If you’ve watched a Bollywood movie in the past 15 years and wanted to punch the screen every time a cold-hearted, British colonialist with a stiff upper lip appears, chances are your fists were itching to land one on a man who is neither British, nor — and you’ll have to take our word for it — at all cold-hearted.
Since 2008, as one of the few westerners in Bollywood, Californian actor Edward Sonnenblick, has been carving a villainous niche for himself playing the archetypal British bad guy in Indian cinema — and having the time of his life doing so.
“It doesn’t affect me, playing a baddie,” he says, “I enjoy it because I love being on set. As long as I can find my motive, then I’m happy as an actor, career-wise. People ask me whether or not I feel typecast, but I don’t feel that way.
“I’m doing other kinds of roles,” he adds, “it’s just the majority of opportunities are for British colonial characters. I’ve gotten to this level where if they’re looking for a foreigner, I’m top in their minds.”
How ‘Lagaan’ ignited his 'keeda'
So, how does a chef from San Francisco end up on a Mumbai film set, twisting his evil moustache (physically and metaphorically) and barking orders in clipped British tones?
“I came across this movie called Lagaan,” Sonnenblick, 39, says, casting his mind back to what would be his “Aha!” moment in 2005.
“It’s almost a four-hour movie, I can’t even remember how I heard about it, but it totally blindsided me," he says. "I had no idea how much I would love the music, the vibe, the emotion. I had no idea there was something so different from Hollywood movies, and I started watching more.”
The 2001 Oscar-nominated film, starring Aamir Khan and Gracy Singh, proved less the tip of the iceberg for Sonnenblick and more the tipping point, as the chef who, by his own admission, had been feeling somewhat lost and ambivalent towards his chosen career, realised what was missing from his life.
“There was a vague malaise that was sinking in over the years,” he says. “I was getting tired of cooking, and also feeling a little burnt out in the industry. I tried to branch out and try different things, but it was tough to stick to things.
“I always had this dream. They call it ‘keeda’ in Hindi, it means worm or bug, and refers to this thing you just can’t let go of, which you have to hold onto. I guess I had always had the acting keeda, but had no idea how to make it happen.”
‘I played my own evil twin and all my Bollywood dreams came true’
In 2005, Sonnenblick made his first trip to India, selling his possessions and saving his money before embarking on an eight-month pilgrimage around the country. Returning home invigorated and convinced his future lay in the country, in 2007 he packed up his things and quit the US for good.
“I basically showed up in Mumbai and didn’t know anyone,” he recalls. “I got a cheap hotel room and started figuring things out, making calls and chatting with people online.”
With a shared flat sorted and a mobile phone full of contacts, Sonnenblick landed the role which would launch his Bollywood career, as Captain Manson in popular Indian TV drama, Ek Veer Stree Ki Kahaani... Jhansi Ki Rani.
“Coolly menacing,” is how he describes his character. “I was an evil British officer for the first year until that ended. Then, a few months later they needed more British villains for the show, and as there are only so many Hindi-speaking white actors in Bollywood, they brought me back as Manson’s evil twin.
"Then my original character came back into the story somehow, so I had scenes with myself and all my Bollywood dreams came true.”
'There is a niche I can fill and one I’m pretty good at'
Attention from fans while out in public and a Best Villain nomination with Zee Rishety Awards followed, so Sonnenblick began brushing up on his Hindi. He says: “In a lot of ways English is tougher as there are so many exceptions to the rules. Hindi spelling is very straightforward."
Roles followed in Telugu-language film Rajanna (2011), in which he played Governor Curzon, and a spate of Bollywood films: Chittagong (2012) as Colonel Tait; Captain Jack Snipes in Neeria (2016); as an officer in Rangoon (2017); as Lieutenant Colonel Kitson in Raag Desh (2017); and as Lieutenant Lawrence in Kesari (2019).
“There is a niche I can fill, and one I’m pretty good at,” Sonnenblick says of his resumé littered with British military ranks.
“While there’s never really been a lot of big roles for western actors in Indian cinema, on the flip side, there are not too many people competing for those roles either, so it balances out quite well.
"In the last four or five years, those roles have been getting more substantial, with more opportunity," he adds. "I’ve had one playing a Russian diplomat in Bollywood in the 1950s, another as a cricketer being blackmailed to fix matches — there’s lots more going on than the evil British colonial.”
While working on an advert for Citibank he met his now wife, director Sonal Mehta, and the pair have a son, 10-year-old Aum.
Sonnenblick says she is a major reason his career has not only stayed on track, but flourished.
“I was miserable at negotiating and standing up for myself with regards to conditions, treatment and scheduling,” he says of being a newcomer to Bollywood. “Sonal’s far better at the business stuff and has been managing my work for quite a while.”
Career goals and Indian dreams
Among Sonnenblick’s burgeoning IMDB profile are three career standouts. The 2017 TV series Bose: Dead/Alive, in which he plays Stanley Allen to Rajkummar Rao’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, an Indian nationalist whose complicated legacy and rumours surrounding his supposed death have turned him into a folkloric hero.
There's also his recurring role as Robert Paswan on the popular comedy skit series The Kapil Sharma Show, and as Edward in the blockbuster RRR (2022), in which he stars alongside two of South India's biggest names, Ram Charan and NT Rama Rao Jr.
“I would love to get stuck into some meatier roles,” he says. “Some crazy independent experimental stuff, really branch out.”
While an upcoming role as Lord Mountbatten in the Meghna Gulzar-directed Sam Bahadur may seem like more of the same, Sonnenblick remains sanguine, and grateful, for the opportunities that come his way.
“If it isn’t broke, why fix it?” he says. “I am not a planner, I’m a go-with-the-flow kind of person. That’s how my life has gone and this is how everything has been able to happen.”
As far as career goals go, like most actors, Sonnenblick has a wish list of talent he would love to work with, namely, Amitabh Bachchan, Naseeruddin Shah, and Aamir Khan, the star of Lagaan, the inspirational starting point for Sonnenblick's career.
“It would bring things full circle,” he says of that particular co-star ambition.
However, one is often left with the impression that Sonnenblick’s Bollywood career comes secondary to his need — or perhaps that should be destiny — to be in India.
“I just felt that I needed to go to India, to shake things up, do something new,” he says of the inexplicable urge which took hold of him back in 2005.
“I’d never really travelled much, but I just figured the industry perhaps needed foreigners occasionally, that there was a niche for someone like me who just wanted to be there.
“It’s like, it had to be India,” he adds. “No other culture has really touched me the way India has. I can’t even say why, except that it wasn’t just a fluke, it was meant to be. I have a life I never imagined.”