Srijit Mukherji’s’s 1947-set Begum Jaan is a remake of his Bengali movie Rajkahini. The cast has changed for the Hindi version, which will be released on April 14. Vidya Balan replaces Rituparna Sengupta as the doughty madam of a brothel through which runs the new Indo-Pak border. A surprise element in the cast is Chunky Pandey, playing a villain in a departure from his dramatic and comedic roles.
Sporting a bald pate, kohl-lined eyes and tobacco-stained teeth, Pandey plays Kabir, a mercenary for hire who vows to eliminate Begum Jaan and her employees from the brothel. (Jisshu Sengupta played the role in Rajkahini). It’s a marked departure from Pandey’s most recent role as the evocatively named Akhri Pasta in the Housefull film series.
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Chunky Pandey, whose real name is Suyash Pandey, began his acting career with a bit role in Rocky (1981). In the song Doston Ko Salaam, Pandey got an uncredited part as the boy who rings the gong to dismiss a class in college.
The good news rang in only six years later. Pandey finally made his debut as the lead in Aag Hi Aag (1987), followed by Paap Ki Duniya (1988). Both films were produced by Pahlaj Nihalani, whom Pandey met in a washroom. Pandey recalled the incident in an interview: “I met this man in the toilet who said, ‘I am a producer. I just made Ilzaam with Govinda.’ Was I hallucinating? No, it was true. The man was Pahlaj Nihalani.”
However, Pandey wasn’t destined to be a leading man. His most appreciated performance at the time was as Anil Kapoor’s sidekick in the crime drama Tezaab (1988).
Pandey’s biggest box office success was David Dhawan’s ensemble comedy Aankhen (1993). He shifted his gaze eastwards, and had a short-lived run as a leading man in Bangladeshi cinema. In 1997, Pandey starred in the Bangladeshi film Shami Keno Asha Me with Rituparna Sengupta. The film was a hit, and a few more Bangladeshi productions followed.
But the novelty of a Hindi film actor working in a language he didn’t speak soon wore off. Pandey was back on home turf, playing unscrupulous scientist Gopal in Qayamat (2003) and the goon Raghav in D (2005). The comedy genre kept him employed, with Apna Sapna Money Money (2006), in which he caricatured a Nepali watchman, earning him his second Filmfare supporting actor nomination after Tezaab.
Pandey’s best-loved comic character is the dim-witted Akhri Pasta from Housefull (2010). He reprised the role in the sequels Housefull 2 (2012) and Housefull 3 (2016). His standard line from the series, “I’m a joking”, doesn’t seem too far from his outlook in life and in his films. In Begum Jaan, the joke may well be on the titular character and her band of women.