INTERVIEW: GABRIEL ‘HARVEY SPECTOR’ MACHT #PROFILE #SUITS

Looking for the real man in Suits

Gabriel Macht interviewed by Nikhil Taneja (@tanejamainhoon) over phone for Man’s World India. Original article: http://goo.gl/wTYJzo

According to Comedy Central, over three million Indians watch the hit television legal drama, Suits, every day. And, its central character, the rule-breaking lawyer Harvey Spector, is fast emerging as a role model for men across the country. As the show enters its fourth season, we go looking for the real man inside him

 

Hollywood has a very precise idea of what it takes to be a man; rather, what it takes to be the man. The quintessential man, the manly man, the man’s man, the stuff of legend. A man must be able to woo ladies without having to try; ladies must want a man for what he is naturally. James Bond is a man. So is Shaft. A man must be silent and brooding; ideally, a man must not feel at all (and if he does, no one should ever know). Batman is a man (the Christopher Nolan version).  So is Rambo. So is Clint Eastwood in every movie ever. A man has honor; he has a code that all men must live by, but only real men ever do. The Godfather, King Leonidas, Tyler Durden and Maximus Decimus Meriduis are all men. A man can throw a punch when he needs to; and there is always need for a man to throw a punch. John McClane is a man. So is Liam Neeson (and not merely his character in Taken).To top it all, a man is handsome, suave and stylish, but ruggedly; a man is definitely not meterosexual. Gordon Gekko is a man. So are Frank Bullitt and Ryan Gosling’s Driver in Drive.

If Hollywood is right, then there are few who fit the description of a real man better than television’s Harvey Spector (played by Gabriel Macht), from the lawyer drama Suits, which has quickly mushroomed into somewhat of a phenomenon among American TV addicts in India. With a reach of 3.3 million viewers (stats provided by Comedy Central India), Suits is currently the highest rated English language show in its genre and its central character, Spector, is exactly the kind of man ladies want, and men want to be. But who is Gabriel Macht, the man behind the character?

Gabriel Macht is an accomplished man. At 42, the drama graduate from Carnegie Mellon College of Fine Arts, is happily married with a daughter, to fellow actor Jacinda Barrett (The Namesake, The Last Kiss), has a great job that keeps getting better – Suits is in its fourth season now and considering its popularity and ratings, likely to continue for more – and some solid indie acting credits along the way. In a career spanning 36 years from the age of 8, when he played his first role as a child actor in ‘Why Would I Lie?’, just some of the Hollywood legends he’s acted alongside include Robert De Niro (The Good Shephard), Al Pacino (The Recruit), Anthony Hopkins (Bad Company), Gene Hackman (Behind Enemy Lines) and John Travolta (A Love Song For Bobby Long).

Gabriel Macht is also a man of his word. When I call his hotel room in New York at the designated time of the interview, the reception desk tells me there’s no one by the name of ‘Gabriel Macht’ staying there. I try ‘Harvey Spector’ and the reception desk laughs me off. As I put the phone down and mail Macht’s publicist and the minutes fly by, I assume the worst, when I get a tweet from the verified account of Macht, @GabrielMacht, “Call me again and they shall put you through. Apologies”. Macht has somehow hunted me down on Twitter and when I call him, he profusely apologises for what was, essentially, the hotel’s fault: the personnel at the reception desk had changed and Macht’s instructions hadn’t been passed on to him. Not many celebrities of his stature would do such a thing, so I’m definitely impressed.

Gabriel Macht is a gentleman, alright, so I ask him if he is also similar to the Hollywood definition of being a man? He pauses for a bit and then says, “I think that a man is somebody who is responsible for his actions and lives his life with integrity, care and respect for others. When something important is asked of him, he follows through. But Hollywood’s version of what a man is, I believe, is just a little superficial.

“In real life, we can go a little deeper than that guy, you know? We can show weakness a little bit more and I think we can be a little bit more vulnerable. Because, I think, Hollywood’s version of a man’s man can become a bit too serious for its own good. If men can poke a little bit more fun at themselves, and listen a little bit more to the women around them, I think the world would be a little better place.”

So Gabriel Macht is also a ladies’ man, but in all the right ways. I prod him to elaborate on the last line and he chuckles, “Well, I think what makes a man complete, and happy, if he’s in a relationship and if he’s married… is a happy wife. I think when you get down to it, if your partner is happy and fulfilled, I think that’s all that matters.

“You know, when I married my wife, that’s when I fully became a man,” he continues. “When I owned my first property with her, and everything that goes into owning a home, and keeping it in a livable condition (chuckles), and of course, the next stage, when I had my daughter; those are all tests for life. And I think if you seal it in those tests by being there for your family, it’s the most important thing. We can all go to work, and of course, we have to make a living, but at the end of the day, I am living for my family.”

Gabriel Macht is a family man. And that’s as far a cry as can be from what Hollywood’s ‘real men’ are, and certainly from what Harvey Spector is. Spector is a man with a single-minded focus: to succeed, whatever be the cost. He doesn’t need a family; he doesn’t even have time for one. Spector’s a lone wolf, who knows what he wants; he’s essentially the grown-up, corporate version of a bad boy, and that’s perhaps what makes the character so appealing. So does Macht think Spector’s a quintessential man?

“I don’t, actually,” Macht says. “I think Harvey’s got a very solid character and integrity, but I don’t think he’s in touch with his emotions. He’s got a lot of demons inside and (chuckles) some anger management issues, and the way he talks to people under him could be refined. Harvey’s certainly learning to be a man, but he’s got a lot of growth in there, and that’s what makes him interesting. If he was a perfect man, it would be just so boring to watch… because no one’s perfect!”

