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Brick Lane - Satish Kaushik interview

Brick Lane

Interview by Rob Carnevale

SATISH Kaushik talks about the appeal of a role like Chanu Ahmed in Sarah Gavron’s Brick Lane and why the role means so much for him as an actor with a theatrical background who often struggles to show his diversity and range…

What appealed to you about the role of Chanu in Brick Lane?
Satish Kaushik: Chanu is, for me, a dream part. It’s a very important stage of my life to play Chanu. I’ve been an actor in India for many, many years and I’ve had theatre training, from Ibsen to Chekhov and especially Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman – the part of Willy Loman. I felt that many of Willy’s qualities were there in the role of Chanu. Like Willy, he was a failure, but he has many stories and creates an alternate world for himself. I thought the novel was fantastic – it’s a great piece of human drama. It’s rare that you get to play a character that’s so diversified, who has so many layers. It was actually quite tough to get into the character at times.

I guess the trick is to make him sympathetic because there are plenty of times when he doesn’t appear to be that likeable?
Satish Kaushik: Yes, he has un-likeable qualities but slowly he gets into your heart and strikes a chord with you, especially in the last scene when everything has gone for him. He just crumbles in front of his wife. People have told me that they really felt for Chanu at that time. So, it’s been great for me to play a role such as this, especially in light of the reviews we’ve been getting and the applause we got from audiences after the London Film Festival screening.

The film doesn’t shy away from tackling the controversial topics and there’s a wonderful moment where you stand up in front of a meeting hall after 9/11 and make a really impassioned speech about the nature of tolerance. I imagine that was something to really sink your teeth into?
Satish Kaushik: When I read the novel I always felt that Chanu speaks from his heart. He doesn’t plan things. So, when you see him in front of this younger guy at first you almost expect him to hit out or something. You don’t know what he’s going to do… Is he going to disgrace his wife as well? But instead he says something that invites people to be grown-up about the situation and which demonstrates the level of his intellect. I’m not really politically inclined personally but I had to do my research on what is happening to Muslims here as part of my preparation for the role. But Chanu makes some really thoughtful points in that scene and it’s when you really start respecting him as a character.

Were you surprised by the demonstrations that took place during the filming of Brick Lane?
Satish Kaushik: I was, yes. Most of the time people were so cordial and friendly during filming. But there was a small group that hadn’t even read the novel that got up and started protesting. It was sad because we had to shoot some of the scenes later on. I don’t know why this group stood up and said what it did. It even affected our Royal Gala Performance. When I first heard about that in India I was jumping around and telling people: “My God, I’m going to meet the Royal Family!” It was going to be a great honour that the Royal family was going to be acknowledging the presence of such a small community in Britain. I’m sure they [the protestors] had their own reasons but for us it was a great disappointment.

I’d imagine the two awards you picked up at the Dinard British Film Festival eased that disappointment?
Satish Kaushik: Yes, we won for best screenplay and the Silver Hitchcock Award, which was great. And hopefully there’s more to come – Bafta, Golden Globes and Oscar [laughs]. It’s a great privilege for this Bangladeshi community that they have come to be represented in this sort of film. They are known all over the world now. This is a great human story and it’s very relevant to our times.

What does landing the role of Chanu mean for your career?
Satish Kaushik: Well, I’ve been a director and actor in India for some time but in Indian movies what happens is that you can start getting locked into the same roles. If you’re a funny guy, you’re a funny guy… It’s not like that here where you can tap into your other talents like actors such as Danny DeVito and Robin Williams have been able to. So, to get to play a character that was difficult and multi-layered was a real challenge, especially as the story really belongs to Nazneen [Tannishtha Chatterjee]. It means I can go back to my theatre background and show people what else I can do. I’ve had sleepless nights because I’m so happy [laughs].

The whole process of finding Chanu was also fun, because it required underplaying the role a lot. I learned that you don’t have to show your emotions all the time, but rather let them stay inside. Sarah [Gavron, the director] really helped me in terms of getting it right because I’ve been doing so many roles in Indian movies where the performance level is more melodramatic and a little higher. Now, anyone who has seen my Indian performances and then sees me in this will probably say: “Oh my God, look at what this actor can do!” But that was the whole point of taking this role. I would never have got a role like this in Indian movies.

As an actor and director, which do you prefer? Being in front of or behind the camera?
Satish Kaushik: Well, I’ve done so many funny roles in Indian movies that when I’ve been asked this question previously I always answer that I love challenging jobs. And directing is therefore much more challenging than acting. I love the challenge of holding so many people together. But when you’re faced with a role like Brick Lane, it’s much more challenging as an actor. You don’t necessarily know where you can go, or what’s right and wrong [for the character]. I’d love to get more of these solid roles in India – but if I not, I’ll go back to directing. In fact, I’ve just completed my 12th film over there.

b>Read our review of Brick Lane