In Conversation with Actor-Producer Sanjay Suri: On Chauranga and More

Sanjay Suri is an Indian actor and producer from Bollywood. He made his acting debut in 1999 with Pyaar Mein Kabhi Kabhi and turned producer with Onir’s “My Brother Nikhil” (2005). Onir and Sanjay are the co-founders of the film production company, Anticlock Films, which has produced Bikash Ranjan Mishra’s much acclaimed film ‘Chauranga’ in international festivals. The film sees the light of day on 08 January, 2016, and here’s an excerpt of a small rendezvous with Sanjay – who is not only the producer but has also played one of the major characters in the film.

Chauranga‘Chauranga’ was a part of NFDC Screenwriter’s Lab, where it got nurtured into a full length feature. Tell us how the film came to you for production and how you agreed to produce it.

That year, NFDC had a tie-up with Locarno, and one of our films (“SHAB” written by Onir) was also in the lab. So, Bikas (director of the film) and Onir were travelling together and they started discussing the script at the Locarno airport. Onir read the script and really liked it, and forwarded it to me immediately. I read it quite soon, and loved it almost as much – it was absolutely engaging and took me into that world, with its description of visuals and actions. After they came back, we met Bikas and tried to understand his vision – how he wanted to shoot the film and what kind of visuals he had in mind. We liked his ideas and said that we would want to get attached. In fact, the first question that he asked us was “Do you have money to make the film?” (Laughs) We told him that we did not have the money at that of time, but we would like to support. I told Bikas that he needed to be patient, but I would get it made, and that’s how the journey started. We started pitching the film at various coproduction markets; we won the ‘Incredible India’ award for the best coproduction project at the Film Bazaar that year, and then NFDC came on board, and then a few others also joined. So, it became a collaborative project for all of us.

All of this must have required really high perseverance from your end also to keep going on.

Yes, Onir and I were both driving it; it needed perseverance, because it was a passion film and we needed to guide it with our full enthusiasm. These kind of films requires that extra care, so that you don’t end up diluting it just for the sake of getting funded. We did not want to make any compromises, and let Bikas make the film the way he wanted to, because we ourselves enjoy the freedom in making independent films.

Was it decided right from the beginning that you were going to act as one of the characters?

No, that happened much later. In fact, I was one of the last ones to be cast. Initially, the main focus was to get the correct actors to play the kids and their mother – choosing an actor for Dhaval, the role I play, was not much of a priority. However, while travelling with the film, both Bikas and I started understanding the nuances and the layers of film. So, one day, the suggestion came from Bikas asking whether I was ready to play Dhaval. I asked if he was sure about the choice, but as an actor I jumped onto it.

That is quite understandable, given that it seems to be a kind of character – with its shades of grey – quite atypical to what people have seen you doing on screen.

There’s a lot of duality and hypocrisy in the character of Dhaval. I liked that it was away from my comfort zone and was quite challenging. Moreover, because Bikas is from that place, and is so aware of that world in which the film is set, all of us surrendered to him and let him guide us through that world.

Chauranga-Sanjay SuriBecause the film is kind of set on the borders of Bengal, we see a lot of Bengali actors in the film. Did you, being a complete outsider to that world, have to do any special preparation to get into the shoes of the character?

Though the film is set in an unnamed village, it’s more of Jharkhand than Bengal. However, as the topography of the entire region around the Bengal-Jharkhand border is pretty much the same, we decided to shoot in Bengal – Shantiniketan being a major location. So, that’s why Bikas suggested that we took actors from Bengal and I had the privilege of working with people like Dhritiman Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta – actors who have worked with the great Satyajit Ray. It took us some time to cast the boy for Santu’s character, but we eventually found a gem. And then there is of course Riddhi Sen, who was last seen in Kahani. One of the bigger challenges of the film was the language – Khortha, it is different from Bhojpuri and is a bit closer to Hindi. Additionally, Bikas also suggested that I change my look for the film, and I stopped exercising for good six months. I had to look older and there is this one symbolic shot on a film, in which Dhaval is shown trimming his white moustache. Plus, I had also done a lot of recce and became sensitised to the entire culture of that area.

We know how difficult it can be for a film like this to be commercially viable or to make enough profit. Was that ever a concern for you while deciding to produce the film?

