by Devansh Patel
It has been more than five years since the Gujarat riots struck the Indian consciousness with a lightning bolt and confronted Indians with the reality of how far their secular fabric had been damaged. Films released after the riots like Dev and Parzania showcased the same with different and not so different issues. So where does Sanjay Suri fit into all this? In the actors latest multi award winning film Firaaq, he plays a role of an urban and an educated Muslim who seems lost and is searching for his own identity feeling vulnerable at times. The role he portrays in the film, he says, is so close to his own experiences and consequences he had suffered in Kashmir as a child that it brought back the old memories. Anyway, coming back to Sanjay, it could be said that he, along with his firstime buddy, Dino Morea, was the surprise cinematic hit of the late 1990s in their debut film Pyaar Mein Kabhi Kabhi. We can recall our first ever interview with Suri in Ahmedabad way back in 1999 before his feel good film released which finally got him his first ever fan following. But now in 2009 Sanjay Suri might view his own career path a little differently. Not only is he doing lesser films but even lesser masala pot boilers. He is careful than ever before because he wants to be a part of films he believes in and wants to make, thus turning himself into a producer too. Bollywood Hungama's London correspondent and UK's Harrow Observer columnist Devansh Patel gets to talk to his first ever interviewee about the much talked about Firaaq, the hype surrounding the film, his Kashmiri connection, his debutant director Nandita Das, his directorial moves and why he thinks it is important to watch Firaaq in this BH exclusive.
We've known that Firaaq has created a lot of hype in the overseas. Will it sustain its hype in India when released?
Firaaq has been doing well in the festival circuit and the audiences in the festival circuit are quite a differentiated lot. They are the ones completely aware of world cinema and the jury members are highly cinema literate. But any film which does extremely well in the festival circuit does not guarantee a box office success. Having said that, the film does not undermine its quality. Firaaq is a high quality product and I hope it will find its hype in India.
It seems that you're selecting your projects very carefully. Less films, less entertaining films.
An actor doesn't create roles nor does he get too many. An actor then gets what is offered to him and takes it on merit. Within that space, I kind of get offered such films which are thought provoking or fit into a sensible, commercial cinema. Once you keep doing them, your body of work is well defined by the films you do. I've never been offered main stream roles by main stream film makers and I guess that is because of the above same reason.
Gujarat is a state which has created a lot of problems for film makers in the past. Now that Firaaq is releasing, do you think dirty politics will start again?
I don't see Firaaq as a controversial film. I don't see Firaaq hurting anyone's sentiments. The story is taking place one month after the riots. I hope the film is viewed in the right perspective. It could've been set in any place which has seen that kind of violence. It touches these normal regular people directly or indirectly. I hope dirty politics is kept out of Firaaq.
Reality shows and promotion of any film is now becoming very cliched. How are you guys promoting Firaaq?
Each to their own. If every film would do well by promoting it on the reality shows, box office would be laughing. But I think Firaaq will depend a lot on word of mouth publicity. Like I said, the target audience already knows about the film. It's already in the news for winning awards all over. There is no kind of concentrated marketing campaign through these reality shows. In fact, the target audience of these reality shows is also quite general and not really specific.
By this I don't mean any physical violence, but any scars left behind after working with Nandita Das the debutant director? Any fond memories?
(laughs) When Nandita approached me for the part, I was very excited because I like her as an actor because of the kind of work she has done in her career. I was also excited to be a part of Firaaq because it had talents like Paresh Rawal, Naseeruddin Shah and Dipti Naval. Working with such great people have left behind so many memories.
How happy are you with the role you play in the film?
I am very happy. I play a modern day, urban and an educated Muslim guy who is struggling. It's an internal battle he is dealing with. At one level, he is searching his identity and on the other, he is feeling vulnerable in such time. I understood the part very well because something like this has happened to me personally in Kashmir. So what I had to do was just the role reversal. I was a Hindu boy feeling scared in Kashmir when the ethnic cleansing was happening. I also had to grow a beard to take my exams. I had to assert my identity in the time of crisis. I just changed the context here for the film.
We've heard a lot about your personal stories in Kashmir. Why don't we see you put it on the big screen now that you're also a producer?
I don't want to talk about my story in general. I've also heard stories that Firaaq might ignite fire again in Gujarat. The point is, whether it's a Hindu or a Muslim, whoever suffers, one has to understand his or hers pain. There is a dialogue in the film which says – 'Ek insaan doosre insaan ko maar raha hain'. To make people aware, I tell them that I have also been in the similar situation. The idea is to sensitise people towards violence. In Sikandar, which is my next release, I play a role of a Kashmiri politician. Another point is, you can take me out of Kashmir but cannot take Kashmir out of me.
Anything special about the director of Firaaq?
Yes. Besides being focused and having tremendous clarity, what I enjoyed was that she understands the mind of an actor because she is also an actor. Without handcuffing the actors and giving restrictions, she gives them a lot of freedom to work within the framework, and by the end of the day, it all seems like a very collaborative effort. Firaaq was more of a work shop than just work work which was very good because nowhere did she show to anyone of us that she was directing for the first time. She is very passionate and clear about her subject. Nandita didn't close herself to suggestions and at the same time she knew her point of view.
How do you think people in India are going to receive Firaaq?
I wish I had a concrete answer to this important question. I'm sure people will not hate the film. They would like the film but they might have issues and their individual point of views. But I think every film maker and the film should have a view of its own. I think people in India should see it as a human story whether its the people in Gujarat, Punjab, Maharashtra or Kashmir.
From acting you've moved on to being a producer. I'm sure the directors chair is waiting for you now.
(laughs) Acting is my bread, producing is my butter but I am not looking for the jam right now (laughs). I'm happy with the bread and butter. Direction is a qualified job and I'm not ready for that now. I've started production because I want to make the kind of films I believe in. I might be very harsh on myself if I take it up.
What if this film re-ignites those horrific moments for the ones who've gone through this ordeal after watching Firaaq?
It won't. I don't think that things catch fire unless you fan it. It's what you take from the film that matters. What has happened cannot be forgotten even today before the release of the film. As I've said before, I hope Firaaq is viewed in the right perspective.
Why is it important to watch Firaaq? Or do you feel so?
Yes, I do. It is important to watch Firaaq because it is a story of times which has passed by quite recently. It is important not to forget such incidents but at the same time not to carry any anger too. Watch Firaaq as a human story and as one and you'll love it.
What's future looking like?
I've got Firaaq up for release in two days, then I've got Sudhir Mishra production and Piyush Shah directed Sikandar which comes out next month. Then I'm waiting for Alibaug to get complete as we are now just waiting for Irrfan Khan's dates. That's a Sanjay Gupta film. Then the last of this years release hopefully will be a film called Flat which is produced by Anjum Rizvi.