‘I fell in love with India and decided to pursue my dream’

‘I fell in love with India and decided to pursue my dream’

By Taru Bhatia | | 30 September, 2017
Edward Sonnenblick, California, firang, Bollywood, Hindi speaking, American actor, Indipedia, India
Edward Sonnenblick.
Edward Sonnenblick, the chef-turned-actor from California who has made Mumbai his home and Hindi his second language, speaks to Taru Bhatia about finding stability in Bollywood.

What made you shift to India from the USA?

A. I was minding my own business in northern California when one day I happened to see my first Bollywood film. It was Lagaan and it just blew me away. I started watching Hindi films by the truckload, teaching myself Hindi along the way, and reading up on India and Indian culture obsessively. I’ve also always been a spiritual seeker and India’s wealth of spiritual traditions was drawing me as well. I visited and backpacked all over the country for almost a year in 2005. It was everything I had imagined and more. Somehow, I felt more at home in India than in America, so I came back two years later to try and settle in Mumbai for good. I was also looking for a change of career. I’d always loved acting and cooking for a living was starting to tire me out so I decided to go for it.

Q. How difficult was it for you to learn Hindi and Marathi?

A. I really enjoyed learning Hindi in the beginning. I like the ups and downs and the turns of phrase. It’s so fun to speak. I picked it up fast at first, but to be honest I’ve gotten pretty lazy in the last several years since English is so widely used here. I’ve still got some work to do to really get my conversational Hindi skills where I want them to be. My Marathi is really poor, but I can follow sometimes. I’m actually a little better with Gujarati, since I’m married to a Gujarati, but it’s mostly limited to just following the jist of what’s being said.

Q. You were an accomplished chef for 15 years in California. What made you attempt this career change to Bollywood?

A. I love food and feeding people but cooking for a living was starting to tire me out. I had always loved acting but never had the guts to try and make it as an actor in Hollywood since it’s so competitive. When I fell in love with India it seemed like it could be time to pursue my acting dreams, since I observed there was a niche market for “firang” actors in India, and I figured I might even be the only one who could perform in Hindi. So while it was largely a leap of faith, it was a little bit of a
calculated one too.

Q. How has your journey been, from Californian kitchens to Bollywood studios?

A. It’s a classic example of how abandoning all reason and following one’s heart can turn out fantastically. I’m very fortunate that I’ve got to where I am now by chasing my dreams. It wasn’t that easy to get started though. I had to put up with a lot of rejection, silly typecasting, lousy pay, getting ripped off by middlemen, and so on. But I kept at it and things gradually fell into place. I landed a big double role in the TV show, Jhansi Ki Rani, which was where I’d say I really cut my chops in the industry. My work there was hugely appreciated and helped move my career forward after that.

But I have to say that more than anything, my wife Sonal is the one who helped make this journey possible. We met shortly after I moved to Mumbai. She’s actually a director and was the director on my very first job here! That’s how we first met. She’s always been there helping me not only with my acting (which really needed a lot of help in the beginning) but with the ins and outs of the business as well. I never would have lasted more than a year in this town without her. She’s amazing.

Q. Tell us more about your new show, Indipedia.

A. It looks at things that are truly unique to India and intrinsic to the culture, but often go unnoticed, either because they are hidden or obscure aspects, or because they are so right in front of us everyday that we don’t pay attention. Each episode dives into a different subject—with equal measures of reverence and masti.  In one we find out why India’s trucks are so vibrantly painted and how they came to be that way. In others we explore little-known native musical instruments, or the significance of gates and doorways. The show’s twist is that it’s hosted by me. I’m a firang, yes, but one who has lived and breathed India for the last decade, someone who speaks Hindi and loves to sing old filmy songs, but still has enough of an outsider’s perspective to point out and take a deeper look at some of those things that Indians often never stop to wonder about.

