Born in Kolkata on September 30, 1962, Prosenjit is the only star in the Bengali cinema horizon after Uttam Kumar to have been at the top for nearly two decades. No Bengali hero has been able to sustain himself in the top position for so long and so well. His films still draw full houses in Kolkata and much more, in the villages and districts of West Bengal. The intellectuals do not consider him star material at all. But they cannot ignore him now because he is in demand among off-mainstream filmmakers as well. The only son of Biswajeet, the only actor from Tollygunge who carved a niche in Hindi cinema in the 1960s, Prosenjit made his debut when he was just four years old in his father’s production Chhotto Jignasa (The Tiny Question). The film was a big hit and little Boomba’s fresh and natural performance warmed the cockles of every heart in house-full theatres way back in 1967. It was back to school after that. In between, his parents split, Biswajeet settled in Mumbai and at 16, Prosenjit was left with the responsibility of his family consisting of his mother and little sister Pallavi, now an actress in her own right.
He made his debut as hero in Duti Pata (1983), a teenage romance along the lines of Bobby (1973). The film filled a vacuum in Bengali cinema through its look and mounting, distanced from stereotypical Bangla films of the time. It turned out to be a super-duper hit, and overnight, Prosenjit found stardom thrust on him. He started as a stage actor, in a commercial theatre house at a salary of Rs 500 a month with performances on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. On other days of the week, he went to various studios, met producers and directors in search of an opening in films. Throughout these days of struggle, he had the support and encouragement of his late mother. It was primarily through his efforts that Subhash Chandra Goel of Zee TV agreed to launch the Bengali television channel, Zee Bangla. In 1994-95, Prosenjeet concentrated on building the new generation television industry and also acted in some television serials himself. The Doordarshan monopoly was broken, and thanks to Prosenjit’s efforts, satellite channels spawned a host of new actors, directors, anchors, music directors and technicians.
He considers the character of Koushik, the husband in Rituparno Ghosh’s Dosar (2006) as his most challenging role. “The story begins with Koushik cheating on his wife, spending a weekend with another woman and then running into a near-fatal accident. He sustains severe injuries and most of the time, I was horizontal and had to emote only through my eyes. None of my body parts moved except my eyes. It was extremely exhausting in a physical sense. It was also challenging because the Indian audience does not generally accept such characters.”
His favourite film in his entire career till now is Daay Dayitwa directed by Haranath Chakrabarty. “It is special for me because the role I did was initially written for Uttam Kumar though the director was different. Then Victor Banerjee was chosen for the same role but the project got shelved and twice removed, it came to me with Haranath directing me,” says Prosenjit.
Omor Shongi (1987) opposite Vijayeta Pandit, Apon Amaar Apon (1990) directed by Tarun Majumdar and Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Ami, Yaseen Aar Amaar Madhubala (2007) are the three outstanding films of his career. The song Chirodini Aami Je Tomaar from Omor Shongi remains a hot favourite among lovers of Bengali music. In fact, Omor Shongi was his turning point film. Prosenjit did not have to look back after that. Till this film established him as the numero uno of Bengali mainstream cinema, Prosenjit could not afford to pick and choose either roles, or banners or films. “I had to prove that I was sincere and dedicated, that I meant work. And this not being able to pick and choose led me to my first big hit, Omor Shongi,” he recalls. “It was a journey of striving born of a desperation to prove to my audience, producers, directors, co-actors that I can deliver so please have faith in me. I did not pick or choose roles. I did not reject an offer even when I knew it would not do me any good. Omor Shongi changed all that once and for all. A musical romance, it was the biggest box office hit of the time,” he adds.
Since Omor Shongi, it has been one long struggle to sustain the position that took years of struggle to reach. According to Prosenjit, “an actor passes through several phases in his career. The first phase is the struggle to get work. The second is to keep working. The third is to settle down to some kind of stability in terms of career, work, and assignments. The last phase is the most difficult – to hold your position there and then withdraw to concentrate on the holistic approach towards each film you work in. It is a world where nothing exists for me apart from my film, the posters of the film, the audience in the theatres, the box office collections of the film. I am fiercely protective of this world of mine and will not tolerate any harm done to it by any one or anything.”
Now let us take a look at the amazing statistics called Prosenjit. Over the past 25 years, his roster as hero lists around 270 films with an average hit rate of 40% in the past ten years. He has acted with 50 leading ladies. He has won state and local awards left, right and centre though the National Award still eludes him. On the other hand, he has done assignments in good films under the directorial baton of Rituparno Ghosh and Buddhadeb Dasgupta. He has shared screen space with Amitabh Bachchan in his first English language film, The Last Lear directed by Rituparno Ghosh. Till June 2003, Prosenjit had starred in 41 out of a total number of 51 films directed by Swapan Saha as the hero. Around 83% of these films were hits. He had 22 releases in just one year – 2004. “The burden was very heavy. But I had no choice because every single film was a big hit. My producers and directors were waiting for me to deliver. Today, thankfully, with the entry of a few young men like Jeet and Jishu Sengupta and Mithun-da’s re-entry as hero, I have been able to cut down on my assignments and concentrate on fewer roles. I have done around 40/50 films each with five or six directors over my entire career. So, we have a rapport that helps either of us to understand precisely what the other person expects,” he elaborates. He has acted under the directorial baton of any and every director in Bengali cinema one can recall. Tapan Sinha, Tarun Majumdar, Prabhat Roy, Haranath Chakrabarty, Swapan Saha, Sujit Guha, Rituparno Ghosh and Buddhadeb Dasgupta; Prosenjit has acted under the directorial batons of all of them. He knows that serious filmmakers like Aparna Sen, Gautam Ghosh and Anjan Das will also call him one day for their films.
