‘Brick Lane’ Actor Leaves Comedy for Drama | NevadaAppeal.com

‘Brick Lane’ Actor Leaves Comedy for Drama

Rachel Abramowitz
Los Angeles Times

‘Brick Lane’ Actor Leaves Comedy for Drama

By Rachel Abramowitz(c) 2008, Los Angeles Times

The character of Chanu isn’t described prettily in Monica Ali’s popular novel “Brick Lane,” the story of Nazneen, a young Bangladeshi woman who comes to London for an arranged marriage.

Chanu is her much older, much stouter husband. Describing the “rolls of fat that hung low” from Chanu’s stomach, Nazneen thinks, “It would be possible to tuck all your hundred pens and pencils under those rolls and keep them safe and tight. You could stuff a book or two up there as well.”

In films, fat people often get the comedic roles, but in “Brick Lane,” Chanu, as played by veteran Indian actor-director Satish Kaushik, is unexpectedly heartbreaking, evoking the idiosyncratic spirit of a kind man drowning in a foreign land that has no use for his skills or intellect.

To the 50-year-old Kaushik, Chanu is a modern-day Willy Loman. Like Arthur Miller’s struggling salesman, “Chanu is a dreamer,” Kaushik said. “Like Willy Loman, he’s an utter failure. Like Willy Loman, Chanu fights to maintain his own dignity, and his name, and his identity, and he keeps on fighting for that,” he said by phone from his home in Mumbai, India.

Kaushik has appeared in 65 Bollywood films and directed a dozen others, but this is his first English-language role. He was thrilled when an international casting director contacted him about playing Chanu.

“I got so excited. I ran to a bookshop to look for the novel. I started looking for Chanu’s name on every page. After I read it, I thought this role was made for me. I played Willy Loman in India.”

Still, there were hurdles, like his accent, which required two dialect coaches — one to help with his English, the other to finesse a Bangladeshi accent.

“It was quite challenging to get into the accent of a person who lived for 30 years in Britain,” says Kaushik. “Chanu had to have a great knowledge of the English language. He read Chaucer. He read Shakespeare.”

When he was a kid growing up in Delhi, Kaushik’s father was dismissive of his dream of becoming an actor ” mostly because of his girth.

“In India, looks are very important. When I was young, only tall guys with very great looks could come into films. My father was a simple man and used to tell me, ‘Satish, you’re not good looking. Why are you going into film?’ My mom used to fight with him. ‘He’s very good looking.”‘

Kaushik later graduated from the Indian National Drama School and moved to Mumbai in 1980, with “800 rupees in my pocket. That’s $30. I was living in a flat with three other people. I used to pay $5 a month there.”

When it became tough to find acting jobs, he thought about directing and found his first job as an assistant director to Shekhar Kapur, who later found fame in the West as the director of “Elizabeth.”

Kaushik eventually landed a career-making comedic part in Kapur’s “Mr. India” as a cook in an orphanage, a character he describes as “a pansy guy. Very comic and funny. His walk and his mannerisms were feminine.”

After that, “I was typecast in Indian movies. I was stuck as a comic actor, but basically I belong to theater and drama. I’ve done (Bertolt) Brecht. I’ve read (Constantin) Stanislavsky. All my life I was looking for a role like this.”

Preparing for Chanu, Kaushik spent long hours talking to co-screenwriter Abi Morgan and writing elaborate notes in his script.

“It was a very well-studied part for me,” Kaushik says. “I took the challenge. I cut myself off for three months from Bollywood.”

He moved to England and learned his lines during leisurely constitutionals through The Regent’s Park.

“Chanu is trapped by his intellect and wisdom. That’s his problem. What he expects out of life is not happening to him, and he cannot stand up in front of society as a failure,” Kaushik says. “The destruction of his identity is a major tragedy for him.”