Suraj Sharma on why Phillauri and Life of Pi are the watershed films of his career
"Hey, isn't that the guy from Life of Pi?," my friend pointed to the screen while watching the trailer of Phillauri. Five years after he made it to the coast, Suraj Sharma was on Indian screens again, this time banging the back of his head as a reaction to watching a quizzical ghost stare into his eyes.
Suraj made his debut onscreen as Pi, the Indian boy who loses his family to a cyclone during a ship journey and is left to rescue himself alone, stranded on a lifeboat with a Great Bengal Tiger. Ang Lee's Life of Pi was large on scale and also starred Indian actors like Irrfan Khan and Tabu, thus attracting the eyeballs of Indian cine-goers.
Five years later, the same audience gets to see the Suraj make his Hindi film debut with Anshai Lal's Phillauri, playing a Canada-returned young man who gets trapped in yet another peculiar predicament — the big fat Indian wedding. Though he boasts of a commendable body of work between these two films, Suraj agrees that Indians would compare the two films, though that has never been a concern to him.
"I understand that the Indian audience would find my transformation quite drastic. But at this age and stage of my career, I want to venture into all kinds of genres. For example, I don't think I am good at comedy. But I tried a little bit of slapstick, as you can see in the trailer," says Suraj, in an exclusive chat with Firstpost.
He recalls that he instantly connected to his character in Phillauri after reading the script that Karnesh Sharma, co-producer and brother of Anushka Sharma, sent to him. "It's a brilliant script. I find the situation my character is stuck in the most fascinating. You know, he comes back from Canada, is asked to marry a tree because he is maanglik, then asked to marry a girl only to be obstructed by a ghost."
Suraj made his cinema debut with a veteran filmmaker in Ang Lee. However, he points out that though Phillauri is Lal's directorial debut, the fact never worried him as he felt secure about the direction in which the film was heading. "I have faith in the vision of Anushka, Karnesh and Anshai. So, a first-time director was never an issue."
In fact, Sharma recalls that the most refreshing change he experienced in the way film is shot in Hollywood and back home is the ability to adapt. "The filmmakers in Hollywood are very acute in precision of the script. On the other hand, the atmosphere on the sets in India is more relaxed. Once, we were shooting an alternate reality sequence during a night in Patiala. Since it was being filmed on the roof, we had to wrap it up by 4 or 5 am before the sunrise. Though it was quite demanding, it was invigorating to see the entire cast and crew pick up and finish the shoot before the deadline."
Since both Life of Pi and Phillauri are five years apart, Suraj agrees that he has grown as an actor. Though he was pursuing a Philosophy course in St. Stephen's College, Delhi while filming Life of Pi, he lists down two major philosophical takeaways from the critically acclaimed film. "I learnt that perspective changes everything and there are always more than one of them. Secondly, a human can control his emotion in a lot of ways but he just cannot stop breathing. Breathing reflects emotion and cannot be stopped," says Suraj, who carried extensive yoga sessions to prep for his career-defining role.
He seems to have employed both his newfound skills in Phillauri from what we have seen of the film so far. Embracing the notion of multiple perspectives is what probably pushed him to do a film like Phillauri, which is quite different from how the audience perceives his reel image to be. As far as breathing is concerned, his fervent panting in the trailer, when he sees Anushka's ghost, projects the mixed emotion in his mind, of fear and confusion.
"In those kind of scenes, I am not supposed to act funny. I am just supposed to act scared, which the audience finds funny. The comic element comes from situational humour but that does not mean that the character I play is feeling funny as well. He is damn scared," says Suraj, referring to the slapstick humour he experimented with, in Phillauri.
What he found funny in those scenes was how he had to react to Anushka's presence. "We share a different equation off screen. So it was pretty funny to freak out after watching her. But to her credit, she keeps both her real and reel life equations apart, which is quite different from my brief creative partnership with Tabu in Life of Pi. However, a common aspect of the processes of both these actors is that they feed off your energy. They are good at acting and even better at reacting, quite spontaneously."
Phillauri stars Anushka Sharma, Diljit Dosanjh and Suraj Sharma. It is produced by Anushka and Karnesh's Clean Slate Films, It is slated to release on 24 March.