Chunky Panday is a man of grace. No defeats can keep him down too long, and no wins take his feet off the ground. He talks about his successes and failures with equal pride and humility in this tell-all interview.
By Tsunami Costabir
How did you foray into modelling and acting?
I was out of college, trying to make ends meet, as I stopped taking money from my parents. I took up different odd jobs – I became a car dealer and even sold marble. I then went on a free commercial trip to America, where I went to a show and realised just how great it is to be a performer. After that, I went to LA to meet my cousin, who was in film school.
One night at dinner, this lady came up to me and asked: “Are you an actor?” I said no, and she said, “If you change your mind, here’s my card.” She was a casting director. So I took the card, and that’s when it hit me – this is something I could try out back in India. So when I came back, at the age of 20 or 21, I started training for it.
In those days, the hero had to do everything. So I learnt singing, dancing and horse riding, and took many different acting classes. During my three to four years of training, when I had no work coming my way, I started modelling. During that time, I also auditioned for a couple of roles and finally got my first film in 1987. So it was a three-year journey getting into movies.
Have you enjoyed your many-decade journey in films?
Yes and how! If I relive my life, I would make the same mistakes and do the same lovely things. I wouldn’t change anything.
What has your experience in Bangladeshi cinema been like juxtaposed to Bollywood?
I went to Bangladesh at a time when I delivered one of the biggest hits with David Dhawan and Govinda. I had just one other film on hand, called ‘Teesra Kaun’ with N N Sippy. My work in Bollywood had dried up. I don’t know why because I should have been getting a lot of work, but I was getting roles that were not exciting.
So I decided to take the opportunity to go to Bangladesh and do a film that turned out to be a super duper hit. So I didn’t look back and started working there for a few years. It was only when I got married that my wife told me, ‘While you’re enjoying your run in Bangladesh, you are known as Chunky Panday from India’. She was very instrumental in my coming back.
Has there been a specific role that you found particularly rewarding or challenging?
At a wedding, a kid came up and asked, “Uncle, are you a hero? What’s your name?” I told him to ask his mom because if he was five years old, his mom would have probably seen my films.
But that is when I realised that there’s a whole generation that doesn’t know me. So, I took it upon myself to impress this little kid and cater to that age group.
Luckily for me, I started getting offers for films that had these cute, quirky characters. It started with a film called ‘Qayamat’ with Ajay Devgan, where I played a scientist called Gopal. Then came ‘Apna Sapna Money Money’, and finally came ‘Housefull’ and my role as Aakhri Pasta. Those were some of the roles I really enjoyed doing.
But the most challenging role, I think, was a film called ‘Begum Jaan’ with Vidya Balan, where I had to shave my head and spoil my teeth to play a gruesome character. It’s the villain parts that have really been challenging because jumping from Aakhri Pasta to a villain is not an easy thing!
Is there a genre or theme that you would like to see explored more in India?
I would love for fantasy films to come here. Of course, we have been making fantasy in our own ways, but I do hope that the genre gets explored better.
Is it difficult to break out of a trope, like for you, comedy, when you want to do roles of a more serious nature?
When I was offered villain roles, I’d get quite surprised. It does get a little difficult, but you have to be mentally prepared for it. People may not think of you as their first choice for the role, but I am a very stubborn person. I’ve even run up to people to try and convince them that I can do it. But I’ve never done emotional roles. I don’t think I would be very good at it because I don’t like watching rona-dhona films myself!
How would you recommend a person stay relevant and versatile?
First of all, stay in touch with young people. There is so much to learn from them. You have to keep up with technology. Don’t carry the baggage of things you’ve learnt in your past. If you do, use it for your behaviour, not your performance.
Every day should be a new experience. You should be willing to absorb and learn. You have to absorb from your co-stars and directors, you have to keep imbibing.
Your daughter Ananya has seen a lot of success in films. How did you feel about her wanting to be an actor? What advice did you give her?
