I did a feature for this month’s issue of ABCDlady Magazine with actor Samrat Chakrabarti (New York, The Waiting City). Since we talked extensively about his work and what it’s like being being outside the typical American desi confines of doctor/lawyer/engineer, there’s plenty more where that came from! Check out Chakrabarti’s thoughts on tackling regional Bengali film and a big budget horror film — and learn why there’s no use in being “crabby.”
How does being raised in America but still very much Indian and Bengali impact what you do?
Chakrabarti: “Thanks to my parents, I have a really strong connection to India, that I always had as a kid. So that, along with the sensibility of going to grad school here and also spending some time in Moscow at the Art Theatre School, doing my MFA, [has shaped me]. I was just in India shooting an Italian production called Behind the Bodice [by] a production company called RIA Cinema. The film is in English, but they wanted authenticity. They went to Calcutta to find this character, this young [photographer]’s assistant who is of Bengali origin, but they couldn’t really find a guy who they could communicate with and direct. I consider myself a hybrid actor, in that I can play an authentic character and yet talk to Western directors in the language they’re used to.
You’ve also completed Dwando, a Bengali film with Soumitro Chatterjee, a pretty famous regional star. Was that a serious thrill for you and your family?
Chakrabarti: “This is my second film with Soumitro, the first film was Bong Connection, in which I had a smaller role. In Dwando, I have one of the leading roles. Our parents came here [for the opportunities], and it’s a step into the unknown that I chose to do acting. It was tough in the beginning and it’s often still tough, but they support me. And there’s some stuff that they feel very proud of — like when I can be a part of [something like this] and share stories of being in the same dubbing room with Soumitro Chatterjee and hanging out with him on set. It’s [also] really great that the profession I’ve chosen is letting me discover Calcutta even more. I’m living there for months now. I’m taking the Metro, the buses. I can actually see places [which I’ve seen in] Satyajit Ray films. I feel very lucky that my work is actually really helping me reconnect to where my forefathers came from.”
Do you feel like cinema is changing, becoming more global and presenting more opportunities for actors of South Asian origin?
Chakrabarti: [I have a part in an upcoming horror film] It was announced at Sundance, by the producers of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It’s a total Hollywood venture that I’ll be shooting in May. I’ve never done a horror film before, and this is why I feel really excited about the change of climate. One of the things you deal with as an actor is being stereotyped and typecast. And it’s there for every immigrant culture. But it seems that, in this high-speed Internet society, we are moving at quite a slow speed. While there are people popping up, there needs to be more people popping up. America is beyond Caucasian. One of the reasons that I’ve chosen the indie film path more than being ‘brown wallpaper’ is to sort of expand that [idea] and break that [boundary]. And basically the writer/director of this horror film saw a whole bunch of films that I kept popping up in these last couple of years and saw me playing these diverse roles. He’d written this role for a southern frat boy, that’s what he had in mind, but after seeing the stuff that I’ve done, he shared the script with me and said, ‘Look, I think it would be a cool choice to have you play this. Why not? It’s not about being blond and blue-eyed. You play it the way you look, because that’s the expansion of what America is.’ It’s progress. One step at a time I’m moving forward, which is cool.”
What advice would you give to other young Indian-Americans who want to pursue a career in the arts?
Chakrabarti: “Whether you’re South Asian or not, being an artist or a professional musician/actor in today’s world, it’s not easy. It’s very nontraditional. On some level, it’s basically entrepreneurship. You’re starting your own business and you have to sell yourself. So you have to figure out that balance between art and coin, to make art into coin on some level, and figure out what your reason is for doing it. You have to answer the question of, “Is this what you’re here to do?” If there’s anything else that you want to do or specific lifestyle you want, then don’t do it. But if you know that you’re here to do this, to create music, to create music, to tell stories, to be a photographer, to be a painter, then go for it.”
How important is it for those of us in nontraditional fields to support each other and craft ourselves as a real presence?
Chakrabarti: “There’s strength in numbers. And as Indians or South Asians, we need to support each other more. In every field, but I can only talk specifically about my field. Instead of being the crabs in the bucket trying to pull each other down, if we can bring our forte together, then we can have a voice. And then that voice can take us really far. At the end of the day, we’re in the same boat because we came off the same boat.”