How did you land the role in Silver Linings Playbook?
It’s actually quite a funny story. I was shooting in Jodhpur when my agent told me about this audition I had to do. It was with David O Russell, the director of the film. Since I was in India and he was in the US, we had to communicate via Skype. I had no idea what Skype was. So my manager arranged for the software and while I was speaking to David online, we realised that while the picture was working fine, the sound quality had a few glitches. So we had to cancel the interaction. He told me that he would Skype with me later.
A few days later, I was attending the Toronto International Film Festival and I organised a Skype chat again in my hotel room. Unfortunately, the connection went haywire again and the interaction didn’t happen again. David was really hassled this time and asked me to record my audition on a tape and post it to him. All this while, a Bangladeshi room service guy was in my room and had witnessed the ordeal. Since I was in such dismay, he told me he was a big fan of mine and pulled out his iPhone and said he would record my audition on his phone and mail it to the director. So he shot my audition and then mailed it to David.
Were you aware of the character you were to play in the film?
Oh yes! I had watched David’s earlier films like The Fighter, which had Christian Bale in it and earned him the Best Actor Academy Award. I was bowled over, not just by Bale’s performance but also the film. As far as my role went, I knew I had to portray the Indian therapist, Cliff Patel’s role. The film is based on a book of the same name by Mathhew Quick but it was not available when I was shooting in Jodhpur. So while travelling from Bombay to Toronto, I picked up the book and read it on the flight. Within a few weeks, the script was sent to me.
What was it like working with David and Robert De Niro?
Surreal. It was a beautiful experience. The film has a dream cast. But more than anything else, it was an honour to work with Robert De Niro. We had some phenomenal actors in the film… whether Chris Tucker, who was doing a film after 12 years after Rush Hour; or Jennifer Lawrence, who is known for some really memorable roles in X Men, Hunger Gamesetc. Bradley Cooper too had an intense role in this film, one which is very different from his role in The Hangover. He was also brilliant in Limitless.
David gives us quite a free hand and got us to improvise on the sets. We did a workshop before the film. But, for me, the high point was sharing screen space in an important scene with Robert De Niro. He keeps reinventing himself as an actor, and as co-stars, you can give of your best only when you’re challenged.
You have worked in a few Hollywood films. Did you face any challenges while filming?
I carried a huge responsibility while acting in this film – not only my own performance but also representing my country. I mean, I have done a lot of Hollywood films, like Bend It Like Beckham and Breakaway, but those films had other Indian actors too. Here, I was the only Indian actor on the sets and I gave every scene my best. When you push your limits, every scene becomes important.
But this film was also challenging because English is an alien language to me and I don’t think in English. So I decided to prepare in the same manner that I had planned to during my film Saaransh. I locked myself in a room and tried to get into the skin of the character. I also started focusing on being in character even when we were not shooting. It might not be a great role but it is very close to my heart.
The film had its world premiere at TIFF. What was the response?
It won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF, which is one of the highest honours at the festival. Other films that have won this award wee Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech. The response to the film at Toronto was amazing. Usually, the top two to three films at Toronto make it to the Oscars. I don’t mean that the film will thus automatically make it to the Oscars but let’s hope for the best. The critical acclaim that the film has received is fantastic.
What kind of response are you expecting at the Asia premiere of the film at MFF?
In Toronto, I was an Indian actor who was part of an international film screening. But at the Mumbai Film Festival, I will be the sole Indian actor presenting an international film. This is not only a rarity but a great honour as well. Now you know why I completely believe in the title of my autobiographical play Kuch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai (Anything Is Possible).
Festival films in the West are taken seriously and are also box-office wonders. Can the same be said of Hindi films? Why?
No, the same cannot be said of Hindi films. Our films are mostly star-driven. Unfortunately, in the last few years, the audience has not watched the films that have done the rounds of various festivals. What happens in the West is that once a film wins awards at festivals, it is re-released across cinemas, so that people can enjoy these critically acclaimed films. This serves a dual purpose of increasing the reach of the film as well as ensuring that the movie does well at the box office.
In India, our consistency of selection of films that are sent to the Oscars as well as other festivals should become more transparent. I am not saying the films that have been sent to these programmes have not been good films. But I think we are scared of marketing our festival films. We need to work on that and give them the mileage they deserve. Our festivals also need to be promoted well. TIFF is just 11 years old but it has built such a good reputation already.
MAMI has created a great name in the West and what Mr Syam Benegal and the rest of the jury have done is commendable. Reliance has also done a lot to promote it across international shores.