The Indian actor of Chinese descent rues how artistes like him and others from the Northeast get typecast and struggle to get their fair share of opportunities in Hindi cinema.
We make a Northeasterner out of Priyanka Chopra, says Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi’s Jason Tham
Mumbai - 09 Sep 2018 15:00 IST
Mudassar Aziz’s crossborder comedy Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi (2018) was set in China and had a couple of Chinese characters speaking fluent Hindi. One such character was Adnan Chow, played by Denzil Smith. The other was Chang, played by rookie actor Jason Tham.
The name drew one’s curiosity. Jason Tham does not look Indian, nor does his name sound Indian. But don't let that fool you. The US-born Delhi-based actor is an overseas citizen of India and reminds us that artistes like him need not be cast in stereotypical roles. "We might be more Indian than Indians,” he said.
Speaking exclusively to Cinestaan.com, Jason Tham spoke about his Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi journey and expressed the hope that one day a non-conventional-looking hero from the Northeast will play a conventional 'Bollywood' romantic hero like Raj. Excerpts:
From the entire cast and crew, if there is one actor who couldn’t be more happy, it is you. I believe you recently got engaged, and your role in Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi has also been appreciated.
I think everyone has done a good job. People have appreciated me, especially praising the dumb charades scene, or the one where Chang is forced to dance with his boss. When you hear people talk specifically [about the scenes], you feel good. I am overwhelmed by the response. It is not easy to be noticed in front of such a big, good cast.
I guess on the personal front, too, you couldn't have asked for better.
The engagement was always in my head, but I never thought it would be a day before the special screening [on 23 August]. Naturally, I was doubly happy. Those 3-4 days were the best of my life.
We met on the sets of [TV show] Agent Raghav. Her friend Aahana Kumra was my co-actor in Agent Raghav. She introduced Deeksha [Sonalkar] to me. That's how it began for us.
We had a few scenes together, but I often watched her perform. We dated for two and a half years. The engagement was decided only a month ago. My parents and sisters were coming down to Mumbai for the special screening. That is when we decided to get engaged.
Apart from an impressive show, the lasting memory of your character in Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi would be how a man nearly died after slipping on soggy noodles. Wonder if Chang was cursing the footwear. Who is to be blamed for such a fall?
(Laughs) I wouldn't pin the blame on anything. One situation just led to another. I was a little perplexed when the scene was narrated to me. Mudassar Aziz told me don't worry, we will make you fall in a way that you'll go unconscious. I was like 'ah, OK, let's do it'. I thought it will be an easy task, especially since I've shot with a harness before. But I didn't know I'll have to fall many times for the scene. They shot the scene from various angles [wide, close]. I reckon I must have fallen 20-25 times for sure. I must have fallen 5-6 times for change of camera angle. For a second, I thought, hope they are not pulling my leg, but all of them clapped for me at the end. The director asked for a round of applause for my cooperation. So, basically, I got praised for falling.
Indian filmmakers have generally cast actors from the Northeast to play Chinese or Southeast Asian characters. You are of Chinese origin but you are so fluent in Hindi. How did you manage that?
I was slightly weak to begin with, but I really worked on it. A friend of mine, Vikas Jyoti, who is a casting director for Cinevistaas, we met on a TV show. He became my guru. He taught me a lot of things about cinema. He offered me books. That really helped a lot.
What's the story behind you bagging this role in Happy Phirr Bhag Jayegi?
I do a lot of advertisements. Mudassar sir had seen one of them and asked for a meeting. Their casting department asked me to send photos. I was asked to come down to the office the next day. Mudassar sir told me I am looking at someone in the age group 30-35 and I look young. Because I wear spectacles, have gelled, funky hair. He removed my spectacles, gently rubbed his palm on the side of my hair, and said, “This is Chang. Call the costume department, ask then to take his measurements. I want to see him in a suit.”
I didn’t say anything, but at the back of my mind I thought I will be asked to audition. I was given a script and, two days later, asked to come for a workshop. That’s how the journey began. No audition was required.
[According to a source in the film's unit, the director initially had TV celebrity Meiyang Chang in mind for the role, but Jason Tham’s picture landing on his desk turned things in his favour.]
When I read the script, the first page had sequences where I interrogate Happy [Sonakshi Sinha]. The second scene was with Jimmy Sheirgill and Piyush Mishra. I was so nervous, I feared I’m a goner. I called my teacher Vikas Jyoti for help. I began my workshops with him, enacting every scene, asking what can be added to it. The idea was to be well prepared when we come to the sets. Within one take, we were able to pull off the scene. Aziz sir was really impressed, so he added more scenes to my character. Initially, I was only shooting for about 15 days, but I ended up shooting for 30.
A first big break in Hindi cinema. Can you summarize the experience of working in such a film with actors like Sheirgill and Mishra?
I was like a child, like an open book. I kept asking these guys for guidance, tell me where I’m going wrong There was no room for error here. These guys were like mentors to me.
What I have observed is that Piyush sir, [when the lights are being set], he gets into his character, communicates to all in that tone. Also, he keeps repeating his lines.
On the other hand, Jimmy sir is a ‘mast maula’ [carefree person]. He often jokes around with everyone. His presence is de-stressing for all. However, once the camera rolls, he goes into a different zone. He knows how to switch on and switch off. He is the king here.
Here are two different actors, two different methods. So, I got to learn a lot from them.
