Interview: South African Actor Gérard Rudolf with Kolkata Film Maker Debasish Sen Sharma; An enlightening cultural exchange


debasish sen sharma-gerard rudolf

Gérard Rudolf, an established actor, director and poet of South African origin who has been initiated into the Bangla Film Industry with director Kamaleshwar Mukherjee’s Chander Pahar spoke with renowned film maker, theater person and teacher Debasish Sen Sharma (Of Bicycle Kick fame) about his journey in films and theatre and his experience of working in the Indian Film Industry.


Debasish Sen Sharma: Hello and welcome to Indian cinema. To begin with…How do you want to classify yourself? A poet, an activist, a thespian or a film maker? How do you connect these facets of yourself?

Gérard Rudolf: Hello to you too, Debasish. Always lovely to meet a fellow traveller…as it were. And thank you for ‘welcoming’ me to Indian Cinema, a world I knew very little about before embarking on this adventure with Chander Pahar.

Yes, I am most of the things you mention, though I wouldn’t call myself an ‘activist’. The thing is I do not separate any of those aspects of myself…at least not in my mind. I believe as an artist (which is how I see myself at best, and as a ‘guilty bystander’ at worst , I guess) everything we do and think is, and should be interconnected, that one thing feeds into another, that one thought feeds another and is not more or less important than the other…if that makes sense. Nothing exists in a vacuum. For instance: When I am on location filming in the middle of nowhere I am constantly taking photographs of anything that interests me (the landscape, small details, people), or I am obsessively looking at the details in the landscape around me, collecting interesting rocks, taking note of textures, etc. which somewhere along the line might feed into my poetic writings. I discard nothing, dismiss nothing. You ask how I classify myself? In short: I don’t. I wouldn’t know how to! I do what I do. Let others classify me if they want.

 Gerard Rudolf

Debasish Sen Sharma: Great! So, lets try to know you better. Looking back, how did your training in military service help in your theater?

Gérard Rudolf: First I have to state clearly that I (and thousands of other guys of my generation in   South Africa) did not exactly volunteer to join the army! We were conscripted, and if we refused to serve in the military we faced years in jail! To answer your question: I guess my two years in the army woke me up to many of the political realities that existed in South Africa in the eighties and it gave me a deeper understanding of political theatre and the issues these plays endeavoured to address. But on the whole the military experience only served to strengthen my personal resolve never to be duped by any political system or ‘philosophy’ ever again – and to deeply distrust any patriotic rhetoric.

Debasish Sen Sharma: In fact, everything we do is political.. Your opinion, your standpoint.. Your take on any issue subject or any person. Like, you have acted in both stage and screen-How do you differentiate between stage acting and film acting? Do you take any special preparation for acting in films? Its indeed a political question..Isnt it?

Gérard Rudolf: This is an interesting question. Every well-trained actor knows there is a huge difference between theatre- and film acting; the entire approach of the two forms is different. Film acting, in my opinion, is a lot more immediate or ‘in the moment’ as it were, than theatre acting. By sheer virtue of the presence of a camera film acting demands a more subtle or ‘internalised’ performance from the actor. In the theatre it is essential to ‘project’ voice, emotion and movement to exaggerate or heighten slightly whatever it is that need to be communicated to the audience for all the obvious reasons. In essence the actor has to take the performance to the audience which can be a very powerful and cathartic experience for both actor and audience. But I like and prefer film acting these days because in a way the camera comes to the actor and can capture, as in so-called ‘real life’, the tiniest nuances of a face or voice which is then manipulated in the edit to bring the moment home to the viewer. Obviously theatre acting is the greater of the two disciplines and leaves very little room for mistakes. But in film all the actor needs is one good take and has the luxury of having all the mistakes (miss takes?) conveniently cut out leaving only the truth of the moment. Film acting is quite unforgiving in this sense because the camera does not judge – it merely captures the truth and if an actor is not completely in the moment all the time it will read false. There is no place for ‘emotional faking’ in film acting. It has to be real or it simply won’t work!

As for preparation, well…I instinctively throw myself into the roles I play and do to the best of my ability whatever needs to be done. I don’t know how to do it otherwise. I am a bit of a method actor though not purely so because I was classically trained and learned my craft in the theatre and learned film acting on the job! So I have that innate discipline. But I also find as I get older that I don’t care as much as I used to. I don’t care so much if I am good or bad in a role. Instead I find I have a certain confidence now that I know what the hell I am doing, that I have 23 years of experience but that I still have loads to learn…and this leaves me free to act, to ‘be’ in the all-important moment and to know instinctively when it is good or not. When it is not good I simply do it again and again until I feel the moment works. I love that about getting older. The ego takes a bit of a back seat I guess and leaves one more free to get at the truth. I hope! And when the ego goes for a walk the performance becomes all that matters. I’m not saying I am there yet. But I am certainly trying my best to reach that point in my acting. I might never quite get there completely. Every role is a unique journey with its unique challenges to overcome.

