Even when he was working actively in films in the ’90s and early 2000s, Chandrachur Singh was always an unconventional Bollywood leading man. Making his debut, alongside fellow newcomer Arshad Warsi in the 1996 film Tere Mere Sapne (that was produced by Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan), the actor — an alumnus of Doon School and St. Stephens College in Delhi — made everyone sit up and take notice of him later that year in Maachis, Gulzar’s powerful and poignant take on the fallout of the Sikh insurgency of the 1980s. Chandrachur went on to star in some films of repute, before quietly dropping out of the limelight.
Today, the 54-year-old actor returns to the screen with Aarya, opposite Sushmita Sen. The Telegraph caught up with the (still) soft-spoken Chandrachur on the Aarya experience and his life during the break.
Your last significant film was Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist in 2013. How did it feel like getting back on set after a gap?
Actually, it felt like I was taking over from where I had left off, in so many ways. The team made me feel very welcome. I knew Sushmita from before, many years ago we were supposed to work together, but it didn’t work out. It’s nice that we finally got together on a project like this. It was a family feel... the workshops we did before shoot were a big boon, it helped us as actors to get into the skin of our characters and the nerves disappeared by the time we went on set.
I really liked the fresh approach to shooting a scene that I got to learn in Aarya. There were a lot of old friends I connected with, like Sikandar Kher who was a student of mine in Doon School in the early ’90s. There’s Jayant Kripalani, who I knew even before I became an actor. The entire experience of shooting Aarya was very novel. No ‘cut’, no ‘action’... long, long takes. For us actors to arrive at a point of truth in our performances was very important. Everything was edgy, it all depended on spontaneity and the whole format of shoot was very unconventional. It was refreshing to do a project where one could dive into a scene and feel the emotions without having to bother about getting the nitty-gritties of the dialogues right.
There was a lot of flexibility and creativity. The actors would be addressed as their characters, not by their real names. Sushmita would call me her ‘husband’, I would address her as ‘wife’... we never really went out of character. It was a treat to work on a format like this.
What made you want to make a comeback with this character?
Simply put, the variety of emotions it allowed me to portray. My character (Tej) is quite multi-dimensional, he has a lot to do in the series. Working with Ram (Madhvani, director) was an incentive... it guaranteed a certain quality of work, which was substance-oriented as well as stylised. I had the chance to construct my character over many episodes. There is more variety of work now for actors, there is lesser risk of getting typecast. ‘Ek image ke liye khelna hain’... that’s become quite less, even among mainline actors.
As a leading man two decades ago, do you think you bucked the trend of being typecast, given the variety of roles you did, from Maachis to Josh to Kya Kehna?
I really don’t know, you know. That was the system then, one would get slotted in a set image. The action hero, the comic hero, the romantic hero....
And you were the brooding hero...
(Laughs) Ya, in many ways. But then in Daag (The Fire), I got to play a negative character in the first half, even Josh had different shades, a romantic guy.... But at that time, there were limited options to show one’s versatility as a performer. But today, we are in the throes of change. There is so much content and creativity, variety and versatility. I am looking forward to working much more after Aarya.
What were you doing all these years when you weren’t acting? Was it easy to be away from the arc lights?
I am, by nature, a private person. The performer wants to always perform, and that part of me never died. I was waiting for an opportunity to get back to acting. I wanted to restart and reconnect. But during the time I was away, I was quite busy being a father... I had my personal responsibilities and priorities. Also, I wasn’t getting roles that I really liked, and so I wanted to wait for the right time. I got that with Aarya.
There’s the whole insider-outsider debate raging in Bollywood now. Did you feel like an outsider when you were working actively in films?
There was a part of me that was only interested in acting, but not so much in constantly being in the limelight. I never really got deeply into Bollywood... I enjoyed the process of acting, that was the reason I was there and why I continue to be in this profession. Anything else — being seen here and there, attending parties or networking — I wasn’t really interested in, given the private person I am. Acting was important, everything else wasn’t.
When people come up to you now and talk to you about your work, which are the films and parts they cite the most?
There are about four-five of them... Maachis, Tere Mere Sapne, Kya Kehna, Josh, Daag, Aamdani Atthani Kharcha Rupaiyaa... it’s a whole variety of roles. The public has give me a lot of love over the years, even when I wasn’t acting or on social media. They would take selfies and keep asking, ‘When are you coming back? What are we going to see you in next?’
I would really like to thank Gulzar saab for giving me Maachis and Jayaji (Bachchan, who produced Tere Mere Sapne). And also Mansoor (Khan)... I want to congratulate him for completing 20 years of Josh recently.
Do you see a bit of yourself in any of the current crop of actors?
I think they are all so great. Amitji (Bachchan) was always my influence, and I really love what Aamir (Khan) and Akshay Kumar are doing now. Among the younger lot, I think Varun Dhawan, Ranbir Kapoor and Deepika Padukone are very good. And I really admire Pankaj Tripathi’s work.