it was a kind of test. I sent off a video clip at once and she called back informing me that Karan had already chosen me for a role in his forthcoming film. I asked her “Karan who?” and she said it was Karan Johar. I was speechless. I asked her why she did not tell me before? She said it might have affected the spontaneity of my performance and so she did not mention it intentionally.

SC: But you are one of the fittest actors in the entire Bengali film industry. How did you tackle the dancing?

TRC: The precondition of the proposal was that I had to train in Kathak for at least six months before the shoot involving the dances began. So, I trained for six months under different trainers and choreographers who were very helpful in guiding me in learning the finer nuances of Kathak, the hand movements, the footwork, the chakkars and the mudras. Of course, my passion for fitness has given me a very flexible body and one needs very strong legs to perform Kathak. It takes one a lifetime to learn Kathak so six months was too little time to gain any kind of command. But the six months of training worked and the thumris from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas turned out the best experience for both myself and Ranveer Singh who is an actor with a wonderful grasping capacity, performed wonderfully. 

SC: How did you get into films in the first place since no one in your family is into films?

TRC: This may sound cliché but it just happened. I used to do a lot of dance shows. I am a self-taught dancer and started out as a dancer. Being into athletics and all kinds of sporting activities egged me on to concentrate on my body. Initially my aim was to get into the army. Dancing was an extension of my involvement in athletics. I don’t know if you will believe this, but this exercised body was a liability when I stepped into Bengali cinema. There was no demand for a ‘body-person’, if you know what I mean. So, I accepted all the negative and side roles that came my way till the tide turned in my favour. I got a meaty role in Rituparno Ghosh’s Shubho Mahurat. But to be frank, my body really became my asset when Rituparno in his Chokher Bali cast me in the role of Behari. Behari in the literary source was a wrestler and body-builder and my appearance suited the character. It also changed the course of my career in films

Tota Roy Chowdhury as Behari in 'Chokher Bali'.

SC: Let us hear about your first break.

TRC: I will remain forever grateful to Prabhat Roy, one of the most commercially successful directors of his time who gave me my first break in Duronto Prem. I play a negative character who is reformed in the end. My second film was a thumping box office hit. It was Pooja directed by the late Anjan Choudhury. The formative years were very important for me as I worked with different directors like Haranath Chakrabarty (Ranakhetra, Shoshurbari Zindabad), Anjan Choudhury (Mukhya Mantri, Nach Nagini) and Swapan Saha (Sontan Jokhon Shotru, Manush Keno Beiman, Golmaal) all of them totally mainstream filmmakers who gave me the ‘feel’ of the kind of cinema that is being made in West Bengal. 

SC: You have worked under Prabhat Roy through Anjan Choudhury to Sujit Guha, etc in the mainstream and Rituparno Ghosh, Atanu Ghosh, Arindam Sil and Sandip Ray in off-mainstream cinema. How do you look back on the experience?

TRC: Every single director has taught me different things. I believe that the director is God during the making of a film. If the script and the story were the heroes for Anjan Choudhury who had the confidence to feel the pulse of his audience, Prabhat Roy was known for his focus on technique. Haranath Chakraborty brought technicians from Southern films and along with Shree Venkatesh and Prosenjit, they hit big time. But Rituparno Ghosh was an institution unto himself. My roles in Rituparno Ghosh’s Shubho Mahurat, Chokher Bali and Sunglass, Sandip Ray’s Tintorretor Jishu and Hit List, Atanu Ghosh’s Angshumaner Chithi, Arindam Sil’s Aborto have given me the confidence that I have it in me to portray roles that make absolutely no demands on my exercised body, my dance or my martial arts skills. 

SC: Would you say Rituparno Ghosh’s ‘Chokher Bali’ was the turning point of your career?

TRC: Absolutely. I would not have been where I am today had Chokher Bali not happened in 2003. For five long months, I was eating, drinking, thinking, acting and being Behari. I fell in love with Tagore’s character. I was under exclusive contract and was not doing any other film or television serial. There was just this one assignment. Looking back, I can proudly say that that was the most satisfying part of my life as an actor then. 