“But I don’t buy Harvey’s idea of success. I do think there’s something to finding success and feeling worthwhile, but, you know, I don’t think it really matters what everyone around you thinks. If you feel like you’re doing good work, if you think you’re making a difference, if you feel like you are coming to work and giving it your best, I think that’s what real success is.”

Gabriel Macht is a successful man, by his definition or by any other. But this success has taken almost 15 years to come, from his first adult role in a 1991 episode of Beverly Hills, 90210. Even with strong performances in credible indie movies and a much-coveted lead role in Frank Miller’s directorial debut, The Spirit, opposite Eva Mendes and Scarlett Johansson, in 2008, it was only until Suits happened in 2011 that Macht’s charisma as well as acting chops gained worldwide recognition. For an actor who dabbled in movies for so long, did television ever feel like a step down?

“To be honest,” Macht says, “I made the leap to television because I wasn’t finding the roles to sustain myself in films. I I wasn’t getting the ones that guys I really looked up to, like Christian Bale, Matt Damon, and Leo (DiCaprio) were getting. And the movies I had made were not 100 million dollar movies, and so I thought, ‘You know what? Is it really about a successful film or is it really about just finding a character or finding a story that you can tell?’ And so, when Suits came along, I was like, ‘You know what? I just want to work now.’ And there was something about Harvey Spector as a character, that I thought would be fun to play.

“And I think Suits works on so many levels. It’s cinematic, there’s a ton of wit, all the characters really care about what they are upto, and most importantly, women have a really, really strong voice on the show. A bunch of the guys are huffing and puffing on the show (chuckles), but it’s the women of the show that are its spine and the backbone. I think that’s really well done. I always believe that things happen for a reason. Suits has become fruitful in so many ways. There are a lot of great things about the show that I see are really touching a nerve with people. And people from all over the world are really enjoying this show, it’s just fantastic.”

Gabriel Macht is indeed a popular man. If you’re in doubt, ask the ladies who follow Suits in India! Unsurprisingly, Macht is aware of this, “You know, when we shoot Suits in Toronto, and we’re on the streets maybe one or two days out of the episode, we’ve got hundreds of people that come out. And they’re predominantly Indian women, I find. I mean, there’s a huge Indian culture that loves the show! You know, please tell Indian women out there that I love them, and also to everyone else who watches the show, that I’m very thankful.”

So Gabriel Macht is, ultimately, a good man. A man who’s seen failure but come back stronger. A man who’s struggled his way to the top but doesn’t take success for granted. A man who loves his craft but who loves his family more – a man who could take up multiple projects in his five months off from the show but ensures that time is only to “fill up the Daddy well: spend time with the wife and daughter, take her to school, and be there for both of them as much as possible”. A man who has his priorities right. And, of course, a man who looks excellent in a suit! A quintessential man’s man? Hollywood’s found its answer right here.

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Note: An edited version of this interview first appeared in Man’s World India in the June, 2014 issue.  The unedited Q ‘n’ A and the audio interview will be put up soon.
Link: http://www.mansworldindia.com/style/looking-for-the-real-man-in-suits/

Picture courtesy: Comedy Central India. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Interview: American filmmaker Richard Linklater #Film #Indie

Is there an easy way to introduce Richard Linklater? An icon of American independent cinema, often credited with paving the way for the era of low-budget, light-comic, self-exploratory gen-X movies, Linklater’s legacy as a writer-director is deep and varied, his films fiercely original and undeniably interesting. He has managed to forge an inspiring film career by living and operating at the periphery of the American film industry in the era of clone blockbusters, and is one of the few remaining high-profile filmmakers who work not for money, but for the love of cinema.

Before Midnight, the long-awaited third film in Linklater’s utterly beautiful and romantic Before… series starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, released across the world earlier this year, premiering in India at the recently- concluded Mumbai Film Festival. In his first ever interview with an Indian publication, over the phone from his home in Austin, Texas, the director of cult classics like Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life and School of Rock offers an insight into his mind and craft. And he’s just as amiable and charming as every one of his films. Excerpts:

Q In the 18 years it’s taken to complete the Before… trilogy, how has your idea of love personally changed?

A Now that I think of it, for Julie [Delpy], Ethan [Hawke] and I, making these films sort of introduced [to us] this subject of long term relationships and the definition of love or what love even means. That’s become the subject of our lives, you know. I find myself reading a book on that or reading articles or statistical data on couples.

Movies are like that—when you are making a movie, you tend to feel that you are doing a Masters [degree in] whatever the situation is. Over two decades now, this subject [has] really made me follow notions of relationships of long term, and question how things change and how things remain the same.

I don’t know if that’s an answer, but it’s definitely a subject in our lives and I’m always constantly thinking, ‘Oh this could be good if we ever do another movie—this notion or piece of information’.

So we can look at it both emotionally and scientifically, and we have our own lives going on with our long term partners, and it’s involved in there too.

Q In this time, how has the idea of love changed for Hollywood? Is ‘romance’ still relevant today?

A (laughs) I don’t know. I mean, the first film, Before Sunrise, wouldn’t happen today, or at least in the same way. It certainly wouldn’t have the same result, like they wouldn’t exchange numbers. I mean, they would get each other’s emails or texts, you know. People communicate differently today. That film was a little old fashioned even then.

I don’t think young people would approach love the same way [now], but I still think the core of that movie—two people meeting, that moment of attraction, of falling in love—that never goes away. That’s relevant. That was relevant 500 years ago and will be relevant 500 years from now. Nothing’s going to change in that area between people. There is something about that that is eternal, but the details of it change generation to generation.

But I can honestly say that Before Midnight covers an area that is not covered a whole lot in movies today, for obvious reasons. It’s not about the beginning of a relationship, it’s not about the end of a relationship. It’s about when they are having their problems. It’s kind of the middle area, which is not often used as subject matter for something in the romantic realm. It’s not very commercial. You don’t see a lot of compelling films made on this. Hollywood would never touch these films.