Undoubtedly, money is a factor that has to be kept in mind, but like our previous films, even in this case, the driving force was the urge to make a film that we feel very passionate about. Of course, keeping the economics of it in mind, we decided to keep the budget low and we do not have enough money to buy sufficient media required for a film in today’s times. We know that we are at some kind disadvantage to create the kind of awareness required, so we have to be very targeted and specific when it comes to releasing the film. One can release in 1000 theatres, but if the awareness is not created, there is no point. At the same time, because the film travels across the world through festivals and other forums, international money keeps coming in. So, these films have a long tail – they may take some time, but they do recover money.

Coincidentally, today’s big news is the entry of Netflix into India. Would you be open to putting your film on a forum like that?

Yes, because for our film the satellite market is dead. Television is hugely dependent on mass films as the channels are supported by advertising money, and have to therefore cater to a different kind of taste. I am hopeful that platforms like Netflix and iTunes will help us in generating the second round of revenue, but the first one has to be theatrical.

From the trailer and otherwise, there has been a comparison drawn between Chauranga and Fandry – the theme of a lower caste boy falling in love with an upper caste girl and the metaphor of a pig – some similarities are rather obvious. So, in case you have seen Fandry, please tell us how different Chauranga is from Fandry.

Actually, I have not been able to see Fandry, but Bikas has and I think both films were being written at the same time. So, we could say that they’re both reflective of the times. However, from whatever I have heard, barring these few palpable similarities, both films are very different.

Sanjay Suri-Chauranga 2For I Am, you and Onir did something very interesting – crowdfunding. Did it ever cross your mind to use crowdfunding even for this film?

Frankly, we did start with it for some time, but the entire process of it is very exhaustive. Additionally, we were able to garner support for the film from NFDC and another co-producer. So, we didn’t explore that option further. But I definitely enjoyed the process of crowdsourcing – not only funds but also a lot of talent came up through this entire exercise and it democratises filmmaking. So, I would like to do it again sometime in the future.

Well, you even got support from Drishyam in the release of the film. Given that they have a similar sensibility, how big a help was it to get them on board?

Drishyam has supported us with the P&A of the film. Manish Mundra saw the film at Dubai Film Festival, and we started talking about it. The vision they have for their films and the vision we had for Chauranga were kind of similar. Of course, it was more of their decision to participate than it was ours. It was our desire to work with them, but Manish had to decide whether he wanted to support or not. He was very kind to say yes, because we were looking for P&A support and had he not approved, we would possibly have been still looking for associations. For us, it has been a very big collaboration and we are very grateful to them for supporting us.

You were one on the senior-most actors on the set, besides being the producer. With a host of newcomers, including the leads and the director, how difficult did it get for you to manage the logistics of the film?

(Laughs) I think by now I have grown used to the idea of doing small budget films. Sometimes I feel I will not know what to do if I have too much money to make a film. Having said that, I have worked with new people way too often, not only as a producer with Onir but also as an actor I have worked with possibly a dozen new filmmakers –from Sujoy Ghosh to Meghna Gulzar, from Nandita Das to Dr Chandraprakash Dwivedi. And I believe it is their first time thing that also makes them very honest to their work. Second film is when they get the expertise but the first always has the most integrity. That’s where also my experience as an actor comes in to give the new director the kind of freedom he needs to make the film. As a new producer, I did burn my fingers earlier further with so many things that I didn’t know and gradually learned along the way. However, it was the same experience that I could utilise to help Bikas.

And you’re doing the same thing with Sameer Soni’s “My Birthday Song”, aren’t you?

(Laughs) That’s true, but even content wise, “My Birthday Song” is a big departure from the kind of films that I have been doing. It is a psychological drama – in a setting that we have not seen in Indian cinema and hardly at all even in international films. So, it gave me a chance to do something very new, both as an actor and producer, besides working with a very close friend whose sensibilities I can rely upon. We finished the film in 18 days, and we plan to release it sometime in the middle of 2016.

Sanjay Suri has been one of the most underrated and under-rewarded actors of the Hindi film industry, despite showing courage to make films like ‘My Brother Nikhil’ and ‘I Am’. His success is long overdue, and we hope that with his forthcoming films, he gets it rightfully. Here’s wishing him all the best for Chauranga.

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