India is the love of my life. I was delighted when I was approached to do this show, as it revolves around captivating facts of the country, which makes me fall for it, over and over again. Indipedia is about discovering deeper facts not just seeing sights. What does “Om” really mean? Why is the symbol the way it is? Why do vehicles have nimbu-mirchi tied to their bonnets? What is the solahshringaar? These are the questions that have always popped up in my head and through Indipedia, I have had a chance to explore these.

Q. How has your experience been of exploring the various customs and traditions of India?

A. Fascinating. There are so many things that happen in India—so many things that people do here—which one rarely if ever stops to notice or question. Hosting this show gave me a powerful lens onto Indian culture. We ask unasked questions and get fascinating answers.

Q. There are also many lost traditions, arts and cultures in India. Do you feel like rediscovering those or acquainting people to them through your show?

A. I think most people love coming across lost or rare art forms, and seldom seen aspects of a culture, especially their own. Like most people, Indians love to celebrate their culture and traditions, even the quirky parts. I’m glad that through this show we are shining a light on some things that deserve more attention.

“India has made me a different person, in ways that I truly never expected. India actually shook me up.”

Q. What has been your biggest challenge in Bollywood or in the TV industry?

A. My first major role was as a British officer in the TV serial Jhansi Ki Rani several years ago. Over the course of two years it turned into a double role with me playing twin brothers. That was a tough but exhilarating crash course for me, as I was shooting day in and day out through the rains, through the heat, on sets that were a long drive from Mumbai. I would usually not receive my Hindi lines until the day of the shoot. They’d be written in Devanagari in such fancy high-flown period Hindi, but I’d have to get them down pat, and nail the scenes one way or the other. By the time I was done with that series, I could definitely say I had cut my chops in the business and was ready for anything.

Q. When you came to India what were your expectations from the country?

A. I had been immersing myself in media and books on Indian culture and history, including a lot of Bollywood movies, for a couple years before I came to India the first time, so I had an idea of what it would be like. But more than anything I wanted to find out for myself what it’s like here. So I put aside my expectations as much as possible and focused on being in the moment to see what kind of chemistry would naturally arise between India and me. I wanted to just let it happen, and I would have to say it’s been a beautiful journey that continues to this day.

India has made me a different person, in ways that I truly never expected. When I first arrived, I didn’t feel there was much purpose or direction in my life. I was still a kid in many ways, kind of lost and searching. I didn’t see the need for a stable career or family. I know it sounds clichéd, but I now see that I needed to “settle down” and grow up. India actually shook me up and showed me that. Now I feel I have my feet much more firmly planted on the ground. I met my amazing wife here in Mumbai and we have a five-year-old son now. I have very happily “settled down”. I never expected that!

Q. Do you feel Indian audiences are any different from audiences abroad?

A. I hesitate to generalise. There are many different demographics in America and in India, just like everywhere. India is particularly vast and has a market for every kind of content out there. But yeah, obviously when you look at the majority of Indian films and TV shows, the masala is turned up a few notches.

Q. Do you harbour any dreams of going to Hollywood and building your career there?

A. If something comes along I’d certainly be interested, but right now there’s plenty going on for me in India, so I’m not looking in that direction. Mumbai is my home, and there’s nowhere else I’d rather live.

Q. Could you tell us about your future projects?

A. I have some great roles in some really amazing projects. I’m in Hansal Mehta’s web series Bose Dead/Alive with Rajkumar Rao, as well as in Kapil Sharma’s Firangi releasing in November; and I’ll be shooting for Manikarnika with Kangana Ranaut soon. These British period roles are kind of a staple for me, but I’m also heading to Delhi this week to shoot for Veere Di Wedding. It’ll be a good change of pace to play a nice American family guy married to an Indian… Just like me!

Q. Any director or producers you’d want to work with?

A. Lagaan has such a special place in my heart since it was the turning point in my life that led me to India. So working with Ashutosh Gowariker or Aamir Khan is a dream that would really bring the whole journey full circle. Someday, inshallah.

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