I found it very unsettling that during the first five minutes of the phoneterview, Neil Bhoopalam, an actor I’ve been a fanboy of for the past two years, was the one asking the questions. In hindsight, I don’t know how I maintained my cool seeing as the night before that, I was casually asking friends on Facebook if they had something that needs a prescription to help curb my erratic nerves, “Where are you based?’ “How is it that you know so much about Bollywood?” “Is that your picture on WhatsApp?” Although his questions were asked quickly without respite, they came from a place of curiosity and friendliness. It didn’t take me long to discern that Neil is a very sweet albeit very honest guy. Someone who is not afraid to say it like he means it but is also probably nice to small, furry animals.
“How long have you been watching Hindi films?” “Well the first film I saw was Chalbaaz with Sridevi and Mammooty. I was really young when I saw that.” “Oh my Gooooood, no way! Chalbaaz?!” His voice suddenly went up three registers; he was starting to have a good time which, in turn, made me feel fucking great. “Neil Bhoopalam is having a good time. I don’t completely suck” The Voice of Reassurance whispered to me. “Do you remember the aunt in the movie?” “Sorry, I can’t say that I do.” “I found out that she’s actually the mother of one of my friends and last month, she baked me cookies! It was so weird having Sridevi’s aunt in Chalbaaz bake me cookies!” I burst out laughing. It had to be the most endearing Bollywood related anecdote I’ve ever heard.
Make no mistake of it; Neil Bhoopalam is cute as a button.
He is also a triple threat, an actor who has conquered three different mediums of entertainment. He has a starring role opposite Anil Kapoor in 24, a hit show that changed the face of Indian television, he was in NH10, arguably one of the best Bollywood films to come out last year and, on top of all of that, he still manages to find the time to visit an old friend – the stage.
I started by asking Neil about his old friend and the glaring differences I’ve always noticed between theater/film actors in America and India. “In America, stage veterans like Mandy Patinkin and Ethel Merman remained on Broadway and rarely ventured out to film while in India, I’ve noticed that all the iconic film actors like Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi started out in the theater but left it for the most part to pursue film. How were they able to accomplish that and why? Isn’t stage acting wholly different from film acting?” “Yes, it definitely is. Acting on stage is different than acting in front of the camera. I don’t know why that is, I can only speak for myself. The reason why I got into film is that the opportunity just presented itself to me and I jumped on it.”
“Do you think it has anything to do with pay? Because I recall Kalki Koechlin saying that an actor can’t live off of their stage work.” “That is true but for me personally, it was always about seizing the opportunities that were presented to me. I’ll tell you one major difference I found in theater here versus theater in the West; in India, you can open a show within a few months, but in London or New York, it could take up to a year or even more. That’s one thing I like about theater here.”
While Neil Bhoopalam’s success has almost turned him into a household name (every Indian colleague in my office knows who he is), he has yet to step foot in leading man territory. The actor has only played supporting roles thus far. This is something I’ve noticed in Bollywood that if you start out in lead roles, you’ll stay at the top while if you start out in supporting roles then chances are, you’ll find yourself stuck in supporting role purgatory. This runs antithetical to how the rest of the world’s film industries operate where we see actors work their way to the top from the bottom. Clooney, for example, started out playing a rookie cop with very few lines on an episode of The Golden Girls back in 1991. “I wouldn’t say it’s impossible for us. Just look at Irrfan Khan and Nawazzuddin Siddique.” Neil retorts. The man’s got a point – Irrfan Khan who started out in godawful TV shows is now Bollywood’s biggest Hollywood export with roles in The Amazing Spiderman and Jurassic World, two of the world’s biggest blockbusters in recent years. Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, Neil could very well find himself in those upper echelons standing beside him.
Suddenly, our back-and-forth took a sharp left turn.
