Adarsh Gourav, who earned a BAFTA nomination after his powerful performance in The White Tiger, and Ali Fazal, who shot to international fame post Victoria & Abdul, share their experiences of working abroad, starting off their careers on a low, auditioning together and what their futures now look like.
Suchin Mehrotra: What are the most annoying questions people ask you about being part of Hollywood projects?
Adarsh Gourav: 'Ab to Hollywood mein hi kaam karoge!' It's not even a question – it's a statement. As if we are just sitting there to sign one film after another.
Ali Fazal: Some questions which get too repetitive are annoying or boring. 'How's the work done there in comparison to here?' Now that is not a very wise question, because the economy is so different. You're asking about Bollywood, which is one part of the Indian film industry and then there are American films that are catering to the world. One film releases in over 200 countries from the word go. So you can't possibly answer questions like that unless you start explaining the budget, which isn't bad, but it doesn't make sense to compare.
SM: What has tangibly changed for you Adarsh, post The White Tiger? Is it offers from the industry? Is it media attention? Is it social media attention?
AG: Honestly, because we have all been inside our houses and have not been outside too much or travelled outside, on that level I haven't really experienced that change, but in terms of work, I feel that the opportunities have increased. I feel that the characters that I have been in conversations for and the auditions I give have much more variety than what was before The White Tiger. Small things like that have changed but these are the more important things I wanted to change, and I'm really glad that's happened.
SM: Both of you started your film careers with unreleased projects. Since then, you've both been a part of a lot different projects and seen a lot of success. But it must have been crushing, especially as new actors, to have a film that didn't get released when you worked so hard on it.
AG: I was 19 when I shot for my first film, Banana. I was so excited that I was shooting for a film where I was playing one of the primary roles that I came and announced it to the whole world. Everybody, my college, people I would meet outside; any place I'd go, I would be like, 'Meri picture aa rahi hai.'
Two years passed. Deep down, you too didn't know why it wasn't coming out. But because people knew of it and sometimes you're the only actor that somebody knows, so then they are more excited than you. They'd ask me when my film would release. Such questions don't let you forget and move on to other things. It's like a loop that goes on for years. In retrospect, I would have liked for it to come out but I think because of it, I found my love for acting. That was the first time where I had spent a couple of months playing an individual who was not Adarsh. And I loved that process of embodying someone for two months. I think I owe everything to that film and Sajid [Ali] sir. I'm so grateful that I had that when I was 19.
AF: I was in college, 2nd year, when Saeed Akhtar Mirza found me. I remember this persona who looked like an Indian Francis Ford Coppola. He just called me and there were 3 stories in that film and I was the lead in one and it was very interesting. I don't know why it didn't come out. The first shock was not that actually. The first was when I did a movie called Always Kabhi Kabhi, which Shah Rukh Khan had produced. And you don't know any better. You are playing a lead in a Shah Rukh Khan film, and suddenly it doesn't do anything. So you realize that this too happens, considering everything else is perfect.
AG: Right after Always Kabhi Kabhi came out, I had gone for an audition for a bulb ad and I saw Ali bhai sitting next to me. I couldn't believe it. I thought, 'This guy just had a film coming out. How is he auditioning with me?'
AF: That's the thing. I think words like auditioning and struggling have been bastardized. Actually, this is a part of the process. I'm now working in the West and every time I have to read, I have to do a look test. It is, in a way, auditioning for everything, and that's fine. In fact, I've never said this before, but I even auditioned for The White Tiger with Adarsh. It was a beautiful experience.
AG: I remember, it was the drunk scene where you talk about the Taj Mahal. I compare the room to the Taj Mahal and you tell me to shut up (laughs). We only did that take once or twice but I don't think I ever felt that connected to a co-actor before.
SM: Now that you both are navigating important projects in the West, how important is cracking the accent to keep yourself open to opportunities that are not tied to being Indian?
AG: It's important. Even if you're playing an Indian character that has grown up in America, sound-wise, you can justify it by learning the accent. I can't sound like how Adarsh talks if I'm playing a character who's lived in America for 25 years. It's as simple as that. For that only am I trying to get the accent right. Honestly, it's hard. It's like you learn French in school from your textbook, score a 98 in your 10th, go to France and nobody can understand a line of what you say. So I need to be in America, I need to spend a couple of months. I'm hoping that happens soon, that I get to be there in person and experience all of that.
SM: It's very rare to get a character like Balram – an international production with an Indian protagonist. Same with Abdul. So is that the challenge to position yourself in a place where you can be viable for other opportunities overseas which aren't related to being Indian?
AF: That's the whole idea. I think we're going through a huge change. If you look at it world wide over, Indians have only done certain kinds of roles. We've all been geographically placed in American films, and I think today we find ourselves fighting for those places. I'm so happy Riz Ahmed is really speaking out about the way we've been conditioned to see Muslim characters on-screen, the world over. So that's another thing then, with people of colour, people of different races. 50-50 chalta rahega, I think we'll also have to sort ourselves.
SM: What's next for you?
AG: The thing is that there's been no official announcement and I really want to speak about a lot of things. What I can definitely say is that there is a lot of exciting work that is going to happen from October onwards, next year as well, with a lot of diverse filmmakers. They are very different from all the work I've been part of so far. I'm really glad the way things have turned up.
AF: I've got a very interesting year ahead. All the work starts from September-October, so I'm leaving the country to shoot an American film in the Middle-East around that time. And then I'll come back and finish most of the Indian stuff.
SM: When was the last time a piece of direction got stuck with you?
AG: While working with Ramin Bahrani from The White Tiger. He never called action or cut. He would just say, 'Whenever you're ready.' That was the moment I realized that all my life, I had been an electric board. You pressed the switch, it became on, you pressed it again, and it went off. I realized that I had been a bot all my life. It didn't feel like that with Ramin. I always felt that I was ready and I was Balram.
AF: One person I learnt a lot from was Tigmanshu Dhulia sir. I did a film called Milan Talkies. It didn't fare well at the box office, but that's not the point. Up until then, I was an actor who always had a perceived visual when I was reading the script and going on set. You know how you'll end up, you know the basic ball park. But he used to change the dynamics. He taught me, without teaching, how to just be on my feet and be ready. I could rant off forever in scenes where people sometimes don't stick to scripts. I learnt something unique, and I have to give him credit.