Alyque Padamsee is the best-known Indian to play Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, but the seemingly unbreakable association between actor and historical figure could change for good. Stage and theatre actor Denzil Smith plays Jinnah in Gurinder Chadha’s upcoming Viceroy's House. The movie is set in 1947 during the period when Louis Mountbatten presided over the transition of power from the British to Indian leaders. Hugh Bonneville plays the last British Viceroy and Gillian Anderson is his wife, Edwina. British stage actor Tanveer Ghani plays Jawaharlal Nehru, Neeraj Kabi is Mahatma Gandhi and Yusuf Khurram is Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.
Smith had previously played the dapper London-educated barrister in Lillete Dubey’s Sammy!, a 2006 biographical play about Gandhi. Smith had read up extensively on Jinnah and studied archival footage of the All-India Muslim League leader, so the audition was the easiest part, he told Scroll.in in an interview. However, playing Jinnah has not been a cakewalk. “Not quite,” said 55-year-old Smith, who has appeared in several plays and Hindi films as well as taken on bit parts in international productions such as The Lunchbox and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. “I had to lose 13-14 kilos in a month to appear as gaunt as him because that is the image one has of him, but beyond that, I wanted to reflect the spirit of the man – to understand how he thinks,” Smith said. “I let all my knowledge about him settle into my subconscious so as not to affect the naturalness of my acting because the director wasn’t looking for an imitation.”
Smith has already portrayed another historical figure, Jawaharlal Nehru, in the movie adaptation of Shafaat Khan’s well-known play Shobhayatra (2004). Jinnah’s role is more difficult than Nehru’s because of his character’s complexity, he said.
Smith was unwilling to share too many details about Viceroy's House, which is aiming for a summer 2016 release, but he clarified that Jinnah would not be depicted as a monster. “Jinnah was a brilliant man and he was very justified in all that he did,” Smith said. “Circumstances pushed him into a corner to make certain decisions. But he was very noble in his intentions and was one of the great men who fostered Hindu-Muslim unity.”
Apart from Padamsee, who played the founder of Pakistan in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), British actor Christopher Lee played the lead in the Pakistani movie Jinnah (1998). Smith has watched neither of these films to prevent his interpretation from being coloured. “I have played the part without affectation,” he said.
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