Vinay Pathak on Chintu Ka Birthday: Perfect film for our times, it's about finding joy in the small things
Vinay Pathak plays Madan Tiwary, a father trying to give his young son Chintu a birthday he will remember amidst bombings and attacks in 2004 Baghdad.
For Vinay Pathak, the ongoing lockdown has so far been book-ended by two releases. Special Ops came out just before the national lockdown. The espionage thriller, in which Pathak plays policeman Abbas Sheikh, went on to chalk up unexpected viewership numbers.
Now, the long-awaited intimate and immersive feature film Chintu Ka Birthday is set to release on 5 June on ZEE 5.
Pathak plays Madan Tiwary, a father trying to give his young son Chintu a birthday he will remember amidst bombings and attacks in Baghdad (the year is 2004). The actor embraces the role of the optimist whose singular mission is to fulfil a promise to his child with a quiet fortitude.
Pathak’s career has run the gamut from being a VJ (on Channel V) to playing the stereotype NRI in Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), to the supportive best friend (Jism, 2003; Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, 2008), the manic comic (Bheja Fry, 2007) to a biopic (Gour Hari Dastaan, 2015) and a complex character like Ramesh in Amazon Prime Video's Made In Heaven (2019). When he’s not shooting a film, Pathak is usually on a theatre tour. Clearly giving up a degree in business administration to pursue a career in the arts was the right decision.
Excerpts from an interview
How did your acting journey begin?
I think about what would have been had I not gotten consumed by the idea of acting. I guess I would have pursued an MBA and probably still been in the USA. But like that film Sliding Doors, I believe what has to happen will happen, but it might just take a different route to get you there. It was watching Equus on stage when I was a student in New York that triggered something in me. But had it not been that play then something else would have come along to shake me from my slumber.
You started off as a VJ on Channel V. What was that like?
It was a new profession. There was no reference, no history, because there was no music TV (in India) before that. The job of a video jockey was akin to that of an actor. I auditioned for it. We had fun while telling people to watch someone sing, dance and or just introducing a great music video. I approached the VJ job as an actor and the brief given to Ranvir (Shorey) and me (they were co-hosts) was to play mad, bumbling idiots. I don’t remember doing even one episode where I was being myself. We were always playing the character with manic energy; the stupid, idiotic guy who is saying, ‘And now watch Daler Mehndi’s video’.
It took you a while to shake off the manic buffoon image. But didn’t other stereotypes follow?
That’s the thing with this profession — you shake off one image and then another one comes along. I realised that one should stop worrying about this. Initially, I was seen as a VJ, yet I wanted to be taken seriously as an actor. But all you can really do is take whatever you get and do it earnestly. Around that time, I wrote Hip Hip Hurray and that became the next job I worked on. Then Bheja Fry happened and that was the actor I was – the middle class, everyday idiot, and those were the roles that came to me. Every time I have done a film and it has done well, the tag and image have come with it.
So, in my first Hindi film – Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam – I played an NRI. In the mid-1990s, the image of the NRI was someone wearing garish clothes, an earring maybe and saying ‘Yo’. After that, I played an NRI again in Har Dil Jo Pyar Karega (2000). Then everyone wanted me to be the America-returned cousin or best friend or something. I would protest, saying I have done that before. But they would say but this time you are coming from Europe! After Jism became a hit, I was getting the hero’s best friend roles. Once more I would protest saying I have done that to which they would reply, ‘No. In that you were a police commissioner. In this one you are a doctor’. Doctor, professor, police — the purpose was the same: to guide the hero on the right path. Then Bheja Fry’ happened but so did Khosla Ka Ghosla, Johnny Gaddaar, Khoya Khoya Chand and Manorama Six Feet Under. I realised it is joyous to attempt different characters.
Would you say you are satisfied with your career?
Hell ya. I never expected to come this far. I have gotten more than I expected. But if you go deeper into the process, honestly, I get nervous every time I start a new role. On paper, I know what is going on but on set, I don’t know how I am going to say the lines or what will happen when the camera rolls – that’s when the character takes shape. That is most unnerving, but also gratifying and challenging. I try not to see my work once its ready, but when I am made to see it, I cringe. So in that way I am always dissatisfied. I am glad I had four years of drama school followed by my two-year stint in community theatre in America. I realise how little I knew then, how little I know even now, and how much more I have to learn.
With Made in Heaven and Special Ops, you have become accustomed to the OTT space. How does it feel to that Chintu Ka Birthday is having a direct-to-digital release?
I am ecstatic that the film is releasing now which seems like an apt time because this film is perfect for times like this. Chintu Ka Birthday is about family, but also about hope. It also tackles the claustrophobia of space. Being locked down, as we are today, and within that to have joy, hope, celebration and the belief that this too shall pass — that's what the film tackles. I loved the script and felt connected to the character and my directors (Devanshu Kumar and Satyanshu Singh). Like Madan, we are all from Bihar. As for direct to web, Chintu… had done a festival run last year. We were part of the Jagran Film Festival, which travelled around the country and I was able to enjoy that cinema experience with an audience. A year later, this is the best way for those who have not seen the film to see it, along with their families.
Do you think movies are becoming space and platform agnostic?
Honestly, a film should be watched in a theatre with 300 people who you don’t know. The collective experience of everyone watching the same thing is magic. You can’t design something like that. Even in a play, you feel so emotionally connected with someone next to you who you may have never met. Right now, we don’t know what will happen with plays either. We had a theatre tour planned, which got cancelled. I don’t know. Maybe we take them online, but then that wouldn’t be theatre. Theatre is a live experience. You can listen to a Rekha Bhardwaj song at home or watch a video, but seeing and hearing her sing in person is another experience. As a performer, I would be fine acting for even 30 people because that art form needs that space.
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