'It’s most important to be able to laugh at yourself': Chunky Panday opens up on his roller-coaster Bollywood journey
'If I had to relive my career, I would still do the same things. As actors, we have this wild imagination. But there is no predictability in the film industry; what works for someone else may not work for me.'
It’s been over 30 years since Chunky Panday made his acting debut. In these three decades since Aag hi Aag scorched the box-office in 1987, success and attention keep finding him in different forms. But Pandey, whose claim to fame among millennials is being Student of the Year actress Ananya’s father, knows how to take the flows and the blows in his stride. A long and patchy career in cinema and a self-deprecating sense of humour, ensure that the 58-year-old brushes it all off with a grin.
“It’s most important to be able to laugh at yourself. Plus, if you crack three jokes on yourself, then you can crack 10 on others and they won’t mind. I try to find fun in every situation and live for the day,” says Panday.
He recently made an appearance, as himself, in the Netflix reality show Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives, which features his wife Bhavana along with her girl gang. The show allows viewers a glimpse of Pandey as a husband and father, his obsession with home security and a bittersweet affection towards film awards, as he clutches on to his daughter’s first Filmfare Award.
Panday has never won an acting award. It’s one of the disappointing aspects of his career, though he came close a few times. The year Aag Hi Aag released there was no award for a debutant. The following year he was so sure of bagging the best supporting actor statuette for playing Baban in Tezaab that he left another film shoot in Goa to make it to the ceremony in Mumbai, only to return home empty-handed.
Over time, Panday has realised that award ceremonies are more of a celebration of successful films, not necessarily of being the best. He still goes to ceremonies, whether nominated or not, to “whistle, cheer and have a laugh and to celebrate the other’s success as much as you celebrate your own”.
Speaking on the phone, he shares that his awards cabinet remains empty. “I made one thinking bahut awards rakhenge (I will keep many awards), but nothing came. That night, I kept Ananya’s Filmfare in my room and kept looking at it. She said, dad, this is mine. But I said I produced you, so it’s half mine,” Pandey says, chuckling.
The son of doctor parents, he describes himself as a “backbencher” and “wheeler-dealer” who sold everything from marble to used cars and home furnishings in his quest to find his calling. Then he landed on acting and embarked on preparing for the profession – enrolling in acting schools, learning horse riding, dance and fighting. When funds ran low, he picked up modelling jobs and then a chance meeting with producer Pahlaj Nihalani in the bathroom of a five-star hotel changed his life.
If Pandey got the dream debut with Nihlani’s blockbuster roughly around the same time the Khans, Govinda, Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn started their careers, it got further bolstered with Paap ki Duniya and Tezaab in quick succession. After a series of multi-starrers, he had perhaps his biggest hit with Aankhen (co-starring Govinda) in 1993, but ironically, that success didn’t translate into a career high. Panday reckons it was a result of some poor choices, too much work and perhaps some arrogance.
“The trajectory that Govinda and others from Aankhen took, I didn’t get. I didn’t get the work I wanted,” he recalls. “In those days, we were doing 10-15 films together. I saw money, wanted more and I feel I lost control over quality. I even stopped enjoying myself, because the work became so much. My box office honeymoon was short-lived.”
Finding himself out of work after Aankhen, Panday headed east to Bangladesh where he enjoyed unexpected success in a language he did not speak. He revelled in fame and work, till he returned to Mumbai at the encouragement of his spouse for another shot at the mercurial world of Hindi cinema.
“You get a little complacent when you are successful – I did. There is so much adulation,” Pandey says about fame, “and then when a film fails, that causes double the rejection. It’s like going up and down in a roller-coaster all the time and if you have a weak gut, you will throw up.”
By the time he returned to India, the movie industry had changed. It was bigger, more systematic, with agents, multiplexes, talks of weekend collections and so on. The ensemble casts of the earlier decade had given way to solo leads, which Pandey could not be a part of. He spent time knocking on doors, approaching producers and directors till he segued into character roles, most notably comedy and villainy. Harry Baweja’s Qayamat, Ram Gopal Varma’s D, Vikram Bhatt’s Elaan and Sangeeth Sivan’s Apna Sapna Money Money (for which he got his second Filmfare award nomination) followed. Pandey today is synonymous with the Aakhri Pasta character he first played in Housefull (2010), whose popular refrain in a faux Italian accent is: ‘I’m a joking’.
“Aakhri Pasta is the high point of my career,” he says. Explaining why this character in a juvenile film franchise means so much to him, he adds, “I love going to the cinema. It’s a group experience and you become a child there. You cry, laugh, abuse with everyone else in the theatre. If your character can appeal to that five-year-old in every viewer, you are successful. That’s what Pasta does.”
When asked to review his career, Panday gives himself a B-minus. What would he change, given a chance to rewind and replay? “If I had to relive my career, I would still do the same things. I do think: what if I had done that or not done that, or what if my career went in this or that direction. As actors, we have this wild imagination. But there is no predictability in the film industry; what works for someone else may not work for me.”
He’s enjoying the opportunities coming his way at present, in film and series, having recently played antagonist Harsh in Abhay season 2. He has signed up for a film that goes on the floors in March, before which he starts shooting for another web show. He has been enjoying the villainy phase a lot, he says, in movies such as Saaho and Begum Jaan. “Suddenly, my wife has got scared of me, which has never happened before. Even the film in March is a negative, mad role.”
This chequered experience has probably contributed to the advice he gives his older daughter. “I was telling Ananya the other day… we (all) set out to make good films - no one sets out to make a bad film. The difference comes between choosing a good film and a successful film, and that’s what makes a star. I always tell her--you will only be remembered for the work that was successful.”
Fabulous Lives... was a comfortable introduction to reality TV for the actor who has declined invitations to participate in Bigg Boss. “I have not done it because I can’t share a toilet, and I need my phone.”
As a parent to a star child, who has faced incessant trolling, Panday has offered Ananya simple advice. “Look at the lighter side. By calling you a star’s daughter, they have made me into a huge star,” he says, laughing. “But I told her, if you are being trolled, that means you matter. I try to console her to enjoy the bad moments also.”
While he didn’t have this kind of guidance and mentorship in his early years, he holds on to the words of his father. “My dad would say: Think of this career as cricket. You can’t hit a six or a four every ball. The idea is not to get out.”
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