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Interview Hindi Pakistani Punjabi

Nawazuddin is like the god of actors, says Sacred Games co-star Elnaaz Norouzi

The Iranian model and actress, who plays Zoya in the web-series, wants to be able to perform like Siddiqui, Alia Bhatt one day.

Mayur Lookhar

Just as music has no language, talent is not restricted by language or nationality. So, over the years, Indian cinema has had its share of artistes and technicians from abroad. But it has always been the foreign actors and actresses who have had to undergo intense scrutiny.

The likes of Bob Christo, Helen, Mary Ann Evans (aka Fearless Nadia) and filmmaker Franz Osten made a mark for themselves in Hindi cinema with their talent. In the new millennium, we have Katrina Kaif and Jacqueline Fernandez, among others, doing likewise, even if they have their critics.

Now, a new import has stepped into the Indian entertainment industry. Iranian actress and model Elnaaz Norouzi is getting some praise for her role in the Netflix web-show Sacred Games. Actually, this writer could not even guess Zoya (Norouzi) from Sacred Games was not Indian. For she spoke Hindi pretty well. (In case you are wondering, she has dubbed her portions herself.)

But why should anyone be surprised really? After all, here is a woman who loves languages.

Born in Iran, Norouzi moved to Germany where she studied various languages. She speaks German, French, and English, besides her native Farsi. Hindi was, perhaps, her toughest test yet, but she made it a point to learn the language as she did not want to be reduced to a mere glamour puss.

Cinestaan.com met Elnaaz Norouzi at her apartment in Khar, Mumbai. Dressed in salwaar-kameez, with funky household footwear, the actress was bursting with energy and keen to share her story. She told us she makes really nice coffee and appeared disappointed when the offer was politely refused. She is fluent in four languages, but Norouzi came across as Iranian at heart; she even picked Iran over Germany if the two football teams were to clash.

Through the next 45 minutes, Norouzi shared her Sacred Games journey, hailed her co-star Nawazuddin Siddiqui as 'the god of acting', and revealed how she went about learning Hindi. Excerpts:

Before we come to Sacred Games, I'm intrigued by the name Elnaaz Norouzi. I'm reminded of the eminent Indian Parsi politician Dadabhai Naoroji. Is there a Parsi connection?

Well, no Parsi connection. But I am Iranian. Norouz is our new year. It is the beginning of spring and that is where it comes from. Norouzi is not a very common name, like how you have the Patels. It’s our last name and it comes from Iran.

Sacred Games has got good response. While we expected Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Saif Ali Khan to do well, the supporting cast, too, has been getting equal attention. Your character, Zoya, is among them. How do you feel? 

Saif Ali Khan, Radhika Apte, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Elnaaz Norouzi in Sacred Games (2018)

Very honestly, a lot of people have asked me the same, but I never really thought this would turn out to be this huge. It’s crazy, because a lot of people e-mail me [their appreciation]. They would write, ‘We are in love with Zoya and we would want to see Zoya more. Please tell us about season 2.’ 

It feels special, not just because this appreciation is coming from India. A lot of people see it abroad as well. So, I have got e-mails from Greece, Spain. This is amazing, I didn’t expect it. So I’m pretty happy.

Foreign artistes don’t have it easy when they first come to the Indian entertainment industry. Often they are roped in as dancers. If they are picked to act, most are often hampered by the language barrier. It naturally leads to the critical question, 'What is he or she doing here?' That didn’t come to mind while watching you in Sacred Games. I guess therein lies your success.

I feel great when you say that.

When I came to India, I always wanted to act. A lot of people told me it was very hard for me to break in. Three years back, one person told me that you have 1% chance to make it here.

I was down for two weeks. I felt I should pack my stuff and go back. Then I thought why don’t I work on myself. People told me you look good and so I should do films where I have to look good and not do much acting, just do songs. I said okay, but everybody does that. So then I decided to work on my acting, work on my Hindi.

I wasn’t speaking a word of Hindi before I came to India. I told myself you should do things which nobody wants you to do. That’s what I did for three years. I worked on my acting, my Hindi.

