Amazon Prime Video's Paatal Lok, created by Sudip Sharma, has gripped the attention of the audience. 

In a group of truly talented performers, Abhishek Banerjee's flawless portrayal of the sinister Hathoda Tyagi has made him the internet's new favourite villain. 

In conversation with ScoopWhoop, Banerjee talks about the success of Paatal Lok, about his decade-long journey in the industry, and drawing on his experience of DU and theatre. 

Banerjee first shot to fame for his role of the adorable, impossible-to-ignore, possessed best friend Jaana in Stree. And he shared what the success of Pataal Lok meant for him. 

Stree movie
Source: Netflix
Overwhelming. The first time I understood what overwhelming was, it was during Stree. Because I never expected the film to do so well, to get the kind of response it did. That’s when I understood the word overwhelming, but now I am experiencing it. 

While the success feels overwhelming, preparing for his role of Hathoda Tyagi--a character that seemed to 'personify evil' with not more than two dialogues--had a profound, emotional impact on his understanding of the society.

We're so far away from the crime world. I have seen officers and people in uniforms and I’ve heard them talk about them (criminals) but I’ve not seen them. To understand not just their (criminals) vengeance, but also their grief at rejection and pain at being suppressed - I have never felt it in real life. Tyagi, as a character, made me realize my privilege. Privileges can not be equated in terms of money or just class, but it's about society. That translated on screen. We are more obsessed with gossip columns than crime. When I started feeling that grief, my emotions started running high. I felt suffocated and that feeling is what Hathoda Tyagi experiences. Even today, when I feel about that character, I feel the pain and grief.

There is no denying the fact that Abhishek Banerjee has done complete justice to his role of Hathoda Tyagi. 

But what many people don't know is that Abhishek, who is also the casting director for the show, originally wanted to audition for Imran Ansari - a role that ultimately went to Ishwak Singh.

Because I knew them, I had the guts to tell them (creators) I want to do Ansari. After Stree, I thought I play endearing parts better. But they all joked with me, and said, “Tumne apne andar ke darinde ko dekha hai?”, etc. I never approached them again, and the conversation was over, because I thought it was a joke. But then, Sudip sir saw Ajji again, and he went and saw Stree, and he came back and said, "try for Hathoda". I wasn't focusing on Hathoda at all, till then, or even seeing it as a character I wanted to play. First I was surprised. Actors ko lines ki chinta rehti hai. Line toh hai nahi, kaise karunga! But then I auditioned, and realized maybe I could do it. I did well in the audition and was cast for it.
Abhishek Tripathi in Paatal Lok
Source: Instagram

Though he now believes that casting him as Ansari would have been a 'casting blunder', he shared that even in Stree, he originally wanted to play, Bittoo (played by Aparshakti Khurana), not Jaana. Which is why he now believes in going by the 'director's vision'. 

Stree movie
Source: Netflix

But long before he submitted to his 'director's vision', it was his college theatre group, The Players, that first helped him understand acting as an art form. 

Theatre was all about understanding the entire socio-political scenario. It was more about the thought process than the craft. Acting isn't about delivering the line, but about delivering the meaning. Players did that for me. Mere sochne ka tareeka badla. It was about the knowledge that I was inculcating inside me, about the world and society. That's what helped me build my characters. Kaha system fail karta hai, kaha society fail karti hai, yeh (awareness) theatre mein samajh aata hai. You do plays of accomplished writers, who have different ideologies, and you break them down and understand them. That's what I learned about theatre. It's all about questioning. It (theatre) is about conversations. 
Dream Girrl
Source: Telegraph India

Banerjee, who studied at Kirori Mal College in Delhi, has fond memories of the 'DU life', which is where he learned the art of sharing and analyzing things. But the DU life, theatre, and acting would never have happened if not for his teacher's taunt. 

My 12th marks were bad. I realized na toh main doctor banunga, na engineer, aur shayad koi clerk ki naukri bhi na de. Because the marks were that bad. But, in school, a teacher taunted me when I was going on stage, “tu yehi kar, issi mein acha hai”. It was a taunt, but I thought, “if I am good, why not?” That's when I started my journey to understand acting, took it seriously. Usse pehle toh bas school mein mimicry, annual play but kabhi seriously nahi lia. My dad was shocked. He wanted me to be a fauji or an engineer.

That was when, with a little help and guidance from his school senior and fellow actor Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub, who eventually Banerjee cast in No One Killed Jessica, Abhishek entered the world of acting.  

Zeeshan Ayyub is my senior from school. I asked him, “Koi jugaad hai kya, admission ke liye?” Unhone bole, “Koi jugaad nahi pata, but acting achi karta hai toh aaja.” Meeting him made me realize, theatre bhi hai kuch. Accidental Death of an Anarchist ka Hindi adaptation was the first play I saw. I was mindblown by the entire setup, the acting, the stage, everything. I gave my audition at Kirori Mal after that. That's when it started. 
Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub
Source: National Herald

It was the same network of college seniors that helped him land his first on-screen role, a cameo in Rang De Basanti, when he was in the third year of college. 

