Exclusive: Chandan Roy Sanyal reveals how he almost lost his debut film Kaminey

The talented bloke got candid in an exclusive chat with

Keyur Seta

Chandan Roy Sanyal made heads turn with his act as Mikhail in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey (2009). He is now back to the mainstream after a hiatus with The Ring and Chef, which stars Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan, respectively. In an exclusive chat with, the actor speaks about his ups and downs and how he coped after his character was removed from Rang De Basanti (2006). 

You started off with theatre. When did you decide to go into performing arts?
I think (I got into theatre) years ago when I was in college. I always did theatre during school, like amateur theatre in functions and gatherings. When I got into college, I did a small role in a play in workshop. I had no lines. It was a silent part. I played one of the four thieves who had nothing to say (laughs). Before the play, the director asked whether I got any role. When I said I haven’t, he said, ‘You become the fourth thief and you have no lines.’ I ended up doing a lot of acting in that small role and overdid it. My guru, the late Habib Tanvir, liked my sincerity and dedication. He asked me to say a line. I did a lot in mouthing that line. He asked whether I would like to work in his play. So, he invited me to his repertoire in Bhopal. I was 19 then. This is how I started. I started enjoying it. He gave me two big roles in his plays.  

How did you get cast in Rang De Basanti?
In 2005, my good friend and famous casting director Abhimanyu Ray called me for a screen test for the film at Mehboob Studio. I was called again later for a look test. Mehra sir (Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra) liked it. There were 10 revolutionaries in the film —  5 were played by the main cast and there were other five, which included me and Mukesh Chhabra. This is how I became friends with Chhabra. But our roles kept becoming smaller and eventually, nothing was left. I kept on doing theatre after that. 

It must have been disheartening to see your role chopped off in your very first film. 
Yes, I was very disheartened. Dil hi toot gaya tha. I was just 23-24 then. I had worked hard and had shot for two-and-a-half months. I had thought my career had taken off, but that wasn’t the case. But it was also a learning process. I looked at the positive side of it that I was a part of a film which became a cult and got a chance to work with big actors. It was interesting to closely observe Mehra sahab instructing Aamir Khan. I started thinking it was my first film workshop. But I was a bit scared after this. I feared if this starts happening in all films of mine. So, I stopped focussing on films and giving screen tests. I thought I will do theatre and keep learning the art of acting. 

So, how did you bag a role in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey (2009), your next film? 
This was the period when I was disheartened. Tim Supple is a well-known British playwright. He came to India to do a play and he was very impressed with the culture and atmosphere here. He returned to India in 2006 as he was eager to do Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with Indian actors. He started a workshop here. He realised there is a big difference between Indian and British actors. They focus on speech control, while we are more physical actors. He wanted to use that aspect of Indian actors in his Shakespearean play, which was hardly done before. Before him, Peter Brooks had done Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

Supple is Brook’s protege. I gave a lot of auditions for it that took place all over India for two months. Thousands of actors auditioned for it. He chose 27 actors including me. My actual career took off from here. I was with him from 2006 to 2009. We did around 350 shows in India, America and Europe. This brought about a positive effect on me. I had thought I will remain in a well in Mumbai. But he pulled me out of the well. Today whatever I am is because of him. I returned to India when casting director Honey Trehan, who is a producer now, was casting for Kaminey. I had seen Bhardwaj’s Omkara and had become his fan and wanted to do a film with him. My prayers were heard and Honey called me for the auditions. At that time I was somewhat known as I had done international theatre. 

Chandan Roy Sanyal in Kaminey

But I still had that fear of my role being chopped off. I told this to Honey that I might not have too many lines because of being Shahid Kapoor’s brother and my character might get removed. He told me, 'Are you mad? This is Vishalji’s film. He won’t do such a thing. He works on every little thing'. But after giving the audition I went to San Francisco and my India number wasn’t working there. I was there for two months. Once during a party when I was drunk I just called Honey. It was 4 am in India. He instantly got angry and abused me saying Vishalji was searching for me as he wanted to lock me for the role. He said I was selected in that week itself and they had been searching for me. He was going to lock someone else for the role if I didn't call him that day. I sent measurements of my clothes from there. I had to go to Toronto, from where I straightaway came to Mumbai and met Vishalji. He made me listen to the ‘Dhan Ta Nan’ song as the shoot was to be commenced from that song. 