Among the 50 odd leading ladies he has acted with, he rates Debashree Roy, the woman he was once married to, as the best. “She is outstanding and completely dedicated to her work. I have worked with her in more than 25 films. It is a pleasure to be cast opposite her in any film and I would welcome the opportunity any time she agrees to act with me. Many talented young women faded away into oblivion, constantly throwing up the challenge of creating new and talented leading ladies in the Bengali film industry.” Says Prosenjit. Satabdi Roy takes top place as his heroine, having acted with him in more than 50 films. He has done 35 films with Rachana Banerjee, 50 with Rituparna Sengupta, around 16 with Indrani Haldar and four with his wife Arpita.
Prosenjit did make an attempt to make it in Bollywood. He played the role of Mumtaz's son in her disastrous comeback film Aandhiyaan in 1989. The film was directed by David Dhawan. The story revolved around Mumtaz and Shatrughan Sinha who were married but had split because of Sinha's political aspirations where his ordinary wife would be a disturbing factor. The son grows up to take revenge and finally unite his parents. The film disappeared without a trace. But this did not stop Prosenjit from playing the hero in the Mehul Kumar-directed Meet Mere Man Ke (1991). This film too, was a disaster too and the intelligent Prosenjit came back to his roots, choosing to become numero uno in his home state rather than becoming a bit-star doing secondary roles in Bollywood films.
“I know nothing except cinema. The entire film industry in my home state is my concern, my responsibility. I am always thinking of how and from where more money can flow into it; how it can be bettered in every way. I am not saying that I consider myself an all-time CEO of the industry. It is more like a senior staffer who has put in many years of service in his company feels a sense of belonging, a sense of responsibility for that company. I know that my very survival depends on the survival of the Bengali film industry. It is as simple as that,” says this actor who does not bother about the numerous critics and intellectuals who do not like his acting at all. He is clearly a director’s actor as his portrayals in the films of Tapan Sinha, Rituparno Ghosh and Buddhadeb Dasgupta go to prove. His portrayal of the failed artist-turned-alcoholic whose marriage is on the verge of breaking down in Rituparno Ghosh’s Utsab is a revelation. His low-profile portrayal of a young boy who runs a bookshop in a small town in Tapan Sinha’s Aatanka is another case in point. His production company, Ideas, is actively engaged in film production. "Mainstream Bangla films like Refugee, Sangharsh, Kali Shankar have contributed to the making of Prosenjit, the star, I find it easier to identify with characters I play in off-screen films because they are closer to reality. So, there's no way I can make a choice between the two. I have decided to concentrate on lesser films by taking on five or six mainstream assignments and two off-mainstream films every year from now on so that I can have a roster of choice films," he says.
For Prosenjit, acting is a holistic experience. Acting comprises everything that goes into the character one is portraying – the costume, the make-up, the dialogue, the fashion, the style, the body language, the relationships with the other characters, everything. All these keep changing from time to time, from film to film. He personally engages himself in every single department of acting. His dream is to break the narrow walls of regional Bengali cinema and push its borders to reach international cinema. He is also conscious of not allowing to get stereotyped in all the masala roles he does in masala films. So, he tries as best as he can, to change his look for every single film. He took on a pair of weird glasses for the role of a marginalized and humiliated stepson in a joint family in Swapno. In Sangharsha, he had seven different get-ups. In Kali-Shankar, he went to Numaish, a parlour in South Kolkata, where they suggested that he colour his hair. They also insisted on a French beard of the same colour. Once, he experimented with watermelon, butter and jelly. He mixed the three to get the perfect wound on his face and body. At Cannes where he went for the screening of Dosar, some of the international regulars asked him about Mahendra look in Chokher Bali where he back brushed his hair, smoked a pipe and wore the ornate suit Indian aristocrats of the time wore. For The Last Lear, in which he plays himself for the first time, Prosenjit has acquired a rusty brown tan and wears a white, full-sleeved shirt over tight denims, boots and dark glasses.
Never mind those arty Bengalis who stick their noses up at the very mention of his name, Prosenjit has evolved into an institution unto himself in Bengali cinema. The word ‘hero’ in this instance, transcends the borders of the screen, the cinema theatre and the Bengali audience to embrace everything contemporary mainstream Bengali cinema stands for – pulling in the mass audience, crossing the rural-urban divide to bring the rural and suburban masses into the framework of viewership, popularity, fashion statements among young men who wish to emulate their icon. Prosenjit personifies all this, and more.