What doesn’t get written about enough, is how apart from talent, much of one’s acting career must depend completely on blind luck.
Making his debut in 1996 with Gulzar’s Maachis, Chandrachur Singh started on a note that many aspiring actors could only dream of. He received praise from film intelligentsia for his turn in Maachis, and tasted commercial success with Tere Mere Sapne. But a few unsuccessful films, an ill-timed shoulder injury and some shelved projects later, Singh was ‘benched’. Resurfacing on Set Max or Zee Cinema only occasionally, thanks to films like Daag – The Fire or Kya Kehna.
“A lot of these films got a lot of repeat value (sic) thanks to the TV boom in the early 2000s. Which is why, in spite of (no) social media, I think I was alive in people’s memories,” Singh tells The Indian Express during a phone interview.
With the new-found independence of not having ‘trade experts’ proclaim Friday collections and deliver one-word verdicts, makers can recall actors like Singh, irrespective of what their last box office performance might have been. Cast in Ram Madhvani and Sandeep Modi’s Aarya, Singh plays the role of Tej Sareen. A nicely written (and realised) character, who is so many things at once. He’s a smooth-talking honcho of a criminal enterprise, prioritising morning puja over customs officials. He hums old Hindi songs for his wife and children, collects vintage LPs, launches into an explicit tirade towards a mercurial brother-in-law. Thanks to both, Singh’s controlled performance, and some clever writing, we get a sense of how layered the character is in just one episode.
Chandrachur Singh spoke to us about the lessons he’s learned, and navigating the terrain in the much-deserved second innings.
Excerpts from the conversation:
Q. Let’s start with 1996, when you had Tere Mere Sapne and Maachis in the same year. What was the first indication that life had changed?
The first indication was when I went outside the house. I was being recognised for both Maachis and Tere Mere Sapne. Even though the looks were different for the two films. There would be people who recognised me and they would come and take autographs. There was a bit of… mobbing going on. It was a happy feeling. There was no plan as such – how the looks will be different, and how the films will cater to different audiences. Jayaji (Bachchan) cast me first in Tere Mere Sapne, and Gulzar sahab cast me after that. The films were also released around the same time. Maachis released first, and Tere Mere Sapne released around a month and half later.
I came to Bombay around 88-89, and my first film went on floors in 1990. We shot around 60-80% of the film, and then it was shelved. And then there were many near-misses over the next five-six years, before I landed these two films. In those years, I had doubts about the career I had chosen and enjoyed teaching (instead). I taught music in Vasant Valley, Delhi, and then went on to teach History at The Doon School in Dehradun, which happens to be my former school. So I thought in case (acting) didn’t work out, I got myself a permanent job as a teacher in Doon school. But when the opportunity did arise, I gave a test for Jayaji, and I was approved. For Gulzar sahab, I thought I would give acting one last shot, and thankfully both films got made and succeeded, critically and commercially. That’s when I decided I would stick around.
Q. Did you later ask Gulzar sahab about what prompted him to cast you in Maachis?
I had gone to his office with a stubble. I had no idea that he was looking for someone with a stubble. He spoke to me, and I think he felt I was appropriate for the character. He asked me if I had work to show, and I told him that I’d done a screen test for Mrs Bachchan. He clearly liked my interview, and he also got hold of the screen test that I had done for Jayaji. He called her up because they were really close, having worked in films like Parichay and more. He asked for my screen test, saw it and approved. By the time I reached home, I was told that I had been cast in Maachis. It was a very pleasant surprise, that it all happened so smoothly. Apparently, he waited really long to cast the character of Kirpal.
Q. Did the five-year period prepare you for success when it finally came in 1996?
Yes, it definitely did. When you have seen enough challenges, you tend to look at everything with the right attitude, even though success can so often be overwhelming. In two-three months, people get recognition and adulation. But one also becomes philosophical and pragmatic about it. One doesn’t take it too seriously. It prepared me for life. Even when there was a lull in my career, I learned how to cope with it.