I’m just glad that I could make it. This [Zoya] is the role of an Indian girl and I dubbed it myself. That is something I am very proud of. I don’t think many foreigners have [got] an Indian role in their first project, and they dubbed it themselves.

The casting couch, exploitation exist in the Indian film industry. Now, when I look at Zoya, she comes across as one who, perhaps, had to make tough career choices. Actually she never had a choice. It was very brave of Anurag Kashyap and Vikramaditya Motwane to subtly touch upon exploitation in the film industry. Was it easy for you to say yes to play such a character?

Elnaaz Norouzi as Zoya in  Sacred Games

See, first of all Sacred Games has a lot of aspects which exist in real life. Yes, it’s brave of the directors and everyone to make such a series because this is the time when we need to see what is happening. More importantly, we need to address these things.

In Hollywood, people are openly talking about it. They are fed up with it. We need to create awareness through films, web-series. This is one reason why I said yes to Sacred Games. My character is very close to the real world. Maybe it is time now to address those things.

Have you encountered unscrupulous elements making indecent offers? 

To be honest, yes. I was 10 days into this country and I came across this person who e-mailed me saying I do films. I decided to chat with him and then he clearly tells me, if I give you a film then you have to compromise. I’m like ‘delete’.

I know that if I have talent and if I work hard for what I want, I do not need to compromise. That’s how I got Sacred Games. There were more such indecent proposals. You have to be smart and know what you want, and then you will get over it. You don’t have to say yes to it. You go for auditions, you don’t get a call, then you just concentrate on the next audition. I have given many auditions.

You are not Indian, yet you have done well at speaking Hindi. Can you tell us how you overcame the language barrier? 

Bahut mushkil sawaal! (Laughs.

When I think of it, ah, it was very tough when I first started learning Hindi. I would cry sometimes. I speak many languages, French, German as well. There are lots of rules in French and German. You know this sentence is built because of this rule. But you don’t have that in Hindi. My teacher at that time, I would ask her questions to which she would not have answers. She would tell me nobody really ever asked all this. So, she would learn from me asking her. We would figure out things together.

It was tough in the beginning, but once I learnt reading and writing as well, it became much easier, especially with scripts. I love languages and that is why I really wanted to learn Hindi. I took a year to learn Hindi, and then it took another year to learn reading and writing. I would say it took me two years to learn the language.

I guess thereafter cab and auto [autorickshaw] drivers stopped tricking you.

Oh my god, they stopped tricking me! In the beginning, I knew they tried to trick me but I couldn’t speak Hindi. So I would get frustrated. But after learning the language, I was like ‘now let me show you’. To be honest, living as a single girl alone in Mumbai, I know I have to get things done, even the smallest things like a guy comes to fix your fan. He thinks you are a foreigner and takes you for granted. But next, I’m firing him in Hindi, telling him to do things right. I’m not trying to be mean, but you do it for them to understand that you are not a foreigner, you know the language and you can deal with them. That is something important and I’m glad I can do that. They realize then that they can’t fool you anymore.

Now when I’m travelling to a foreign country, not knowing the language, if I get into an altercation, then chances are I might use profanities in my native language and the other person wouldn’t even know. 

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

(Laughs) I have done that a lot. Now I know the Hindi words. When I’m stuck in traffic, then I start abusing in the car in Farsi. I don’t hurl it at anyone though. Something of yours [your language] will always be there.

Some viewers have drawn parallels between the characters of Karan Malhotra-Zoya and Salman Khan-Katrina Kaif. I know you have said you had no such feeling while shooting, but when Zoya says Karan has mowed down two people in a hit-and-run case, or she wants to sign a film with Ranbir Kapoor, isn't it tough to stop people from drawing parallels?

Yeah, I guess I said it earlier also. Honestly, I never thought of these things crossing each other. But when people do it, they just try to connect some dots.  People say a lot of things, they write to create controversies. Let them do it. If that keeps Sacred Games alive for years, then let's do it.

