'I'm a rascal, I'm going to play a paramahansa?!'
"Earl Grey?" asks Victor Banerjee.
Banerjee looks tired.
It has been a long day of back-to-back interviews and he has been looking forward to a tea break.
The only tea available is the pedestrian Tetley.
But Banerjee accepts with a smile, thanks the waiter and asks for milk and sugar. Indecent amounts of sugar.
The waiter is embarrassed at the poor hospitality.
Banerjee notices and puts him at ease joking, "We have the same hairstyle," pointing to their balding pates.
He greets Swarupa Dutt with a "Hari Om", palms joined in a Namaste, and we sit awkwardly at 45 degrees to each other, like heads of State at a summit meeting.
This is not the beautiful Victor Banerjee of Satyajit Ray's Ghare Baire and Shatranj Ke Khiladi or David Lean's Passage To India, the man whose sensitive and restrained portrayals have stayed with you for over 40 years.
A red cotton shirt, open at the neck, khaki trousers and sandals and a traditional Assamese gamcha (possibly a nod to all the Assamese films he has done) on one shoulder, this flesh-and-blood Victor Banerjee is full-bodied elegance with an aristocracy of demeanour and the easy self-assurance, (not cockiness), that comes with knowing he is indisputably one of India's finest actors.
"I don't know if I am confident about my art, but I certainly am committed to it," he says crisply.
It is this commitment that brings him to Mumbai -- wrenched from the birds and mountains in his home in Landour near Mussoorie -- for the upcoming release of his film, The Answer, in which he plays Paramahansa Yogananda.
Directed by Pawan Kaul and produced by Kaveeta Oberoi Kaul, The Answer is the true story of an American, James Donald Walters (played by Leonidas Gulaptis) as he journeys to find happiness, contentment and spiritual fulfilment through his guru Paramahansa Yogananda. The film has already racked up 12 wins and 16 nominations on the international film festival circuit.
Rediff.com interviews an actor's actor, in an exchange peppered with the irreverent ("Mahatma Gandhi was not known in the West till the film Gandhi"), politically incorrect ("his father would have never been able to pull it off, you expect this guy to pull it off -- his description of Abhishek Bachchan's Drona) and the sublime ("I dictate zero. If I have any suggestions, I make them. If they don't incorporate them, I accept it").
Why did you choose to do The Answer? Were you aware of Paramahansa Yogananda before you were approached for the film?
Everyone in the world is aware of Paramahansa Yogananda.
I was made a little more aware because my wife had read the book, Autobiography of a Yogi.
She tried a few workshops on Kriya Yoga, but gave up because it required a kind of discipline she didn't have at the time.
So when this absurd offer came to me to do this film, it was easy to accept.
It didn't make sense to me, but it made sense to the director and producer; that's good enough for me.
Why do you call it absurd?
Absurd because who's going to think of me? I'm a rascal, I'm going to play a paramahansa?! That's why it's absurd.
But you are an actor, you can play any role.
That's right. That's why I accepted it.
That doesn't rule out the absurdity of it.
I have loved Sharmila Tagore (Uttarayan, 2006, the remake of Doosri Dulhan, 1983) and raped Sharmila Tagore in Bengali cinema (Protidan, 1983) (laughs). So, you take your pick.
Did it take a lot of convincing for you to agree to do the film?
What's there to convince? You pay me, I will do it.
How do you begin work on a film? How do you get into character?
Once I've been chosen for the film, I think about the character an awful lot. That's my commitment to it. It is a whole time commitment.
Every role is very difficult.
For The Answer, one had to look at footage. There is not very much available, but there is sufficient so it gives you some little idiosyncrasies to work with.
Most people haven't heard of Yogananda, most people haven't seen any footage, so no one's going to compare him to me.
He didn't do the Dandi March, so no one is going to see how I held a danda.
But for my own satisfaction I wanted to know how he walked, how he stood, how he turned around, how he sat.
It's just idle curiosity.
When you begin to identify with a role and get into it, these affect you subconsciously and you begin to imbibe the features of the character.
You become part of the role. Any role, any actor who is committed to it becomes part of the role for sure.
So, I would sit for hours in the room Paramahansa Yogananda meditated -- not that I can meditate -- and I sat there and looked around at his pictures in the room and just thought about him.