Before I could delve into the questions I wanted to ask him about NH10, Neil had something to get off his chest. “You’re asking me a lot of questions about how the industry works, I thought you were going to ask me more personal questions. Why do you keep asking questions about Hollywood and Bollywood?” “Because my blog is called Bollywood Over Hollywood and it explores the differences and intersections between the two industries.” “Oh, right, ok.” This teeny-tiny confrontation was a precursor to what was about to follow, a series of seemingly trivial awkward moments that collectively snowballed into something that was painful.
At one point, for instance, WhatsApp was failing us and so Neil called me on his phone. I instantly felt guilty, I didn’t know whether I should do the polite thing and insist that he hang up and that I call him or just keep going so as to not take up more of his time. I froze. It was a classic “deer caught in headlights” moment where I had less than a New York minute to decide on what to do. I ultimately relented and kept going.
“NH10 is a socially conscious film that addresses burgeoning issues in North India such as honor killings and the overall maltreatment of women there, do you think films like it are going to change mindsets or are they merely preaching to the choir?” “I don’t see it that way,” Neil protests, “I think it’s just an interesting story that stands as is. People perceive it a certain way because of what was going on at the time of its release.” Neil is presumably referring to the fact that NH10 was released along the same time as India’s Daughter, the incendiary BBC documentary that sent shockwaves throughout India and the world at large. The documentary that shed light on the same issues as NH10. “It really isn’t as esoteric as people think it is,” continues Neil, his tone implying that he’s probably answered questions similar to mine ad nauseam. Fuck my life.
I have to respectfully disagree with Neil however. I’ve never taken a film, or any piece of consumable art at face value. As James Monaco, a noted film theorist, once wrote, “Because film is a product of culture, it has resonances that go beyond what the semiotician calls its “diegesis” (the sum of its denotations). An image of a rose is not simply that when it appears in a film of Richard III, for example, because we are aware of the connotations of the white rose and the red as symbols of the houses of York and Lancaster. These are culturally determined connotations.”
I subsequently asked Neil a question about something that I’ve always found incredibly frustrating and that is the constant insinuation that every Bollywood film storyline, including NH10’s, is taken wholesale from some obscure foreign film. I can imagine this being a trigger for many Bollywood actors who might feel as though all the hard work and effort they poured into a film is all in vain.
“Have you seen the film, NH10, is supposedly based on?” “No I haven’t honestly, I just saw the trailer. Is it any good?” “Fuck no.” As much as I love Michael Fassbender, I loathed Eden Lake, the film in question’s vilification of Britain’s working class. And no, I couldn’t find any correlation between the two vastly different films. Even if NH10’s filmmakers were indeed inspired by Eden Lake, it doesn’t matter. “It’s not important where you take things from, it’s important where you take things to” – Jean Luc Godard. As far as I’m concerned, NH10 took a discount TESCO carpet and turned it into a Persian rug.
“Aren’t you personally sick and tired of wiseasses who completely dismiss a Bollywood film because they heard from some schmuck on the internet say that it’s based off of something else?” Mind, you they’re usually people whose knowledge of non-Indian cinema doesn’t extend past Central Perk. “No, not at all. People have the right to say whatever it is they want to say. That’s how I’ve learned to look at it. At first, it did used to bother me but now I just see it as some gandu shouting from a balcony. Some people will listen to what he says and believe him, some people won’t. It’s just an opinion, not a holistic view. And to be honest, there’s no such thing as an original story out there, everything is derivative of something; the only thing that is original is how you spin that shit.”
“Let’s talk about 24. You play a role originally performed by Dennis Haysbert in the original. Many people made assumptions that his role was inspired by various political figures in American history. Is your character at all inspired by an Indian political figure?” “Well, the character comes from a political family headed by a matriarch so…..” “Oh gosh, I feel like a total idiot right now. I need to confess something, I’ve never actually seen the show since I can’t find it anywhere on the net. I swear I didn’t meant to sound like a coy jerk-off!”
I needed to quickly remedy things.
