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Mumbai-born 34-year-old actor Dara Sandhu is playing the lead antagonist in the European film And Tomorrow We Will Be Dead directed by award-winning Swiss filmmaker Michael Steiner that opened at the 17th Zurich Film Festival last year. The film follows the true-life story of Daniela Widmer (Morgane Ferru) and David Och (Sven Schelker), the Swiss couple who were kidnapped and handed over to the Taliban in 2011 while traveling through Pakistan. The story had kept Switzerland on tenterhooks, as for eight months, the couple was held as hostages until they managed to escape by themselves.
Sandhu marked his innings in the world of entertainment with a short film campaign for Facebook with the renowned British director Sarah Dunlop. Thereafter, he was seen in the critically acclaimed television series Kaafir (2019), which cemented his repertoire and attracted a handful of best-supporting actor nominations. After that, he featured in the web series Masaba Masaba in the subsequent year. He began his acting journey on stage and worked in productions in Nottingham and Cambridge, UK. To transition from the stage to screen, he attended the Stella Adler Acting School in New York.
Having lived in several countries and trained in different accent deliveries helped him to learn and perfect the Pashto delivery. Furthermore, he worked in depth with international acting coach Giles Foreman to prepare for the part. Embodying a versatile persona, he has dabbled in writing and direction before pursuing his love for acting and was enlisted as the assistant director on films such as Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016) and Secret Superstar (2017).
In this exclusive interview, he talks to us among other things about having lived in several countries and trained in different accent deliveries and voice modulations as well as his upcoming political sci-fi novel, web series, and full-length Hindi feature film.
IC: Tell our readers about your role as a lead antagonist in the European film And Tomorrow Will be Dead.
DS: I have always wanted to play an antagonist but haven’t had a good opportunity till now. It’s probably true in the art of acting more than anywhere else, bad boys have all the fun. Jokes aside, to play the antagonist in this thrilling true story directed by someone of Michael Steiner’s caliber was an experience I will always cherish. Michael is one of the most popular filmmakers in Europe, and it was a real joy learning his process. My character Omarra was critical to the story and the director flew down to do extensive readings and auditions with me after I was shortlisted, as he was very clear about what he needed the character to be and I needed to transform into it in a short period of time.
Not only is Omarra scary and unpredictable, but at the same time, I had to show a human side to him. Giles Foreman, the renowned acting coach worked with me to give me a strong back story to justify my actions. Of course, sounding absolutely fluent in Pashto was the first challenge but we went much deeper than that. Omarra belongs to a small town in the hills of Afghanistan, and we worked extensively to study and then adapt the body language of people from the region. Their cultural differences in how they deal with women were also very important. Daniella, the female hostage, actually thought that she would be raped by the Afghans over her eight-month ordeal, but they wouldn’t even look at her or speak to her let alone touch her.
We all were very aware of the magnitude of the responsibility of telling this story accurately, as the real survivors of the story remember my character clearly and it was important to them that the actors play their roles as close to the real people as possible.
IC: You have lived in several countries and trained in different accent deliveries and voice modulations. Tell us more about how these experiences and influences have shaped you as an actor.
DS: I had the opportunity to attend boarding school in England. I had never been much further than Dubai as a child and suddenly I found myself in a classroom with a Scottish teacher asking me questions in a very heavy Scottish accent. I challenge any kid from India to understand a word of it. It was highly embarrassing and I became very aware of my own heavy Indian accent as well. The first few years were challenging. I never developed a permanent accent like people sometimes put on after living abroad for a few years, but in an all-British boarding school, you better learn how to enunciate, speak slower, and work on your pronunciations if you want to survive. I suppose the work I did there on myself set me up to be a good listener.
Soon, I found myself able to catch on and replicate different accents and then even other languages really well. I travel a lot. I spent most of what I earn on traveling and when I would visit Germany, Spain, Ladakh, or Kashmir for example, I make it a point to learn at least the pleasantries of the language and force myself to speak to several strangers a few times a day. It’s daunting every time, but the reaction you get when they realize you don’t speak the language but are yet replicating the accent perfectly is always worth it.