We are actors, we follow scripts, we follow what we are told to do. Maybe senior actors have a say in the script, maybe even change it, but I haven’t reached there yet. And even if I had, I wouldn’t do it. When you work with professionals like Motwane and Kashyap then you really don’t need to change anything. They know what they are doing. So you don’t need to worry.

You have done an ad campaign with Salman Khan. Did you ever worry what would happen if Salman Khan were to see it [Sacred Games]. Is he sporting enough to take it lightly? 

Of course that was one thing I was worried about. I don’t know this industry well, I thought, hope Salman doesn’t think there is anything from my side. Salman is such a senior person, he knows it well that the media and people like to write such things. At the end of the day, it’s not me but just the character who says such things. I am sure Salman understands that well. So, I don’t need to worry about these things.

You are fairly new to the industry. What impression did Motwane and Kashyap make on you?

I have worked with a lot of directors, but these two are amazing. Obviously I worked more with Motwane on season 1. [Motwane has directed the track of Sartaj Singh (Saif Ali Khan).] He is such a quiet director. He doesn’t talk much, he doesn’t tell you do this, do that. All that he says is, this is the scene, this is what I think, now do whatever you think you should do.

It was tough for me in the beginning. I was like I’m not an actor who has done 10-20 films, so I need help. I felt this was not the right approach. After seeing Sacred Games, I am like ‘shapor’ [Farsi for son of the king]. Maybe he just knows his actors. Without telling you much, as to what to do, he lets you do it. If he thinks there is any change needed, then he tells you that maybe you need to do this. That is what I love about him.

Have you followed their [Kashyap and Motwane's] previous work? 

Of course. But you see, it’s different when you see their films, and then one day work with them. 

What was the experience of working with Saif Ali Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui like?

The experience has been amazing, especially with Saif sir. My first day on Sacred Games was with Saif sir. I couldn’t remember my lines. I forgot everything. For one scene, we were sitting for four hours. Now he could have got up and gone to his vanity can, but he sat with me throughout, gave me my lines. I will never forget that.

I had this very special scene with Nawazuddin sir [Zoya is told to give sexual favours to Siddiqui's Ganesh Gaitonde in jail]. It was a tough scene for me. I was playing a younger girl in that part. My look was different. Even he was in this different state of mind as he has been tortured. We had good chemistry.  That is very important in acting. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is the god of actors. I have even told him that.

I really want to act like Nawazuddin sir or Alia Bhatt one day, Oh my god, my life would be done. It doesn’t matter how many films I do, I just want to act like that.

Can you talk about your Sacred Games journey? 

It was amazing. Not just the shooting but till today I think the journey is going on. I think Sacred Games is so hot right now. Everybody is watching it. I thought it would do well in India, but if you go on IMDb right now, in India, Sacred Games is number one on IMDb. It has crossed Race 3 (2018) and Sanju (2018). I think all over the world it has reached the top 25 serials. I have no words. For it to be my first project here... though it is on Netflix, I would still say Bollywood, I have no words. It is just incredible to be part of such a great project.

You started your film career with the Pakistani film Maan Jao Na (2018) and then you did an Indian Punjabi film. That sounds much like Zoya from Sacred Games who comes to India from Afghanistan/Pakistan.

Yeah. You never know where god takes you. I wanted to do Indian films, but my first film happened to be a Pakistani film, where again I dubbed in Urdu.  That film was shot a long time back. That film taught me a lot, which helped me while doing my Punjabi film Khido Khundi (2018), which then helped me during Sacred Games. I guess it will go on like this. The more projects I do, I hope to do better in each one of them.

You also did a music video, 'Made in India', with Guru Randhawa. What was that like? 

That was fun, too. They were approaching me for a long time to do music videos, songs for films. I always refused, for I didn’t want to be known as a song girl. As I told you, I wanted to act.

The reason I took on 'Made in India' was because I feel so close to the lyrics. I’m an Iranian who grew up in Germany, but I feel I’m somehow made in India. So, I love that song.

Guru Randhawa is one of the biggest pop singers right now. So, I thought, why not be part of a good song? It also helped me get exposure. Because  Sacred Games was being released after the song, I could ensure I’m not seen as just a song girl.

