Ben Kingsley's Chameleon Characters
Krishna Bhanji's route to Gandhi.
The foyer of California Theatre in Southern San Jose is chock-a-block with an eclectic assortment of people. Everyone from college going students and middle-aged professionals to retired movie buffs is gathered on this unusually hot March afternoon with just one wish in mind- To see, hear, meet and experience the phenomenon that is Sir Ben Kingsley.
From his academy award winning performance in Gandhi to the maniacal but riveting act in Sexy Beast; from the heart wrenchingly fascinating feat in House of Sand and Fog to the almost unbelievably hum-orous role in Thunderbirds, Sir Ben Kingsley covers and colors the entire acting spectrum with his inimitable characterizations.
In town to receive the Maverick spirit award at the Cinequest Film Festival, San Jose, he talked to the press before the award ceremony and during the event thereafter.
If like the millions who thought that Kingsley’s resemblance to Mahatma Gandhi was uncanny in the film Gandhi, there might just be a justifiable reason for it. Not many know that Ben Kingsley is of half-Indian descent. The son of an Indian (Gujarati) physician Rahimtulla Harji Bhanji and British-Russian actress and fashion model Anna Lyna Mary Bhanji he was Krishna Bhanji until he changed his name to Ben Kingsley.
Born and raised in Yorkshire, England; Kingsley changed his name when he decided to act in films. “Interestingly it was my father who advised me to change my name as he believed that a British name would help me become more successful in films” says Kingsley adjusting his average frame in the seemingly uncomfortable chair.
“It’s a rather amusing name. While Krishna is the name of a Hindu God, Bhanji is typically a Muslim surname” he elucidates. Suddenly he laughs out and says, “The irony is that I changed my name from Krishna Bhanji to Ben Kingsley in order to play Mohandas Gandhi!”
The laugh continues when he narrates an anecdote from his early days. “During a particular audition while I was patiently waiting for my turn the receptionist called out for one ‘Christina Blanche.’ It suddenly occurred to me that she was hreferring to me (Krishna Bhanji). She destroyed all traces of my beautiful name!” he says laughing out aloud.
It was for an audition for a Shakespearian play that he had changed his name. When he auditioned for the role as Krishna Bhanji, he was rejected. He drove down twenty kilometers down the road to take the same audition test with his brand new name and he was accepted. “That must have been a lucky coincidence!” he says now recalling the days when each role meant a long struggle.
He must have been asked this question an umpteen number of times. But he still answers it with child-like enthusiasm. “The entire experience of making Gandhi was beyond compare” he says with a happy and contented expression on his face.
There are reports of him living a life akin to the Mahatma while he prepared for the role, which he impatiently declines. “Forget spinning the Charkha (cotton spinning wheel that the Mahatma used to spun cloth out of cotton) and doing Yoga.”
He continues, “It was serious business to get everything right the first time. I worked like a mad man on this film. I held the most extraordinary conversations with Richard Attenborough, in my mind one of the most intelligent film makers of our time. I rehearsed over and over again to get my speech and voice to the level where I could even remotely sound like the Mahatma himself.”
After hours of listening sessions and practice when I handed over a recording to Richard and he heard it, he came running to me and said, “This can’t be you. You just sound so incredibly like him.”
In 1984, Kingsley won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Recording for the album The Words of Gandhi.
His reverence for the character that he played shines through when he says with a gentle smile, “Gandhi was the noblest, most intelligent and benign character that I ever played.”
“And Dan Logan in Sexy Beast was the most damaged character I
ever played” he finishes with a wicked smile. “I just had the time of my life during Sexy Beast. I brought life to the character of Dan Logan by exploring the rage of an unloved child.”
While his chameleon like personality is limited to the screen, his mood fluctuates from contemplative to confident in seconds. While his eccentric comments send the audiences into a hearty laugh, his insightful comments evoke spontaneous acknowledgement and adoration.
“While the camera catches the integrity of moments beautifully, acting on the stage gives you instant gratification in form of spontaneous feedback” he answers when asked about his preferred medium- the stage or movies.
“The camera is allergic to acting” he says smiling knowingly. “The camera likes to see behavior. When I am in front of the camera doing a scene that requires me to be heart broken, I actually feel the shock and grief in my system from inside.” he adds.
While the camera and the stage both entice this versatile actor, his choice of a preferred genre is clear. “Comedy” he says with a definitive nod. “It’s exhilarating and as the clichéd saying goes, it is the hardest one. In comedy, you learn to live and survive through your wits” he explains.
