Actor Sudesh Berry talks of his two-decade long career and shares his views on the Bollywood of today. BY REENA KARIM
I may have only been around five years old at the time, but I remember Sudesh Berry from his Mahabharata days on Doordarshan [Indian television network]. To be honest though, at that age it was probably the colourful costumes and the epic drama that drew me to this show. Years later – and I also have memories of this – when the Mills and Boons-inspired romantic drama Kashish, hit airwaves, its cult status shot both Sudesh and Malvika Tiwari to fame, making them a household name and making this actor the pin-up among young women. But it wasn’t until I watched JP Dutta’s Border that I actually noticed his exemplary performance, not to mention his distinct deep voice and the fact that his movie star looks were still intact.
So imagine my enthusiasm, as I prepared to interview him on his recent visit to Bangkok – where he is here on business and drawing inspiration for future ventures, details of which he remains tight-lipped about. But when we eventually met at the Holiday Inn Bangkok Silom Hotel, I was far from star struck and he was nothing like any of the celebrities I have encountered. In a charmingly modest gesture and in that same enigmatic voice, he introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Sudesh Berry.” To which I sardonically I replied, “I know, I am here to interview you.”
During the next two hours, over coffee, Sudesh and I retraced his steps into Bollywood, discussed his philosophical approach to his long and successful career, and examined the future prospects of this magnificent industry.
Tell us about your humble beginnings in theatre?
I had been a professional boxer for three years, competing in Western India championships. After an especially tough fight, where I was knocked out, my father asked me to quit. Then from the college gymkhana, [Indian filmmaker and social activist] Ashok Pandit introduced me to a theatre organisation called the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). The organisation was led by artists such as Shabana Azmi, Kaifi Azmi, and A.K. Hangal, and progressive writers that did socially relevant plays. They were a serious theatre group, but I wasn’t a serious theatre actor then. It was something I was trying out, more like an adventure. I was a raw talent when I came into the theatre in ‘83, with no command on language or diction. IPTA was my diamond cutting factory, the one that polished my skills.
How did that lead you to the silver screen?
This theatre troupe gave me the cut, the confidence and the seriousness, and the hold on camera and stage. I did that for six years, after which I started getting films and television offers. In 1987, I got to work on a TV show called Kashish, which only aired for eight episodes, but was a major hit. The women loved it. With that I was able to make a name for myself. I used to get letters written in blood from my fans. The success of the show gave me confidence and I began believing in myself. I was on this earth for some purpose and that this [acting] was my purpose.
As a new comer back then, how difficult was it for you to break into Bollywood?
[Film director] Ramesh Talwar was my guru, but I never sat back and left everything at his mercy. He did help me, but I also worked hard on my own. When I was offered a role in the film Ghayal in ‘87, I was still doing theatre productions. I remember him telling me that I was star material. When you see somebody you feel something, it’s an aura or a cosmic energy. You either have the gift or not. There is no in-between.
You have dabbled in cinema and in television, do you prefer one over the other?
I would act in television, but I would like to produce and direct movies and have my own production house. I always say that television is my wife and cinema is my girlfriend.
You have always taken your career at your own slow pace.Tell us a bit about that and why you took that approach.
People run to win in this industry, but I am a tortoise. I never ran after anybody. I never tried as hard as others because I figured out very early on that people will come to you if you have the talent. I will only take work intuitively. I have never gone knocking on doors to get movies. There is a difference between swabhiman and abhiman, self-respect and being very proud. I am very proud to have my self-respect. I do not believe in the Jo dikhta hai, woh bikta hai [that which is seen is sold] philosophy. Industry main sirf mukaddar aur ada chalti hai [luck, style, body language, and grammar are the qualities that get you far in this industry].
You have been very selective of your work over the course of your career. Do you ever regret any of your decisions especially when it comes to taking on more work or passing on certain projects?
There is no end to kash [if only]. It’s in my nature to take life as it comes. I live my life as though everyday would be the last. I don’t have time or inclination to regret. I feel like I have lived my life on my terms, maybe terms which my family or friends may not agree with. I am sure they feel that I should have taken on more projects and taken advantage of my skills. But I’ve taken my career at the speed I wanted to and for me that’s enough.
Looking back, was there a specific turning point in your career?
My turning point has yet to come. I am a dreamer and I want to do more than acting. I want to create things on celluloid. I want to make my own movies as a director and producer, and launch new talents.
What is your view of Bollywood now?
I think Bollywood should not copy Tamil and Telugu movies and do short cuts. By doing remakes of movies, using tried and tested actors and clichéd storylines, you may be able to make a few hundreds crores [millions], but is that really taking the industry forward? I think we need to give good writers the opportunity to develop their talents. Look at Pakistani TV serials, you actually feel like watching those because of their simplicity. It’s not that it’s drama-free, but it’s made with a lot of class. But here in Bollywood people don’t care as long as they are earning well. But that’s not the right attitude. Success is not measured by how many bungalows you have made on Juhu. A film should focus on a message that takes the society forward.
So many star kids are being launched into Bollywood, including your son Suraj. Do you think the current crop has what it takes?
My barometer for success and stardom ranges from Amitabh Bachchan to Hrithik Roshan. After Hrithik Roshan, I feel that Bollywood is going through a straining phase with newcomers. Actresses of yesteryears such as Poonam Dhillon, Padmini Kolhapure, and so on. all want to launch their sons, so they send them to Sanjay Yadav to learn dancing. Acting koi padhai thodi na hoti hai [acting is not something you can learn from a text book]. These youngsters come with six pack abs and think that a great body is all it takes to become an actor. Look at actors such as Charlie Chaplin, Clark Gabel, Amitabh Bachchan,Om Puri, Raj Kapoor, and Naseerudin Shah – they were known for their talents not their exterior. As for my son, I have always advised him to give it his all from his heart. He showed his mettle in Ekta Kapoor’s Little Godfather (an upcoming venture) and proved that he doesn’t need lessons from an acting school. He is a potential star, but what he evolves into really lies with him.
How do you measure success?
I believe we should rise above money and do something for the community at large. Show me another Prem Nazir or Rajnikanth, who have done so much for the betterment of society. If your surrounding is happy, you are happy. I feel this generation should cleanse their mind and do something for others. You should be successful from your mind not your pocket, because that’s temporary.
Featured in Masala magazine, October, 2014
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