‘I drew references for my character in Noblemen from six films’: Ali Haji
After a successful inning as a child artist who did movies like Fanaa (2006), Partner (2007) and Ta Ra Rum Pum (2007), Ali Haji returns to film set with Vandana Kataria’s Noblemen. The feature film that travelled to film festivals in various parts of the world and is set for its commercial release this Friday sees him playing a high school student in an all-boys boarding school who is bullied to an extreme extent. Ahead of the film’s release, 19-year-old Ali tells Indulge how he prepared for the role that also won him Best Child Actor award at the New York Indian Film Festival, how acting as a grown-up different from acting as a child artist, his role in upcoming films Line of Descent and Super 30 and his desire of exploring the cinema from the lens of a writer-director. Excerpts:
Q: Your last film was Paathshaala (2010). You are coming back after almost a decade. How did you feel while facing the camera?
Ali Haji: It didn’t feel unfamiliar to me because I have faced the camera for the major part of my childhood. I have done a lot of ads and quite a few movies. Even at the time that I wasn’t acting, I was doing a lot of short films for my friends. I never really stopped facing the camera and so I wasn’t conscious at all.
Q: Why did you take this break? What were you doing all this while?
AH: It was purely to focus on my studies. I finished school and I am now pursuing a BA in Philosophy and History (correspondence) from the University of Bombay.
Q: Is acting as a grown up different from acting as a child artist?
AH: When I was younger, the only thing expected of me was to deliver my lines. It was more like - do this, give this expression, be happier, be sad. It was much easier and not much thought was put in it. Now, as a grown up, the responsibility is on your shoulders because I don’t think any of the modern directors/filmmakers would tell you how to act. They will assist you, put you in certain mind space, give you the background of the character, help you through workshops to get to a certain level but finally, all the heavy lifting has to be done by you - expressions, body language, tapping into certain emotions… it is all your job now.
Q: Coming back to the film, tell us a bit about your character in Noblemen. What made you pick this role?
AH: My character, Shay, is in class 10 and is a very sensible and affectionate boy who is very much in touch with his feminine side. He is inclined towards art, drama, stage and speech. And, he is not like other boys, in this all-boys boarding school, who are tough, sporty and looks really hard from outside. In fact, he hates it. The journey that he goes through from where he begins emotionally at the beginning of the story and where he lands up at the end of the story fascinated me. I was very daunted when I heard this story because it is dark and the subject is not easy. But, the character has certain strengths and once people will watch this film, they will understand that any actor would dream to play a character with such a vast range of emotions. That’s what got me interested in the story.
Q: What was the most challenging part of essaying this character?
AH: Noblemen deals with bullying at a great extreme. To get into the psyche of someone who is mentally tormented each day but has a strong core to stand up and fight back was challenging and tapping into this took me a while.
Q: There is also a brief kissing scene between you and Kunal Kapoor. How difficult is it represent homosexuality correctly in cinema?
AH: Honestly, I am fortunate enough that my director Vandana has a very distinct voice and she is not someone who would ever treat a subject like homosexuality in a frivolous manner. She dealt with it very sensitively. Homosexuality is a part of a Noblemen but it is not what the film is all about. It has a role to play because it is an all-boys boarding school where there are 600-800 boys and it is normal for someone to like another boy.
I did a bit of homework and it helped me a lot. I was given a lot of references. I watched Boys Don’t Cry. It is a very beautiful and poignant film about a transgender and it was a very prominent reference for me.
Q: What were the other references? Give us the list...
AH: There were six films that I was asked to watch. They were Good Will Hunting, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Shawshank Redemption, Boys Don't Cry, This Boy's Life and What's Eating Gilbert Grape.
Q: You have two more movies coming up this year - Line of Descent and Super 30. Tell us about your role in both of them.
AH: My character in Super 30 is of an aspiring IITian student studying in an elite coaching class in Patna and he is a bit of a brat. It was fun because it was something that I had never done, most of my roles featured me in an urban landscape and this one had a bit of rustic setting. I also had to pick a bit of Bihari accent. Besides, sharing the screen with Hrithik Roshan was also special, he has been my childhood hero because of Krish and Dhoom series. In Line of Descent, I have a more prominent role. I am playing one of the three siblings in a gangster family where the patriarch dies and thus begins the power struggle between the three siblings. It is set in Delhi and again a very exciting project where I am sharing the screen with Brendan Fraser, Abhay Deol, Ronit Roy and Prem Chopra.
Q: Are you keen on doing web-series? Is there any project that is in pipeline? Tell us about your upcoming projects.
AH: I am definitely keen on doing web-series. As of now, there is nothing but I like the web as a medium and I feel it has a lot of scope in terms of character development. As an actor, you can explore a lot more and develop your characters over several episodes. Apart from this, I am working on a lot of short films as a writer-director. I am very passionate about directing and I am beginning to develop a feature film, which is on the Bombay party scene and is based on millennials. Hopefully, I will do it as a writer-director!