While Kingsley’s string of excellent performances spans the entire gamut from comedy to serious cinema, the actor maintains that his preparation for every role is always the same. “I combine active curiosity with recognition of the character” he says, explaining further. “I memorize the lines and begin to collect and hunt for characteristics of my character everywhere.”
Kingsley also feels that his co-actors contribute a lot to his performances. He cites the example of his co-actor Roshan Seth, who played Jawaharlal Nehru in Gandhi. “When I worked with Roshan, I felt the love that he had for me from deep within. Nehru loved Gandhi with all his heart and Roshan successfully displayed that in this movie” he says adding, “Even today, when I see Roshan in Gandhi I say to myself that here is an actor who loved me!”
“Rohini Hattangadi who played my wife in Gandhi actually became my wife!” he says with a grin. “Even before the shooting for the movie began, we had our first fight at a pre-movie party. It so happened that we had walked in together and then when I saw some friends I drifted with them to another corner and was engrossed in talk when Rohini burst out from nowhere and complained that I had left her alone in the party!” he says laughing out aloud.
His uncanny ability to sound like Rohini Hattangadi or Steven Spielberg sent the audience into an uproarious laughter.
Suddenly the eccentricity takes over and he digresses. Talking about the time when he was knighted (2001), Kingsley says, “For the British, the motto is: Others must fail. They just don’t care. If I am sitting in a restaurant in London and someone recognizes me they wouldn’t care to come and talk. They would be dying from the inside to talk but NO!” he says with a huge smile.
Kingsley narrates that he was sitting at a hotel in Beverly Hills when he received a letter from Tony Blair informing him of the Queen’s wish of knighting him and that he was thrilled. “That was the time when I realized that the British do have a way to enthuse you!” he says with a thoughtful and at the same time naughty smile.
He is visibly thrilled when asked about the production company that he patronizes- The Playbox Theatre. “Playbox Theatre is a theatre for everyone, yet, at its heart it is for young artists and a younger audience.
Over 1,000 young people work with us weekly and audiences of 50,000 and upwards see our work at home and on tour annually. It is central to our philosophy to keep prices low, within the ‘pocket money’ range of young people” he informs while adding that both his sons are actively on the acting and production scene at Playbox Theatre.
This person is clearly a performer at heart. He looks amused when asked what he did when he was not acting. With a perplexed look on his face he says, “When I am not acting, I think about the time when I was or will be acting!” he says with a smile. “No seriously, this is what I do best. This is what I was born to do” he says with conviction while recalling how he almost became a rock star.
In 1966 Kingsley made his London stage debut as the narrator of A Smashing Day, produced by Beatles manager Brian Epstein. He wrote the music, sang and played the guitar for the production, and Epstein was so overwhelmed by his performance that he offered him a recording contract.
“I would have got lost in the world of rock n roll. I am glad I chose this profession” Kingsley says with a chuckle.
While his busy schedule keeps shoving him in different time zones, a break means days away from routine, days spend in nourishing the body and soul in good company.
Sir Kingsley is most proud about his role in House of Sand and Fog while his roles in Hamlet and Gandhi were the most challenging for him as an actor.
The conversation continues and Kingsley maintains a comfortable and easy flow throughout; peppering the dialogue with his witty comments and inimitable sense of humor.
The two hours seem to have passed in a haze and as the curtains fall the audience gets ready to watch a special documentary on Kingsley’s work over the past few decades. The screen is filled with a single image of Kingsley in Gandhi, his expressions showing both the pain and resilience of the character. The eyes are magnetic, drawing one into their infinite space.
Next in line are his academy award nominated performances in Bugsy and the seven Oscar award winner Schindler’s list followed by Searching for Bobby Fischer, a film on the chess champion; Death of a Maiden, Sexy Beast and House of Sand and Fog.
As Kingsley readies himself to accept the Maverick spirit award, he takes the microphone and says, “I was shaking and trembling when I saw all those movie clips. I wonder how much emotional energy I have left now to do cinema.”
His modest statement draws an impromptu round of applause from the audience and while Sir Kingsley takes a bow, the background music starts sounding familiar.
The soulful notes of Vaishnava Jana, Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite song, fill the auditorium and from the distance I can see Kingsley’s eyes getting nostalgic about the film that he admits, “Sharpened my perceptions of life.”
As Sir Kingsley’s exits the auditorium, his hands are folded in a Namaste, the ultimate symbol of love and humility, something that he so truly personifies.