In Conversation With Jinnah from Gurinder Chadha's Partition: 1947
In Conversation With Jinnah from Gurinder Chadha’s Partition: 1947

The veteran theatre actor has several interesting film projects lined up.

Denzil Smith has been a stalwart in Mumbai’s theatre circles for many years, but he hasn’t really received his due in the film industry. Most of the roles offered to him, like his appearances on TV shows like CID, stereotyped his characters according to his Anglo-Indian lineage. But with meatier parts and projects like Jagga Jasoos, Baadshaho, Aksar 2 and Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House (where he’ll be seen essaying the role of Pakistan’s founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah), the industry finally seems to have recognised his capabilities. Or is it vice versa? “Everything must change. Everything does change. The industry has changed, and has now opened up to new ideas, people and genres. I too have changed in my approach to Hindi cinema,” the Brahman Naman actor says. 


It’s heartening that Bollywood has warmed up to actors of his ilk, but working on the sets of a film like Viceroy’s House must have certainly been a different experience. “The actor’s craft remains the same, wherever or whoever one works with. However, management, process and discipline differ. Filmmaking involves a lot of preparation, and by this I mean preproduction (before principal photography with the actors begins). Most units come well prepared, and so do the actors. The variables, which are many in India, are anticipated and minimised, thus saving time and money. Accountability is more and confusion less,” he explains. 


The 57-year-old actor has played Jinnah previously, in a 2006 Lillete Dubey play, Sammy, but back then he was called upon under tragic circumstances. The actor originally slated for the part suddenly lost his brother three days before the beginning of a long tour to the US, and had to drop out. There was no time to find a replacement, so Smith filled his shoes. On the other hand, with Partition: 1947 (the Indian title of Viceroy’s House), he had more time to prepare and research, and it was a completely different experience. “The book In The Shadow of the Great Game — The Partition of India by Narendra Singh Sarila, on which much of the film is based, was my primary source. I did read Jinnah vs Gandhi by Roderick Matthews, Freedom at Midnight etc. I also looked at footage of him, listened to his voice recordings and made an event timeline of his life. There is much about Jinnah in the public domain — whatever I could get my hands on, I gobbled up. Physically it was the opposite — I lost a lot of weight — a total of 14.5 kg  in just over a month,” he reveals. Interestingly, Smith has also worked with Alyque Padamsee, who played Jinnah in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, at an advertising agency, many years ago. So, did he seek any wisdom from his former boss for the character? “We bumped into each other at a play, and I did tell him I was playing the part. We do stay in touch. In fact, I first met my wife at his legendary ‘Christmas Eve at Christmas Eve’ party.”


The actor can be also be found reciting poetry in Mumbai’s poetry circles, occasionally. He enjoys music (especially jazz), loves attending live music concerts and, in his own words, is a ‘Scrabble fanatic’. Sometimes, ‘to keep sane when not working,’ he likes creating things from junk, like practical art pieces from a 110-yearold piano’s keys, which he salvaged from a friend who was throwing them away. Meanwhile, theatre remains his ‘therapy’, as he is getting used to balancing date commitments, with films flowing in thick and fast now. “There are a few films in the pipeline, some still being shot, some in discussions, others to begin. As of now, I’m looking forward to doing my first comedy — as a villain,” he signed off.

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