By Kanika Tandon
LONDON: Satya Bhabha is better known in India for playing Saleem Sinai, the lead character in Deepa Mehta’s screen version of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.
The 30-year-old actor may be of a short frame but is a powerhouse of talent. Born to illustrious Homi K. Bhabha and his Italian wife, Satya studied theatre at Yale University to pursue a stage career in London and New York.
Satya is already a known name in Hollywood with the 2010 super-hit Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, in which he played Matthew Patel. He also worked with Sean Penn in 2010’s Fair Game.
In this interview, Satya shares with us how playing Saleem was an exercise in finding his Indian roots and why he would love to work in Indian cinema.
How did you get the role of Saleem Sinai?
I had met Deepa through a common friend. It was a very social meeting. We sat down and chatted, but I never imagined I would play Saleem. On my second meeting with Deepa, she hinted me that she may be considering me for the role of Saleem in Midnight’s Children. She must have discussed it with Salman (Rushdie) and I guess they both must have agreed on me, but I didn’t know.
And, I didn’t find out until five-six months later in November 2009, when she announced after a public screening of Heaven On Earth in New York, that I would be playing Saleem. She said to the audience, ‘The young man playing Saleem is right over there.’ I was surprised, pleasantly surprised.
How do you decide what role is right for you?
Certainly, you want a challenge. You don’t want something you have done before. You don’t want people to see you in a certain way and pigeon-hole you. I believe that the greater the challenge, the better the result. Not to forget that ultimately, a film is a collaborative effort; it’s not done in a vacuum.
So, it’s really about who I am working with—that’s really very important. If you find collaborators with whom you have a synchronicity, then that is really a major reason to do the project.
How did you prepare for Saleem? Given that you’ve been born and raised in the UK and the US, how difficult was it to play a character from Bombay?
A lot of preparation went into playing Saleem. We both are quite positive and hopeful people. We are both affectionate and quite close to our families. But, in contextual ways, we both are different. Saleem lived in Bombay and for me to understand the culture and context of the character was a lot of work.
So, I did a lot of reading. I read everything from Discovery of India to India After Gandhi to Maximum City and Freedom at Midnight–all these sort of books about the history of India, which I wasn’t really familiar with. Then, I also spent a lot of time living there and travelling. I also learnt some rudimentary Hindi (don’t test me on it!). It was time spent on building a sense of myself as an Indian. My father is Indian, my mother is Italian and I have never lived in India, so that was very important.
So was this preparation for the role of Saleem also an exercise in finding your roots?
It was all about finding the roots. I never had a personal relationship with India. It was really about awakening this side of me and that was the best experience. Some of the best times of this movie were before we started shooting. I was travelling around, throwing myself into the mad soup of Bombay, bubbling up to the top.
I spent a lot of time in Bombay. There was a lot to be done–taking third-class trains all around Rajasthan, visiting Dharavi, getting a sense of the city from one of its tallest buildings. I did a lot of walking and also made friends with local fishermen.
Most importantly, I spent a lot of time sleuthing Salman and Saleem’s history in the city. So, I visited Salman’s home where he grew up, the cathedral school, the Breach Candy School, and other places.
You explored a part of India, when the actual shooting was done in Sri Lanka. What was the reason?
We shot in Sri Lanka, but it wasn’t because we weren’t given permission to shoot in India. The primary reason to shoot in Sri Lanka was one of locations. You cannot find 1950s, 60s or 70s India in India because there has been so much development. It would have required a lot of digital work to recreate that look we wanted.
Sri Lanka, for very sad reasons, was stuck in an awful civil war for the last 30 years. As a result, it hasn’t changed very much. So for that reason, we were able to find those colonial houses and the colonial layout–less busy, older buildings. That was the main reason we shot in Sri Lanka. We were able to get this time period without having to spend so much time and money into digitally recreating it.
Who are your favourite authors?
I would say this even if I wasn’t in his film, but Salman has always been one of my favourite authors. Forever, I would say Midnight’s Children is my favourite book, but I will have to change that now because it sounds too cheesy.
I love Michael Chabon and his book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is amazing. I really hope it becomes a film and I could be involved with that.
Anton Chekov is a personal favourite because I am originally a theatre actor and his works make some of best writing ever. The way that he crafts and details his characters is so unique.
And among Indian authors?
Most recently I read India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha, which is a really fantastic book. There is not much written about India after partition, about the history of India in the last 60 years, so that book was important. It does give a context to the aftermath of this history of partition.
Share with us a few things which not many people know.
(Laughs) My grandmother lives in Colaba, Bombay and she is a wonderful woman. She used to do amateur theatre.
I am a Cellist and I play in a band called He’s my Brother, She’s My Sister. They tour a lot and I haven’t been able to tour a lot recently.
I recently finished directing my first film project. It’s called Meet Your Knight. It’s a short film that I wrote which deals with issues of family and generational gap and also questions the celestial inevitability of the universe, be they death or be they stars.
What about your Bollywood dreams?
I would love to work in an Indian context more. There are a lot of fantastic movies coming out of India. I have seen quite a few while preparing for Midnight’s Children. I really loved Love, Sex Aur Dhokha and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! They both are by Dibakar Banerjee and I would love to work with him.
Have you ever been confused by issues of identity?
Being an actor, people are forever trying to force you into boxes. I have bumped into those issues, where people will perceive me as an Indian guy perfect to play an Indian role. What they don’t realise is that I was born in London and grew up in the UK and the States and that maybe I am not the best person to play the Indian guy. So, that is something that I have struggled with.
As my work is better known, I hope this natural instinct of people to classify actors like me into these ethnic categories loosens and people are able to see my versatility.