'Playing people from different backgrounds comes easily to me'
Sarita Choudhury has never been busier. She is a regular on Homeland, has a film with Ben Kingsley and a play that opened to rave reviews. The actress traces her career in a conversation with rediff.com's Arthur J Pais
Sarita Choudhury, who was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award -- as part of an ensemble cast for Homeland -- is now getting the attention she deserves.
The actress who debuted in Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala in 1991 has never been stuck to playing Indian characters.
In Wild West, she played a Pakistani Londoner with the voice of a Nashville songbird and a Latina maid who is raped by a wealthy landowner in The House Of Spirits.
“Left to myself I would only play an Indian,” Choudhury had said in an earlier interview. “But the reality was that there were hardly any Indian characters I could play in the films made in England and Hollywood. So I had to learn how to disappear into a variety of characters.”
Before Choudhury arrived with Mississippi Masala there were not many significant actors of Indian heritage in American and British movies.
Sabu, a real life elephant boy from Mysore, was a Hollywood legend with hits like Elephant Boy, The Jungle Book, and The Thief of Baghdad in the 1930s and early 1940.
“He was a true pioneer,” his wife Marilyn told me many years ago. “He did not play just Indian characters. For he was in films like The Thief Of Baghdad.”
Sabu died of a heart attack at age 39 in 1963. No other desi actor could match his appeal for a long time after his death.
Bollywood’s 1960s heartthrob Shashi Kapoor acted in a few Hollywood films like A Matter Of Innocence (1967) and a few independent films like Heat And Dust by the Ismail Merchant-James Ivory team, but his success was limited.
Ben Kingsley -- born Krishna Bhanji -- attained instant stardom with the Oscar winner Gandhi (1981), but unlike the swarthy Sabu, he did not have particularly Indian looks.
In the 1990s, just as Choudhury was making her mark in America, Naveen William Sidney Andrews -- whose parents had migrated from near Hyderabad in India -- was making an impact with films like Wild West in the UK.
Desi talent gained recognition, particularly on television, only some two decades ago.
Choudhury, the daughter of scientist Prabhas Chandra Choudhury and Julia Patricia Spring, his English wife, has come a long way.
From doing bit roles in television series and acting in over two dozen films, she is now a regular on Homeland.
Choudhury said the role of Mira Berenson, reminds her of her parents to some extent.
Mira is the estranged wife of acting Central Intelligence Agency director Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin). She returns to him after having left him earlier for a job in Mumbai.
Choudhury, who has lived in several countries, has been to India to work in a few films, including Nair’s Kama Sutra.
She said her knowledge of India helped her understand a few crucial things about her character in Homeland.
The adult quotient in some of her films and plays may make a conventional viewer a bit uneasy, but Choudhury is not uncomfortable.
“I look at the overall role,” she said, “and will do those scenes only for the directors I totally trust. They are looking out for the best for the artists and are aware of the integrity of the play or the film.”
Many times she has played the lead or key roles in over four plays back to back.
“But about 200 or 300 people see them,” she said, “No surprise some of my friends and admirers wonder why I am not busy.”
The filmed version of her latest play Platonov is being shown in New York under the name The Disinherited, and if the response is good, it will travel to other cities.
Choudhury was recently in Los Angeles for the SAG awards. Though Homeland did not win the award, she came back to New York having signed for a big project.
“I cannot speak about it,” she said. “But I will look eagerly forward to playing it.”
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Image: Sarita Choudhary and Mandy Patinkin in Homeland
'If nothing were to work out, I would have read books, plays and poems, theater and non-fiction all my life'
In Platonov you play a Russian, Anna Voynitsev. You have played a Latina maid and the iconic Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (The Rise Of Dorothy Hale). You have also played Indian characters. How do you play so many ethnic parts and make them your own?
I don’t think of the characters as nationalities. I do not live in India. Playing people from different backgrounds, including Indians, comes easily to me.
For me what is important is to bring the inner life of these characters, their strengths, contradictions, anguish and triumph alive.
If I am paying a historical character, I try to watch the person in newsreels, and read about them, but I will not imitate them.
I was surprised the way (India’s former prime minister) Indira Gandhi’s lips and tongue moved when she spoke, and that made me think about her thought process and her personality. This was a clue to me to create her image in Midnight’s Children.
Playing a variety of ethnic characters is natural to me. I grew up in different countries -- Jamaica, Italy, United Kingdom, mostly because my father was a United Nations scientist.
Then I lived in Toronto, went to school in Canada, and got more of a multicultural experience.
New York, of course, has people from all over the world. I catch the accents quite easily and these days, many filmmakers won’t insist on doing accents and they want us not to be distracted from the emotions because of the accents.
In America, they often don’t know where I am from. The important point is the audience should not be able see through it. It should be so natural that your close friends may even think that you are not a great actor.
You have a complex role in Homeland. What kind of a challenge did it offer?
I did not go into it thinking of it as a challenge. It was a well-written part and I wanted to make sure that I played it well.
The greatest part about being on Homeland is doing justice to the superb writing and working with Mandy Patinkin.
I am lucky because I mostly work with him, so I feel like I am in a good game. I have seen him in many excellent stage productions and here we are working together.
You have said Mississippi Masala consolidated the growing status of your co-star Denzel Washington, but the industry did not know what to make of you.