I don't know, maybe it helped that he was a Bengali too. (Paramahansa Yogananda, a Bengali, was born Mukunda Lal Ghosh).
How spiritual are you? How religious are you?
That's a personal question.
I don't know how spiritual I am.
I know I am a believer for sure.
I was born a Hindu, I shall die a Hindu.
I believe in Bal Gopal, I live in Dev Bhoomi.
I have visited all the Char Dhams (Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri, Yamnotri) and pilgrim points from Lourdes to Velankani to Kashi Vishwanath to Somnath to Pashupatinath.
So there you go, a Catholic taste in gods.
Of course, I practise my religion.
When I was a young man, it was very fashionable not to have the sacred thread ceremony, and among very respectable families, mind you.
As a rebel, I decided to do it.
I still have it (sacred thread) and I've benefited up to now because at the age of 70, unlike my friends, I have a back scratcher that they don't have.
It makes a great back scratcher, you know. (Chuckles)
You have worked with some of the best film-makers in the world, you began your career with Satyajit Ray's Shatranj Ke Khiladi. You've worked with Mrinal Sen, Roman Polanski, Shyam Benegal, David Lean. The Answer's director, Pavan Kaul, may not be in that league.
Weren't you wary of working with a relative unknown on a subject that is unlikely to have mass appeal?
I have said a lot of yeses to lots of first-time film-makers.
Lots, lots, lots.
I admire them a lot, I respect them a lot.
It is of greatest pride to be working with someone's first film -- like being given a Nobel Prize or an Oscar.
When someone making their first film says, 'We want you' -- it's an honour you can't compare anything with.
It's the greatest honour one can receive as an actor.
As for mass appeal, you know, I have often asked myself what difference does Sachin Tendulkar make to two billion Chinese?
Lots of people who you think are unknown are very well known indeed.
When Yogananda went to the West, he wasn't a paramahansa, he was just a practitioner, sent there to simply spread the word of Kriya Yoga.
He was an unknown who succeeded and now he has followers all over the world to spread the message.
People are still reading his book (Autobiography of a Yogi).
It is incredible that it's an international bestseller for years and it continues to be. So he is not unknown.
The only people known from India besides Paramahansa Yogananda are Mahatma Gandhi -- after the film Gandhi, by the way. Don't even begin to think he was known before that.
It's a bunch of lies.
The most well known is Mother Teresa.
To an extent, Rabindranath Tagore because he won the Nobel Prize at a time when India was an unknown sort of place.
I worked in a film called A Passage to India directed by Sir David Lean.
One of the reasons why I got the role was because he was an admirer of Tagore and I had just finished Tagore's film with Satyajit Ray called Ghare Baire.
In a Quaker school in England, David Lean used to recite Tagore poems.
Yogananda is more well known than you believe.
Do you dictate terms, make the crossover from acting to direction, if the director is a newcomer?
I dictate zero.
If I have any suggestions, I make them.
If they don't incorporate them, I accept it.
To give you a perfect example, one of my most famous Bengali films is Ghare Baire.
I wanted a moustache for the character I was playing, but Satyajit Ray said no.
The first day we shot without a moustache.
On the second day when I came to the studio, Ray said, 'Go to the dressing room' and there, a moustache was laid out for me to wear.
That's the genius of Ray that he was willing to take my suggestion.
But suppose you watch the film and say, 'Damn it, he (the character) should never have worn a moustache', who is to blame?
So the director always receives and deserves the credit or the blame for what is right or what is wrong in the film.
I can't. I can't assume that role at all.
So I don't make changes.
What's wrong with a debut film-maker, for God's sake?
I will lend the weight of my performance, but will I interfere in his thought process, his creativity? No.
All Nobel Prize winners did their research at the age of 20 not when they got it at 60.
When you finish working on a film, is there a takeaway that you look for?
The last payment. That's it. Nothing else.
I walk away.
You see, theatre has a different kind of feeling. You become a family and you begin to love each other and you begin to live out of each other's pockets.
But films are very impersonal in that sense.
I compare it to a wife and a prostitute.
A film is like a one-night stand and theatre is a commitment.
You meet people temporarily for one scene two scenes, certain hours of the day.
Whereas in theatre, you really weep when it has finished its run and its going off and it's the last day.
I did a play (Desert Song), where I played Jesus Christ, and on the last day I had 200 people saying, 'Crucify him! Crucify him!'
