Victor Banerjee’s Padma Bhushan honours a lifetime of achievement

New Delhi: Victor Banerjee had burst on the silver screen in 1977 as the hookah-smoking Madr-ud-Daula, ‘prime minister’ of Awadh, in Satyajit Ray’s ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’, and he maintains that it was the biggest break of his career that has seen him appearing in English, Hindi, Bengali and Assamese language films, working with marquee directors such as David Lean, James Ivory, Roman Polanski and Ronald Neame, and closer home, with Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal and Ram Gopal Verma.

A winner of the National Film Award for Best Supporting Actor for ‘Ghare Baire’, also directed by Satyajit Ray, he is the only Indian film personality to have won the National Film Award in three categories — the other two as Cinematographer, for his documentary ‘Where No Journeys End’, and as Director, for his documentary ‘The Splendour of Garhwal and Roopkund’.

In fact, ‘Where No Journeys End’, in competition with 3,100 entries from 27 countries, won the Gold Award at the Houston International Film Festival.

It’s been quite an eclectic journey for Banerjee, who was born in a zamindari Bengali Hindu family and is a descendant of the Raja Bahadur of Chanchal (now in the Malda district of West Bengal) and the Raja of Uttarpara (in Hooghly district).

He turned down a scholarship to Dublin’s Trinity College, which had offered to admit him as an operatic tenor, but later he became the lead tenor in the Calcutta Light Opera Group production of ‘The Desert Song’, and also played Jesus in the Bombay Theatre’s first-ever musical production, ‘Godspell’.

Schooled at Shillong’s St Edmund’s School, Banerjee graduated in English Literature from Kolkata’s St Xavier’s College and obtained a Master’s in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University.

In 1984, Banerjee portrayed Dr Aziz Ahmed in David Lean’s ‘A Passage to India’, which brought him to the attention of western audiences. He was nominated for a BAFTA award for the role in 1986, and won the Evening Standard British Film Award and NBR (US National Board Review) Award for the same film.

In April 1985, at a special event in Louisiana, where John Travolta and American TV actress Loretta Swit were also honoured, Banerjee received the ‘Show-a-Rama Award’ from the Motion Picture Association of America as ‘New International Star’.

There have been other memorable roles too, for instance in Merchant-Ivory’s ‘Hullabaloo Over Georgie and Bonnie’s Pictures’ and in Mrinal Sen’s ‘Mahaprithibi’.

And, as one known to speak his mind, Banerjee, on the sets of ‘Gunday’ (2014) starring Priyanka Chopra, is reported to have snapped: “I have a kitchen to run” and “all work is a challenge and therefore fun”.

Banerjee has also appeared in numerous Bollywood movies, notably ‘Ta Ra Rum Pum’ (2007), ‘Apne’ (2007) and ‘Sarkar Raj’ (2008). Other significant appearances include ‘Protidan’ (1983), ‘Byabandhan’ (1990), ‘It Was Raining That Night’ (2005), ‘Delhi in a Day’ (2011), ‘Dev Bhoomi’ (2016), ‘Biporjoy’ (2017) and ‘The Answer’ (2018).

There have also been forays into politics. Banerjee unsuccessfully contested the 1991 Lok Sabha election in Calcutta North West on the BJP ticket. He garnered 89,155 votes and came in third.

As an active member of the BJP, he was critical of the then Samajwadi Party supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav’s suggestion that the karsevaks who had stormed the Babri Masjid prior to its demolition should have been shot.

He has also been highly critical of what he termed Punjab Congress politician Navjot Singh Sidhu’s pacifist attitude to terrorism exported from Pakistan.

Born on October 15, 1946, Banerjee is only 75, young by today’s standards, and one sincerely hopes the Padma Bhushan will spur him on to greater heights.

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