We have a low budget, and we make these independently, so we can do whatever we want and express things that don’t need to fit into a Hollywood romantic comedy construct. We can make something that we feel is much more honest, but we know we don’t have a huge audience for these movies. We just kind of figure our audience might appreciate some of the blunt honesty (laughs) of our characters in their situation.

Q I’m also asking about love in the time of the movie studio, because the Before… trilogy is one of the few movies where romance is real and uncontrived. How did you manage that?

A That’s a compliment, thank you. I think it’s just the approach. It’s what you are going for, you know? What is real? I don’t pretend any of it is actually real. I mean, they are not documentaries; they are actually scripted and rehearsed excessively, very well thought out, very constructed.

But the effect I am going for in the viewer’s mind is [for them] to accept it as some kind of reality, to feel like it’s real.

I don’t know if people want to feel that way. I like going to movies often, going into someone’s unreality. When you go into a Tim Burton film or a James Cameron film, you will enjoy being in their reality, [which] you know is not real but it’s wonderful. I’m not asking people to be in some kind of parallel reality, but to relate to [a film] on a closer level.

That’s what I love about the way people perceive movies. I kind of like that a film could be anything and mean something different to every one; it just has to be true to the story you’re trying to tell. People just come along for the ride.

Q When Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and you got together to write Before Midnight, how did you find common ground for it, considering that you might all have been in different places emotionally after 18 years?

A I think we just incorporate our different moods, you know. Whatever changes in character or whatever vibe you get from this movie that’s different from the last one probably reflects our changing mood, the atmosphere, the things we’ve all been through. I’ve tried to incorporate our personal reality into this film, into something that’s real for Jesse and Celine.

I think Ethan, Julie and I trust each other artistically, so we don’t have to work too hard to find common ground. I think we are all trying to be honest when we write something that means something to us. Julie not feeling good about something or being paranoid about something, you know, some of that might find its way into the movie. Or if Ethan is feeling creatively satisfied and has such ideas, then we’ll work that in. So we’re kind of basing the film on where we are at, to some degree. Our writing sessions were like comedic therapy (laughs). We’d sit around, laugh a lot, and just talk for hours and hours.

Q How would you say you have evolved as a writer and director in these 18 years?

A You know that’s a good question, because I don’t know if I have that much (chuckles). Stylistically my movies are still very similar—well, I do that on purpose—but I don’t know if I’ve matured that much. With anything you do, you get a little more confident, you get a little more experienced. I guess that’s all good, but I don’t feel I have changed significantly. I think my concerns are pretty much very similar. What I’m getting at is that I’m always surprised I’m much more similar than different.

I would say the same about Jesse and Celine: it’s not so much how they have changed; it’s really more interesting how they have stayed the same. And to think of it, am I that different than I was at 24? I am more mature and more experienced, of course. Life has a way of doing that whether you like it or not. But the gist of my life, what I’m interested in, what I care about, artistically, it’s still kind of similar.

Q You’ve mentioned that your films are semi-autobiographical. How many movies do you think you’ll need to express all facets of yourself completely?

A (Laughs) Well that’s really the question, isn’t it? I don’t know. I wonder if Ingmar Bergman [would say] at the end of his life… that he expressed himself completely in his movies. I don’t know if that’s even possible, if any filmmaker is totally satisfied. [Michelangelo] Antonioni, towards the end of his life I think, finally wrote a book [That Bowling Alley On The Tiber: Tales Of A Director] to say, ‘Here’s 30 movies I’ll never make.’ He had ideas, and a few pages about each of them. A book about unrealised movies—I could do that book now. I have 10-15 unrealised films (chuckles).

But to answer your question, you’d have to make, like, a hundred. Every film does say something. In every one, you are communicating something. But that’s sort of the challenge artistically, isn’t it? To try to express what you want to express. And some novelists or writers have perhaps spent thousands of pages trying to do that. I admire people though who kind of say, ‘No, I’ve said all that I have to say,’ and [then] quit writing, quit making movies, quit painting or quit making music. But I don’t really believe it. I don’t think you can retire from expressing yourself.

Q Do you write to discover something about yourself or do you already have philosophies you centre your films around?

A To be honest, I am always trying to discover something. I don’t look forward to the day that I have some knowledge to impart. If I have something worth making, it’s something I [either] have mixed feelings about or am trying to discover something about, or I’m not totally sure what I think about it, and that’s why I think it makes it fertile ground to try to make a movie.

To make a movie about something, specifically, that I definitely have strong feelings about and then [to] convey them exactly—that’s a lot less interesting, I think. Things you have strong opinions about find their way into the general tone and core of the movie anyway.

Films are truly much more about the exploration of your thought and lot of exploration is just the process of making a movie. And I’m inclined to think that everybody feels that way. I wonder if [Alfred] Hitchcock felt that way. Was he just physically manifesting what he had all planned out or was he discovering his deeper feelings about the subjects that he made [films about]? For example, in Vertigo. I don’t think anyone just renders something they’ve just printed out, as much as they try.

Q Your movies are very dialogue heavy, and that goes against the conventional wisdom of cinema, except if you are, say, Woody Allen. Why is dialogue so important to you?

A I don’t know. You’re right; that is Film School 101. (In a stern voice) ‘Don’t talk about things, show it’ (laughs). It is a visual medium.

The first time I turned on a camera and heard the characters, I thought that people talking revealed a lot; that was as interesting as any landscape.

I’m not that verbal myself. I’m not much of a good talker; I’m more of a listener.

When you fall in love with cinema, it’s usually visually, but it’s just the way you evolve. Like I said, I’m as surprised as anyone!