At the same time, there were these placards from the audience saying, 'We love you, Victor, we love you, Victor'.
And everyone weeping...
That's what theatre is all about.
Why don't we see more of you? For most people, your last film in collective memory are the 2003 films Joggers Park and Bhoot.
Because you don't want me.
Any time you want me, I'm here.
If you kick me out, who am I to come back unwanted? (Laughs)
When I'm wanted, I'll come back.
Whenever you see me here, it's because I'm wanted here, not because I've come back here looking for work.
You don't push for work?
I don't wish to because half the films made here are trash.
Who do I respect over here?
When the respectable people come to me eventually, I work for them.
And some come just out of charity.
That's why I worked in Gunday or Apne. Those are charity performances.
They are being charitable towards me because I am an old-timer and a pensioner who needs some funds. (Laughs)
You don't live in Mumbai nor are you seen at film parties or functions. You are almost an outsider.
I live in Landour, in Mussoorie, in the mountains.
Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) many years ago -- he won't even remember this -- told me how could I live in Landour and not work.
He said he'd go crazy if he wasn't working all the time.
He was a Mussoorie-wallah too and until his mother was alive, was a regular visitor.
But I am quite happy to live with myself.
I was an only child.
I went to boarding school.
My father was a tea planter and so I lived in a tea garden with a dog and a gun with jungles for neighbours.
I am happiest by myself.
All this nonsense about fame and name doesn't bother me, doesn't faze me one bit.
No regrets about not living in Mumbai and not networking?
Maybe I'd have landed more roles, but do I regret it? No, not at all.
When I look around and see those who have made it, they have actually lost more than I have, with my freedom.
Stuck here and working. (Shakes his head)
You take one of the finest actors that the NSD (National School of Drama) has produced, a chap called Om Shivpuri.
He was not even respected here.
One of the finest actors I respected on stage was this fellow called Amrish Puri -- he was a phenomenal actor.
But where, what respect was he given?
He was made into a clown with all those films.
He is remembered for all the crap there is on YouTube.
No one even knows his other good work exists.
He was an incredible presence on stage.
Look at Shyam's (film-maker Shyam Benegal) earlier films, his (Om Shivpuri's) presence in Nishant and films like that are, uff, phenomenal, magnetic.
Always the bridesmaid, never the bride, in a sense... You've never wanted to play the hero?
You see, I grew up in a culture where I painted sets, I pulled the curtain, I prompted, and the next day, I played the lead.
So I never made a big deal about being the hero.
You know this adulation that people have for actors is not my thing.
I was acting since I was five years old (The Pirates of Penzance, a school play) and I got no adulation.
And then suddenly everyone wants my autograph and now there is this wretched thing of selfies. Not my scene at all.
I think people who have this adulation need their heads examined.
I am referring to fan clubs, not the actors.
Actors are simple people, they are ordinary people, you (the public) make them into demi gods.
Would you call yourself a character actor, then?
Yes, yes, of course. I don't work as a mass produced rat in a laboratory. (Laughs)
I'm very much a character of my own.
You give me a part, I'll play that character and not anything else, in that sense I'm always playing the character that I am.
How important is it to do a Rs 100 crore film in terms of box office collections? Do you consider yourself a commercial success?
I'll be honest with you, and I'm being 100 per cent honest.
I think it was about less than five years ago that I knew about how many zeroes to put to a crore.
It makes no difference to me.
100 crore is how many more zeroes? God knows.
This relationship of money and art doesn't make sense to me at all.
I've met the finest artists in India and that goes from Ganesh Pyne to M F Husain.
There was a time they didn't have two pennies to rub together and then they were suddenly billionaires!
But money and art, it's a very pathetic comparison.
I work for a living, that's all, that has nothing to do with hundreds of crores.
You ask Kaveeta Oberoi Kaul (producer) to celebrate when she makes Rs 100 crore from The Answer.
For a lot of Bengalis or let's just say Ray fans, your character Nikhilesh in Ghare Baire remains a personal favourite. Did you identify with Nikhilesh? Did Ray teach you acting? What was it to work with Ray?
Oh, he was a very meticulous man.
A very good man.
A good sense of humour.
Very committed, very disciplined and easy to work with.
He didn't teach me to act.
