Actor Ali Fazal speaks about working with his 'guru' Dhulia, the joy of handling the camera, and enjoying cinema on the single screen.
As an actor, he throws you in the deep end: Ali Fazal on his Milan Talkies director Tigmanshu Dhulia
Mumbai - 17 Mar 2019 11:00 IST
Actor Ali Fazal admits he is happy with the kind of roles he is getting these days. On the back of the successful run of Mirzapur on the Amazon Prime Video platform, Ali Fazal is now being seen in Tigmanshu Dhulia's Milan Talkies, which was released on 15 March.
The film, set in Allahabad of the early 2000s, tells the story of a young man who grows up on the dreams and allure of the 70mm screen.
"For people who work in local theatres, immersed in films, everything is on a 70mm scale," the actor tells us. "When they try to flirt with a girl, it is like a film. Whether it works or not, they go for it full 70mm-style. This is a story set in the 2010-13 period when multiplexes were just trying to come in and single screens were losing out."
The actor is coming on the back of a successful stint on the digital platform, but is also a familar face on the international stage. After Victoria & Abdul (2017), the actor is set to feature in another Hollywood film.
"Yes, I am trying my best. It does depend on the audience whether it works, but as an actor it feels good to find good work," Fazal adds.
But right now, Ali Fazal seems happy to have got a chance to work with the man he calls his 'guru', Tigmanshu Dhulia. "As a writer, director and actor, he throws you in the deep end because he knows he will be able to save you," he says. "It is because of him that I can now think on my feet. You won't believe how difficult that is for an actor to do these days."
Milan Talkies is currently in theatres. Excerpts from an interview with Ali Fazal:
The trailer of Milan Talkies looks quite different. Tell us about the film.
I am very excited to do something new. The film is essentially about this boy and Sanjai Mishra, who work in a local projection room. They shoot their own little production films, like those in Malegaon [in Maharashtra]. They make films like Batman and Avengers within a budget of Rs20,000.
That 'jugaadu' bit we have from there and the story has been in Tigmanshu sir's mind for a long time. The film has a lot of filmi stuff in it.
For people who work in local theatres, immersed in films, everything is on a 70mm scale. Even when they try to flirt with a girl, it is like a film. Whether it works or not, they go for it full 70mm-style. This is a story set in the 2010-2013 period, when multiplexes were just trying to come in and single screens were losing out.
How were you cast in the role?
I had gone to Tigmanshu sir four years ago. I usually find it very awkward to go up to a director and ask for a film, or about a film. For the first time, I went up to Tigmanshu sir. It was to congratulate him for Paan Singh Tomar (2012). It was then that he told me he is working on a film. They had a different cast back then.
Four years later, I had just finished shooting for Mirzapur and got a call from Tigmanshu sir. I thought it was this film, and I was very happy.
When I met him, he was a little apprehensive. I had put on a lot of bulk for Mirzapur, and he needed something different for the film. We tried to normalize him [Annu in Milan Talkies]. I didn't want to make him look like a lean, mean hero type. He was a normal guy, so I kept it basic.
Have you tried watching films at a single-screen cinema?
I grew up in Lucknow and I have seen Novelty, Prabhat, and such theatres. I have also been lucky. There was this famous theatre, Mayfair. It only had English films. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). The last film was Mortal Kombat (1995), after which it shut down.
I love watching films at single screens. When I was in college, we would go to Regal and Excelsior. The single screen has a budget, and a thrill of a cheap date.
You were also recently directing a short film. How did that come about?
I always had that urge to do something with the camera. In Milan Talkies, it was the first time I got the chance to do that. So, I was very happy doing that.
Because i can! My AD Nakul got some shots of me Directing my first! Its a hard job. Think actors have it too easy. Hehe. Sending all my love to my lovely team on this short we worked on. And specially @aseematographer (Aseem Bajaj ) for helping and guiding me along the way. You are my guru and this lesson has a long journey toh abhi bohot seekhna baaki hai mere liye. Tab tak aapki dee hui kitasbein padh raha hoon. Thank you #arjunkandhari for the lovely lovely location you gave us..! Your building is the cherry on carter road.! Souraj durgesh and Lalit have made this film with me (thank you @thelastbarman for introducing me to Souraj) i bave so many names to name. Will do that the right way in my credits!! Also very importsntly @isangeeta For coming into my life on this film to teach me ASL . ( sign language) . Thank god for it. Wr got lots to learn . Hehe (Kenneth for locations, Harsh for all the planning , Saajid my dirver for being a pillar through all of it. I made him act too. Hehe. Shashi on sound(3idiots), immi on costume (thank you @nylamasood ) , onkar on art (thanks @mriglamba ) all the light men, Sada for the Dog. Kunal gulati as my partner in producing this film. (@jaytomas on consulting on many occasions when i wud be freaking out) Mihir on drones Sachin (thank you @tigmanshu_d for saving my ass ) thanks for being the phantom and saving the day. Younus for again saving my ass through the shoot. The focus puller to every assistant. Thank you @amandeep_khubbar and @kri_talent for helping coordinate this even when you didnt need to. Love you. Make up team . God everyone in the AD team. So many names. Ok i sign out. If i have missed out its all there with me on film. Love u all
Controlling the camera, and directing a scene, and getting a scene, is quite magical. I had never directed a short film before. I have just lined it up, and we are editing. I only saw it a while ago, and it feels good.