When I was making my first film, I thought strictly in visual technical terms; I wasn’t thinking so much dialogues or character, even though I had a background in theatre. I should have known that was coming.

I never improvise on camera. Never. Ever. That’s never made sense to me, I don’t know how to do that. It’s always very scripted and rehearsed. You know, it can be a loose idea, I can sit with the actors, but by the time the cameras are rolling, we have worked it out. We know what we’re doing. I don’t leave it to chance.

Q Even with your fascination with dialogue, you don’t just direct to, say, deliver the poetry of a script, as in the case of an Aaron Sorkin movie. You take direction very seriously, don’t you?

A Yeah, I mean, cinema is the most important.

I remember every movie of mine having a little cinematic scheme in mind—visually. I mean, I’m not, like, uber-stylist; I’m not that interested in that. But I do really believe in a cinematic design to the story you’re telling. And you spend a lot of time to work on it. I think people who come strictly from writing backgrounds, might not think that way.

But I always felt that it was primarily a director’s job to think cinematically, in terms of pictures and stuff, you know? What’s the particular tone, style, approach to a movie—I’d have really strong rules in that area. I plan all that, even though, again, it doesn’t drive too much attention to it I hope.

But, you know, it’s about creating a parallel world of characters and trying to make that work when it all comes together in the movie. I don’t see anything as separate; [it is] all part of the same thing, which is trying to tell the story appropriately, and that’s different from film to film.

Q Comedy has also always been an important part of your films, even when you are dealing with subject matter as serious as death (Bernie) or drugs (Waking Life).

A I think it’s just the way I see the world. Everything’s funny, you know! I’ve done a lot of comedies where most of what I do is pretty comedic, but Bernie was a challenge because it is about death. There is some dark subject matter swirling around that movie. But I think to make that a consistent comedy was a real challenge. That world’s so much like ours, even though it’s tragic [and] there’s a lot of ups and downs. I think it’s not a bad way to see the world through a comedic lens. Whatever tragedy, hardship or struggle, comedy is a pretty good way to offset it. And not more consciously—again, that’s just in films—but in the way you naturally see the world, I think, and the way you approach drama too. I just can’t help but see the humour. And I admire that in movies I like.

For example, Raging Bull is a movie that would never be listed as a comedy.

It’s just too dark a subject and what you take away emotionally from that movie is anything but comedy. And yet, if you really sat down in front of it, you would find yourself laughing very consistently throughout that movie.

And I thought that was brilliant! I mean, when I saw that movie, something clicked in me—this was before I was even thinking about making movies [myself].

It’s kind of like how I see the world: in the middle of fights, in the middle of all the horrible stuff, I would have these funny thoughts. Even as a kid, when things were bad, or parents were mad at you, there was always something ridiculous about it, something funny. I always liked that tone.

So even with Before Midnight—people wouldn’t think that film’s a comedy, in fact it’s an extreme opposite of it—when they fight in the movie, Julie and I think that’s pretty funny. Celine and Jesse don’t think it’s funny, far from it; but we, the audience, do. And I like that mixture—a little uncomfortable, a little real. I think it’s the right approach to a movie and to life.

Q Do you ever find it surprising that living in Austin, outside of Hollywood and the studio system, you have managed to have such a spectacular career?

A Yeah, well that would be my point of view—and I guess it’s yours—but Hollywood wouldn’t look at it that way. They would look at my career as an underachievement or a failure, you know. Whatever (chuckles). It’s all perspective.

When I go to LA, I do feel like a nobody, because I don’t fit into that world so well, you know. I haven’t made all that money. What I mean is that our concerns are not exactly the same. They are sometimes, yes, but it’s nothing I think about a lot.

It’s just the way it all worked out. I’m lucky to live in my own bubble and managed to make a life and living out of my kind of cinema. I’ve been lucky to get a lot of films made, because it’s hard to do, and it’s harder to do today. I think I came around at the right time. It would be tougher to get started now, doing what I’ve been able to do.

Q What would it take for you to come back to the studios? A superhero film?

A (Laughs) I don’t know about super heroes, but I’m always on the lookout for comedies. You know, when you are trying to get a story told, some need a bigger budget and studio backing because some are inherently more commercial. So obviously, I’m not averse to that.

School of Rock and Bad News Bears are good examples in the last 10 years of times I found myself way into a story where I felt I could express [something] or I was the right director for, but those are probably the only two films [I have done] that maybe would have existed without me. Like, if I wouldn’t have done them, someone else would have. None of my other films would exist as movies, you know, if I wouldn’t have done them. But those two, they are part of the system.

But I like the system. It’s nice to have that support. They have $30 million, a 50 day schedule, you can do it right. It’s kind of nice to have the—if you’re lucky enough—subject matter they think it warrants. Usually, I’m in the area where they say, ‘Oh! This isn’t a very commercial movie; we’ve got to do it for nothing!’

That’s okay, but that’s tougher over the years too. Bernie would have been a studio movie 10-15 years ago, but by the time I did it, it was like an [off-beat] independent movie.

Interview: Kunal Nayyar for Open Magazine

“I’m a Delhite who went to St Columba’s, and one fine day, I ended up on the biggest TV show in America. It’s actually quite hilarious, if you look at it one way,” says Kunal Nayyar, better known to the world as geeky Indian scientist Rajesh Koothrapalli of The Big Bang Theory.

A lead on the highest-rated American sitcom currently running and easily one of the funniest Indians in the world—at least one of the most famous funny Indians in the world—Nayyar, at 33, already has enough material for a memoir. Because unlike Kal Penn (The Namesake), Mindy Kaling (The Office), Aziz Ansari (Parks and Recreation), or any of the multitude of other Indian actors who’ve made a mark on American television in recent years, Nayyar isn’t an American-born desi.

