Charles Thomson never dreamed of breaking into Bollywood. Born in Brisbane to Caucasian parents and in his mid-50s, he is about as far from the stereotypical Indian film star as you can get.
But after getting into the odd scene as an extra a couple of years back, Charles managed to score what countless wannabe stars have tried and failed to land: a lead role. The historical Marathi-language film 1909 hit cinemas in January, making the Brisbane native a household name in Maharashtra.
Over a vegetarian platter at a restaurant in Delhi’s upmarket suburb of Hauz Khas, Charles talks a mile a minute, explaining how he stumbled into the bright lights of Indian film entirely by chance.
Charles’s childhood was far from ordinary. His father worked as a psychiatrist and his mother was a yoga teacher. But while his father’s line of work made for some quirky experiences—the family spent time living in mental institutions—it was Charles’ mother’s job that altered the course of his life forever. One day she brought a Hindu sadhu to stay in their Sydney home. “Nobody had seen a yogi on the Northern Beaches,” Charles says, his mouth stretching into a grin.
Spellbound by the Sadhu’s simple ways, Charles begged his parents to let him spend his Christmas holidays in India instead of with his grandparents in Brisbane. He managed to win them over by using his top marks from Pittwater House private boys’ school as leverage.
Charles was just about touching 12 years old when he packed his bags and travelled deep into the sprawling state of Bihar, to one of India’s biggest yoga schools. He did not come back to Australia until he was in his 20s. “Dad turned up to bring me back but I managed to push that eight-week holiday into 11 years,” he says.
Charles ended up running the ashram and says he even taught yoga to a prominent judge who lived next door to India’s then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. “It was great… We used to have high tea on the patio,” he says.
An issue with his visa eventually forced Charles to return to Australia. While he began settling back into life Down Under, earning his high school certificate by correspondence, Charles’s love for India never dimmed. For fun, he took to approaching Indian immigrants in Sydney and making their jaws drop with his pitch-perfect dehati, or ‘village’, Hindi.
Charles found a career for himself after volunteering to help cook at his Balgowlah Thai restaurant. “I went there for lunch one day and noticed there were hardly any customers, but their food was really good,” he says. Winning over the owners with his enthusiasm, Charles was made a manager and helped the business grow into a chain before eventually buying a share in it.
Charles was working in one of the restaurants one night when he spotted an Indian friend picking over his dinner with a gloomy look on his face. Asking what the matter was, Charles discovered the man’s parents wanted him to return to India to run their IT business, while his dreams lay in Bollywood. That man, Shashank Ketkar, went on to become “one of the biggest stars on Marathi TV”, according to Charles. Meanwhile, the Australian moved back to India in 2011 after getting a job with Eko India Financial Services, a mobile banking business.
Charles took to visiting Shashank on set in Mumbai and was first filmed, “by accident, after getting into the shot”. He scored the role of District Magistrate Arthur Jackson, a British officer, in Abhay Kambli’s film 1909 after the director told Shashank he was struggling to cast a foreigner who could speak Hindi. Shashank dropped Charles’ name and the rest, as they say, is history.
Charles now has big plans for his future. “I want to appear in a film in every language in Indian cinema,” he says. So far, he has not needed to do much shoulder-rubbing with producers to grease the wheels. His year ahead is already packed with film projects, including: a part in Stanley Joseph’s film Curry Munchers to be shot in Sydney, a film on juvenile crime in which he will play a jail warden, a documentary by Ana Tiwary on Australian actors in Bollywood, a Nayaab Vision Entertainment production on Dalits, and two projects by director Ishraq Shah.
Charles is undaunted by the cutthroat competition that sees countless wannabe Bollywood stars struggling to get a break. He says he enjoys being what people least expect: a bihari-farangi-Bollywood, a foreigner who speaks perfect dehati Hindi, an actor with no formal drama education. “People always see rules and barriers in life but I don’t go along with those… I’m out of the box,” he says. “My dream is to make people smile, the little people of India, wherever I go.”
Published in The Indian Sun (Indian Magazine in Melbourne)