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Sudden Impact: In Conversation with Harsh Chhaya

Sudden Impact: In Conversation with Harsh Chhaya

by Khalid Mohamed July 21 2020, 8:26 am Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 7 secs

Khalid Mohamed interviews Harsh Chhaya, whose performance as a despotic Papaji in the series Undekhi, is as laceratingly real as it gets.

Foxy eyes, an unerasable smug grin, barbed-wire stubbled and permanently boozed-out, the fast-greying Papaji of the 10-episode TV series Undekhi (SonyLIV) is not the kind of  character you’d like to ever meet in real life. As enacted by Harsh Chhaya, though, you’re amazed by the conviction and credibility invested by the actor in this patriarch who runs amuck in the course of a family wedding located in the snowy hills of a plush Manali resort. 

Harsh Chhaya adds maybe a decade and a half to his real-life age of 49, and seems to be having a blast before the camera, with a jaw-dropping impact. 

The other major and minor characters are excellently directed by Ashish R. Shukla (you might remember him for the edgy feature Prague). And the screenplay by a team of four writers – extracted from true stories – strives to be as real as it gets. Cuss words are used liberally, and the bestiality of the upper strata carroms between the authentic and at points, melodramatic. 

Consequently, Undekhi has its hard-slapping as well as contrived moments. Yet the fact is it doesn’t pull back punches, is technically competent and enhanced by the performances, and in my notebook, especially the one walloped out by Chhaya, who is almost unrecognisable. 

You might have seen him in a pile of TV series since the 1990s (Tara and Hasratein, for example) and occasionally in feature films (including Company, Corporate, Fashion and Laaga Chunari Mein Daag), but here it takes you to look up the credit titles (on IMDB) to place him. 

Ergo on a half-rainy afternoon, I’m conversing with him on the phone, questions which he answers patiently. Excerpts: 

Papaji is quite a fiendish, mean-spirited role. Did you accept it without thinking twice? 

No second or third thoughts, I said yes right away. When one of the writers, Siddharth Sengupta, narrated the script to me, he had made it clear that Papaji is an uncouth, morally warped man who feels he’s entitled by his birth to behave the way he does, to the extent of shooting a dancer at the wedding, when she fobs him off. I grew up in Delhi’s Amar Colony in Lajpat Nagar - my father, a professor of Architecture and Planning at the IIT, Kharagpur had been transferred there - and it was so alien to the lifestyle we were accustomed to. 

At weddings and celebrations, the men - old and young - would get drunk out of their skulls and even get physically abusive with the women of the household, pulling them by the hair and slapping them relentlessly. Foul language seemed to be their second nature. Like it or not, Delhi still retains some of its vestiges, since a part of the city served as a refugee camp at the time of the partition. 

The entire lexicon of the mc-bc, bahen ka takka, chutiya kind of words were already there in the script. Aise lavzon ko gaali bhi nahin maante (such words are not even considered to be cuss), stemming perhaps from a sense of unchecked power. There are people who care a damn, and guzzle whisky as if it was tap water.

Were you drinking heavily during your shot takings? 

(Laughs) No way, I’d have passed out. I was drinking glasses and glasses of apple juice which resembles the colour of whisky. I did prepare quite intensely for the role. Besides the two-month long workshops, I’d practise my scenes on the cellphone. 

One option was to play Papaji as a Godfather type of don, cool and collected.I felt that would be the easy route out, our milieu is diametrically different. I couldn’t approach it as a man of few words or do it the Amrish Puriji way… mine would have been a poor imitation. Instead my role-model was the conglomeration of the Punjabi men I’d seen in Amar Colony. Of course, this is not to say that all Punjabis are like that, far from it. Be it in Rajasthan, Gujarat or any state, there’s the same kind of male toxicity. 

To return to the subject of foul language, it’s everywhere. Even among  so many of my Jat friends at Aurobindo College in Delhi, gaali galauz (using bad language) came naturally. I would use abusive words too, if I hadn’t I would have been considered strange. 

Would you be involved in physical fights on the campus?

No, no, not at all. The last fistfight I had was at the age of 10 with my brother, because of one those trivial sibling rivalries. After that, never. 

You do carry a reputation of becoming hot-tempered at times.

Do I? See whoever I’ve worked with, right from the director to the spotboys, they have told me, “We’ve heard you can get angry and upset but we don’t find you that way at all.” That’s why I’ve been repeated by so many directors whose instructions I’ve always followed to the last word. 

Yes, there was a time when I’d get upset about needless lapses from the production side. Earlier, it was a free-for-all, no proper work timings, no basic facilities and most producers had an obnoxious sense of entitlement. Perhaps initially, I couldn’t adjust to the things expected of a newcomer, and would get belligerent, which would let’s say inconvenience the producers. But over the last decade, there has been an overall improvement, and I’ve learnt to take things differently instead of aggressively. 

The production department of Undekhi did seem to goof up by giving you the same costume for the last few episodes - not expected of the wealthy Papaji. 

