Jimi Mistry can relate to Partition’s star-crossed lovers
Quicksilver flash and a glib tongue may have been the early trademark of British actor Jimi Mistry (East Is East, The Guru and Touch of Pink), but his starring role in the tragic romantic epic Partition requires him to both put up and shut up.
Shot in India and set during the violent 1947 partition and creation of Pakistan, Mistry plays Gian, a war-scarred Sikh soldier in the British Indian Army who returns to his village hoping to find peace. Instead, he falls in love with Naseem, a 17-year-old Muslim girl (Smallville‘s Kristin Kreuk) whose family has been slaughtered by the villagers. Neve Campbell also stars in the pivotal role of Margaret Stilwell, a reserved Englishwoman in love with Gian.
Still handsome but almost unrecognizable under a turban and greying black beard, Mistry’s character is a throwback to the strong, silent, determined hero of such movies as Dr. Zhivago, in keeping with the classic cinematic style that veteran Vancouver director and cinematographer Vic Sarin was going for.
“That was the beauty of the script,” says the 33-year-old Mistry on the phone from Vancouver, his Brit accent blubbed by a cold. “I just hadn’t read anything like Partition in my short career – it’s the whole picture. As an actor, when you have scripts like that, it’s like doing a good stage play. You have a beginning, a middle and an end.”
Sarin had seen Mistry in his breakout role in British comic-drama East Is East (1999) as the defiant son Tariq, and in the campy American movie The Guru (2002) as an Indian immigrant turned celebrity sex therapist.
“I go by instinct, and there were moments in those films where he showed the strength and the vulnerability of a Gian, a man who defies his family, his village, even his faith for the woman he loves,” says the Kashmiri-born Canadian director. “Then I met with Jimi and he was passionate about doing the role.”
For both men, the challenge was to let Gian’s character and determination come through the screen with a minimum of dialogue. “I told him: ‘Jimi, talk is cheap. What is important are your actions and your internal journey.’”
“Vic helped me out a lot. Every day, he’d say: ‘Jimi, remember, remember, remember, who you are and where your character’s been.”
Mistry also drew on some very personal history.
“There’s this kind of parallel between the star-crossed lovers in the movie and my own parents,” relates the Yorkshire-born actor. “My mother was Irish Catholic, my father was Hindu; she was white, he was Indian; and it was England in the 1970s, a bit like the couple inEast Is East.
“My parents had to, well, not fight,” he says with a laugh, “but creep around for quite a while behind closed doors because they shouldn’t by rights have been together – a lot like Naseem and Gian. But they believed so strongly in what they did have. I was the testament to that, because here I am!”
Trained at the Birmingham School of Speech and Drama, the young actor landed a role on the popular U.K. soap EastEnders as the unlovable Dr. Fonseca. He then did the stage production of East Is East at the Royal Court Theatre, later reprising the role of Tariq in the award-winning 1999 movie version.
A few years ago, he told an interviewer: “As soon as I got into this industry I was labelled an Asian actor, so I could only play Asian roles and that’s what I’m trying to get out of.”
These days, the busy international actor – Mistry is currently on screens in Blood Diamond and juggling movie projects in England, the U.S. and India – seems more relaxed about his career choices, including the American Bollywood take-off The Guru with Heather Graham, which some members of the Indian community, both here and in Britain, deemed offensive.
“There’s always been a reason behind anything I’ve done. I’ve never taken anything on just for the sheer hell of it,” explains Mistry. “We saw The Guru as a way of giving an exotic splash to Indian culture for American audiences, which is a very, very hard thing to do because people aren’t willing to let that be out there. It was a bit of fun, but it’s like anything with race, culture… the borders go up.”
Directed by Vic Sarin
Directed by Vic Sarin