Long before the likes of Irrfan Khan and Nawazzuddin Siddiqui made “unconventional” stylish in Indian cinema, it was the likes of Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Pankaj Kapoor and Satish Kaushik brought gravitas and thespian style to a superfluous industry.
Kaushik, in fact, was at the forefront of that group.
After a string of small roles in the early-to-mid 1980’s, the now prolific actor, director, producer and writer first came to the world’s attention as the funny and big-hearted ‘Calendar’ in the 1987 box office sensation Mr India.
The role established Kaushik, 59, firmly in Bollywood and set him up for memorable roles in films as varied as ‘Mr and Mrs Khiladi’, ‘Andaz’, ‘Calcutta Mail’, ‘Tehzeeb’ and the British Asian flick ‘Brick Lane’.
His latest is ‘Promise Dad’, an unusual and moving story of a father, a son and their commitment to excellence in the world of figure skating in London.
I caught up with the actor in London to find out more.
Sonal Gupta: Let’s first start with your role in ‘Promise Dad’.
Satish Kaushik: The first natural answer is I am in the age of a father now. I previously played the role of a father to two Bangladeshi girls in ‘Brick Lane’, which was shot here in London. This father is different from the ‘Brick Lane’ father because here it’s just two guys living in one apartment. It is a great story, great rapport and great emotional relations between a father and a son. In our society a father-son relationship is a very important relationship. From child he becomes a man and at one point the father becomes a child.
In today’s world it is not necessary that father tell their son what to do. ‘Malay’ my son was played by the British actor Tom Paulson. He’s a talented skater and wants to take it up professionally. His father, my character, works at a skating ring where he works as a mechanic and one day he tells his father that he wants to skate and the dad is very silent. He tells the son that the sport is for the rich and that he doesn’t have the resources to help him take up the sport. But he sees the passion of his son one day and from there he becomes determined to help the son – begging the powers that be for help, doing odd jobs to raise money etc. So he does everything to promote his son and fulfil his dream but at a cost where he loses his life and the son becomes very depressed and loses interest in skating. But he had made a promise to his dad and then he stands up and fulfils the promise he had given to his dad. So it is a very emotional story and journey. He does not have a mother because the British mother left his father long time back so there is just two people living in the house and how they relate to each other from dawn till dusk. So they have a great bonding. You will see that it is film that makes you cry and inspires you and it says something and specially I like the backdrop of the film which is ice skating. I have never seen films with ice skating which is a great sport.
SG: What was it like working with first-time feature director Ritesh Sinha?
SK: He has done an amazing job especially with the casting. When I came for the shoot here I felt like there were swans dancing with their posture their hand their legs it is tough! It is physically very tough you cannot become an ice skater just like that. The sport is very exciting and lyrical and musical and you have a lot of chemistry between these skaters. You know how a girl and a boy have confidence in each other to do the kind of acrobatics that are required. It was very exciting for me personally.
SG: You’re a veteran in Indian cinema and have made forays into world cinema as well. What was the biggest challenge in a British production for you?
SK: The tough part was because there are a lot of British actors in the film they speak great English but for me it was quite tough because I am a native Hindi speaking actor. Doing theatre in English or doing promos like this is fine but to speak in front of the camera becomes very tough for me but since Ritesh had a script ready I could learn my lines and work with him. We also had some workshops to get the right intonations and pauses. Otherwise it is a very simply structured film so I did not have many problems as such. Getting the emotions right was a challenge because people think I am just a comic actor and I do not have a serious side. But I belong to theatre and I have done every kind of role. ‘Brick Lane’ has shown this and ‘The Road Movie’ and my play as a salesman ‘Raj Lal’ also.
SG: ‘Promise Dad’ certainly has universal themes despite the figure skating backdrop.
SK: Absolutely. The Father-Son relationship is very much universal so it will not be tough for international audiences and those in India to connect to the film. Sometimes film has its own language without saying something you can understand. I think it can relate to Indian audiences because of the father and son relationship. Any inspirational story like ‘Lagaan’ or anything you come out of your boundaries and achieve and become victorious is always appreciated by the audience. It is a universal phenomena and Malay crosses that too against all odds there is too many hurdles you know and that is the most relatable part for the Indian audience. If it gets it dubbed in Hindi that’ll be good for the mass audience who can’t understand this sport. Here in England every Asian will understand the emotions clearly.