He was born in London to Indian parents—his father is an accountant and his mother, an interior designer—who relocated to Delhi when he was five. Nayyar was raised in Delhi and educated at St Columba’s, the prestigious all-boys school attended by Shah Rukh Khan and Rahul Gandhi, where acting wasn’t really at the top of his mind. “In school, I was busy playing badminton and chasing girls. I hated studying and only wanted to play sports. I was a normal Delhi boy, in that sense, who wanted to be a rockstar or Aamir Khan when he grew up,” he laughs.

After high school, at the age of 18, Nayyar moved to the United States to pursue a business degree at University of Portland, Oregon. It was there that he caught the acting bug. Nayyar first enrolled in acting classes at the university for recreational reasons, participating in several school plays. But after one of his plays was selected for the regional round of the prominent American College Theater Festival, things quickly became serious.

“I believed that I was really good in the regionals but the judges gave me a firing for being incompetent,” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe that! That moment motivated me to go back home and work hard on my skill, so I could go back and win the competition. And four years later, I won the national round too.”

By then, Nayyar had already enrolled in a Masters’ program in Acting at Temple University in Philadelphia. After graduation, he acted in a few plays, and only had a one-off role as an Iraqi terrorist on an episode of the crime drama NCIS, before he auditioned for The Big Bang Theory in the summer of 2007. He was 26 then.

“One of the reasons I probably got the role was because I had just come out of graduate school after three years of training, and I was bursting with all this confidence,” Nayyar chuckles. “I had done a little play in England before that and was just getting started in LA. And I think I was just young enough and clueless enough to not understand the magnitude of the audition at that moment, and that really helped me. Because I wasn’t thinking about it at all. I just went there and did my thing, and felt great about it.”

Nayyar took on the role—originally meant for an Asian actor and initially named Ramayan David—head on, and in the seven years since, The Big Bang Theory, co-created by Two and a Half Men and Dharma & Greg creator Chuck Lorre, went on to become a ratings, viewership and syndication juggernaut, with the actor pulling in a reported salary of $75,000 per episode.

So yes, it is definitely a story worth writing about, and while it has its twists and turns, Nayyar believes it is at heart a funny story. “Well it’s not funny ‘ha-ha’, but ‘I can’t believe this happened to me’ funny,” he says. “I mean, I’m so happy that I’ve achieved everything that I always wanted. But the truth is, I fake reality for a living… it’s not exactly rocket science! So you’ve got to have the ability to laugh at yourself. I’m not saying that acting is easy—it can be torturous at times—but if you look at it from the outside, it is a celebration of life, and like life, humour is at its core.”

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In his book, you can expect anecdotes about Nayyar cleaning toilets in Portland, being held up for 76 cents in Philadelphia, playing a terrorist on his first TV gig, playing a Star Wars board game for 36 hours straight, and then one day going on to marry a former Miss India.

Of course, the irony of that last part hasn’t escaped Nayyar’s fans. For a guy who got rich and famous playing a character who can’t so much as talk to women sober, and is the only one of The Big Bang Theory’s four leads to not be in a relationship—ever—he’s married a gorgeous former model, who represented India at the Miss Universe pageant in 2006.

“I have to admit there are things about this and about marriage in general that are hilarious,” says Nayyar, “but I find it funnier that people continue to confuse me with Raj Koothrapalli. When people meet me, they go, ‘Oh My God! You can talk to women! Oh My God! You are normal! Oh man! Are you actually wearing a jacket?’ Yes I am! Because I’m a normal person and what I do on the TV show is called ‘acting’!”

Even though this conversation with Nayyar is happening over the phone, as he’s currently in Los Angeles shooting the seventh season of his sitcom, it’s quite obvious the actor is a naturally-gifted comic. All his answers have a punch line, and when he says something funny, he doesn’t just say it, he delivers it. And it’s all effortless. Nayyar doesn’t need to try to make you laugh; he’s just funny as they come and the jokes run fast and loose.

He may always have been a funny guy, but Nayyar admits that a lot of his comedy has been shaped by the show and by American pop culture in general over the past decade-and-a-half.

It is a kind of humour that he calls ‘language-based’. “There is a huge difference between what India finds funny and what America finds funny,” he explains.

“I think there’s such a British influence on India, in terms of comedy, that everything that you see in Indian pop culture is more farcical and physical. In Indian comedy, the way it happens is that someone gets slapped in the face, his eyes widen and there is a music cue that goes (mimics the sound) ‘pyunnnn’. And that’s when you laugh. In America, comedy is more about setups and language.”

“There’s a rhythm or even poetry in the way comedy is written and delivered in America. A lot of the humour lies in this rhythm of the language. Every joke here is a 1-2-3-sentence set-up joke. For example, sometimes you might not understand the science stuff that’s being said in The Big Bang Theory, but because of the circumstances of the characters, and the set-up leading up to it in the language, when the punch-line is delivered, you will laugh.”

Having delivered this impressive soliloquy, Nayyar takes a breath, and then instinctively proceeds to deliver the punchline he has just set up: “I hope this is making sense. But I think the bottomline is that getting slapped in the face is hilarious in every country.” Like he promised, you laugh.

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With his fluency in American humour, combined with an instinct for the farcical elements of Indian comedy, Nayyar now counts himself among the growing ranks of Indian-origin actors on American television shows, most of whom are funny. And humour may just be the key to overcoming the stereotyping and discrimination that Indian actors before Nayyar have spoken out against—from Aasif Mandvi, who wrote about the ‘whitewashing’ phenomenon in Hollywood for Salon.com, to Kal Penn, who criticised the thinly-concealed xenophobia of Joel Stein’s notorious 2010 Time article, ‘My Own Private India’.

