Actor Dibyendu Bhattacharya on portraying characters that speak to the audience
His is a face you may recall instantly, even if you cannot remember his name. He is Black Friday’s Yeda Yakub, Dev D’s Chunnilal, web series Criminal Justice’s Layak Talukder and Mirzapur’s Doctor. In almost all these roles — and several others — Dibyendu Bhattacharya has embodied every inch of the characters he’s set out to play. “Directors find my face a perfect fit for several characters in their stories, which is good as it keeps me busy with work,” says the actor who has appeared in Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005), Ab Tak Chhappan (2004), Black Friday (2004) and Goal (2007). Today, however, he is best remembered for playing criminal Layak Talukder in the web series Criminal Justice (2019). “I refuse to be typecast. An actor has to be flexible. You can’t keep on portraying a good image on the screen all the time. There are flaws in every human which we, as actors, have to explore. In fact, in some movies, the villain is the most powerful character. For example, in Black Friday, besides KK, who plays a cop, everyone else played a negative character and the movie went on to be a hit.”
Dibyendu credits his background in theatre — a journey he started on the Kolkata stage in the late ’80s “when theatre was fizzling out in the city” — for his evolution as an actor. “Theatre was a passion, so I was thoroughly involved in it, even though its popularity was waning. Back then, we had little money, so we had to do everything ourselves. I used to do write scripts, act, sing, do the props, etc. I hardly attended lectures in college as I was spending my time chasing theatre. My professors had given up on me, but my parents never got to know about it as I used to live with my grandparents and was pampered by them. We used to finance our stage productions and do everything ourselves, including printing bills for the show and going door to door to sell tickets. Later, in 1993, I won the IPTA (Indian People’s Theatre Association) best actor award. That, and some other things, motivated me to think seriously about the profession. That’s when I decided to make my move to the National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi,” recalls Dibyendu.
Getting admission in the NSD was not as simple as he’d imagined it to be. It was a post-graduate course, which meant he had to go back to studies and complete his graduation first. “I was once watching a play by Habib Tanvir, and it changed my perspective about acting totally. I no longer wanted to do just Bengali theatre, I wanted to be a part of the larger acting world. That’s when I decided to join the NSD. I learnt a lot of things there. It was not only acting, we had to study literature, psychology and other subjects that focus on turning you into a complete actor. Studying there opened my mind to several aspects of the profession.”
It’s common for actors graduating from the NSD to move to Mumbai to seek opportunities in Bollywood. But Dibyendu chose to stay back and joined the National Repertoire Company, a famous theatre company where he was paid a regular salary for doing theatre every day. “I did that for six years, and the experience stood me in good stead when I joined Bollywood. Vijay Raaz, Mukesh Tiwari and many other famous Bollywood actors are products of National Repertoire Company,” he adds.
Actors who come from hardcore theatre background are often caught between the art and commercial cinema debate. While one is fulfilling creatively, the other helps pay the bills. Dibyendu, however, has an interesting perspective. “I agree commercial cinema is making money, but so are movies by directors like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak and others. Call it art, alternative or parallel, the fact is these movies are still being screened around the world and earning royalties. However, with OTT making a huge impact with its strong content, the line between art and commercial cinema is blurring. OTT has that value. The content is powerful and there’s no censorship, which is a good thing because you can’t censor art. You can specify the age group your content is addressing, but you can’t gag freedom of speech.”
While he champions the virtual platform, theatre remains close to his heart. “How can you do theatre virtually, it’s a live art format — you can’t recreate the finer details from a live performance digitally. Cinema can be archived, theatre can’t, it has to be live.”
Cinema can transport you to fantasy. But Dibyendu makes a case for realistic cinema that takes a leaf from everyday life. “I hope realism comes to the cinema in the future. Art is a reflection of life and that’s how it should be portrayed. Some of the stuff we show in our cinema is absurd. For instance, imagine a scene where a hero lands in a helicopter and sprints towards his mother to touch her feet. You tell me, in which society will you see such things? It’s time we changed. The new generation is more aware of the world and I think they will endeavour to bring reality into cinema,” he says.
Though he is not the one to court controversies, Dibyendu found himself in a media storm over a statement he made about Bollywood star Aamir Khan. “I’d referred to Aamir Khan being India’s cheapest actor. What I meant was, if you signed Aamir for your movie, then it was a given that the film would be a hit and make money. So, when you see the whole picture and take the revenues and cost into account, then a hero like Aamir comes cheaper than hiring a lesser-known actor, who won’t be able to sell the movie and also demand a high fee. He will surely be a liability for the filmmaker because the production will suffer losses. That’s what I had meant. But the statement was misinterpreted by the media and it created a misunderstanding,” he says.
In recent times, Bollywood has gone through a rough patch with issues like nepotism and substance consumption becoming talking points in the media. Dibyendu says what’s happening in the industry is a reflection of the world we inhabit today. “Why only Bollywood, the whole world is going through a rough phase right now,” he says. “We have to be more understanding and deal with issues in a more dignified manner. Tolerance, it seems, has gone for a toss. People lack patience. That could be the reason these issues are getting out of hand.”