SG: What did Ritesh Sinha and you all as the cast want to convey with ‘Promise Dad’?
SK: Well, it’s about youngsters and telling them that anything is achievable with passion and hard work. It’s also about the importance of father’s paving the way for their children and supporting their visions and dreams.
SG: You’re not only a prolific actor but a director, writer and producer. Did you bring any of those talents to bear on the production?
SK: The problem is that I am an actor first and director later. Also, when I am acting, I completely lose the director part of me. I have to give myself away to the director to mould me in what he wants to take out of me. I never interfere in director’s way. Sometimes my experience tells the director that it can be done in a certain way like I will like to change my dialogue like this I will like to perform the scene like this. But that only relates to my acting not the film-making process. I never interfere in that.
SG: As such a widely-respected actor, what are your thoughts on the recent controversies surrounding the Indian Censor Board?
SK: Yes there’s been a lot of talk but I don’t think the problem is as severe as has been made out. We have an industry insider (Pahlaj Nihalani) running the Censor Board and he brings a lot of experience. Freedom of expression is our birthright and what we want to say should be said. But that does not mean that you use abusive language and things that are not socially acceptable so that’s where the censor board comes in. But definitely if you ask me then self-censorship is the best censorship. You should know what to keep and what not to keep.
SG: Cinema as most art is merely a reflection of the society it stems from. So censorship is censoring reality. There are stories that will require swear words but according to Mr Nihalani you can’t use many swear words.
SK: Yes, definitely you can’t stop that if you have to show a character of a prostitute and she has some way of speaking where you have to use certain words then they have to be there. And lot of times censor has been fine with that. Songs like ‘D K Bose’ from ‘Delhi Belly’ or even films like ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’. Whether it is for titivation or whether it is for real that should be counted and taken care of. Sometimes some people do it just to sell the film, if that is not there then reality should definitely not be stopped it is an expression of a real image you are showing so censors should not have any objection to that.
SG: But for movies like ‘Water’ the main objective was to reveal the reality of the situation despite that it was still banned. What is your opinion about that?
SK: Wrong! That was wrong they should not be banned. Again freedom of expression comes in this sphere. This should not be done. Actually we are in a very muddy situation just now. Some movies are passed and some movies are not passed and it has been for years. When Raj Kapoor showed the breast of an actress in a movie it was passed look at the intention he had something to say about it whether Zeenut Aman do Satyam Shivam Sundaram it was always like that censors were lenient towards some and not to others. I am talking about eras past. One she should really see it like censor board and government whatever should be very open minded. Today’s generation today’s talking style has changed. Sometimes I see youngsters using abusive language very easily in their normal conversation so what to do about that. And that can only be done with an open mind.
SG: What about the recent issue surrounding the Film and Television Institute of India? How important is it to keep an institution like that free from political influence?
SK: I am with the students because it is not about BJP or some other party previously also there was a BJP member Vinod Khanna he was chairman of the institute and nobody talked about it. But why this? Because sometimes as a filmmaker in a room you would like to install pictures of great directors or actors like Charlie Chaplin so it is very inspiring to see their pictures and you get a lot of learning without them telling you anything. So this post is a very important one and the person coming on should be somebody who has a lot of credibility. It is very important that he or she is going to educate and inspire future filmmakers. It is not like the chairman is going to come to your class everyday and tell you and structure your syllabus or something like that. The whole thing is that everybody feels that he is actually not the right material. So when he is not the right material the whole burden falls on BJP. BJP or no BJP that is not the issue, but the fact that you do not have credentials you do not know anything about national/international cinema. And not just Hindi films there are many regional films you have never attended any national festival so nothing has been done. You do not have that stature. You might have been a great person. This is no cine artist institution this is film institution that is world known and it should be like we look unto that person with great respect and that only comes from a good body of work.
SG: Would you consider taking up the chairmanship of FTII?
SK: Why just FTII? Any institution I would love to because it is time to give back to the industry that I love. Also I can say that being a student of the National School of Drama, and FTII student and doing international cinema and doing a lot of theatre and film and being a writer myself any responsibility given where I can just share my experience would be amazing. But I think the students of FTII need someone of greater stature, someone they can really look up to.