A couple of months ago, Kal Penn joked on Twitter about the way Brown actors are often confused with each other: ‘Creepy Australian Guy: Whoa, are you Russell Peters?! Me: No, I’m Kunal Nayyar. Creepy Australian Guy: I love Parks & Rec! Me: High 5!’ Penn is in fact one of the leads of the multi-million dollar comedy film franchise Harold and Kumar.

But the truth is, with Mindy Kaling writing and starring in her own sitcom The Mindy Project, Aziz Ansari becoming one of the biggest stand-up phenomena in North America, and actors like Danny Pudi (Community), Adhir Kalyan (Rules of Engagement) and Hannah Simone (New Girl) playing highly visible, well-liked supporting parts in top-rated sitcoms, now is a great time for Indian comic actors in America.

Nayyar agrees: “When it comes to diversity with regard to Indian actors in American entertainment, I believe that bridge has been crossed. People ask me, ‘Why do you think it happened?’ My version is that if you go anywhere in America today, be it a grocery store or a restaurant or even your work place, wherever you look, you’ll see Indians. America has always been a melting pot of cultures, and today, with Indian doctors and scientists and lawyers and engineers, we are definitely a huge part of that pot. We are highly visible people and we are upsetting Americans as a society (laughs), so when you see Indians on American TV, it’s not a stretch, it’s reality.”

“Where I’m concerned,” he continues, “I believe that America is no longer ignorant about India or Indians. How can they be? There was a sitcom on NBC a couple of years ago, called Outsourced, only about Indians.”

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While comedy may have been the overriding reason for the acceptance of Indian actors in Hollywood, as well as the cause of Nayyar’s humongous success, he isn’t satisfied doing just that. With the likelihood of The Big Bang Theory reaching its conclusion in the next three years, Nayyar is already planning for life after the show, and has his eyes set on direction, producing and teaching.

His first effort in this direction is Sushrut Jain’s cricket-based documentary, Beyond All Boundaries, which premiered in India at the recently concluded Mumbai Film Festival, and is produced and narrated by Nayyar.

He believed in the film because, being a huge cricket fan, he has always found that India is starved of good cricket content beyond just matches. “To me, cricket is not just a game, but a beautiful symbol for people’s dreams and their future,” he says. “Indian cricket fans have so many hopes and dreams riding on the game, that I really found it glorious to see a film about the impact of the game in the way it can shape our lives or even destroy it.”

As the documentary travels to festivals across the world to much critical acclaim, Nayyar will continue exploring different creative outlets, with his focus staying on his sitcom, his two upcoming films—the comedy Dr. Cabbie and the thriller The Scribbler—and on voicing the animation series Sanjay and Craig for Nickelodeon. He is open to Bollywood offers too, and would love to be in films like “3 Idiots, Barfi or Cheeni Kum, which are poignant comedies—the genre I love.”

But for the most part, Nayyar would be happy just to be home every night with his wife and some butter chicken. “It’s funny that after shooting for four hours and finishing an episode of The Big Bang Theory that maybe over the course of the future will be seen by 500 million people, all I like doing is coming home and eating butter chicken,” he says. “Like, I’ll heat up the butter chicken, put a little tadka on the dal and I’ll chew it, while watching music videos all night. People think I lead this glamorous life, but really, all I want is kebabs and butter chicken for the rest of my life, and I’ll be happy forever.” For once, he sounds completely serious.

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on November 16, 2013
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/it-s-kind-of-a-funny-story
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Interview: Hansal Mehta for Open Magazine

Over the last few years, it has seemed that Hansal Mehta had quietly retired as a doyen of Indian indie cinema, while his more vocal friend and colleague Anurag Kashyap took up the mantle full time. He and Kashyap had debuted together, co-writing the 1997 movie …Jayate.

Mehta’s first few films, particularly Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar (2000) and Chhal (2002), seemed to herald the dawn of a distinct cinematic voice. But the difficulty of funding offbeat cinema before the beginning of the multiplex phenomenon, coupled with an appalling assault on him by members of the Shiv Sena, diverted his focus. After making a few critical and commercial duds, Mehta went into semi-retirement—until the death of activist and lawyer Shahid Azmi drew him back.

Shahid, Mehta’s biopic based on Azmi’s life, produced by Kashyap, is a searing portrait of an honest man in a dishonest system. Its unassuming simplicity, both in design and edit, lend it a heart-warming optimism, distinguishing it from other ‘rebel with a cause’ films. In an era of bombastic one-man-army heroes, Shahid is a quiet celebration of the hero within every man.

The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival 2012 to much acclaim, and has since travelled to several other festivals. Mehta seems to have found form once again, winning Best Director at the New York Indian Film Festival and the Indian Film Festival of Stuttgart. Excerpts from an interview:

Class conflict and the common man’s inability to fight the system were central themes in your early work. You’ve now returned from a long sabbatical with another film—Shahid—that addresses these issues. Why do they matter so much to you?

I believe art is very often a quest [to find] yourself and your voice. These issues you spoke of… have angered me most of my life, and when it came to making my first feature film, they found their way in. I’ve been a common man and travelled by [local] trains. I used to go to college from Khar to Dadar every day, and somewhere within me, I knew that I [wouldn’t] be standing in [those] trains forever. But I would get very frustrated looking at the people who I knew [would] die travelling on those trains. The man who wears the same kind of clothes every day and carries the same dabba to office—I would be angry at that man and at his inertia. My anger wasn’t for him, it was at him. Somewhere, I think, my films began to transform that anger into some sort of search or a quest for a solution to this inertia.

You were trying to make these films at a time when mainstream Bollywood was largely escapist; the parallel movement of the 80s, of films mirroring society, had died down.

