New Delhi: "Nomoshkar, ek minute." Remember this phrase. The next time a nondescript Life Insurance Corporation agent rings your doorbell in the middle of the day and reaches into his worn leather side bag, you may want to barricade the door and call the police. But Saswata Chatterjee, the actor who immortalized the character of the polite assassin in Sujoy Ghosh's superhit film Kahaani, is only mildly surprised at his new-found cult status amongst pop artists and cinema lovers. He said he never saw it coming. Not even when he scared the daylights out of his own wife when he took her to see the film.
A strange kind of obsession has gripped the nation since the release of Kahaani. It started slowly but gathered momentum on all social networking websites based mostly on the word of mouth. Incredibly, within four weeks of the film's release, the discussion on Kahaani shifted from its powerful protagonist Vidya Balan and co-actor Parambrata Chatterjee to the hired assassin whose polite detachment from his victims became a talking point.
The Bob Biswas fanfare
Pop culture enthusiasts and minimalists created Bob Biswas art that have gone viral on Facebook and Twitter. Almost overnight, a Facebook page was created and several Twitter profiles sprouted sharing jokes and status updates, all tagged with his now iconic dialogue, "Nomoshkar... ek minute." The Facebook page has over 21,000 'likes'.
Those who have seen Kahaani will know what followed the polite but ominous statement. Biswas, the contract killer who masqueraded as an LIC agent by day to give him easy access to his victims, pulled out his gun and shot in cold blood the people whose photos he received in advance on his cell phone.
Days of thugs are over
The irony is, if you asked anyone in the Bengali film industry, they would be quick to point out that Saswata did not use a mobile phone. He had to be contacted the old fashioned way, on the landline number at his home. I called him at an appointed time set by his wife and he picked up the phone himself.
I almost expected him to say "nomoshkar".
But the congenial actor praised my punctuality instead. "These days, no one ever keeps the time set for an appointment," he said. I congratulated him on his new-found fame. "Not even in my wildest imagination had I expected this kind of reaction to Bob Biswas. None of us did, probably not even Sujoy. I was given the brief that I had to be 'Binito Bob' (polite Bob), a man so non-descript that he could melt into the crowd soon after a crime. I personally feel a villain took a story forward. The day of old fashioned thugs with a scar running across their face are over (laughs). If you could immediately spot a villain in a film, then what was the point? A negative character need not be boorish. He could be so creepy that he made your blood run cold, right?"
Even before the filming had begun, he said Sujoy had the idea of Bob Biswas clearly sketched in his mind. "He had to be polite, unfit, with a paunch and so plain that nobody would believe him capable of murder," he said. Indeed, in the film Biswas, the LIC agent, dozed in his office, was regularly shouted at by his boss for not meeting his targets and had difficulty climbing long flights of stairs. But Saswata brought his own wonderful nuances into the character, for example the absentminded rubbing of his fingernails. "I had heard somewhere that people with baldness believed that rubbing of fingernails stopped hair loss," he said.
He scared his wife
He had taken his wife Mahua to see the film. "The camera work was fantastic. In the Metro Rail scene Bob is shown slowly approaching Vidya from behind. The next shot jumped to Vidya turning around and the camera is now behind her and we see a glimpse of Bob's face with the intention written all over it. My wife clutched my hand in fright."
Saswata, the son of renowned actor Shubhendu Chatterjee, is a household name in Bengali cinema. His theatre background helped him prepare for what now looked like the best role of his career. The actor is as polite in real life as his screen alter ego.
He had none of the trappings that characterized a film star. "I am basically an introvert. I like to watch films alone. I do not party much and only go to those that have people I like and know. I like to come home after a day's hard work." No amount of requests from friends and colleagues could persuade him to get a cell phone. He was neither on Facebook, nor on Twitter. He got to know about the buzz surrounding Bob because his "wife showed some articles on the laptop." When I asked for an email address he gave me his wife's. I think. He said he had to check if it was the correct one.
He thought he had done a good job with Kahaani when he got a call from singer Usha Uthup a day after the film's release. "She called me from Kochi and said 'arrey darling, I didn't know you could be so mean!' That was the best compliment I got." Since then he has been approached for a mainstream Bollywood film role which he had to turn down due to unavailability of dates.
The camera work was superb
The actor was generous in his praise for Sujoy and the entire team of Kahaani, especially editor Namrata Rao and cinematographer Setu. "The loving way in which they explored the city of Kolkata, from the massive scale of its festivities during the Pujas to the corner tea stall, is just stunning," he said. "That was Triangular Park, you know? A chase scene was shot at an actual traffic signal in Park Street, waiting amongst other cars for the light to turn red. We did not have the kind of budget that filmmakers have in Mumbai to reconstruct a road scene by lining up 200 cars."
Bob, the Paresh Rawal fan
"I do not know what Sujoy saw in me. In Bollywood I thought Paresh Rawal could have done this brilliantly," he said.
Saswata's interpretation of Bob has given him a cult status among legions of thriller fans. Not since Sholay's iconic dacoit-villain Gabbar Singh has an actor in a negative role been feted across the country like Saswata has been.
The disturbing courtesy, blandness in his personality and cold-bloodedness is now being compared to history's famous assassin 'Jackal'.
But Saswata himself was quick to brush off the praise and joke: "By the state of affairs in the country, Bob Biswas' next visit should be to politicians. Nomoshkar, ek minute..." (laughs).