The costumes were designed in keeping with the timeline of the shoot. I had three to four costume changes in all, and had worked it out that way. The shoot was done over four months in different cities… tukdon mein (in bits). In fact, the scenes to be shot with me in Manali were postponed from January to March. I couldn’t shave off my beard or change my look for other pending commitments. 

Still, I  must say the producers were good enough to compensate me for my loss. That would rarely happen in the earlier times. Yes, so I did wear the same achkan during the last few episodes. That’s okay by me, Papaji was conceived as a willful apni marzi se jeenewalla (a man who lived by his own rules) man, if he wished he could wear the same clothes for days. 

Undekhi was promoted with a terrible gimmick by ‘phoning up random people to say there had been a real-life murder. Didn’t you object? 

It was an unfortunate case of miscalculated judgement. Some of my relatives also received those calls and were shocked. Believe me, I had no knowledge about this. I was upset. Mercifully, the error was cleared up quickly on Twitter, with an apology. After that controversy died a natural death, the response to the series has been excellent. 

The series is said to be based on true events? Which ones? 

It’s based on two news items from the newspapers. One about an ‘item girl’ being shot to death at a wedding in Punjab. In fact, its video is on YouTube and is way more graphic than the way it has been filmed in the series. And the second news item reported about how graduates of film schools often have no choice but to take on jobs of shooting wedding ceremonies on video. It took nearly two years to coalesce these two stories into a script. 

For over two decades now, you must have appeared in over 40 serials and 20 films. What has taken so long for you to make a mark? 

I’m looking for an answer to that myself. I came into TV before the saas-bahu serials. I’m a post-graduate in Mass Communication and certainly didn’t come to Mumbai to become the conventional hip-swinging, gun-toting hero. I had no great illusions about myself. Around that time, though, actors like Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Neena Gupta and Anang Desai were emerging on the scene in films made by directors of a certain sensibility and aesthetic like Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani. I longed to belong to that area, but by the time I came to Mumbai the ‘new wave’ of films had ebbed. 

TV was the only option, as long as they weren’t bhai or chacha roles. Whatever parts I did on TV had a certain dimension. Then the saas-bahu serials became the trend in which apart from the central woman, the males just had to stand around like flower pots. I’d wake up every morning, and although the pay was good, I wouldn’t feel like going to work. So films were the next stop. 

In Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion, you were noticed as a gay designer who gets married to a woman just to put on a façade. Weren’t there attempts, then, to typecast you? 

There were a couple of similar offers but I said no politely. What I played in Fashion was fiction, which gets confused with reality. How absurd is that! I try to do roles which have an outline and contribute to the flow of the narrative, roles which won’t be shaved off in the editing. In one case, though, I was totally flabbergasted. I’d been called to an office to hear the narration of Vaastav 2 which would co-star Sanjay Dutt and Shilpa Shetty. The director didn’t show up. His chief assistant then told me mine would be a key role in which I’m an engineer who gets married to Shilpa Shetty whom Sanjay Dutt loves, I’m a nasty husband to her and at the end the hero bashes me up and takes her away from me. And you know what? My role lasted for exactly three scenes, and that’s it! I couldn’t protest, guess it happens. 

May I ask you something personal?

(Tentatively) Yes, okay. 

You were once married to Shefali Chhaya. Did you divorce over creative differences in your approach to acting at all? 

There were no arguments between us on that subject. We are mutually respectful of each other as actors. There were other issues which break up a marriage, as a result of which the partners decide to go their separate ways. Rumours were spread that there was a kind of Abhimaan kind of situation between us, that her acting career had advanced way ahead of mine. Sorry, no such thing. A couple can fall in love and then out of love… 

Irrespective of whatever may have been written about it over which I have no control, except that there was stress involved, it was so raw. And the emotional stress is not about just one person, but for all involved and for those close to us. 

You were shattered by the parting of ways obviously? 

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. I’m as human as anyone else. But I didn’t turn into a depressed Devdas. I did take some mild medication, and came to terms with myself. Shefali married again (director Vipul Shah), has grown-up children and I will always have the highest regard for her. I remarried, my wife  Suneeta Sengupta is an actress from Bengal. 

Do you fall in love easily? 

How do I answer that? I’ve fallen in love twice only.

Back to Undekhi… do you think it’ll lead to better roles, more recognition?

All I can say is that I’ve got very encouraging reactions. Anurag Kashyap, E. Niwas, Arbaaz Khan and Anup Soni called me up. Recognition mil rahi hai. However, as you know the times are uncertain now. Once the pandemic comes under control, let’s see.

Has your father seen the series? 

Without my father’s support I would have been nowhere. I’d hoped to get into painting or drama, and told him I would like to join the National School of Drama. To that he said, first finish your studies and then do what you want. He’s in his 80s, he hasn’t seen Undekhi yet. I’d like him to see it. He mustn’t have uttered a single foul word in his life. When he sees me cursing and abusing, he’ll understand that I was merely drawing upon my experience in Delhi’s Amar Colony. 

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