Amitabh Bachchan’s fall and retirement in the late 80s put Hindi cinema in a complete quandary. Films started failing, star kids didn’t work—even Aamir Khan was doing Inder Kumar films. Our industry was in a state of flux and there was no hope, until Shah Rukh Khan came in. Anurag [Kashyap], Nagesh Kukunoor and me were among the first few people who started making such films at that time, when it was all but impossible to make them. Anurag’s first film Paanch didn’t release. I was debt-ridden because of Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar and Chhal. There was no funding and, in fact, Dil Pe… was made on my assistant director’s money. Nagesh Kukunoor had the longest run of successful films, but somewhere, he also became a victim of the system. So I wanted to get out at that time because it was very lonely working against the system, and I couldn’t deal with it. It all became too much for me, and I felt that I may end up committing suicide. I had just wanted to make my kinds of films, but I had not taken on any responsibility. Koi jhanda le ke nahin nikla thha main, yaar (I didn’t start out waving a flag).

There was an incident after Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar where your office was ransacked and your face was blackened by members of the Shiv Sena because of a dialogue in the film. Though Chhal followed that incident, were the mainstream films you did afterwards a reaction to the incident in any way?

After the incident, I reached a point where I really regressed. I used to drink all the time. I was depressed and would be locked up in my room. I was in very bad shape. But it quickly got over because I like looking at myself in my mirror. And when I asked myself, ‘What the fuck are you doing to yourself?’ I got no answer, so I carried on. That’s Taurean nature: the moment I smell defeat, I push myself. But yes, Chhal began my diversion from the space [where I started]. It was a two-hour music video with pumping background music and cool shots. But at least it was an experiment in form. Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai was a sad episode. I think I failed as a director with it. But I was debt-ridden and I wanted to run my house. That was a desperate mistake, to have done that. I stopped looking at the mirror. At that time, the only person who was like a voice of conscience to me was Anurag. He’d meet me at regular intervals only to tell me, ‘Tu bik gaya hai’ (You’ve sold out) and would then move on.

Sanjay Gupta was very gracious to give me Woodstock Villa because of Chhal. I should have remained friends with him and let the respect override everything. But I got sucked into the glamour of it all: Sanjay Dutt backing you, the film [being launched] at IIFA (International Indian Film Academy Awards) by Abhishek Bachchan, and all the back thumping. But when I saw the preview of the film, I realised I had been dishonest to my craft, to my producer, and to the two newcomers making their debut with it. And I felt terrible. I still carry that guilt with me. The day the film released, I left Bombay and went away to [my] village.

You went away for quite a while.

I spent around two-and-a-half years purely in introspection. I took a step back to observe myself. And the first thing you realise when you do that is that you’ve not spent enough time with your loved ones. Ambition can be ruthless, especially to your loved ones. The moment you rediscover love, you start rediscovering yourself. I know it sounds idealistic, but spending time with the children, with nature and cooking, helped me become more transparent. The moment you can admit to yourself that you were dishonest, you find yourself. And [when] news of Shahid’s death came, it was a wake-up call for me to come alive.

What was it about Azmi that moved you?

When I read about his death, I thought he had a remarkable life. Here was a guy from below ordinary circumstances, [who] was possessed with this drive for change, and who became an amazing vehicle of it. He had spread so much goodwill that, for me, he is Gandhi—in that he’s the common man who went [to extraordinary] measures to bring about change. I saw my life in his journey. It was like my own autobiography magnified many times. Dwelling on who killed him wouldn’t bring him back, but his life could inspire many more Shahids. This movie is also the tipping point of my life. After almost courting Shahid and discovering a man of such integrity, I know I’m never going to make a film without full creative freedom.

The film mirrors our cultural insensitivity, yet at the same time, there is an undying optimism running through it.

We are an intolerant nation, and our intolerance is growing. This film is also a result of that. We are also divided on everything; we can’t just agree to disagree. These are volatile times we are living in, and that is the unfortunate reality of our city, Mumbai. It used to be called Bombay [earlier], and Bombay was not like this, but the name change has been very symbolic. But I didn’t want to leave audiences with just that because Shahid was an independent spirit who taught me to be fearless and [realise] that if there is a hurdle, it is only temporary.

That optimism comes from Shahid. Everyone we met during research had nothing but good things to say of him. The film has happened almost like a miracle. We shot with very little money, limited resources and no permissions for locations. Every time the shoot [was] stalled or we [ran] into trouble—which happened a lot—we’d meet someone who’d say, ‘Shahid bhai par film bana rahe ho? (You’re making a film about Shahid?) How can we help you? Please make a good film.’ There was a power beyond my own human capability helping me on this. I would often feel that Shahid himself was around, making this film happen.

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on November 2, 2013
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/a-fire-rekindled
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).

Interview: Jaideep Sahni for Open Magazine

In the past decade computer-engineer-turned-advertising professional Jaideep Sahni has become one of India’s most successful screenwriters and lyricists. The writer of films like Company, Khosla Ka Ghosla, Chak De! India and Bunty Aur Babli talks about the art of writing and why the middle class needs to be written about.

Q Your films are of different genres, and yet have all worked. What do you know about writing, or the audience, that others don’t?

A (Chuckles) I don’t know. I’ve never thought that way. For me, it’s like, you are in the middle of your community, and there are a lot of things you like about your community and a lot of things that make you restless or irritate you about your community. So what you do is: chowkdi maaro, kahani shuru karo. Darr kiska hai? Apne hi toh log hain (Cross your legs, and start the story. What are you afraid of? They are your own people). One day, they will pat your back and say, “Yeah you got it, that’s how it is.” And one day, they say, “Arrey yaar, you bored us this evening,” and you say, “Okay, I’ll come back next time.” I just try to keep it that simple. This whole thing about genres and movies and cinema, and the rest of it… I’m a bit ignorant of it and (smiles) I like to stay that way.