I was excited when she told me she wanted to be an actor. I told her exactly what my parents told me: You have to train to be an actor, you cannot just become an actor. No one is a born actor.
And then came ‘Student of the Year 2’, but it came at a time when she’d already got into two universities in America – USC and NYU. It was a very big decision to take. She told me then, “If I go and come back, after three years, I’ll still be trying to get films. But now, I’ve got a great opportunity, and I want to do it.” So we told her to take that one year, give it her whole heart, but also keep education open.
All I told her was you have to be nice to people. Don’t underestimate or overestimate anyone and don’t try to imitate anyone. In the industry, anything can happen. Any Friday can change anyone’s destiny. I told her to be prepared for the unexpected. And she’s stuck with that advice. Luckily, I’ve got a girl with her head on her shoulders.
What is your take on the nepotism debate, and have you given your kids any advice on how to cope with any hate they may receive?
See, this is something you’ve signed up for. When you become an actor, you should be ready for the backbites and the abuses, because with it comes the adulation. In fact, someone once asked me while I was getting hounded for autographs and pictures if it irritates me. And I said, ‘No. The day it stops, I’ll get irritated’. With all the love and the adulation will come the other things, and you have to be prepared. It can come in different ways – nepotism, body shaming, whatever. And nepotism is just an endless debate. It’s like what came first – the chicken or the egg?
Were you supportive of your wife Bhavana doing the reality show ‘Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives’? What were your concerns, if any?
By 2019 I was known as Ananya’s father, and when ‘Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives’ came out, I was known as Bhavana’s husband. And it excites me so much. I was on an international flight when an air hostess came up to me and said, “I know you, you’re from Bollywood.” I thought to myself wow, Chunky, you’re famous. And she continued, “Of course! You’re from ‘Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives’!” and I was so shocked. Apparently, the whole crew had watched the show.
I’m sure that soon I’ll be known as Rysa’s father. I think when your siblings, kids and spouse make you proud, it’s the best feeling. I enjoy their success more than I’ve enjoyed my own success.
You’ve always been close to your brother Aloke (Chikki) and his family, what is that bond like?
Chikki is my younger brother. We were very notorious kids and really troubled our mom. We were really mischievous, got thrown out of schools and did so much masti. Now that we’ve grown up, we’re still the same kids – with kids – but a little more sober and sane. In fact, we all lived in the same house until Chikki moved out about four years ago. So it’s been like a joint family with these guys. His son (Ahan) is going to be launched by YRF and his daughter (Alanna) is already doing so well in America. Chikki is a very helpful person who has always been there for people.
Can you tell us a little about the bond you and your family share with Shah Rukh Khan and Sanjay Kapoor and their families?
SRK is a very dear friend of my brother’s. Growing from strength to strength and becoming this mega-superstar has not changed him at all. His personality has been the same. And, of course, now Gauri and Bhavana are good friends, and Suhana and Ananya are good friends. So it’s like more of a family now. And it’s the same with Sanjay Kapoor.
I’ve known Sanjay since before I joined movies. We met for the first time in 1984 when we were both strugglers. And now Shanaya and Ananya are good friends, and Maheep and Bhavana are good friends. So these would be my two families.
But I’ve always considered the film industry as one big family. If anything happens tomorrow, you know, we’re all there for each other.
Over the years, how have you handled your inevitable ups and downs in the industry?
You have to be mentally strong. Like I said, you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. Obviously, things do get me down. Like not winning any major awards or being nominated for films, and the awards have gone to other people. But you have to learn to enjoy your victories and be happy with them. You have to just yell, ‘Die another day! Today is not the day I’m dying’.
Do you still have a dream role you wish to play, or maybe a foray into filmmaking that you wish to explore?
Ah, I don’t know. I think I would be a bad director. But as for a dream role, I would love to play Batman. That way, people won’t have to see my face for three hours! But I love superhero characters. So Batman or even Ironman.