Debasish Sen Sharma: Coming back to your journey, from where we have started-You have seen the dark days of apartheid. How do you weave reflections in your work on these memories?

Gérard Rudolf: I’m not sure how to answer this question. We are all shaped by our time here on this planet; when and where we were born, the things that shaped our world both in the sense of the family circle and in the broader world, etc. So I guess it is rather inevitable that something like growing up in a country where most of its citizens were effectively excluded from so much for such a long time had an impact on me as a person and as an artist. In South Africa one cannot help but be political on some level. I am not a political creature by nature. I distrust and disrespect politics in general and despise most politicians specifically. In a country where the so-called liberators have of late turned into bloated, greedy, deeply corrupt ineptocrats that seem hell bent on enriching themselves at the cost of the country and the people of this country a deep anger seethes inside me and most South Africans. First we were run by a bunch of fascist brutes and since 1994 we seem to be ruled by a kind of immoral criminal element that spit on democratic ideals and look and smell just as bad as the nasty lot they succeeded! I guess I don’t have an answer to your question except to perhaps say that political systems provide us with stories and characters that will be portrayed and dissected through art.

Debasish Sen Sharma: Back to my home this time, what was your introduction to Indian cinema before Chander Pahaar? Any films you have seen or liked? If so, what struck the chord?

Gérard Rudolf: My introduction to Indian Cinema came to me as I suspect it came to many non-Indian cinema goers: through the work of Satyajit Ray. His Apu Trilogy had a huge impact on me when I saw it at the age of about 14. But then again I have always had an affinity for so-called realism in cinema and Ray was a master. I am sadly not overly familiar with Indian cinema as a whole because it is such a Big Subject and because it is quite tricky to get hold of the great Indian films here. But I have seen Mrinal Sen’s Genesis a few years ago while I lived in the UK. It blew me away. The Indian filmmaker whose work I am most familiar with is Mira Nair’s. I think I have seen most of her films and she is, in my humble opinion an extraordinary filmmaker. (I met her socially a few times in Cape Town when she lived there during the 90’s.) Salaam Bombay captivated me when I first saw it, so did Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake, etc. I can’t wait to see her new film The Reluctant Fundamentalist. And then I am, for obvious reasons extremely interested in- and a huge fan of Kamaleswar Mukherjee as a filmmaker especially now I had the honour, the good fortune to have met him and to have worked with him on Chander Pahar. I honestly believe Kamaleswar has the potential to become one of the great Indian film directors…and I am not simply saying that because I know him. I have seen him at work and he is a man of great intelligence, integrity and he possesses a rare artistic soul. He is a visual poet and Indian cinema should nurture him.

Debasish Sen Sharma: I think Kamaleswar will be very happy to know this. This reminds, I have always wanted to know – How did Chander Pahaar happen?

Gérard Rudolf: Interesting story: I was called to audition for a small part in the film by Bonnie Lee Bowman, a rather brilliant Johannesburg based casting director. I prepared the scenes but for some reason on the day of the audition I wasn’t in a great mood. Kameleswar was there, and to Bonnie’s horror I asked Kameleswar if there isn’t a bigger part I could try out for because I was pretty tired and bored of being offered only bit parts in international productions that film in South Africa, and I was really looking for a bigger challenge. Kameleswar took the request (and my rudeness) in his stride and asked me to show him what I’d prepared for the smaller role, which I did and which he liked. After the audition Kameleswar thought about it a bit and said there is this other big role in the film, that of a ‘Portuguese explorer’ which they are struggling to cast as it is an important character in the story. He asked me if I would prepare some scenes and return a few days later which I did. I never held any hope that I will snag the part but I pulled out all the stops at the audition and a few weeks later I was notified I got the part. Little did I know at the time how important the novel is in your culture and how important the character of Diego Alvarez is in Chander Pahar – or that the shoot will be one of the hardest and challenging jobs I’d ever had!

Debasish Sen Sharma: I think you really have this advantage of having no hangover of Chander Pahaar for which you can deliver a fresh perspective to the character. It really needs herculean courage to film a text you have grown up with. Not to digress more, please share some of your interesting memories?

Gérard Rudolf: Do you mean memories of the filming process? If so: The locations spring to mind immediately. As I mentioned it was a hard shoot. I lived on the second floor of a guest house while we shot the first half of the film in Mpumalanga. Some nights I would return to the guest house and be so tired that I could not get up the stairs to get to my room and I would sleep in one of the bottom rooms. (I’m not a youngster any longer!) I also struggled with the Bengali dialogue. We worked out a system rather akin to the way they worked in Hollywood during the early days: Somebody (sometimes Kamaleswar) would read the Bengali dialogue to me during the take and I would try and repeat it verbatim and phonetically. It took so much concentration on my part and a lot of patience from Kameleswar and the crew. But we got there in the end and cleaned it all up during post-production. It was a very interesting and at times confusing way to act. But working on Chander Pahar was all in all a humbling experience.

chander pahar dev

 Debasish Sen Sharma: Who all were your favorites in the unit?