(Pause) I’ve never tried to research what the audience wants to know. Because if I did, then Khosla Ka Ghosla would never have released or I’d never have written a film about women athletes starring a Shah Rukh Khan who doesn’t sing or dance, or romance. A movie may be a product, but for me, it’s an emotional product. As a storyteller, your only job is to tell a story you care about. If you are doing it for the wrong reasons, then you are only going to let people down.

Q But you are one of the few screenwriters who research a film by going on reccees. What are you looking to pick up?
A To be honest, the reccees are less a scientific process for the writing and more because I am curious about the subject for myself. (Laughs) See, I’m not a movie guy in the typical sense. I don’t write a film because I have to write a film. It starts with me getting interested in something, which is a lot like falling in love—I don’t know why it happens. Then I’m just excited to find out more about the subject and if, for that, I need to travel, I travel. And it’s not so much research, but a pleasure… ki thodi dhoop lage, thodi hawa lage, thodi mitti khaoon (get a little sun, a little air, eat a little dirt). And sometimes, out of this process, a movie script may emerge. At other times, the subject may not be right for a multiplex, so I may write a book about it some day. A movie is a byproduct of my fascination with something. I never work backwards from the intention of writing a movie. All of that is like a middle-aged version of high school peer pressure, ki uski picture aa rahi hai, meri bhi aani chahiye (‘that person’s film is coming out, mine should too’). Ho gaya yaar, I don’t want to go back to class 11 again. (Laughs)
Q Your way of working is also different in that unlike other writers, you are known to stick with one project from inception to release.

A It’s just because I’m committed to that subject and the people whose story I’m telling. Of course, everyone from the director to the actors worry about all this too, but as far as I’m concerned, I believe the buck stops with me. These are my guys that everyone is working with, it’s my guys they are dressing, my guys they are playing, my guys people may come to watch, or not watch. I care about my guys, so whether it is sitting and writing alone, or being available when they are shooting on and off, or seeing the first print, I like seeing them through. (Chuckles) Maybe I’m delusional, but till the movie isn’t over, meri jaan atki padi hoti hai characters mein (those characters are my life), I can’t abandon them and start freelancing.

Q Do you also feel a certain responsibility towards your subjects?

A I do feel responsible towards the people I’m representing in the script, because I want to do right by them. The happiest days of my life have been when a sportsperson has come up to me and said, “You understand me,” because he saw Chak De! India, or when a salesperson says, “You got it right.” But another thing is, I genuinely enjoy the making of a film. I love to be around when the editing is happening or the costumes are being done, not in an intrusive way, but because I am excited for my guys. For me, it’s like a school annual day or a wedding in the family kind of thing. Sab apna kaam karte hain, par doosre ki help bhi karte hain na (everyone does their own work, but we help each other too)? Maybe it’s because I was from IT or because I didn’t know any better. But I know this is not the story of every writer, and I’m just lucky to have worked only with people who’ve never asked me to not be involved. I’ve worked with some really rare kinds of people, that way.

Q What fascinated you about the characters of Shuddh Desi Romance and Jaipur?

A I’m fascinated by cities like Jaipur, Lucknow, Indore, Kochi, which are the engines that are running India. They are different from the metros, which are world cities that operate on another level from the rest of the country. They are not the ‘small towns’ Bollywood thinks they are and portrays them to be, just because people in them speak Hindi more than they do English. These are places buzzing with energy, where things are actually happening.

The funny thing about these places is that the youngsters here have their feet in two boats: the traditional and desi, and the modern. You have a guy selling kachori who has two mobile phones. You have a dupatta salesman who can convert currencies and talk to tourists in seven different languages—to the extent his profession demands. It’s really exciting for me, as a storyteller, to see how young people try to navigate their love lives in these environments, with some following the traditional mindset (but only to an extent), and some breaking out of it completely and experimenting with relationships.

Q In the 90s, Bollywood was largely about aspiration, what you’d like your life to be. Your films changed the trend, in a way, to what your life is. Why do stories about the middle class need to be told?

A I don’t know, it’s some kind of conversation you want to have with the community you are a part of. (Pauses) Jinko kuchh bolne ke liye hai, unhi ko kuchh bologe, na (You talk to those to whom you have something to say)? Jo khush hain, Ballard Estate mein rehte hain, shaam ko Blue Frog jaate hain (those who are happy, who live in Ballard Estate and go to Blue Frog in the evening), I can have beer with them, but there’s nothing I can say to them. Because they are doing fine. I mean, they don’t blacken their children’s faces in parks if they do something against their ‘tradition’. There is a kind of oppressiveness in our so-called culture that pinches me. There is hypocrisy and fraud in the name of that all-encompassing word—‘maryada’. And this is a war that millions of youngsters fight every day. I mean, how many lies do girls have to tell every day in order to do what any young woman anywhere else in the world can do as a matter of right? Why is this 5,000-year-old civilisation making the youth lie all the time?

But what I’m doing is not a lecture or national service; I’m just trying to discuss. I just want to tell my people to breathe, and let the young be, and let them discover things on their own. These are the guys who’ll be running the country 10 years from now, because youngsters from the metros will fly away to America. It’s these kids who are the cutting edge of our swords against feudal traditions. I get very restless about all this. But at other times, it’s also quite funny, in a way. I mean, I don’t have any eloquent words to explain this, main engineer aadmi hoon, yaar (I’m an engineer type of guy, man)!

Note: This interview first appeared in Open Magazine on September 13, 2013
Link: http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/cinema/shuddh-desi
© Copyright belongs to the author, Nikhil Taneja. The article may not be reproduced without permission. A link to the URL, instead, would be appreciated.
Picture courtesy: Google. None of the pictures are owned by the author all rights belong to the original owner(s) and photographer(s).