You have also acted in Bengali films. Do you believe in maintaining a balance between regional and Bollywood?
No, I don’t believe in it. I feel I am a citizen of this country. I would like to be a part of any kind of cinema that is good and has a good director, be it in Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam or Hindi. Tomorrow, if I am given a good role in Tamil, I will readily do it. My mother tongue is Bengali, so after watching Kaminey, I was given a lot of respect. Few directors called me and offered me roles in Bengali films. I haven’t done many films in that language. I've done only four films that were good and had good directors. Bengali films are very different. I wanted that experience so I kept doing them. You also get to know your range as an actor. I came to know that I can dance in Kaminey and at the same time do Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s artistic film, The Bait (2016). If I look back after 10-15 years, I should feel that I have a good bio-data. 

This year you are starring in three Hindi movies – Imtiaz Ali’s The Ring with Shah Rukh Khan and Raja Krishna Menon’s Chef with Saif Ali Khan and Nandita Das’ Manto, where Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays the lead. What characters are you playing in these films?
In The Ring, I play a restaurant owner who stays in Portugal. He is a funny guy. It’s a good role that people would like. I am like a fresh breath of air. Chef, on the other hand, is an Indian adaptation of a Hollywood film. Saif plays Chef and I am his protege, who is also a chef. There is a competition between both in making food. The story basically is about a father and son relationship. Saif has an 11-year-old kid. The story moves forward while making food. My character also joins them. There is a food bus in the film. The shoot was recently concluded. It was fun. 

Manto is a landmark story. When Nandita approached me, I was delighted to be working on such a great writer’s life! Having a talent like Nawaz play it and portray a pivotal role under her direction will be a great achievement.

You recently made two short films, Hiroshima and 33 MM. Going by the former and the trailer of the other, it seems you are very passionate about unconventional, creative and visual narration. This is hardly seen in Indian films. 
I had a bad phase in my career from 2012 to 2015. For 1-2 years, I didn’t have work. I was a bit sad. I didn’t know what I was doing and what I wanted to do. And I wasn’t doing the kind of work I was offered. Few of my good films either didn’t release or weren’t released properly. But again I took it in a positive way. 

I channelised my energy into writing. I used to just write randomly. I ended up writing a long story. I felt like making it. I didn’t know the means and I had never done filmmaking. I thought of doing things that would help me learn. So, I wrote the short film, Hiroshima. I financed it myself. After it was complete, I realised it had turned out well. I couldn’t believe I could do this. I showed it to Vishalji. I always keep in touch with him and take his advice. He liked it a lot and asked me to send it to festivals. I did that and got confidence. Then I wrote 35 MM and my friends Nivedita Basu and Vikrant Massey decided to produce it. I had a screening of the film in Mumbai. There was a demand for more shows so I screened it four times. A lot of my friends and well-wishers turned up. Then I wrote Azaad which was produced by Sony LIV last year. 

Even when I was not getting plays, I started making my own plays. I found inspiration for this from Vishalji. I saw his old interview where he said that when he was only a music composer, he was not getting offers even after delivering Maachis (1996) and Chachi 420 (1997). So, he created his own opportunity to create music by making Maqbool (2003). I have always been an admirer of actor-cum-directors like Gurudutt, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Woody Allen, Kevin Costner etc. People also find it unusual to see a director casting himself. But that isn’t the case with me. I have recently written two feature films which I am planning act in and direct. The encouraging response to my short films is the reason I am making feature films. Inshallah I am moving towards it. 

Now that you have gained skills as a director, would you like to focus more on acting or direction?
There is nothing like that. I think acting is my first love and so far I haven’t done anything that has earned me name and success. I am a lot behind. So, this is something I surely wish to do. I won’t be making films just for the sake of making. I have stories that I wish to tell the world. I will make films of ideas that excite me. I have another short film, Aadhi Raat. I will be acting in. I wish to work with well-known directors. So far, my filmography hasn’t been bad. I have worked with Vishal Bhardwaj, Imtiaz Ali, Raja Krishna Menon, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Nikhil Advani, etc. I will surely continue acting. If nothing else, I will keep casting myself (laughs). 

Don’t you think there are too many short films made these days?
A lot of good artists have got opportunities due to this medium. Everybody has mobile phones, tablet, etc. But the downside is that quality control has become weak. Every other person is making short films and web series. This is good because after making a film you don’t need to rely on distributors. You can cut distributors’ market and enter people’s homes. But quality control is necessary.