SC: Would you elaborate on the Rituparno experience a little more?

TRC: He brought an entirely new perspective on acting. He taught me to internalise a character, to be in control, to strategise acting like a mind game, like moves you make in a game of chess. I was thrilled when he chose me for Behari in Chokher Bali over Saif Ali Khan and Abhishek Bachchan. Ritu-da had rejected me after the first screen test. But he asked me to report again. He taught me to keep a “back diary” as Behari writing a diary in 1905, the period the story is set in. I still keep one for my films.

A younger Tota Roy Chowdhury acted in mostly mainstream Bengali films.

SC: You’ve worked with some of the best actors in the industry– Aishwarya Rai, Nandita Das, Konkona Sen, Prosenjit, Jaya Bachchan, everyone. And now you have worked with Vidya Balan, Shabana Azmi, Alia Bhatt, Ranvir Singh, etc. How was it working with them?

TRC: They are totally committed people and are extremely cooperative because they know that if they are not cooperative, their own roles will suffer. They have absolutely no ego hassles. It was a wonderful learning experience. I am a great fan of Mithun-da, Pankaj Kapoor and Irfan Khan. Will you believe me if I tell you that I have seen Maqbool five times? So far as the Karan Sir set-up is concerned, he sees to it that his actors are placed in a comfort zone before they face the camera. Not once was I and Churni-di made aware that we were “outsiders” in that set-up. We felt completely at home. It was a wonderful working experience and I will never forget the happy ambience we worked in.

SC: You also produced, directed and acted in a film called ‘Villain’ in 2013. What drove you to this big challenge?

TRC: I was stubborn to a fault. I had approached many producers with the script but all of them rejected it after a few days. I finally found one who agreed. But he stepped back 15 days before shooting was to begin. I had taken block dates from my actors and technicians and most of them are extremely busy. How could I let them down? For me, it was a long-cherished dream so I decided to produce it myself. 

SC: The multiple roles of producer, writer, director, actor, choreographer – were these not too much pressure on a performer who has just been an actor all along?

TRC: This entirely depends on a person’s point of view. To make a true action film where I would perform all the stunts myself has been a long-cherished dream. I was ready to take the leap and was forced to when my producer backed out. Besides, my wife has backed me in the logistics of production and promotion right through the film. I do not take on more than three films at a time. I had cut down when I took on the entire responsibility for Villain. We shot the film over 25 days with a shot-take ratio of 3:1. It did not do well commercially but it was a learning experience for me.

SC: What kind of actor are you?

TRC: I am a director’s actor. Absolutely. That is the ideal way to acquire a wide range. It helps you work with different directors as each one has his way of directing and his own way of moulding you. Cinema, after all, is a director’s medium. The director is an artist so each director paints the canvas of the film in a different way. I do not want to get into a set pattern by working under one director in film after film. It could stagnate an actor apart from stereotyping him. All I do is concentrate on my homework for the character I am going to play and discuss the shot with the director. My motto as an actor is to observe and absorb. Acting, in my opinion, is to deliver what your director expects of you once you have signed on the dotted line. It is as simple as that. 

SC: Where do you see yourself five years from now?

TRC: Acting. It is my work and my passion. I still get butterflies in my stomach before facing the camera. That is all there is to it. Passion. Acting in films is not just about driving in luxury cars, living in multiplex apartments, holidaying abroad and all that. It is all about passion. The magic lies when you face the camera. That is acting. 

SC: More assignments from Bollywood now?

TRC: Still considering some but would choose not to talk about it right now.

Images courtesy: Shoma A. Chatterji.

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has won the National Award twice, in 1991 and 2000. She has authored 26 published titles of which 14 are on different areas of Indian cinema. She holds two Masters Degrees and a Ph.D. in History (Indian Cinema). She has also won a few Lifetime Achievement Awards from different organizations over time.

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