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Interview Hindi

LIFFT India: No one can help you get work in film industry, says actor Major Mohommed Ali Shah

A consummate actor and a Major in the Indian army, actor Mohommed Ali Shah shares his unusual journey as an actor in an exclusive chat with Cinestaan.com.

Image courtesy of Lifft India

Sukhpreet Kahlon

In Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider (2014), there is a scene in the beginning where Dr. Hilal Meer (Narendra Jha) is identified by the army as harbouring terrorists in his home.

In a tense moment, the army officer overseeing the operation says that the life of a terrorist is not worth the life of his soldier and in order to annihilate the terrorist hiding inside the house, he gives the order to fire at the house and in one fell swoop, the house is razed to the ground before Dr. Meer’s eyes.

The army officer in the scene is Major Mohommed Ali Shah, an actor and army officer who completed his short commission in the Indian army and came back to his first love — acting.

In an exclusive chat with the Cinestaan.com, he talks about his time in the army and the travails of an actor in Hindi film industry.

You are Major Mohommed Ali Shah and were enrolled in the army. Tell us about your very unusual journey from the army to acting.

I did my first professional play at the age of 5, which was Waiting For Godot, where I played the kid’s part. I did plays in school and was under the impression that I was a very good actor, since I won many awards in school.

I wanted to join the National School of Drama (NSD) but unfortunately, the minimum qualification was a graduation, so I went to Pune for my college education. In Pune, I was seen more at FTII than at my own college. I would hang around, do small roles in student films, watch films at the NFAI (National Film Archives of India) and observe people.

Then I went to NSD but was rejected and Randeep Hooda, Shahid Kapoor and I were the only external students in Naseeruddin Shah’s acting class. They came to Mumbai but I was dejected that I didn’t get into NSD, so I started working and as I was very inspired by my dad, who was a very senior army officer and decided to join the army.

How has being in the army helped you in your acting career?

I thought that as an army officer I would get training in the martial arts, polo, horse riding, deep water diving, adventure sports, para trooping, etc. and all these things would make me stand out as an actor. There are so many actors today from various acting schools but what makes them stand out? What makes me stand out is that in the entire industry I am the only one who is a product of the army and has that training.

I was fortunate that I served in Jammu and Kashmir for two years at the Indo-Pak border, saw a lot of action there and all of it has added facets to my personality as well as to my skills as an actor. I completed my short commission and came back to acting. Theatre has remained consistent in my life, even if I was following other professions.  

Your training was especially important in Haider (2014). Tell us about that.

No one can help anyone get work in the industry. The camera does not recognize whose son or daughter one is and one has to make one’s own way. I was doing the rounds of Prithvi theatre, trying to get to auditions and heard that Vishal Bhardwaj was casting for his film, which was an adaptation of Hamlet and set in Kashmir.

If there’s a film on Kashmir, there has to be a role for an army man so I sought an interview with him. He took my audition and he was impressed and I offered him a suggestion. I said that instead of getting stunt men to play the part of officers in the film, he should try to get real army men. He said that it would be a circuitous procedure but I asked him to leave it to me.  I formed a platoon of 30 ex-army men, like me, got them to Kashmir to Bhardwaj and he was very impressed.

Though we had a very good costume designer, Dolly Ahluwalia, we got our own uniforms and we did the scenes the way we would do it in the army. And this is what gives the scene a moment of truth as we are real army men.

But the film received a lot of flak because of its portrayal of the army. Was that awkward for you?

The real appeal of the film for me was that the play was an adaptation of Hamlet. I had done Shakespeare previously and my favourite actor Sir Laurence Olivier is known for some great productions of Othello and Hamlet. So that was the pull for me. Unfortunately, there was a lot of trouble for the film. But the film did well and won five National Awards.

Tell us about your upcoming films.

Tigmanshu Dhulia saw me in Haider and signed me up for Yaara with Vidyut Jammwal, Shruti Haasan, Amit Sadh. I have a very good role in that and have played the role of the Sardar. I used to be a chain smoker but quit all of that to be at the Golden Temple, did sewa, learnt to tie the turban, all to learn about Sikhism and play the role of a Sardar convincingly.

You did a multi-faceted performance at LIFFT India, where you performed bits from various places ranging from a Greek tragedy to Ghalib. What was the genesis of the performance?

In the army we are taught, 'When there’s no way, you make your own way', so I thought that instead of joining a theatre group, I should create something of my own. So I put together various monologues and pieces that I’ve been doing over the years. I’ve named it ‘The Major Actors’ Assorted Monologues’ and have performed it in several cities.

Do you feel that you'll be typecast in the role of an army officer or the police?

I have played such roles many a times, but I am confident that I'll make my own way. So many actors have struggled in the industry and I will prove myself through my talent. I won't let that happen to me. 

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