Acting in Shanghai

[ Author: Kenny Basumatary ]

A brief intro to start with: I played ASP Dileep Chaliha in Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai. I’m the cop at the inquiry commission hearing who wipes his face with a hanky on being questioned by Abhay Deol’s character. I’ve also written a novel, Chocolate_Guitar_Momos, which has been well received and has so far sold 4500+ copies.

I really, really envy natural actors – people who haven’t had formal training, but can take a line of dialogue and straight away deliver it with the right levels of expression, emotion and what not. With a lot of people, you can tell that they’re “acting”, whereas with natural actors, things are just so effortless that you feel you’re looking at real life. And then there are actors like me who need to do 50 rehearsals to make the performance look as unrehearsed as possible. But different strokes for different folks. Some actors prefer extensive rehearsals and knowing the script backwards, others like to deliver their lines spontaneously. I remember reading in a Reader’s Digest article long ago that Anthony Hopkins reads his scenes upto 250 times. On the other hand, Steven Spielberg prefers his actors to come to the sets fresh, without having rehearsed. Both approaches have their uses, but that’s a subject too broad to discuss here.

For my small big scene in Shanghai, I extensively rehearsed in my hotel room in Latur, Maharashtra. There wasn’t much I could do in the town apart from occasionally spending a little time in an internet café, so I mostly stuck to watching movies on TV, reading the 8-10 books I’d brought along, and mentally trying to not get fat from the oily – albeit decent – hotel food, which was vegetarian – not really my choice of cuisine to get fat on.

I got to know that the big inquiry commission scene would be my first. Fair enough. I would go prepared. The scene was two or three pages long. Lots of people might think that you can just go on set and say whatever dialog you like, and some actors do exactly that, but in that case you can be pretty much sure that the script has been loosely written and is about as tight as a punctured balloon. I read the script of Shanghai twice – it was beautifully complicated and supertight. Every line, every action had significance and the interconnections were very important. So obviously we would all have to stick to the script.

I rehearsed the scene over and over till the point where I knew Abhay’s lines as well – no big deal, actually; it’s equally important to know the other person’s lines too, so that you know when to speak and when to shut up. During the process of rehearsing, you stumble upon several variations of your lines – different pauses, stresses, gestures, looks. Part of my personal process is noting down which gesture or pause seems good to go with in the final performance. One such example is my last line in the scene, something to the effect of “…kisi andarooni karyawahi pe public mein jawab dene ka order nahi hai, Sir.” While rehearsing, I found that a deliberate pause before the last “Sir” added quite a bit of drama, so I stuck with it, and that’s the way it’s come out in the film.

On the day of the shoot, the costume department fitted me with my uniform and off I went to get Dibakar’s approval. After finalizing me for the role, he had changed the character’s name to be an Assamese. “So, Kenny,” he said, “You’re a genuine Ohomiya, right?” I said yes. “So, can you do your lines with a bit of an Assamese accent?”

Disaster! I’ve worked very hard to get my Hindi into shape, to the extent that I’ve even done Hindi dubs for characters in Ocean’s Twelve and Rango and a couple of other films. The last thing I wanted was to be thought of as an actor with an accent. The other thing I was worried about was that if I did try to put on the Assamese accent, I might overdo it and it would become caricaturish. So I went ahead and did my scene with proper pronounciation. Thankfully, Dibakar was okay with it, and he was quite satisfied with my interpretation and delivery of the lines. The face-wiping was his idea.

Dibakar is one of those directors who knows exactly what he wants and is at the same time open to suggestions and debate. There were several occasions I was witness to when he had discussions with director of photography Nikos Andritsakis about how to go about a particular shot. Never did he go, “I’m the director – do as I say!” He would always present his point of view and listen to others’ as well and judge which made more sense.

Another example of Dibakar knowing exactly what he wants was in my final scene in the film, when I come and deliver a letter terminating the commission to Abhay Deol’s character. I had prepared my lines with a teeny hint of gloating and victory, but what Dibakar actually wanted was for me to be neutral, and also get intimidated a bit. So I tweaked the delivery accordingly.

Later, one of the most satisfying compliments for my work came from one of the casting assistants, Vinod Rawat, a good actor himself, who told me that my performance was as good as it was in the audition – lots of people get intimidated on the actual shoot by all the lights and camera and crew.

A little less than a year after the shoot, the film was released, to very positive reviews. DVDs are also out now, for those who missed it in theatres.


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