Gérard Rudolf: Apart from Kameleswar I really liked the DOP, Soumik Haldar. He is a bit of genius and possibly one of the best DOP’s I have ever worked with. I also had a few great conversations about photography with one of the producers, Mahendra Soni. What a lovely man he is. There were so many great people on the crew too, too many to name. Really hardworking, friendly and professional people who did a sterling job. And of course Dev. We really had a great time working together and we laughed a lot at ourselves. Like me he seems to not take himself too seriously which is quite refreshing and in such contrast to some of the big British and American actors I have worked with over the years. A real bloody nightmare some of them.

Debasish Sen Sharma: Taking cue from your reference to the high browed British and American actors, I think it is a part of global identity politics and  orientalism as studied by Edward Said .Africa and India both have been portrayed from a typical western perspective as a land of illusion and a dark continent, land of magic and snake charmers. What is the role of cinema in your country in combating this myth and represent modern Africa?

Gérard Rudolf: This is another challenging question. I am not sure we are engaged in some sort of battle here to ‘combat’ any myths, to dispel through our films any misconceptions or preconceived notions or some sort of ‘Lion King’ idea about South Africa or Africa for that matter. Not that I am aware of. We tell our stories whatever they might be, wherever they might take place. Period. Some stories are set in typical suburbs, others in rural areas or in small dusty towns, others in big cities like Johannesburg, Durban or Cape Town with an urban feel about them and they deal with our specific concerns; poverty perhaps, political issues, existential ideas that might be found anywhere in the so-called First World, love, cultural differences, history, etc. And anybody who sees these films outside South Africa will immediately be disabused of any ‘romantic’ notions they might have held about South Africa as this African hinterland where lions roam the streets and where everybody lives in huts and in trees which is clearly not the case. I mean, just look at a film like Akin Omotoso’s Man on Ground (to name but one of many) and you will see where we are. I think the potential for movies to unite this country and its people on many levels is great though. But we are not quite there yet. The film-going public and film market here is still split along racial lines and very few films ‘cross over’ and appeal to all South Africans although some films have managed to do this quite well over the past few years, films such as Tsotsi by Gavin Hood for instance. But then again Tsotsi was very much an ‘American’ style telling of a very South African story and although I liked the novel I though the film was rather predictable and sentimental…which is probably why it won an Oscar. Then again, there is nothing wrong with that per se. I just prefer my cinema a bit more gritty. And I would venture that India might face the same challenges too what with Bollywood and Tollywood competing for a vast and culturally varied market?

Debasish Sen Sharma: Tell us something about the dream film that you want to make.

Gérard Rudolf: I like small films, films with loads of dialogue and interesting ideas, dramas. I have seen many films I wished I was in though and there are many directors I wish I could have worked with. I want to portray deeply flawed and compromised characters, characters such as Don Draper in Madmen, at once compelling and completely morally despicable, deeply human. That would be nice. Anything that might challenge me at this stage. I am not interested in easy characters any longer. They bore the hell out of me. In fact, under certain circumstances acting bores me to death – unless I am challenged by a role. I want to be confronted by challenges that scare my socks off. Otherwise, why bother being an actor at my age? After more than 23 years in this business I’m certainly not doing it for the money and hardly for the fame because I am neither rich nor famous. So I might as well go for the challenge.

Debasish Sen Sharma: Well, thank you Gerard for such an interesting and fascinating chat session with you. Lets end our session for the time being with some tasty desserts. Here are few rapid fire questions for you-

  • 3 Favorite all time films
  • 3 Favorite all time film makers
  • 3 Favorite actors (you have not worked with)
  • 3 Favorite characters you would like to play in films
  • 3 Good things on working with an Indian crew


Gérard Rudolf:

  • God, I hate questions like this because there are so many films I love. So I will just list a few favourites and not just three: The Three Colours Trilogy by Krzysztof Kieslowski (I love all his movies), The Mirror by Andrei Tarkovski (I love all his films), all Terrence Mallick’s films, The King of Marvin Gardens and Five Easy Pieces by Bob Rafelson, Withnail and I by Bruce Robinson, Naked by Mike Leigh (I love his films), Sunset Boulevard (1950) by Billy Wilder, Mean Streets by Scorsese, Una Pura Formalita by Giuseppe Tornatore, the French New Wave films, all of Fellini’s films, Chinatown by Polanski…on and on!
  • The list above pretty much covers some of my favourite filmmakers. I might add Mike Figgis, Werner Hertzog, Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, Kusturica, Kiarostami, David Lynch, Wong Kar Wai…too many again.
  • Gary Oldman, Jack Nicholson, Jennifer Jason Leigh.
  • I answered that in question 10.
  • They work hard. They are friendly and helpful. They treated me like a star and like I mattered.


Debasish Sen Sharma

Thank You for your time Gérard! On behalf of Sholoana Bangaliana and the Bengali Film Fraternity, I would like to wish you All the Very Best for your movie Chander Pahar and would sincerely hope that post this movie we get to see more of you in mainstream Indian Cinema.

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