I also watch a lot of foreign films. I genuinely enjoy the intricacies and differences in accents. Today I just actively practiced Indian classical singing with a harmonium and my amazing singing teacher Mr. Jayant Verma. I have realized our own Indian classical singing is one of the best art forms for voice modulation and speech delivery whether it is on stage or in front of the camera. For me, the voice is as important a tool as the eyes of an actor.
IC: Who or what are some of your biggest inspirations?
DS: I am a history geek. I read a lot of historical fiction. History was the only subject I really enjoyed as a child because it’s basically storytelling. Napoleon, Genghis Khan, and Mahraraja Ranjit Singh are some names that come immediately to mind whose stories of grit, determination, and fighting against all odds shaped my teenage years to be more persistent and determined myself. In the creative world, Farhan Akhtar inspires me. I like writing, acting, and singing, and he gives me the belief and motivation that it’s okay to want to do more than just one of them, and that you can succeed at more than just one vocation if you genuinely love them. In the west, you commonly see a lot more writers who also act and vice versa.
IC: Tell us about your upcoming novel Mahashakti, a political sci-fi saga based in 2090.
DS: The novel is based in 2090, in a world where humans have managed to deplete most natural resources. It’s a story of a young orphan who works hard to become one of India’s leading scientists and finds creative solutions to the climate change-related problems that are invariably going to arise for us and our future generations. My protagonist eventually finds himself at the helm of national and global politics and has to make difficult decisions and overcome mountains of obstacles. I have kept the tone of the book light but I also hope it is an insight not only to the problems of the future that we are so blindly and steadfastly headed towards, but also a mirror and a motivation for the youth of our country who need to stand up to the challenge and try to make a difference in the world, and hopefully have the courage to change many of the old ways that are failing us.
IC: Tell us more about your upcoming musical web series Bombay Rhapsody and full-length Hindi feature film.
DS: The Hindi feature film script is a brother-sister comedy-drama. They belong to Amritsar, just like my own family, and I enjoy the banter that comes from a typical crazy Punjabi family when put in awkward situations. Even though I gravitate towards a lighter writing style to make sure my work is entertaining and makes you smile but it’s important for me to usually have it layered with a message. The message in this film is empathy—not only towards each other but also animals. I send my happy-go-lucky protagonists on an adventure in which they find themselves in the midst of a scandal involving elephant exploitation. It’s something that happens around us every day but most people are not aware. I strongly feel the need to bring this issue to light while also entertaining people. The best writing for Indian audiences is one that makes you smile and be entertained but also sends home an important message—the best example is the genius script of 3 Idiots.
IC: You are also trained in western jazz and Indian classical dance forms. Tell us what you are working on currently on that front.
DS: I love dancing because it’s one of the true forms of expression. I have a line in my film where someone says, “The universe is dancing, then why are you still?” Many things that they teach in acting school were quite obvious to me, having already performed on stage for several years and also just by the virtue of observing the world. But what I personally struggled with and wanted to improve was having control and confidence in my body language and movement. I realized that the best and most economical training for that was Indian classical dance. You go searching the world for something and then come back to find it next to you.
So, I found a teacher in Mumbai, the late and great Maharaj Veeru Krishnan took me in and I surrendered to the process. It used to be four hours of grueling exercise and dance every morning. When you left class you could feel the rhythms of music staying with you for your entire day. It was really challenging as well. Most days your entire body hurts but the challenge is what I enjoyed about it as well. It can almost be meditative with the level of focus it requires you to maintain and my guruji would not accept any mistakes. We don’t see these dance forms in our movies today but if you learn them for a year or two, anything a choreographer throws at you on a set seems like child’s play.
Neha Kirpal is a freelance writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Wanderlust for the Soul, an e-book collection of short stories based on travel in different parts of the world.