Q. What do you think went wrong between 1997 and 2002?
I think it was around 2002, when I started to do very little work. It was a combination of some lovely projects that never took off, certain choices made about working with a particular person or not. You’re not always right. From signing a film to its release, there are a lot of variables. Many completed films didn’t release, many films on floors were stopped. These are my memories of those years. There were many films whose promos and songs had come out, but the films never released in the theaters. There was this movie I did with Shilpa Shetty called Junoon, and there was another one with Sonali Kulkarni. There was one film with Sanjay Dutt and Shamita Shetty called Mohabbat Ho Gayi Hai Tumse, and there were other big projects that I don’t want to revisit. It’s just a case of many slips between the cup and the lip.
Q. Would you have done something differently if you could relive those years all over again?
There were choices that I made, and there were all these cumulative factors. One of them being my decision, and then there are others like the destiny of a project. There was also an injury which interfered with my work. My left shoulder was dislocated, which interrupted my shoots. I couldn’t exercise too much, which led to a weight gain. And despite having surgery, the problem would reoccur, and interfere with my schedules. But, that’s the beauty of life, isn’t it?
Q. When you started out, had you clearly made the distinction between being an actor and a star?
I think it was clear that I wanted to be an actor of substance. I was in St Stephen’s, all set to appear for my UPSC exams, wanting to become an IAS or IFS officer. Offers came to me, and as much as I wanted to be successful, I think I also had the hunger to be known as an actor worth his salt. It was a different time, where there were no casting directors. You had to walk into the offices of directors/producers with your photographs, hoping that you get a break. There was no way to showcase your abilities apart from physically approaching them.
Q. Correct me if I’m wrong – but I think once you’ve lived a celebrity life in Bombay, you need to detox to come back to ‘normal life’. How did you transition?
It’s not easy, but it’s part of life. One wasn’t getting the kind of work that one wanted. The offers were drying up. Things were not in one’s control. But I was also busy being a father.
Q. It was a nice surprise to see you in Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, lip-syncing to Ali Sethi’s Dil Jalaane Ki Baat Karte Ho. It was a minor role. Why did you take it up?
I think to work with Mira Nair. We were supposed to work together in a film in the 2000s; she was making Buddha. However, that didn’t work out. When she approached me for this role through her casting directors, I said why not!
Q. Coming to Aarya, what a fine performance. Was there something you brought to Tej Sareen that wasn’t on paper?
Tej likes to hum songs, something that wasn’t very pronounced at first. But the fact that I could sing, it became a bonus characteristic for the character. And there were the acting workshops, and every cast member brought something to the table. Every crew member brought something special to the screen. There was about 250 hours of footage that was edited to under 9 hours. I think, ultimately, it all fell into place.
Q. What’s your equation with Arshad Warsi – after starting together, you both have had a similar kind of career graph. Did you guys keep in touch?
In fact, he asked me to do a role in Zila Ghaziabad. We are only a phone call away, but sometimes when you are away from work and circumstances are such that you lose touch. But we both have very fond memories of working together in both Tere Mere Sapne and Betaabi. We were good friends off-screen.
Q. Looking at the film industry, what’s one thing you are really glad about in 2020?
I think that the kind of roles on offer don’t have to be according to your image with the audience. Now, you can play all kinds of roles. Also, with OTT platforms, there’s a surge of stories being told over nine or ten episodes, so you get a chance to build character graphs. There’s so much for an actor to sink his/her teeth into because there’s just so much more work happening right now.
Q. Is there a recent film you saw that made you wish you were a part of it?
There have been so many good films. I really enjoyed Super 30. There are so many of these biopics, which are largely character-driven and you are not playing ‘hero’. There was Sushant (Singh Rajput) in MS Dhoni. What a performance! What an actor!
Q. Also, something you think hasn’t changed about Hindi films, and will never change?
The fact that it entertains. It’s a huge medium in India. Unfortunately, theaters are shut at the moment, but cinema is a very integral part of our culture. Cricket and cinema vis-a-vis have been the largest platforms to reach out to a pan-India audience. There’s just so much work happening that cinema gives us a way to escape, and that’s wonderful.