“You starred in NH10 which dealt with honor killings, Ungli which dealt with police brutality and corruption and 24 which addresses terrorism, it seems like filmmakers keep casting you in socially conscious material. Why is that, you think? Are you like, secretly running a children’s NGO or something?”
Within no time whatsoever, Neil was laughing his ass off. I swear to G-d, the man just could not hold it in. I felt a weight coming off; all the pent-up stress I felt prior to that moment was gone as I soon found myself laughing incessantly with him. I caused such a ruckus (I’m one of those people who laughs with every fibre of my being) that everyone around me at the coffeeshop I was at started giving me the once-over.
Irreverence works tremendously well at neutralizing sticky situations.
“That was good man, I’m going to tell that joke at parties. But seriously though, I just think that people have their ear to the ground. If they see me in something and like it, then they’ll cast me in their movie. It’s as simple as that.”
“I want to end things on an even more positive note – a Word Association Test where I say one word that relates to your career and you have to say the first word that comes to mind.” Unfortunately, Neil broke the rules a few times by using more than one word but, because his answers were so insightful, I let it slide.
NB: A fun place to hang!
BH: Anurag Kashyap
NB: Total change
NB: Pretty serious stuff.
BH: Anil Kapoor
NB: A REALLY good guy!
BH: Rensil D’Silva
NB: Oh man……
BH: Six pack abs
NB: No man!
“Could we discuss that for a second. “Six pack abs” is a much- maligned phrase for so many Bollywood actors. Do you think its necessary for Bollywood actors to develop a six pack in order to get leading roles?” “No, but right now I’m doing a Buster Keaton thing which requires me to be agile so I’m working really hard on strength and flexibility.”
I don’t remember what he or I said right after that but I somehow must have inadvertently touched a raw nerve because Neil suddenly started sounding vulnerable and regretful while recounting an experience on the set of NH10 that seems to still haunt him. I felt like I had to commiserate him. It didn’t sound like a cry for help but more like he could really go for a hug.
He was shooting a chase scene for NH10 with Anushka Sharma and he almost goofed up by not landing in a particular spot properly. “If I fucked it up, the entire shoot would’ve been wasted that day and I’d feel like I let the entire crew down. I’m so glad it went smoothly.”
“I have a couple more words for you, if that’s alright.”
“Go for it!”
NB: Ooh, I need time to think this one through.
I allowed it.
Ten seconds later.
NB: An aspect of performance.
“I guess this concludes our interview.” “How many interviews have you conducted so far?” “This would be my second one.” Neil, being the kind Mumbaikaar he is, decided to impart a bit of wisdom before we left things. Unfortunately for me, I was already a wreck at this point who was too fragile for even a bit of constructive criticism. “I started off at a radio station and one thing I learned there is that when it comes to interviews, you have to keep your questions short. You must be able to ask them in one breath. So my advice to you is to make your questions crisper. I know you’ve got your questions prepared but you seemed to change them a lot.”
I did. I modulated and omitted questions I prepared beforehand depending on what the current trajectory of the interview at that given moment in time was. I don’t know if Neil was aware of that or not. I know there is two kinds of interviews – ones that are executed with mechanical precision and ones that are more of a conversation than an interview, like the ones Jonathan Ross excels at. I live for conversation so naturally I went down that route. Unfortunately, talking to a celebrity I like on the phone is still something I’m grappling with so I might have sometimes sounded aloof and didn’t articulate as well I could have.
The interview started out with a bang but simmered down considerably soon thereafter. I wish I could say that it was as fun as those first five minutes but I can’t. Between my nerves that got the better of me and him being caught off guard by my probing, constantly changing questions, the whole thing felt like a bust. I definitely wouldn’t write it off though, I was privileged to have a meaningful conversation with someone I think is really cool and derived some experience out of it while he has a couple of stories to tell at parties, I guess.
Besides, it’ll never stop being interesting seeing Bollywood through the keyhole of a relatively new, still not jaded insider.