Tell us about your background. 

I was born in Iran. I stayed there for eight years before my family moved to Germany. My father wanted to make sure I grow up abroad. There is no problem in Iran, I keep going there. He just wanted me to study abroad.

It was tough for my dad to move out of his country. I’m always grateful, because all that I could do in Germany, maybe I wouldn’t have been able to do in Iran at that time. In school, I studied languages — English, German and French. I studied French for seven years. I did a little bit of theatre in Germany.

Most of my acting workshops I have done in Mumbai. It makes more sense that you learn what is appropriate for this country, and what they want here. A lot of people would say you don’t really need to know acting. But in the times that we live, where there is a lot of content, just looking good is not enough. As an actor, there is no end to learning. 

Whether in Iran or in Germany, did you have any exposure to Indian films?

My parents used to watch a lot of Indian films. My father would sing all the songs from Sholay (1975). I used to watch a lot of Shah Rukh Khan’s films with my mom. I had his pictures pasted all over my walls. So, thinking about Shah Rukh, Saif sir in Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003)… ah! Never thought I would be doing two ads with Shah Rukh. Never thought I’ll ever meet him. So, dreams do come true, if you work hard for them.

So, when you met Shah Rukh Khan, did you tell him about having his posters?

Oh, I was so excited that I couldn’t do that. Obviously, I know him now. I’m thinking of telling him one day that ‘you are the reason why I am in this country’. I saw his films. That is what inspired me to become an actor. My father is a big Amitabh Bachchan fan. My parents freaked out when I told them I’m doing an ad with Shah Rukh. I’m their only child, they live alone now. But  I know they are proud of me. 

Iranian cinema is popular across the globe. Our exposure to your films is mainly through the festival circuit. There have been directors who have had to leave Iran. There is a perception that Iran is a religious state which does not allow freedom of expression. In those eight years you spent in Iran, did you ever feel that it was going to be difficult to grow up in that country?

Well, I can’t really comment as I didn’t really grow up there. I have lots of friends in Iran who are doing really well today. But yes, what you said [about freedom of expression], we are still making great films, we are getting Oscars, so imagine if we had a little bit more freedom what we could do.

Times are changing now. There are days when women go out without the hijab. Some of them go to prison for that.

So can we expect an Arab spring-like event in Iran?

Maybe. Who knows? But I am the wrong person to talk about it.

Born in Iran, grew up in Germany, so do loyalties get divided when Germany has to play Iran in a football match?

(Laughs) This question comes to me so often. I am a big football fan. I myself played the game in Germany. This FIFA World Cup 2018 wasn’t exciting for me because both my teams were knocked out in the first round. But I was so proud of the way Iran played. They don’t get so many opportunities as Germany, Portugal or Spain. As you know, [sports goods brand] Nike even refused to give us shoes because of [US president] Donald Trump’s ban. And we were like, screw you Nike. We can still play well.

I was very upset about Germany leaving in the first round. But I wasn’t upset with Iran. Come on, who can stop a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty? Who does that? Our goalkeeper [Alireza Beiranvand] did that! It was a very proud moment for Iran. That goalkeeper had left his home because his parents didn’t approve of football. He used to sleep on the road, but he worked hard to get where he is. This is a huge achievement. If Iran were to play Germany, I would stick to Iran.

You have spent five years in India now. Is it a lonely place, or are you having the time of your life? 

Hmm, there was a time when I was having the time of my life, when I wasn’t concentrating much. This was two years ago, when I was just modelling. I used to go home and come back here.

But if you want to achieve something great in life, you will have to go alone, you have go through lots of lonely times, which I have and will have to further.

So, you cannot go to parties because you have to sit at home and work on that script. I have friends who have become family here. India is a great country.

If you look at it professionally, then wherever you are, you have to be alone, otherwise you can’t make it. It’s the bitter truth, but if you have distractions then you can’t do it.

So, I guess you are single then.

Definitely! (Laughs.) I am committed to my craft, which is acting.