Paul Bhattacharjee: Actor whose work took in the RSC, the Royal Court and 'EastEnders'
Tuesday 23 July 2013
Paul Bhattacharjee, whose sudden death has caused shock and sadness in the theatre world, was a versatile and talented actor. He had played in a wide variety of roles in over 40 productions, ranging from Shakespeare to EastEnders through to the Bond film Casino Royale.
He was born in 1960, the son of Anne and Gautam Bhattacharjee. Gautam was a member of the Indian Communist Party and had fled from India in the early 1940s. Paul grew up in Harrow and attended a local comprehensive school.
In 1978 he met Jatinder Verma, who had set up his Tara Arts company a year earlier, and discovered a mentor and friend. Verma remembers him as a young actor wanting to use theatre to "change the world". One of his first roles with the company was in Yes Memsahib (1979), which tells the story of the founding of modern East Africa and the role of the "coolies", who provided the country's labour.
Bhattacharjee found early television parts in the drama series Johnny Jarvis (1983) and in the short-lived soap Albion Market (1985). By his late twenties he was already playing significant roles on stage and on screen; in the satire Iranian Nights, written by Howard Brenton and Tariq Ali in response to the Satanic Verses fatwa against Salman Rushdie, he played the poet and narrator Omar Khayyam.
Following its opening in April 1989 at the Royal Court, the critic Michael Billington noted that "...it transcends the immediate issue of the Satanic Verses to explore the nature of tyranny, Britain's own responsibility for creating religious intolerance..." A special performance was shown on Channel 4 to bring the controversial matter to a wider audience.
Bhattacharjee's agent, Sally Long-Innes, recalled this period of his career. "I took him on 24 years ago having seen a beautiful performance he gave in [Federico Garcia Lorca's] Blood Wedding at the Royal Court and he has been consistently brilliant as a performer ever since. He was a true storyteller with a huge range of ability. He was also a wonderful, kind, funny and gentle human being."
There followed many distinguished roles, without his ever allowing himself to be typecast. In 1995 he took over the lead in Indian Ink, one of Tom Stoppard's favourite works, which had opened at the Aldwych in February that year. Exploring Anglo-Indian historical relations through the developing relationship between a British poetess and an Indian artist, the play took his career to the next level.
Nitin Ganatra, who plays Masood Ahmed in EastEnders, first met Bhattacharjee at Bristol University. Years later they worked together on the BBC soap, in which Bhattacharjee took the role of Ganatra's onscreen brother Inzamam Ahmed. He spoke of Bhattacharjee as "One of the finest and most consistent and versatile actors, who shone brightly both on stage and film. Not only a seasoned professional but someone who loved his work, he set a bench mark for us all."
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel became a surprise hit in 2012. Playing the surgeon, Dr Ghujarapartidar, Bhattacharjee was given, and delivered beautifully, some classic lines. "How is the hip feeling?" he asks Muriel, played by Dame Maggie Smith, "They must have got lucky", she replies, to which he rejoinders "It's strange. The more operations they perform, the luckier they get."
Speaking about his work with the RSC, Artistic Director Gregory Doran said, "Paul was last with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2012 playing a soulfully witty Benedick opposite Meera Syal's Beatrice in Iqbal Khan's glorious Much Ado About Nothing set in the Punjab. He also played a variety of roles in Dominic Cooke's Arabian Nights in The Courtyard in 2009."
One reviewer noted of his Benedick: "Bhattacharjee's incorrigible bachelor – gap-toothed, with distinguished grey hair - is easier to love, nimble-witted but taking his time in holding his own..."
Doran continued: "He was a stalwart member of the Jacobethan Season of rare and undiscovered plays by Shakespeare's contemporaries a decade ago; I was lucky enough to direct him as the sinister villain in Fletcher's The Island Princess. Paul was a terrific company member, a powerful, versatile actor of great presence and weight, and a gentleman."
When he died Bhattacharjee was in rehearsals for a production of Talk Show, a black comedy by Alistair McDowall, which ran last week at the Royal Court Theatre. He had last been seen leaving the theatre in Sloane Square on the evening of 10 July. His son, Rahul Bhattacharjee-Prashar, said at the time that his disappearance was "completely out of character", adding that "He was doing well in his career and everything seemed to be going OK. I just don't know what has happened." The Artistic Director of the Royal Court, Vicky Featherstone, said, "Paul has been such an important part of the world of theatre in so many ways and we shall miss him terribly."
Bhattacharjee's body was found at the foot of cliffs at Seaford, East Sussex. The exact circumstances of his death remain unconfirmed.
Gautam Paul Bhattacharjee, actor: born 4 May 1960; married 1988 Arti Prashar (separated; one son); died Seaford, East Sussex on or before 12 July 2013.
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