‘Actors are not limited by genres, formats today’

‘Actors are not limited by genres, formats today’

By Taru Bhatia | | 24 June, 2017
Arjun Mathur.
British-born Indian actor Arjun Mathur has given some very powerful performances in mainstream Indian films, as well as in critically acclaimed independent features. He also received a Best Actor nomination at the New York Indian Film Festival in 2013. He speaks to Guardian 20 about his decade-long journey in Bollywood.

Q. How did your Bollywood journey begin?

A. When I was very young I knew that I wanted to act. I had theatre as a subject in school, so I acted on stage all through my schooling life. After that, I was also trained as an actor by Barry John in New Delhi. Then I moved to Mumbai and I started working as an assistant director on feature films and then I also worked in big budget films like Rang De Basanti, Mangal Pandey, Bunty Aur Babli. I also went to New York to do another course at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. I have been acting since 2007. I was very lucky to get my first break with Mira Nair and Farhan Akhtar for their short film Positive.

Q. How was your experience of working with big Bollwood stars?

A. It was one of the most enriching experiences I have ever had, when I got the chance to observe Aamir Khan at work through the span of two films. What a man to learn from! His discipline, his dedication to his work, it’s absolutely astonishing and even beyond that. When I started acting I was very lucky with some of the actors that I got to work with right from the beginning of my career: Irrfan Khan, Shahrukh Khan, Shabana Azmi. I think there is a lot to pick up from each person. In your work, you tend to pick up the best of someone and include it in yourself and its attributes to whatever you are. I carry a bit of everyone in every performance of mine. 

Q. Can you tell me about your latest short film with Terribly Tiny Tales, called Rear View?

A. In the short film Rear View I play the character of a single father who is caught up in his work life and he keeps missing the key moments in his child’s life: when he is born or his first performance in school. And the father has regrets about it. About missing these opportunities. So his one encounter with another man who has just become a father leads him to change, and he is able to make that positive change in his life. He immediately makes it a point to be with his son.

Q. Do you think today's Bollywood stars are more open to trying different media avenues, like short films or web series?

A. The world is just advancing now. Technology plays a huge factor in the way media is produced and consumed. The purpose of technology is to create something for everyone. So, I think it is affecting every industry and similarly it is affecting cinema. As an actor, for us it is exciting because we don’t care what medium we act for. We do stage, web series, miniseries, feature films, short films. So no actor is limited to anything anymore. There was a time when people would say that television actors cannot make it into films but thankfully those lines are blurring now. They were blurred in Hollywood many years ago, so I think Bollywood by and large has always been a little behind, but it’s getting there.

Q. What do you think was the biggest turning point of your career?

A. I had various turning points. I would say my first film was my turning point. I think if I have to pick one such film then it will be Fireflies. It was a independent film, it didn’t last very long in theatres but I think where I was at that point in my life, that film was very special to me and it represents a turning point in my life. A turning point doesn’t necessary mean that everything changed and suddenly I was bombarded with offers or crores of rupees. Turning points can mean that a change happened inside you. I think as an actor all these years I have spent in understanding the space I inhabit within Indian cinema, and to be really comfortable with it and excited by it. Even now I can say it’s a turning point as I am in a very exciting phase of life right now.

Q. Do you see yourself as an established actor now in Bollywood?

A. The chase is not at all easy, especially for someone who doesn’t come from the film background. It is extremely difficult. I managed to survive here for 10 years and create a zone for myself. I don’t regret any of the work I have done and I am proud of every piece of it. There is nobody else dictating to me what I should be doing or could be doing or can be doing. I am just doing what I want to do. The freedom to have that is success for me.

Q. How difficult was it for you to get your first break?

A. It was never difficult for me to get the director to believe in my performance. But directors unfortunately have to believe in the economics more than they believe in anything else. So that’s the fact of every industry. It has to make money. That’s the way things function and you have to find your own way around it which I think I have done and I am doing. The people, who want to work with you, find you. I have spent a long time where I used to be quite bitter about the existing nepotism and I think even I was immature then, and I think with time comes a better understanding. Being idealistic and understanding the reality more and adapting to it and not compromising on your own standards makes you survive in the industry.

Q. What sort of roles do you like playing?

A. I really enjoyed the last feature film I did. It is a film called Brij Mohan Amar Rahe and it was produced by Sa Re Ga Ma, produced by a gentleman called Nikhil Bhat, and it was a fantastic script and really a very challenging part. It is a dark comedy but it was very challenging, fulfilling and a lot of fun. So I am really waiting for that film to come around.

Q. Which director would you really want to work with, someone whose work you really admire?

A. I really want to work with Martin Scorsese. It is really hard to pick one director whether it is international or domestic. It depends project to project. I want to work with Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj, Mira Nair, Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar.

Q. You have worked as an assistant director in the initial stages of your career. Do you plan to ever direct fulltime?

A. I think I don’t see any rule that you have to do just one thing. I am in a stage of discovering my own professional self, and I think eventually I will act, produce and direct.

Q. Tell us about your upcoming projects.

A. This year, a music video of mine was released. It is called Khudi by the band Local Train. I have also, as a passion project, directed a music video which I am in the process of completing. Besides that, I am rehearsing for my theatrical play and I am also on the verge of finalising my next project.

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