Q. How did acting happen for you?
A. My friends said your English is good and you can’t do anything else. So you should go and start doing theatre and debates. And so I started doing those and then suddenly I started getting awards for that and I realised, this is amazing. I did my first movie in college. I was in Xavier’s and at that time 3 Idiots was offered to me, and that’s how acting happened.
Q. Tell us something about your new film, Victoria and Abdul.
A. It is a true story based on a relationship between Queen Victoria and Abdul Karim, and about how two people from totally different cultures, at a time when it was unheard of, lead under weird circumstances, intellectually stimulate each other and complement each other. They saw the human side in each other despite coming from totally different backgrounds. He (Abdul) ended up becoming her (Victoria’s) teacher, her friend. Their relationship was very intimate and even till now people really don’t know about what their relationship was. Because it was a very spiritual relationship, people couldn’t understand that.
This film also talks about some key issues that still exist—like racism, prejudices, aristocracy and so many other things—and just in the middle of that there is a beautiful relationship, all about love and hope.
Q. How was it like working with Judi Dench, your co-star in Victoria and Abdul?
A. Brilliant, unreal, unmatchable. I think I had remembered every single minute I had spent with her over the last one year, and I cherish it all because she is a royalty in herself in the world of acting. She is one of the most lovable people and I have a reason to say that. I know that because I have spent time with her. So I can proudly say, I love Judi Dench!
Q. What kind of preparation did you have to do to get your character in the film, Abdul, right?
A. I tried to wear the clothes that matched the clothes he had been wearing [laughs]. I think that was very important even though it comes across as stupid and dumb. But the clothes were the biggest part for getting into the skin of this man. So the way they were stitched, the way they were made, it gave him a certain posture, gave him a certain class—they spoke about a certain culture and an exact timeframe. Literally in the movie you will see the way we have shown the change of time is through clothes, not through numbers, and that’s the beauty of the costumes. Consolata Boyle designed the clothes. And of course, there was lot of research. I tried copying his handwriting. I must have read about eight to nine books on the history of those hundred years.
Q. Your Bollywood debut was with a special appearance in 3 Idiots. Then you next appeared in Always Kabhi Kabhi. Your character in Fukrey also received a lot of love. But we don’t see you often on the screen. Are you being choosy with the scripts that come your way?
A. After 3 Idiots, Always Kabhi Kabhi took about two years. And when that came it was kind of a washout. It’s like suddenly an actor has lost two years and then came Fukrey and then Bobby Jasoos. At that time I didn’t want to do Fukrey. But I think that time I was taking what was coming to me. I still have regrets that I had done 2-3 films in the middle which I shouldn’t have. I don’t want to mention but yeah it was part of my growing up. Today I have chosen some interesting projects. So yes, I have been choosy and I am very particular.
Q. Are you saying that you have to be very particular about the kinds of films you choose in this industry?
A. Who isn’t? You have to be choosy and that is the only thing which is in my control. The part I shall play may not be the best one but it should be impactful enough. I could be wrong but this got me where I am, and I am very happy here.
Q. How has your Bollywood journey been so far?
A. Good, actually. I am really very happy that where I have reached, I have earned respect… Suddenly, that whole other side has opened up, which is the Hollywood front. So yes, lot of deciding is going on for now. I am looking forward to 2018. I hope it is going to be a good and busy year.
Q. You have done another film, Fukrey Returns, a sequel to Fukrey (2013). Could you talk about this film and your character? Is it the same character, Zafar, that you played in the prequel?
A. It’s all new this time for the audiences. Of course, we are the same guys. So you can’t change too much because it’s the same character everybody has been identified with in the first part… I personally love the second part more because it’s very different. It is a comedy again but very different from the first part. It’s got a lot of action.
Q. How did Fast & Furious 7 work out for you?
A. It was very random, literally. My manager just called me and said you are good with that accent so why don’t you try this. And that’s how it happened. It literally happened in five days. It was fun, it was good and I am happy to be a part of it. The best thing I got out of this was my relationship with Universal Studio. Universal is also now producing Victoria and Abdul.
Q. How has your experience been in Hollywood in general? Any particular actor or actresses you would like to share the screen with?
A. So many are there, and I have covered Judi Dench. Next, may be, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino. These are the people I have worshiped while growing up. Hopefully, one day I will work with them. Let’s see.
Q. Which, out of Hollywood and Bollywood, would you prefer associating with more?
A. I like both. And they are going to be part of one world soon.
Q. What kind of roles would you like to play in the future?
A. May be a story of an athlete. But I can’t pinpoint it right now.
Q. Do you have any idols you look up to in Indian cinema?
A. Yes, Dilip Kumar saab is my all-time favourite. Guru Dutt, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and Amitabh Bachchan also inspire me. I will feel privileged if I will get a chance to work with them in the future.
Q. Which movie of yours did you like the most?
A. I have never seen any of my movies, so I can’t tell. I am really my worst critic. I am really avoiding depressing myself because I tend to be too harsh. It’s better that other people tell me about my performance.
Q. Do you think your generation of actors relies too much on prep? Isn’t acting all about instinct?
A. No, life is about instict. I think we mixed it up. I think an actor needs to prepare. I am not a method actor. We have to prepare for our roles because the situation we are creating on the shoot it’s not real; it’s fake. Yes, spontaneity and instinct are important for acting, but preparation is also very important.