RDB happened when I was in my third year in college. Our senior was one of the ADs. He called us and said, "Aamir Khan ki picture shoot ho rahi hai, aa jao." I was very excited because I have been a big fan of Omprakash Mehra since Aks - a film ahead of its time. I thought he will take one look at me, and cast me - Bombay ke baare mein yehi sochte hain na, one chance and you are in. RDB became a huge hit, and I even got a little popular in college after that. I started feeling a bit of a star, and after two years, came to Bombay. 
Rang De Basanti
Source: netflix

In order to understand 'camera acting' and shed off his nervousness in front of the directors and camera, he went on to do multiple cameos. It was during this time, that he also learned to cast for movies.

Abhishek Banerjee
Source: Trend In India
I went for the Chak De India auditions and realized, casting badi interesting cheez hai - finding who could fit in a role. Then Dev.D casting happened in Delhi again. And Gautam Kishanchandani (Dev.D casting director) was looking for actors. My audition didn't work but he asked me to give cues to other actors. I enjoyed that. Gautam invited me then, to Bombay, to help him. I came to Bombay and for good 6 months I struggled, went for auditions, and got rejected. At first, I assisted (with casting) for money but it was also good practice ground for an actor - giving cues. 
Abhishek Banerjee as casting director
Source: Film Companion

However, after almost a decade of being a casting director--during which time he even started his own casting company--Banerjee confessed that he remained underconfident and confused about his future as an actor. 

He'd even been offered a role in No One Killed Jessica, for which he was casting also, that he turned down. 

There was a time when I thought I am not an actor. That maybe I am good on stage, not on screen. That's when I decided to continue casting, and train my self as an actor. I remember Raj Kumar Gupta (writer No One Killed Jessica) telling me you're very lost. And he was right. I was casting for money and I enjoyed that but I wasn’t sure, ki aage yehi karna hai ki kuch aur. 

That's when TVF Pitchers happened. Banerjee played Bhati in the show, and gave birth to the most viral web series' dialogue ever, "tu beer hai". And it gave him back his lost confidence. 

TVF Pitchers happened and I got my confidence back. Everything changed after Pitchers. I understood the web platform better and realized I could do both. Web had an opportunity. People weren't looking for just star power, but for actors. Appreciation came and people started telling me, "tu beer hai kya dialogue tha". It took me 9 years to gain confidence and 10 years for a director (Amar Kaushik) to spot me.
Tu Beer Hai
Source: Homdor

But, in the time it took Banerjee to find his space in the industry, he has helped many actors carve a space for themselves. 

He and his team is responsible for discovering actors like Siddhant Chaturvedi, Avinash Tiwary, Priyanshu Painyuli, and the latest, Mairembam Ronaldo (who plays Cheeni in Paatal Lok)

Very proud of Ronaldo. She is a revolution. I liked that this thought process is happening, ki kahi se bhi dhund ke layenge actor. People are searching, and that's how new actors are happening. I am proud of each actor, Siddhant, Avinash, Priyanshu, Dhirendra Gautam, the actor who played dadi in Raid (Pushpa Joshi). It gives me immense satisfaction on giving actors their due, especially when they've not been given a chance.  

When it comes to actors not being given their due, it is natural that our conversation shifts to nepotism. 

As a casting director and actor, Banerjee has been on both sides of the acting process, and in his opinion, nepotism is not a barrier to 'outsiders', if you're dedicated to the craft: 

Outsider takes time to understand the industry. Of course, it's an art form, there is creativity, but there is also money. Businessmen also come from nowhere and become billionaires and that's what we need to understand about the industry too. Sometimes you get recognition early, even when you don’t have a backing. Like Siddhant. But ultimately, no one can stop you when you have the talent, and when the time is right. As a casting director and actor, I feel people are receptive to talent. Never in my 11 years have I seen a director choose a star kid over a talented actor, just because he is a star kid. Otherwise, how would Manoj Bajpayee, Deepak Dobriyal, Irrfan Khan have happened? I have also worked with a lot of filmmakers, DOPs, who've also come from nowhere. Yeh bhi outsiders hain. Outsiders aake kaam kar rahe hain, toh kaam ki izzat hai. Yes, connections will make it quicker, it will give you an opportunity maybe 5 years earlier, but they (star kids) will also have to prove themselves constantly. We want to blame the situation, but not work harder. Outsiders need to work harder, be more committed to the craft.    

Though it's true that hard work is a crucial key to success, no matter the industry, today the entertainment industry is also seeing the emergence of novel stories and well-developed characters. 

Stree
Source: Netflix

And this change, according to Banerjee, who wishes to have been a part of Made in Heaven, is how new faces will continue to be associated with the industry. 

Earlier it was only the protagonist’s story. Baaki sab additional distractions. Now the focus is on every character's journey. That's what we need - stories where we connect to multiple characters. Because not everyone may connect to just the protagonist. The audience is also waking up to different characters. And the media is writing about them too. Han, star rahega, there will be a face, but new additional faces getting are attached to the industry now. More directors, writers are realizing about them, aur ache characters and actors are coming up.  
Abhishek Banerjee
Source: Cinema Express

The conversation ends with his advice, as an actor and casting director, for actors practicing for auditions. 

There are other actors who are going to do the same thing in the same way. So, find your own unique way, your own thought process. Be aware and educated about society, about history, and be well-read. You will understand more. It is important to read between the lines. Try to surprise the audience, and break the cliche, even if it (the scene) is written in a particular way. That’s the beauty of audition. In an audition, no one will mind if you change, and those changes are what get you through it.  

Abhishek will next be seen in Kaali 2, Helmet, and Aankh Micholi.

All images from Amazon Prime Video, unless specified otherwise.