Abhishek Banerjee: Stree and TVF Pitchers boosted my confidence
The actor and casting director discusses life after Stree, working with Rajkummar Rao and Ayushmann Khurrana, his passion for discovering new talent, and his upcoming projects
When Abhishek Banerjee moved to Mumbai in 2008, opportunities were sparse. Streaming wasn’t yet a thing, and television soap operas held little appeal for serious-minded actors. To make ends meet, Abhishek started casting. His first gig was on Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, working under casting director Gautam Kishanchandani. Over the last ten years, Abhishek has scouted talent for over 60 films, having founded his company, Casting Bay, with close friend Anmol Ahuja. “There was a point when I stopped thinking about being an actor. Nothing was really working out. I was caught up with my casting work. I’d also put on a lot of weight,” he recalls.
Abhishek finished his higher studies in Delhi and started working in the city’s theatre scene. His first film appearance was in Rang De Basanti, as one of the students auditioning for a documentary role. Post the shift to Mumbai, he acted in Sidarth Srinivasan’s Soul of Sand (2010), and a few short films. A breakthrough happened in 2015 with TVF Pitchers — where Abhishek, dressed in a suit and in a moment of alcohol-induced epiphany, gave the start-up generation its defining metaphor: “Tu beer hai.”
“I remember Nidhi Bisht wanted me to audition for Bhati’s role. I was unwilling to go, thinking it was a small scene. But the minute the show aired, my one-liner became immensely popular. Even today, when I visit other countries, youngsters come up to me because of that show. It really boosted my confidence,” says Abhishek, who subsequently appeared in the TVF show, Humorously Yours.
On the big screen, however, the struggle continued. In late 2017, Casting Bay was approached to scout for Stree, the directorial debut of Amar Kaushik. Abhishek couldn’t take up the assignment, and was instead offered an acting role in the film. That role became ‘Jana’ — the eccentric best friend of Rajkummar Rao and Aparshakti Khurrana in the blockbuster horror-comedy. “Stree was a big turnaround. Jana was an important role and I had to audition for it. All the credibility I had built over the years helped me land the part. A lot of love and appreciation has followed since.”
On the independent space, Abhishek is known for his associations with filmmaker Devashish Makhija. His performance as the antagonist in Ajji — a Mumbai-set revenge drama now streaming on Netflix — won him critical acclaim, and is a world removed from his comic appearances. “I think of Dev as the manual scavenger of cinema. He enters the gutter of society and rinses it from within. All the actors who enter with him, must also be ready to get dirty.”
Post Stree, Abhishek has been keeping busy. He appeared in the first season of Mirzapur and will be seen in Sujoy Ghosh’s upcoming Netflix series, Typewriter. There’s also the forthcoming web-show Jamuna Paar, produced by Anushka Sharma. On the feature front, he has wrapped up Dream Girl, a romantic-comedy starring Ayushmann Khurrana and Nushrat Bharucha. Speaking about his role, the actor shares, “My character is from Mathura. He is Nushrat’s brother and Ayushmann’s would-be brother-in-law. All I can say is that he falls in love with the ‘wrong girl’.”
Abhishek and Ayushmann are also teaming up for Bala, Amar Kaushik’s second feature film. The Kanpur-set comedy revolves around a small-town man coping with premature balding. Abhishek, who plays a ‘nai’ (barber) in the film, shares, “Growing up, I had a friend who worked at a barber shop. I’ve modeled my character on him. We have created a special look for the part.”
Then there's Made in China, his second film with Rajkummar Rao, releasing next month. Abhishek praises the newer crop of Bollywood stars for their professionalism. “Actors like Raj, Ayushmann,Vicky Kaushal and Katrik Aaryan are known to treat co-stars with respect. They all stand by and give cues. It’s so much more fun working with them.”
Although flooded with roles, Abhishek wants to continue casting. He says he envisioned his company as a platform to encourage new talent. “In the ten years of my struggle, I kept wondering if there would be any takers for me. I want Casting Bay to exist for that reason. Actors like Priyanshu Painyuli, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Sidhant Chaturvedi, and Avinash Tiwary have all been discovered by us. When I see them successful today, it makes me happy.”