It is an unfortunate Indian trait to look at certain people and label them as 'chinky' [an ethnic slur for a person with Mongoloid features]. That line Adnan Chow (Denzil Smith) says to your character, “If you fail, I’ll tell everyone you are from Ghaziabad’ — while most saw the humour in it, I felt that one line also makes a statement, that ‘please, we are as much Indian as any of you’.
You have hit the nail on the head. We might even be more Indian than many Indians.
This attitude is down to your upbringing. I believe things are changing now. The law has become strict when it comes to these things. Hopefully, that is bringing sense to a whole lot of people.
Besides, people are getting smarter. You can see from the type of films that are coming through — Shahid (2013), Masaan (2015).
For the best part of its history, the hero in Hindi cinema in each era was required to have certain characteristics that made fit him to be called a ‘Hindi film hero’. Perhaps that was why we seldom saw a Northeast Indian or a Sikh as a hero. Thankfully, we have Diljit Dosanjh now. But when will we get to see a Northeast Indian man romance a top heroine in a Hindi film?
You can expect that, in my view, 10 years down the line, we may not get to see superstars. It will be all ‘actors’ going everywhere. Probably the word ‘hero’ may get eradicated. Today, people are appreciating your talent more than any connections, or your face.
I don’t think there is an issue with the audience per se, they appreciate genuine talent, no matter where it comes from. The question is, will our producers and directors change their mindset of only casting men who are conventional 'hero' material?
Yes, their mindset needs to change, too. But today there is a shift where smaller films with good content are getting better views than a no-brainer film. I don’t want to sound offensive, but in the West you have Black people playing the requisite roles. Here, we make a Northeast Indian out of Priyanka Chopra! We have talent in the Northeast, you just need to find it. Perhaps producers are focused on the commercial aspect. That is important, but content-driven films are opening doors for talented artistes.
We have a lot of Northeastern people coming up now. Films based on the Sino-Indian theme open up opportunities for such actors, like Paltan (2018).
But surely we can’t be casting artistes from the Northeast only in films set in China or Southeast Asia?
Yes, the mindset of those producers, filmmakers needs to change. If anyone hears this, if one guy [from the Northeast] gets a chance to be a hero, that one person will break the stereotypical mindsets. Producers will then think of trying this guy for a big film. They will have confidence in him as an actor.
If we can have Northeast Indian men married to non-Northeastern girls, then we can surely find one worthy actor [from the Northeast] who can play a Raj [the iconic role played by Shah Rukh Khan in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995)].
If I get a film where I am not playing a Chinese guy [though I look like one] and doing something which a normal Indian hero would do, then it will open the minds of a lot of filmmakers. I hope I don’t get stereotyped.
You tell me, can’t I be part of a film like Pyaar Ka Punchama (2011) or any film set in college? Why can’t I be part of such films? I can be one of the best friends of the hero. Please give us a chance. If one fails, it will be purely down to the quality of that actor.
When I see Indian fimmakers hire foreign girls who don’t know Hindi, it kind of contradicts the belief that a man with unconventional looks and from another race cannot be a 'Bollywood' hero. Isn’t this hypocrisy?
Definitely. For some, white skin is superior. A foreign female standing next to an Indian guy is perceived as 'the guy is too big'. There could be other reasons for casting them. That is unsaid. By casting these girls, the hero would look good, it adds spice to your masala films.
Look, they are here to work, too. We are Indian, though we may look a little different from the usual Indians, but if we can speak Hindi well, more importantly if we can act well, then give us a chance as an experiment. Sorry to say, but this industry is more prone to have white skin – Indian or foreign.
I don’t mind these girls being cast in spicy item numbers, the odd scene, skin show. We have a Nora Fatehi who is beautiful and dances very well. You respect a skilled dancer like her.
Can you talk a bit about your educational background, your initial career?
I did my schooling from Don Bosco school and my Bachelor of Business Studies from Stratford University centre in Delhi.
I started dance at 20. Acting did not even exist for me then. I performed well at the annual day. That’s how I got serious about dancing as a profession.
In 2013, I came to Mumbai to do something in choreography. My guru was YouTube. After college, I started performing for corporate shows, participated in this dance reality TV show Just Dance, that had Hrihik Roshan as a judge. I didn’t make it to the top 12, but I got a lot of appreciation. I even got a kiss from [show judge and film choreographer] Vaibhavi Merchant.
I have choreographed for a lot of reality TV shows: Dance India Dance, Super Mom, Dance Ka Tashan, Boogie Woogie, Little Champs. From there I got picked up for Happy New Year (2014) for one of the songs. I also did a cameo with the Korean team. [Director] Farah Khan just asked me one day, “Will you work? Korean team?” Here was my chance to be opposite Shah Rukh Khan and Co. I grabbed it. I had no idea about acting then.
I worked in this TV show Dil Dosti Dance in 2014. I got to choreograph an episode. I was asked to audition for a character, parallel lead. I worked in the show for a year. That is how my journey as an actor began.
Before this show, I had done just one TV commercial, but after that show I did 50-plus ads. Since then it has been tough to manage the transition from choreographer to actor. Earlier, I was loaded with offers for assistant choreographer, but because I started acting, I had to turn them down.
After an impressive start in films, are you getting more offers now?
Yes, there are offers, mainly for web-series, where I have been asked to play an Indian, not a Chinese. Till they are confirmed, however, it would be premature to talk about them.