It is true. When the film came out no one knew what to do with my look. It was okay to be black, but to be an Indian in America? I was not going to give up.
I did not really have any goals then in my acting life, nor do I have them now.
All that I wanted to do was to act, be it in the movies or in theatre.
I am a heavy reader. If nothing were to work out, I would have read books, plays and poems, theatre and non-fiction all my life. I enjoy reading philosophical work a lot.
I feel I’ve escaped being pigeonholed. I was still waiting tables in New York, in fact in a restaurant next to the Angelika movie house where Mississippi Masala was running, and I continued doing that for some more time.
Then I went to England. One of the reasons for doing it was to meet with British director Declan Donnellan whose work I admired greatly when it was staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.
I begged him to take me in his plays, especially his Shakespearean plays. That is how I got to play a lead role in Much Ado about Nothing.
I felt very vindicated and honored when the play came to New York.
You also toured quite a bit across England with Much Ado...
We toured all through the world.
Working with a handful of directors has taught me a great deal, and Donnellan was one of them.
He used to say, characters, they all lie.
His other famous observation: ‘But we never tell the truth. We cannot properly ‘tell’ the truth, because our words are crude tools to express something, ‘the truth’, which may well exist, but which we cannot define.’
It is difficult for me to explain what I have taken from this man. For it has all been internalised
Did any casting director suggest you change your last name? Showbiz is full of people, including a few Indian Americans, who have anglicized their names.
No one asked me to change my name or suggested I do it. If they had asked, I would have refused.
Of course, sometimes my name is mispronounced and I have no trouble in telling them the correct pronunciation.
It was not my name that worried me, in the days of Mississippi Masala, but getting a lot of attention and nothing coming out of it.
It wasn’t an easy time for me. I wondered if I had to go back being a waitress.
I had to decide my moves quickly.
I was not interested in television and I don’t think anyone in the TV industry was interested in me.
There were hardly any parts for South Asians then (nearly 20 years ago) unlike now.
But when cable became big and interesting, well-written shows were being created, I felt hopeful of working in them.
I accepted many recurring, but small parts, and slowly started getting bigger roles.
Image: Sarita Choudhary and Mikah Ernest Jennings in Platonov
'I was just out of college when Mira Nair signed me for her film Mississippi Masala'
Filmmakers who have influenced you?
Undoubtedly, Mira Nair. I was just out of college when she signed me for her film Mississippi Masala. She had been out of college for a few years.
Both of us were young and were ready to explore the world. In her, I saw somebody I wanted to become.
One of my new favourites is (Spanish filmmaker) Isabel Coixet who has made films like Elegy with Ben Kingsley, Penelope Cruz and Patricia Clark; My Life without Me and The Secret Life of Words.
She is extraordinary in taking us deep into the characters we are playing. She has no cameraman and she holds the camera herself.
She is an intellectual and yet she can be very funny, too. Working with such people is a pleasure.
I come into the third part of her film Learning To Drive.
There is an arranged marriage element in this movie, which is about a breaking marriage and a new marriage about to take place. My role has some really funny moments.
I play the bride of a driving instructor (Kingsley). I cannot speak anything else about it at the moment.
When I met Coixet, I was prepared to work with her, without even asking what my role was. When you have a great director, it’s just wonderful. I think I will be in her next film, too.
The film you made in India a few years ago For Real did not go anywhere, but you are glad you did it.
I thought the story of an urban couple having to choose between family and career could resonate with anyone. I also liked the idea of playing a mother, who keeps the suffering inside. It was very different from the rebellious roles I have played in many films.
You also went against type in the New York version of the hit play Rafta Rafta (some six years ago) by Ayub Khan-Din.
It was another exploration.
I was in my early 40s when I played the mother of grown up children in an Indian immigrant family in England. I had always played the younger generation till then and I found it a bit comical to be playing what I rebelled against (in films and on stage).
But then I realised that as I get older, the roles get better. So no complaints.
You said in an interview that you wore glasses in Rafta, Rafta so ‘people couldn’t see me that well.’ You added that wearing them all the time made you feel a little bit ‘uglier.’
True. I had to make the character believable. I had a very good time working in that production. I was surrounded by a large cast of very talented artists of Indian origin.
That the show was a big success in New York too, showed that any good work of theater can find a wide audience if we are all honest about what we do.
A lot of people admired your work in the New York production of Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder.
I would first give credit to the writer. He gives us such a compact world, full of tension and surprises that you do not have to go outside the play to make it work.
It was simply amazing. My character was full of surprises. Here is a man who thinks he can demand anything from his women, but at least one woman stands up to him.
Maria Mileaf, who directed the New York edition, is another amazing director.
A big part of the pleasure of being in this profession is working with people like Maria, Mira and Donnellan.
Do you watch your films?
I don’t like to for I will be analyzing them, wondering why I did a particular thing or why I did not do a particular thing. There is some truth to when actors say they do not watch their own films.
But if I watch them, I do so to see the bigger picture, how the film has shaped up, what the director and editor have done with it, and also to watch the other artists.
I have been lucky to have acted with some very fine artists in films, on TV and on stage.
Apart from reading, what else gives you joy?
I lead a simple life. You will often find me riding my bicycle to my work in New York or going to my favourite coffee shop.
I have a family (she has a daughter) but I do not speak about them.
Image: Sarita Choudhary and Denzel Washington in Mississippi Masala