August 7 2015
He started out in a studio comedy, then landed a part which brought him international attention and now he’s doing horror – one of a new breed, meet…
SAQIB SALEEM is a funny guy – and the way he broke into Bollywood is quite a story for someone with zero acting experience prior to his debut Bollywood film.
He tasted success with a couple of comedies and is now beginning to show his full repertoire.
The Indian remake of the Hollywood film, “Oculus” is his first foray into horror, alongside his sister (that interview is here) Huma Qureshi and on his first trip to the UK he spoke to us about his ambition and the future as one of a generation of emering new talent.
He came to the notice of a wider public when he starred in Bollywood blockbuster director Karan Johar’s short from “Bombay Talkies”.
This was a single film but with four different stories by four different directors (Zoha Akhtar, Dibaker Banerjee and Anurag Kashyap) all marking a 100 years of Indian cinema (in 2013) and looking to say something about contemporary Indian society.
Saleem played a spiky young gay man, not cowered by traditional Indian attitudes. He played it with balls and attitude. And it featured possibly the first ever on-screen kiss between two men – himself and Bollywood hard man, Randeep Hooda.
It’s quite something to think that he first turned the role down.
“There was no audition,” he said taking up the story in between takes on the set of the Berkshire location where, last week, he was shooting the Indian remake of “Oculus”, called “Zahhak” for now.
“Karan’s office called me and said we want you to do this film, it’s a gay character.
“I thought, ‘no chance’ I am not doing it, I am not playing gay – I’ve got nothing against it, I have gay friends but no, I come from an orthodox Muslim background and I feared what my parents would think.”
So what changed his mind?
“I sat down and I got think to think about it – making a film with all these brilliant people and it is celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema and if I am only judging it on my own sexuality, then I am doing the wrong thing.”
As you might expect from Johar, one of the country’s most successful commercial film directors, it’s not a subtle story but Saleem handles the rough and the smooth with the same aplomb and you can’t help but feel for the character and the way he is – confident, unabashed, cheeky, friendly and yet he is met (to western eyes) with a shocking level of prejudice, hostility and even violence, by his own family.
“It was an actor’s part,” Saleem continued, emphasising how different it was from a stock Bollywood turn (which is often ‘hammy’ and obvious), “and a performance that was needed.
“People looked at me in a different light after that, and said, ‘oh, you can act’ – hey, what do you think I’ve been doing?” He laughed. “My Mum thought it was the best film I’d ever done.
“It was a great learning experience working with Karan, Rani Mukherjee, Anand Mehta (director of photography) and Randeep Hooda.”
His natural exuberance, friendly and generous disposition are sure to help him in his quest – which is to be – wait for it – a superstar, yes, this boy ain’t shy.
He loves what he does and he wants to shout about it.
“So, I’ve done some commercials and people in my locality know me and take pictures and ask for my autograph and it’s nice and it makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something and it’s a high but does it make me any less hungry?
“No, I am hungry like hell, I want to be the biggest superstar in the country and I am not ashamed to admit it. I want to be the best that I can be.”
From him, it does not sound arrogant, or the expression of an inflated ego – he just comes across as ambitious and focused, and because of his natural charm, you can’t help feel he might be onto something.
If he breaks into western films or TV, he might go onto to do more than one, much in the way of an Irrfan Khan, say.
“Hell, yes,” he responded to the question about wanting to work in the West. “More than films, I want to do TV. I am huge follower of “House of Cards”, “Homeland”. They were casting for “Homeland” (Series 4, which was broadcast earlier this year in the UK and featured Pakistan heavily) and Suraj Sharma (“Umrika”, “Life of Pi”) got it. They wanted me to test for it. I wasn’t available for those days they tested for it.”
The way he got his first break though is almost unbelievable. It’s true perhaps more than anywhere that without connections or family involved in the business, it can be tough getting your first break.
He left his cosy, middle class (his words) comfortable existence in Delhi, where his family have a chain of thriving restaurants for Mumbai (or Bombay, as he calls it).
A serious cricketer in his teens (U19), he played for Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir, from where his mother originates, and hadn’t really settled on a career as such.
“I didn’t go to Bombay to act but to be with my then girlfriend, she wanted to be an actor but things didn’t work out between us,” he said explaining how he moved in the first place from Delhi.
Pretty much alone in big city, but for sister, Huma, he was wondering what he should do exactly.
“I thought I am in Bombay, let me figure something out.”
He was friends with fashion designer Varun Bahl who knew a casting a director for a big Indian studio, Yash Raj.
“He (Varun) said why don’t you just go and meet her. She’s looking for new talent. I met her and one thing led to another and to another, and she started auditioning and it took about 6-8 months and then boom, I got a two-film contract.”
Both “Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge” (2011) and “Mere Dad Ki Maruti” (2013) helped to establish his Bollywood credentials.
While the rest may not exactly be history (yet), there’s a good chance Saleem will find his way onto yet bigger screens in Bollywood (there’s a sequel to his first film next) or even a small screen, in Hollywood, as a start over here. Watch him. 😉