In 2011 actor Sanjiv Boodhu starred in the award-winning Trinidadian-Canadian short film Doubles with Slight Pepper, and after its release there were discussions of a feature-length follow-up. But he had no idea he would be returning to the role more than a decade later.
He stars in the narrative drama Doubles, which will have its Caribbean premiere at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival (TTFF) opening night gala on September 20. The film is by Canadian-born award-winning director and screenwriter Ian Harnarine, and centres on a Trinidadian street vendor (played by Boodhu) who must travel to Toronto and decide if he will help save his estranged father from dying. For Boodhu, the role is the culmination of some 26 years of acting.
He and his elder brother Rajiv (who also appears in Doubles, together with his cousin Kala Neehall) grew up watching their father, veteran actor Kenneth Boodhu, on stage with the long-running Strolling Players Theatre Company. The brothers would be taken to performances every weekend.
"Growing up with an actor as a father, it was normal for us to gravitate to the stage."
He began his career at six and was coached by late Strolling Players founder and celebrated playwright Freddie Kissoon and by his father. Boodhu recalled his first memory of being on stage was a Strolling Players performance at the then Arima Senior Comprehensive. His job was to sing the national anthem before a "massive audience." Owing to nerves, he could not start his performance, but a teacher came out and held his hand, which gave him the encouragement to begin.
Boodhu's duties would soon be upgraded to acting, and he appeared as the character Sonny in Kissoon's best-known play, Zingay, which follows a married couple who believe their child is the victim of black magic. He would play several father/son roles with his father over the years in stages across Trinidad, including in Mayaro, Rio Claro, Blanchisseuse, and at City Hall in Port of Spain. He described Kissoon, who died in 2016, as a brilliant man.
"A visionary. Extraordinarily intelligent and a disciplinarian."
He added that Kissoon would not tolerate rudeness or drinking and was very organised. Boodhu credited him with bringing a lot of discipline into his life.
"I am certainly a better human being having been taught by Freddie Kissoon."
And how was the experience as a young actor?
"It was an absolute wonder. And it was something natural, as I would see my father do it every weekend. It was normal. I did not know other people were not involved in theatre and drama."
Boodhu also appeared as a student in the play School Project, written and directed by his father and co-starring his cousin Tamara Dolsingh.
For the next 15 years, Boodhu had over 50 stage performances throughout the length and breadth of Trinidad, in keeping with Kissoon’s vision of “taking drama to the people.”
By about 18, he had outgrown the teenage roles of plays like School Project. He shifted his focus from acting to working and going to university.
From Doubles to Doubles
Then in 2010 while at a construction site, his father called and said he had a meeting with a Canadian filmmaker (Harnarine). Boodhu met with Harnarine and the director offered him a supporting role in his short film Doubles with Slight Pepper. He would play young doubles vendor Dhani in Trinidad, who is reunited with his estranged father, who has returned from Toronto and is suffering from a serious illness.
"When he offered, I of course categorically said, 'Yes.'"
Harnarine, Canadian-born to Trinidadian parents, came to Trinidad in 2011 with his crew and filmed the movie in numerous areas of the island over aweek. During the filming, Boodhu was reunited with veteran actor Errol Sitahal, who was his father's good friend and ran a drama club at his father's school.
"It was poetic."
He said Sitahal was very much an uncle to him.
"Errol coached and guided me in acting. I was happy to learn. He is extremely talented and passionate."
He also credited his father, who played a doctor in Doubles with Slight Pepper and appeared onscreen in films like The Right and the Wrong and local series like Calabash Alley and Sugarcane Arrows, with helping him to transition from theatre to film acting.
"His guidance was very on point. And whatever he said I put in practice and was in line with what Ian wanted."
Doubles with Slight Pepper made its way around the globe and appeared in numerous film festivals, including the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the award for Best Canadian Short Film, and to NYU and Cannes, and went on to win Best Live Action Drama at the 32nd Genie Awards.
"I was taken aback by its success. I could not fathom it."
He explained that when acting onstage there is a limit to the number of people who can watch the performance, and he was therefore surprised by the global reach of Doubles with Slight Pepper.
"I credit Ian and his team for putting in the hard work and getting the film to where it has gotten."
In 2022, Boodhu was flown to Toronto to appear again as Dhani in Harnarine’s feature film follow-up, Doubles. He said he was not surprised by the sequel, as it was always the intention, but did not expect it would take such a long time.
"It did surprise me that they came back 11 years (later) and wanted me to play the same role. It was very humbling. I thought I was no longer fit for the part or the age. But Ian thought I did not age as badly and was eager to get me back."
Harnarine's team assisted Boodhu with getting his visa, work permit and approvals from a government agency in Canada, and after flying him to Canada put him up at an Airbnb for a month.
"It was quite a challenge and I am very grateful."
In the 11 years between films, Boodhu had not been doing much acting besides a few commercials and had been focusing primarily on his work.
"I had to deal with the emotions of whether I was living up to their expectations as a performer. They spent so much money and went through so many hoops. If I was not able to deliver, it would be disappointing. It was very stressful."
But Boodhu benefited from living and working with Sitahal, who returned to the role of his father, Ragbir.
"We would act together all day and come home and rehearse all night."
He thanked his wife, Anna-Lee Boodhu, for being so courteous as to allow him to go. She joined him in Canada for the last week of filming. It was also his first experience of winter.
"It is not easy for a husband to say they packing up to go Canada for a month to film a movie."
And how was it returning to the character of Dhani after so long?
"It was a very interesting thing. I had to struggle with being consistent with the character from Doubles with Slight Pepper, and with the fact that I was 11 years older and had seen more films and actors and had a different view of the world, more life experience to draw on, especially for the emotional scenes."
Boodhu has not seen the film yet and Harnarine told him it would be best to see it with an audience.
"I am happy to take his guidance. He is a very experienced and educated man and I have a lot of respect for him."
He described the film as "doubles with heavy roast pepper," as it is a very emotional and genuine film about a father-and-son relationship strained by emigration.
"It is very common in TT and the Caribbean. So many of our families have been split by the emigration process due to the need for financial stability. One parent leaves behind the other to go and make a better life for the family, only to find out it is not really a land of milk and honey."
He said the film will resonate with viewers regardless of their background. He also expressed hope people would leave the film with rejuvenated knowledge of the importance of family and understanding each other's differences and remembering that TT is a force to be reckoned with creatively.
"We are not a people to sit and look on. We are doers with talent, training and education. We have fought to be on the world map not only in calypso, soca and Carnival (but in other creative sectors) like art and theatre."
He encouraged people to take advantage of opportunities provided by the government in the creative sector.
An attorney by profession, he said he would love to be a professional actor, but cannot, because he has to earn a living. He "tipped his hat" to professional actors.
Asked about his acting future, Boodhu said he would be happy to work with any filmmaker or theatre company.
"This (role) is not a retirement but a beginning."
Doubles premieres at 6 pm on September 20 at Queen’s Hall, St Ann's, at the TTFF launch.
About the actor
Aside from his acting career, Sanjiv K Boodhu is a successful attorney in private practice with offices in San Fernando, Arima and Sangre Grande.
He is also a member of the Rotary Club of St Augustine, a director of Heartbeat International TT (a charity organisation), a director of the Housing Corporation Development (HDC), and a director of his family business group, Kenneth Boodhu Agencies Ltd, which runs, among other things, the popular home furnishings, fabric and curtain brand known as Ojoes.