Abhishek Banerjee is searching for an answer. My seemingly simple enquiry has thrown him off. Why did you become an actor?
He doesn’t know, or the answer that he has, doesn’t sound deep enough. He stares vacantly at no point in particular as if trying to extract something through sheer force of his gaze.
It’s the same gaze that struck independent filmmaker Devashish Makhijia when they first met. It’s also the same gaze – unbroken, tense, hypnotic – that meets me on the other end of a Zoom call on a drizzly Mumbai night. For a second, I think the screen has frozen, as is now the norm. It hasn’t.
When he’s thinking intently, Banerjee points out, he tends to look at one point for a prolonged period at: this is what got him the role of Dhavle Jr, a drifter in Ajji, the festival-hopping, critically-celebrated revenge drama directed by Makhija.
More recently, it’s the look that terrified millions who streamed Paatal Lok, where Banerjee disappeared into the role of the hotheaded Hathoda Tyagi, who turns skulls into pulp with the nonchalant ease of squishing a mango.
Banerjee’s Tyagi is consistently unnerving, his eyes carrying a mix of both, terror and pain. He commits murders with impunity not because he knows he’s protected but because he doesn’t care about being caught.
But before Paatal Lok and before Ajji, there was a short film that Makhija directed called, Agli Baar. In a conversation with HuffPost India, Makhija spoke about the time he narrated the film to Banerjee, with the intention of getting him to cast for the short.
“When he sat in front of me and i started narrating that short, there was this strange, spooky look in his eyes as he listened to me. I felt like he was staring into my soul, and sort of draining it dry. I felt for the first time what Nietzsche may have meant by his quote – when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you.”
Makhija never forgot that look. “I asked him if he knew about the way he stares, and how it can send shudders down someone’s spine. He was gobsmacked. He insisted that girls find him cute and he’s generally a sweet fellow. No one’s ever told him he creeps them out. I knew i could tap something in someone who wasn’t even conscious of its existence within him.”
Makhija and Banerjee went on to have multiple associations, the most recent being Bhonsle.
As for Banerjee, he says that snapping out of characters such as the ones he has played in Ajji and Paatal Lok is easy, it is the getting in that is difficult.
“In Paatal Lok, I just didn’t know how to enter that part. I lost sleep.”
The answer would be found through the show’s meticulous writing and the workshops that followed. “I needed something to anchor his madness. I couldn’t relate to it, obviously. I kept reading and talking to my directors, trying to explore the psyche of this man and maybe find a common link between the two of us.”