PERCHED ON the window seat of his somewhat sea-facing 1BHK in Versova, Mumbai, Tanmay Dhanania admits that he’s unsure about this interview. “You need to give interviews, you need to have a profile to get the kind of work you’re looking for. But I really believe that the more you get known, the more your work suffers. The more you get recognised, the more public perception is formed, it’ll get harder to play the parts you want to play,” he says. Having just watched the Indian premiere of Garbage at the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival’s year-round programme last week, one half-nods in agreement. In director Qaushiq Mukherjee aka Q’s most “joyless” film ever, Dhanania plays Phanishwar, a cab driver in Goa who is utterly devoted to a Hindu godman, spews hateful right-wing propaganda on social media and keeps a slave chained up in his home. It’s hard to think of any actor working in the mainstream who would play this protagonist, let alone lend empathy to such a character, but Dhanania succeeds admirably.
“Phanishwar is a representation of the misogyny, the patriarchy and the polarisation that’s taking place in this country now. He’s a Hindu Brahmin but doesn’t come from socio-economic privilege, is drawn to communal forces because they represent some kind of hope for him. Everything in this film has happened in India this year — the cow vigilantes, the godmen, rapes, revenge porn, lynch mobs — it goes into real spaces. But as an actor, I cannot judge Phanishwar. What is interesting to me is somebody who can be kind and gentle in one situation but also capable of incredible hate and violence in another,” he says. Garbage, the only Indian film to be featured at Berlinale this year, has quietly made the festival rounds before being screened in Mumbai. Is Netflix on the cards? “It’s hard to say, because even though several indie features find space there, Garbage might be too hard for that platform,” he says.
When not playing emaciated, morally ambiguous characters, the 32-year-old actor from Kolkata can be seen on British television, speaking the Queen’s English with quite a bite. Since he graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in 2013, Dhanania has played Bobby Johal, a surgeon, in BBC’s New Tricks (2014), Naseem Ali Khan, an investigative journalist in Channel 4’s Indian Summers (2015), and Prince Jeejeebuoy in ITV’s The Durrells this April. “I’m usually cast as a ‘haughty’ Indian, as opposed to the terrorist, or the kebab guy, or somebody who’s fresh off the boat,” he says. He once sought to audition for a National Theatre production of Behind the Beautiful Forevers, a play based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Katherine Boo, but his agent couldn’t arrange it. “She said it’s because of the parts I’ve played, I’m viewed as not poor or uneducated,” Dhanania says, with a slight chuckle.
Closer home, in the last two years, Dhanania has collaborated with Q and played Ajay, the bespectacled best friend and fellow pervert in Brahman Naman (2016), and Arjun, a man on the run in Goa in Zero Kms (2018), on the digital platform, Zee5. “I trust him. Unlike most actors in India, Tanmay is a superb anchor — he knows his place in every scene, whether it is concretely supporting every scene as Ajay, so that Naman can do whatever he does, or in something like a reactive experiment that is Zero Kms,” says Q.
On screen, Dhanania is a quiet presence — whether it is Ajay watching Naman’s sexual conquests from a distance; or Phanishwar who will think nothing of pressing a hot iron onto his slave’s bare skin; or even the young, timid-looking husband in a 2016 De Beers ad, who surprises his wife with a dazzling pair of solitaire earrings. His frame, in all of his work so far, is slight, looking as though he might be swept away in a strong gust of wind. His theatre training has enabled him to go method, so to speak — he will alter his diet, his physicality as much is required for a role. We meet right after he’s finished shooting for Cat Sticks, photographer Ronny Sen’s directorial debut, about a group of drug addicts in Kolkata. Dhanania has regained some weight, but his cheeks are still a little sunken in.
After St Xavier’s Collegiate School, Kolkata, Dhanania went on to study nuclear engineering at UC Berkeley, US. “When I returned, I knew I wanted to be an actor. I joined Tin Can, founded by my friends, and taught theatre in some schools. But it wasn’t something that my family understood too well,” he says. Applying to RADA on a lark, Dhanania was thrilled when he got in, thinking he wouldn’t return to India after he graduated, but the UK government had different plans. “They didn’t consider me an actor of ‘exceptional promise’. The late Alan Rickman, a RADA alumnus, wrote them a letter on my behalf, but they still didn’t think his word was good enough,” he says, adding, “But I got the TV show gig right when I was leaving, so BBC had to figure out the visa to get me back.”
Dhanania is averaging an appearance in one British show a year, but he no longer wants to live in the UK. “I’m far more relevant here than I will ever be over there. The work I can do here is more exciting. I have privilege here, and I want to use it to talk about things that are happening in India, to be able to hold a mirror up to the viewer. I want to work with my friends, actor and producer, Soumyak Kanti DeBiswas, and Ronny, Tanaji Dasgupta and Bornila Chatterjee (who co-wrote The Hungry). We can try and make work that can change the scene. But I’ll still be the hamster on a wheel because I live in Bombay and I have to act in ads to pay rent and other bills,” he says.
Will Bollywood ever be a destination? “Someone like me — urban educated but without any connections in the industry — Bollywood doesn’t know what to do with us. We’ll get bit parts in things but neither the time nor money is worth it. I’ve refused those kinds of roles simply because everything revolves around the star. And when they are available, you’ll have to forego any work that can come in the meantime,” he says.