Reza Noorani (BOMBAY TIMES; March 19, 2017)

Few actors get to walk the line like Suraj Sharma. The boy from Delhi shot into limelight when he made a dream debut in Ang Lee's Life Of Pi in 2012. Ironically, the film that won many Oscars was a project which he had no idea he would star in (his brother auditioned for the part). Currently studying Mass Communication in New York, rubbing shoulders with Hollywood biggies and gearing up for his first Bollywood film Phillauri, the reluctant actor had a quick chat with BT. Excerpts...

After Life Of Pi, you didn't do a Bollywood film for a long time. How did Phillauri happen?
I always wanted to do a Bollywood film after Life Of Pi. But I wanted a movie that was both a family entertainer and a commercial project, with a good cast and good people backing it. At the same time, it couldn't be a story that was normal. I wanted it to be a bit offbeat and unique. To find something like that sure took time, but when I did, it worked. It was so right.

Do you identify with your character in Phillauri?
I do, on multiple levels. He is an outsider to his own situation. He feels literally like a fish out of water, much like I do. But what I really liked about this character was his idea of the current generation's confusion with commitment. And he is really good at dealing with those things. He is trying to understand what it is to be a Manglik and the goings-on in his life. What's more, a ghost teaches him how to love.

Any eerie experiences while shooting?
I don't really believe in ghosts, but I am open to the idea. If someone says there is a ghost around, I will always give it a chance. Aur mere saath aisi ajeeb ajeeb cheeze ho chuki hain. On this film, there is one hilarious incident. So, what I do is that I break down my script before every scene and I cut them in little squares so I can remember easily. And I had all these pieces of cut lines in front of me on set, and the papers flew. I was trying not to be scared, but I felt very weird and my palms went sweaty. The chits were all around me, and right at my feet was the dialogue that read 'bhoot se darr toh lagta hai'! I freaked out. It could probably have been a coincidence. Yet, I would like to believe it was a ghost! But shooting for Phillauri was absolutely fun. We were working and living in the same space for the entire duration of the shoot. We hung out for 14-16 hours, from breakfast to dinner, so the bond that was created was exceptionally close. Plus, we were doing things that were not totally normal. We were constantly facing all kinds of technical issues.

You are based in New York and are currently learning filmmaking. Are you known as the Oscar-nominated actor in class?
I would rather that not be the case. But if it is, I can't help it. See, it's like this - once people get to know me, they stop thinking like that. There are other famous students. There was one of the Sprouse brothers from a famous TV show. But then, NYU is full of high profile types.

Why New York and not LA, considering it's the city of stars?
Firstly, I like New York a lot. And the college there is more focused around giving wholesome education. LA is more about finding your voice that suits the audience, but New York is about finding your own voice as an actor. So, I would rather do that for now.

Will you consider shifting base and look for movies in India?
To be honest, I can't even think like that. It all depends on the role and the story. Even I thought that a huge Bollywood film will probably not be a good experience. But that's not necessarily true. Apna system thoda badalne laga hai, mere hisaab se. I just want to take advantage of that fact. I don't think old is bad, but I think change is good.

So, are you being treated as the go-to Indian actor in Hollywood now?
(Laughs) It's a complicated situation. On one hand, the idea of token diversity in Hollywood is a good thing because it at least gives us a job. But it's a bad thing because the job that we get is never always a good one, and the good roles are rare. So, that battle is going on. It's actually a battle between the audiences themselves. They are not used to seeing coloured people on screen as a normal thing. And what that does is, it doesn't represent America's own population. They are losing a sense of their own selves and I believe they are realising that. For now, it may seem hypocritical what they do, but it is going to help us. We have our own Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Irrfan and Dev Patel. Dev getting an Oscar nomination is a big deal. These actors are killing it and breaking barriers, which is important so that people are normalised to seeing us in regular roles and not just as drivers or doctors. So, it's happening slowly. The more we try to push ourselves to not be stereotyped, the better it will get for us. I myself have lots of examples of being offered stereotypical roles. I can't tell you exactly what, but it's a constant thing and it's very frustrating.

But this time, the Oscars did have diversity in terms of nominations...
I feel that the Oscars nominations were just Hollywood's defence to Donald Trump being elected. With the amount of diversity that was showcased, I didn't see any Indian people winning. But I guess it's a very big deal and important to be counted. What made me really happy was Dev being nominated. So, things are changing.