Did working as a filmmaker in Milan Talkies drive you to finally shoot the short film?
No, I always had the idea of making a short film. This happened a month ago, when I just wrote something in my free time. I spoke to my DoP [director of photography] Aseem Bajaj about it. He liked it. I told him I won't be able to afford you, but he was keen on doing it. So, I only produced and directed it.
Any plans on turning director?
Yes, but not now. There is a lot of time left for that.
Tigmanshu Dhulia always has an element of his own life in his films. Does Milan Talkies have anything similar?
Interestingly, if you look at my character, you can trace him back to Haasil (2003). His name is Aniruddh Sharma, the same as Jimmy Sheirgill's character in the film. There are similarities with his old films. Since Milan Talkies is filmi, it is a tribute to cinema. The opening scene has me speaking the lines of Dilip saheb and Prithviraj Kapoor in Mughal-e-Azam. It was a difficult one because it was a two-page scene. I somehow managed it. These are the elements that capture the film.
Tigmanshu is both a director and an actor. Is there a difference working with a director as against a director who is also an actor?
I think a director-cum-actor is very empathetic. They understand the actor's thoughts.
An interesting anecdote is that there was one scene where I was doing something very subtly. Now, his team was liking it, and I was feeling good about it. But he stopped me there and said, 'Don't bring in this Western sensibility.' He told me that and it was a good lesson. Indian culture, by nature, is very expressive. We are a loud people. We celebrate loudly, mourn loudly, and speak loudly. We have to keep that in mind when we are performing.
You can't tell a story set in Allahabad in the style of Hitchcock. He said 'that we have to find'. That's the actor in him. As a writer, director, and actor, he throws you in the deep end because he knows he will be able to save you. It is because of him that I can now think on my feet. You won't believe how difficult that is for an actor to do these days. They get their lines, they get the description, the camera, and just speak the lines.
Tigmanshu sir changes everything. He will tell you what he has in mind. How you get there is your thing.
We have shot the film mainly in Lucknow and Mathura. Shooting in Allahabad is a little difficult, so we got some serial shots for it. The story is set in Allahabad though.
As an actor, what is the takeaway from the film?
With Tigmanshu sir, I have always been close. Not because I have to promote this film, but because he is my guru. I have learnt a lot from him. To be able to write and act according to others' sensibility, I have learned that from him.
Writers sometimes create their own world and present it to you. But even in writing, you have to create the world according to the rest of the unit. There is costume, art department, actors, you have to work in tandem with them. I have learnt that from him.
Do you feel in a happy space as an actor right now?
Yes, I am trying my best. It does depend on the audience whether it works, but as an actor it feels good to find good work. I have the web-series Mirzapur's second season coming up.
Chandan cinema in Juhu is set to undergo a renewal. There is a mall being built, and it will be turned into a multiplex. How do you view this?
I can't handle that. The business does not work. For instance, Globus cinema was turned into La Reve. A single screen still, but it has that multiplex feel to it. Yet, it has the old charm.
I think, sponsors need to step in. PVR can take over, but say this stays a single screen. Keep the rates low. There is a huge percentage jump in multiplex ticket prices. One family, even going to the movies without kids, is a Rs2,000 affair.
That's why I think sometimes it is not feasible for single-screen theatres to survive. They will need the help of sponsors or corporations to step in.
With the recent Oscar win, do you think Indian cinema is changing on the world stage? Since you have worked in international cinema, and are an academy voting member now....
This was my first year as a voting member, and I am so happy an Indian film won. The perception of Indian cinema has certainly changed overseas. Slowly, because even the West is going through a change. The casting game has changed over there. They have to look forward as well to new talent.
Do you have any projects in the works in Hollywood?
There is one film. We have not yet started shooting. I can't tell you about it right now. You will have to wait.