Sanjay Suri on My Birthday Song: Desire to tell a story comes to me first

In an exclusive interview, the actor spoke about the need for different characters, playing producer, and his interest in music.

On a busy afternoon in Versova, sat down to speak with actor Sanjay Suri. Courteous, the actor turned his cellphone on silent before he sat down to answer questions. In that way, Suri is no different from many of the characters he has come to be identified with on screen. Whether it is the kind, gentlemanly collector on Nil Battey Sannata (2016) or the RD Burman fan stuck in an advertising company in Jhankaar Beats (2003), the actor looks to be at home playing characters that are urban, quiet, and courteous.

This does not mean he can’t experiment. Since turning producer, Suri has been astute in picking projects. Films like I Am (2011), Chauranga (2016), as well as the web series, Inside Edge, are markers of his ability to adapt to different platforms.

According to him, this understanding is born out of his acceptance of the industry. “Standard formula has been done, and good mainstream films have worked very well, but I can’t be in that space,” he says.

My Birthday Song, a psychological thriller, is another genre that he has not been a part of — as producer or actor. So is his growing interest in developing music under his own label? “I wanted to be on the learning curve,” he shrugged.

Despite this experimentation, there is something of an old school in the actor. Talking about the rise of web-series, he was defensive of the ‘big screen experience’ of cinema. “It is like watching a match. All this VR are fads. They are only creating more isolation,” he scoffed before adding, “We are becoming a world of loners.”

This sense of loneliness finds a new dimension in his portrayal of a 40-year old struggling with his sense of reality in Soni’s My Birthday Song.

Following are excerpts from the interview:

A thriller, what drew you to the subject and the story in particular?
The moment you say thriller, somewhere your logical mind kicks in. You start thinking very fast about coming plot points. He just beat me to it. I never heard or read a psychological thriller like this one. Once he (director Samir Soni) started the narration, it went on for 15-20 minutes. I couldn’t stop listening.

I just didn’t know if he was narrating it to me as a friend or collaborator. He told me he had narrated it to Karan (Johar) earlier, who had asked him to direct it. He was very clear about the story, and having worked with so many first time directors, I thought I could give him the environment to do that.

As a producer, I haven’t produced a thriller. I have been doing art-house dramas, human relationships etc. That element is still there, but a thriller, and a psychological one, was exciting.

While you have been quite varied in your choices as an actor, and producer, do you ever worry about the risks involved? Considering how cinema is an expensive medium?
If I worried about that, I wouldn’t have made My Brother Nikhil (2005). (Laughs) But at the back of my head, it needs to make some business sense. I keep my films approachable within a reasonable budget. I don’t think business comes to me first. The desire to tell a story comes to me first. My first audience is always me. I should be able to watch it. Good, bad or ugly, I need to take that ownership.

Also, it is not like I am hunting for these films in order to be different, or cool. No. Standard formula films and good mainstream films have worked very well, but I can’t be in that space.

If I was just casting, trying to make a project out of it, then we would not have made the film. That’s literally the chicken and egg situation. If the studio comes on board, then the stars come on board. If the stars come on board, then the studio is there.

I am happily at the periphery of all this. Small, but sure.

You do get to play interesting characters as a reward.
Yes, that’s an added advantage. Even in Chauranga (2016), I was not the protagonist but I played an upper-caste zamindar. It was interesting to play. As you grow older, you need to be exploring other characters. This allowed me to do that. This character is celebrating his 40th birthday. It is cool. Maybe if we get to a sequel, we will have him celebrate the 50th birthday (laughs).

You don’t want murders on every birthday though…
Well, I am not committing as to whether there is a murder or not (laughs).

The character though is going through a lot. Turning 40, struggling with insomnia caused by the incident, loss. What is it like for an actor to tap into these ‘personal demons’?
I think what I play in My Birthday Song, internally, psychologically a lot of men go through. There are ambitions, desires, vulnerability, guilt that happens. When you look at a person, you start imagining things about them. I am not talking about fantasies. It could be anything, depending on how over-imaginative your mind is. It happens to a lot of people.

So, exactly what seems to be is not. I have a feeling there is going to be a couple of interpretations about the film. Which is alright, life is not all closure. For me, as an actor, I have to internalise it.

You have also been part of the Amazon Prime series, Inside Edge, but as a producer, are you looking at the digital space as competition or opportunity?
I did Inside Edge, and did the Alt Balaji series, Dev DD. I am also producing a web-series. I am actually developing five of them.

Now, the platforms have emerged, and it is the new habit. Of course, it is here to stay because the lifestyles have changed. But it is also scary at the same time.

There is a flipside to it. We have just done away with DVDs. But many classics and cult films are not available on these platforms. Where do you find those films? It is not like the entire country is celebrating data speed. There is the little transitory time.

Do you see cinema experience changing?
Do you remember when radio was down? It has come back. The VHS, tapes, cassettes came in, they said radio is dead. The same way theatres will never die. It is a collective experience.

It is like watching a match. All these VR (Virtual Reality) are fads. They are only creating more isolation. These digital platforms are created basically by loners, remember. Now, the whole world has become one of loners. (Laughs). I love that song by Charlie Puth ‘We Don’t Talk Anymore’. It is just like that.

What else do you have on your plate in 2018?
There are web-series being developed. There is also a film that was written earlier, and I want to take a look at that. Everything was on hold till My Birthday Song came out.

Right now, we are producing independently, releasing it with Raksha Entertainment, so we were lucky.

I am also releasing music independently. I have tied up with aggregators.

How did the interest in music begin?
I wanted to be on the learning curve. We have got great singers like Mohan Kannan of Agnee and Joi Barua on board.

Rajiv Bhalla, who was discovered on a crowd-sourcing campaign for I Am (2011) is also a part of it. He has also given the title track for My Birthday Song. Let’s see how that goes.

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