The Gully Boy actor picks his favourite books on cinema.

‘My Autobiography’ by Charlie Chaplin

I was in Hyderabad, trying to prepare for the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). I had no idea about movies. I had a written examination coming up, so I thought I’d read some books about acting. I picked up Sholay, by Anupama Chopra, and Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography. They completely changed the way I looked at acting. I’ll talk about Chaplin because he was a prominent figure in our growing up years, like Tom and Jerry.

The book made me realise how much work went into creating Charlie Chaplin by the man himself. He was literally born on stage, to theatre actors. There is an incident – which is heartbreaking – when his mother, a singer and performer, lost her voice during a performance. Chaplin saw it from the wings. He had seen enough shows – they used to do four-five hundred shows of the same play in a year. And he went onstage and continued from where ‘Mom’ left, in his meek, feeble voice. He was six or seven years old at that time, I think. He got the biggest applause. He was happy with the applause, but he immediately removed his hat and went and asked for money, because his mom was suffering and they needed money for treatment. The kind of gravity his story has is incredible. This is the only actor’s autobiography I have read that is so rich and so polished, in terms of vocabulary. Chaplin had a goal for himself to learn one new word a day and to use it. He practised that all his life. And this is a silent actor, who hated words in his cinema! The polarity of what was going on in his mind was absolutely amazing.

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The Authorized Biography’ by Al Pacino

I did not see many movies or great acting growing up. After I got into FTII, names like Robert De Niro and Al Pacino started popping up in my conversations, names which I had not heard before. One of the first movies I saw was Scent of a Woman and that blew my mind. That’s when I went and picked up the authorised biography of Al Pacino. He’s not written it, he’s just made sure that he’s given enough interviews for somebody to write it. And you would completely understand why Pacino would do this. What blew my mind was (again and again) his understanding of great artists: painters, musicians and his love for Shakespeare. These are the 3-4 most important things you will find when you read Pacino: He’s either quoting Mozart or referencing Chopin, or he’s talking about some painting, or he’s talking about Shakespeare, or his love for Paris. I figured out where the actor draws his inspiration from. And it was so interesting to get these kinds of references because it has nothing to do with acting. It had everything to do with him. He would reference an animal, like ‘I saw that animal move a certain way and I was like, “Man!”’ He barely spoke about his family… Every question of the interviewer’s would lead to him quoting some great writer, poet, painter, musician…. That was something that I figured you need to learn — to open up to a lot of art forms if you want to be an actor.

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‘Borat: Touristic Guidings to Minor Nation of US and A, and Touristic Guidings to Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan’ by Borat Sagdiyev

During my time at FTII, I’d gone to the International Film Festival of India in Goa. We were supposed to be watching serious cinema and stuff like that, and there I see Borat.  I had not heard of this name, or Sacha Baron Cohen. I did not understand if it was real — it looked like a real place, like a real person. It looked like a documentary, but how could that be possible? It’s too bizarre a comedy, which was unlike any other form of comedy I’d seen. And then I realised, later on, that it’s deeply political, it says something about how America perceives things. 

Then I chanced upon Borat: Touristic Guidings to Minor Nation of US and A, and Touristic Guidings to Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan — which is a guide (not really a book) to the world of the movie. If you see this book, you will realise that Borat is not just a two-hour movie, it’s an entire universe that was created to make that look convincing. It has a world map, according to what Borat thinks the world is. It’s basically introducing America to Kazakhstan and Kazakhstan to America. It funny, insightful, has very intricate, detailed artwork, and a study of how this character and world got created. I understand a show like Game of Thrones is based on a world created by a book. But here we are — this is a comedy movie, but there is an incredible amount of detailing.

The biggest achievement for an actor is to have a solid, intricate backstory to your characters, so that if you’re left to think beyond the script, what you say will matter and be appropriate. If you ask Sacha Baron Cohen what movies he [Borat] watches, what songs he listens to, what kind of food he likes, what his political opinions are, what his sexual preferences are, how much money there is in his bank account, what kind of shoes he wears, what colour socks he likes — he will know every fucking bit of it. That’s a great amount of character work.

In this book, there is a picture of a male mind and a female mind: the male mind is big and the female mind is small. So that’s how his world is, you know! It’s supposed to be terribly sexist, racist — he’s supposed to be everything that the modern world discards, doesn’t like.

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