Sanjay Suri: The Journey Home

by E. Nina Rothe

Actor Sanjay Suri has never been afraid to take on controversial roles. In his breakthrough performance as the HIV-infected leading man in ‘My Brother Nikhil’ ( he faced head on the unthinkable for an actor — to be henceforth typecast as the anti-hero. In the Nandita Das-directed ‘Firaaq’(, once again Suri played a character whom the audience could have easily found unlikable — with such grace and profound understanding that, in the process, he forced everyone to rethink their own definition of courage.

Piyush Jha’s release ‘Sikandar’ ( opens on August 21st worldwide and for Sanjay Suri the film has been a very personal journey back to Kashmir, the place where he was born but can no longer call home. It is impossible to discuss Suri’s complex character in the film without giving a great deal of the plot away and that is something I have vowed never to do. So instead, I’d like to share a stirring talk I had with the handsome, brilliant and charmingly candid Sanjay Suri on what it was like to film in Kashmir, what his views are on the volatile region and what will be some of his upcoming projects.

What was it like to return to Kashmir after so many years and so much turmoil?
I am at a loss of words when I have to answer this question. A feeling that I may not be able to express and articulate. But I shall try my best to put forward my inner most thoughts.

It was like Going back home without a place to stay!!!

I was visiting “home” after 18 long years. I wonder why I still call it “My home”. Maybe because no other place could give me that feeling of belonging, that identification after having being called a migrant somewhere and a North Indian in another place, sometimes even a Refugee in my own country. But that still does not answer my own question of why the Valley feels like home. Is it home or is it just memories of home, my childhood, my family, my orchids, my lakes, my rivers, my play ground, my chinars, my autumn and the spring?

I don’t know if I was happy to go back after 18 years or not. Maybe I should have let it remain in my memories, a lost chapter in our lives. Or was I scared that I might not like it now because all was in the past? The association is in my mind and all those people don’t live there anymore. It’s not the same anymore. That playground had no players I knew.

Maybe a catharsis was waiting to happen but is it that simple?

I believe and know that nature moves ahead and one should not look back but then that “back” is where our identity comes from. The past is important because it has prepared you for the future. And visiting that past is like finding your foot prints in the cold breezy desert sand.

I was hoping I would find my way back only to return stronger and happier, but it’s not that simple.

What did you notice as the most dramatic change there? And what had remained the same?
Visually, Kashmir looked like a Beautiful Widow who had lost her color, vibrancy, smile and had an expression of irreversible loss. So much has happened there in the last 20 years that every structure has a story to tell. Twenty years is a long time, after the mass migration of Hindus in early Nineties, the Valley was left with just one culture and faith. To me a beautiful garden needs to have all kinds of flowers and not just one kind. That is one change which is so evident and sad. And to me, nothing is the same.

What was the reason why your family left the state?
One unfortunate morning in 1990, my father was shot dead by terrorists at our home in Srinagar. His only fault? That he was a Hindu living in Kashmir, as many of our family’s generations before him. We had to leave lock, stock and barrel. Between that year and 1991, Kashmir witnessed ethnic cleansing and we had to leave the Valley.

During your journey back, did you get to spend time in your actual birthplace, Srinagar?
Initially I was reluctant but then did go to my house in Srinagar. It was very difficult as all the memories came back. Some other family lives there now and they were sensitive enough to let me absorb and spend some moments there. I went to see my school, my playgrounds, a local club, my favorite ice cream parlor and my farm. Some old waiters at the club recognized me in a second, they hugged me and started howling, as earlier they hadn’t even gotten the opportunity to condole my father’s death. I drove around the city and tried to show my wife my childhood.

What were some of your more positive impressions while there?
I hope I am right in saying that people seemed fed up with this prolonged violence and terrorism. Civilians who once supported the separatist organizations seem to have realized it was a huge mistake and all they have got in return was misery. While the world was progressing, Kashmir was burning. Education system, civic facilities, infrastructure, economy, human life, all has suffered. So finally it seems they have woken up. At least I hope so!

And were there times when it felt impossibly hard to even be in Kashmir for you?
Yes many times in a day. Too much was bottled up inside me and sometimes escapism seemed to be the best thing. So there were moments when I would want to catch the next flight out and leave it all behind but then my roots would keep pulling me back.

A lost era cannot be brought back and a new Kashmir cannot be beautiful without all kinds of flowers — cultures.

I believe the answers lie far from our grasp, but what do you see personally as a solution for the troubles of the state?

Like you say, there are no simple answers. But I do feel an adequate government and a strong political will is the need of the hour. Also, to involve people from regions of Jammu and Ladhakh in deciding the fate of the state is key as often they are left out.

After all is said and done, the daily hardships of Kashmir, or the cutthroat dealings of the Indian film industry?

Haha! At least in the film industry one knows who the competition is or who we are fighting against but in Kashmir one never knew the enemy, who could be living next to you.

While filming, what were you reading or even listening to?
To be honest, I was just absorbing me being there and remembering my childhood so there was no time to listen to or read anything. In fact I was inspired to write but couldn’t do so either.

You have always chosen unconventional roles in your career and your role in this film is no exception. Without giving any of the plot away, what drew you to this character?

Ironically, when I left Kashmir I hated politicians and now as a professional actor I am playing one. I really liked the human element in the script. A story like ‘Sikandar’ could be set in any area which has been hostile for years. I had never played a character like this before. Mukhtaar is charismatic, charming and shrewd. A reformed militant leader, that gives him many layers to play with and I enjoyed that part of the character.

What are some of your upcoming projects?
Besides ‘Sikander’, I have done a super natural thriller called ‘FLAT. Then there is ‘Alibaug’ — a drama — ‘As the River Flows’ — a drama/thriller — and we are currently shooting for ‘I AM’, a series of five short films directed by Onir and produced by him and me. All very diverse in content and genre.

Catch ‘Sikandar’ a theater near you, beginning August 21st and don’t forget to download the beautiful soundtrack from ITunes today!

All images courtesy: Sanjay Suri /