In every actor’s career, there comes a role that transforms their life; whether this comes from international recognition and awards or an important learning experience, almost every individual in the industry has that one project that changed everything. For Leo Award nominee Dhirendra, this moment came in 2002 when he was cast in a revolutionary project with the lead character breaking all the conventional molds of being a ‘diverse performer’. The character was defined by his vocation, a crime reporter, and not so much for his ethnicity. Dhirendra became Jinnah, the title character of Jinnah: On Crime, a series of films that allowed the world to see just what an extraordinary talent he is.
Dhirendra played the lead character, Jinnah, a no-nonsense, break all the rules, take any risk to get the story, crime reporter in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s made for TV movies, Jinnah: On Crime – Pizza 911 and Jinnah: On Crime – White Knight, Black Widow. The two TV movies were produced by Hugh Beard’s company Force Four Entertainment.
“It was always a pleasure to be on set with Dhirendra. Every day he would arrive before his call to connect with the other actors and crew. Then when he stepped on set, he took the lead, creating a complex and compelling character. From the first day of shooting we knew we’d made the right casting decision – he is a star,” said Hugh Beard, Executive Producer of Jinnah: On Crime. “We don’t know whether Dhirendra became Jinnah or Jinnah became Dhirendra, but he is Jinnah.”
The moment Dhirendra heard of Jinnah, he knew it was bigger than just a job, it was the opportunity to land an iconic role and truly embody his character. Jinnah is an iconoclastic journalist who stops at nothing to get a story. His charm, general knowledge and, most importantly interpersonal skills, made him very unique. After a rigorous casting process, where Dhirendra beat out multiple candidates, it was obvious that he had all of those qualities in a likeable way.
He felt a real connection to Jinnah, and although it was not known at the time of casting, he discovered in pre-production that both he and Salim Jiwa, the real-life reporter for The Province on whom Jinnah was based, are from Tanzania. The actor speaks various languages fluently, including Hindi and Swahili, which he was able to bring to the character. They even managed to have a scene set in Tanzania played in Swahili on screen by coaching the Caribbean Canadian actor playing an African character to speak Swahili authentically.
“I had a sneaking suspicion from the character’s speech rhythms that he had a connection to Africa and was brought up with English as his first language, just as I had,” said Dhirendra.
Jinnah: On Crime – Pizza 911 was based on a true incident where the remains of a body were found in a pizza oven. It was nominated for a Gemini Award for Best TV or Dramatic Mini-Series in 2002, which could never have been possible without Dhirendra as the star.
With his cultural authenticity and interpersonal skill set, Dhirendra was able to mediate in many situations while shooting Jinnah: On Crime. He brought an insight into the community that the film was set in, to intervene when some background artistes refused to participate in a scene. His understanding of various cultures was brought into the script, changing locations when necessary to highlight religious storylines and adding Hindu first names and Muslim last names, helping to bring authenticity to storylines. He humanized the character with nuanced cultural touches, creating an exotic ethnic leading man.
“This show was ground-breaking. I loved being able to collaborate on the script for a nuanced understanding of the culture it addressed,” said Dhirendra.
One of the series most-talked about scenes spurred from a moment of improvisation for Dhirendra. It was scripted as a playful and intimate moment between Jinnah and his wife, but in a spur of the moment decision, Dhirendra decided to kiss and lick the foot of his co-actor who was playing his wife. He wanted to show a genuine interaction between the two, showing their passion after two decades of marriage and humanizing their relationship.
“My answer to why I did this then and now is ‘What is the population of India? How do you think that happened? Immaculate conception?” Dhirendra said. “Where does the Kama Sutra comes from?”
When the scene made it to air, it was the first time such a scene with an Indo-Canadian couple being intimate on the country’s programming, and highlighting such diversity was important to Dhirendra, and one of the fundamentals of the show.
“The Jinnah movies are still talked about today as the ‘gold standard’ for CBC, the movies that opened up opportunities. It paved the way for Human Cargo, Little Mosque on The Prairie to name a few shows that have followed with minorities in the lead. The success of Jinnah sealed the commitment that CBC had to foster diverse programming,” he concluded.
Photo by Derek Stevens