Victor Banerjee: Indian cinema should stop imitating the West
The actor talks about playing Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda in The Answer and Bollywood's dominance over Indian culture.
Director Pawan Kaul's upcoming film, The Answer, traces the spiritual journey of James Donald Walters, an American youngster who drops out of college to become a disciple of Yogi Paramahansa Yogananda. Walters, who later became Swami Kriyananda, is played by Leonidas Gulaptis, while Yogananda is essayed by Victor Banerjee. Yogananda's globally-renowned book, Autobiography of a Yogi, is one of the many sources used for the film.
"My wife (Maya Bhate Banerjee) had read the book many years ago and attended the Kriya Yoga workshops. She introduced me to the teachings of Yogananda. I am a believer, absolutely. I live in Dev Bhoomi (Uttarakhand). When you trek in the mountains, you cannot be an atheist; the isolation and insignificance you feel is quite overwhelming. I grew up in the jungles of Assam and was later schooled by the Irish Christian Brothers. They inspired me to take up social service and charity. I've been a spiritual person all my life," Victor Banerjee tells us.
Praising Pawan Kaul for translating a deeply internal story into a big-screen experience, Banerjee adds, "Kriyananda's book, The Answer, was written as a very relatable autobiography. It has a very simple storyline. Pawan Kaul is a very sensitive and measured filmmaker; he is also a devotee of Kriya Yoga and understands the subject from within."
Sharing his process of approaching the character, Banerjee says, "I don't dress like a sanyasi to become my character. My process is simple: I keep reading the script over and over again until something clicks. It could be something as simple as a line of dialogue or how the character ties his shoelaces. Once that click happens, I am locked onto the person. When I come on set, I am always in character. It's almost like a robotic performance, I call it my form of Zen."
Banerjee's repertoire extends to both commercial and art films in English, Hindi, Bengali and Assamese. He has worked with international directors like David Lean, Roman Polanski, James Ivory, Jerry London, and - closer home - Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen. His last Bollywood appearances were in Fever and Gunday, besides independent ventures like Unfreedom, Delhi In a Day and Children of War.
"I love all forms of storytelling. Indian cinema, whether commercial or independent, is doing well for itself. We should stop obsessing about appreciation from the West or other cultures. I devote a lot of time to regional cinema and support their voices. Bollywood is a cancer which has taken over our culture. Unfortunately, cancers don't cure themselves. They have to be burnt with radiation or something. But on a broader scale, there's a lot of variety in Indian cinema. I'm very proud to be a part of it."