I am a very hardworking person and I am very committed.
I work very hard to deliver.
Ray had found a pair of glasses that he wanted me to wear in the film.
But I had found a pair of glasses as well, in a box that had been imported by an optician in Calcutta in 1935.
I wore it to Ray's house and asked, 'This or that?' And he said 'This' (the pair Ray had chosen).
I said, 'No, this is the one I just picked. Yours is very nice but...'
In course of conversation one day, we were having a discussion and I said, 'Manikda (Ray's nickname), please, Nikhilesh, I know; Ghare Baire, you know. So, don't tell me about Nikhilesh, I know him better than you.'
And you know, he kept quiet.
He never ever showed me a single move.
He realised the commitment and the sincerity with which I made that statement, and not to put him down.
But I knew Nikhilesh.
It's about Tagore's life.
It's about what Tagore wanted to be himself.
He wanted to be Nikhilesh and he couldn't.
I kept a Bengali teacher to teach me Bengali.
I learnt Rabindra Sangeet for three months to be able to understand Tagore's poetry and the meaning of his lyrics and where it came from.
So, I take my job seriously when the director is a serious person.
Do directors tell you the demeanour, stance, body language and nuances of the character that you should adopt?
Depends on the role.
With a fictional character in say, Ghare Baire, no. Ray never told me what to do.
But he did that with the other actors and that's why the film flopped.
Soumitra Chatterjee's best performances are all non-Ray films because he is controlled by Ray.
Swatilekha Chatterjee (the female lead in Ghare Baire) was controlled by Ray, but I wasn't.
Thank God, I was given a free hand.
Which relationships with actors or directors do you treasure the most? Do you keep in touch with your former co-stars?
No. I don't go to movie parties at all.
I don't go to award ceremonies, film functions.
Unless I have a motive, haan.
When my children were studying here (Mumbai) and I got an invite and a free ticket, I would come. Otherwise, I don't bother.
The most interesting relationship, may be with Ray, but more with David Lean. He was phenomenal.
In my book, he was the greatest film-maker ever.
He is a phenomenal narrator, from his first black and white movie right till the end.
Was your accent in Passage To India, David Lean's version of how Indians speak?
No, no, no, never.
Read Lean's autobiography, he said, 'If Victor had listened to me and put on an accent, he would have got an Oscar.'
I said I will give an accent if you tell me where he (the character, Dr Aziz) is from.
Is he from Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Bengal, Assam, Punjab... from where?
This Malabar Caves is a figment of E M Forster's imagination.
Forster did not spend more than three months of his life in India.
He was a homosexual who formed the character of Aziz from the tram conductor he was s******* in Alexandria (Egypt). Fact.
So why should I give Aziz an accent?
If you tell me, I'll give him an Arab accent.
But it is very different from the accent you speak in.
But naturally. I can't give the character an Oxford accent.
I can't, as an Indian, give the character an accent that is like the English actors I work with.
That's what separates intelligence from stupidity and an ego.
From Dr Aziz to a cop in Gunday? Isn't it a comedown?
Abbas (director Ali Abbas Zafar) came to Mussourie and said, 'Aap karoge?'
I said, 'Zaroor karoonga.' Bas, that's it.
You are the only Indian to win a National Award in three separate categories. As a cinematographer for Where No Journeys End, as a director for the Best Documentary on tourism, The Splendour of Garhwal and Roopkund, and the Best Supporting Actor award for Ghare Baire.
Of the three, which is your first love?
I would really love to do cinematography.
I didn't pursue it because nobody would give me a chance and cinematography has been trashed by the digital camera that has come in and any two-bit person pretends to be a photographer.
So, there is no respect for photography any more.
You were with the Bharatiya Janata Party once upon a time. No political affiliations now?
No political affiliations, but certainly I am still a nationalist.
I still believe in what they (the BJP) are doing and I still believe they are the best thing that happened to the country in a long time.
We finally have an Indian prime minister and just because I don't have his phone number doesn't make it (faith in the party) any less.
Most of us have no relationship with the RSS, so we think the RSS are absolute bigots.
They are not.
I have done relief work in my life and the RSS guys are the first to reach there. They do much more good than people would like to acknowledge.
No political aspirations?
None, whatsoever. I am a nationalist and I thought we were doing a lot of anti-national things at the time. And I just wanted to make a statement.