Bollywood actress Elnaaz Nourouzi, who was recently seen in ‘Hello Charlie’, spoke at length about her upcoming projects, struggles of being an outsider, #MeToo allegations that she leveled against Vipul Shah, among other things, in an exclusive chat with ETimes. Excerpts from the interview:
You’re in Germany currently in the mid of the COVID-19 crisis. How are things at your end?
This is giving me a flashback of last year as exactly around this time, we were in the middle of a crisis and I was in Germany even at that time. Over here, we are also under a lockdown since November, the situation is getting crazy everywhere, but India is just getting worse. So yeah, it’s bad.
What changes have you seen during the lockdown, personally and professionally?
Personally, you get to spend a lot more time with your family. You end up on a lot of nice emotional levels because you have so much time for friends and family. But then again, when you’re in a lockdown, you cannot meet people. So then again, it mentally disturbs. I know a lot of people in Germany who are going through a really tough time because here in Germany, most of the people live alone. In India, you still have big families, everybody stays together and you don’t end up staying all alone. So everybody is facing it (lockdown) in a very different way. When it comes to the professional side, it has obviously been challenging (phase) because my film got pushed. ‘Hello Charlie’ was supposed to be released in 2020. But it released a year later, in 2021. I have two-three more projects lined up, which are to be released. So it’s a little dicey situation. Everyone is experiencing (the effects of lockdown) it differently.
Despite coming from a non-Bollywood background, you have made an impact as an international star. Can you elaborate how you had to struggle?
See, you will always face difficulties when you are from a different country. (It matters) where you come from. Today, if you decide to go to Iran and get a job there, it will be tough for you, right? So it’s the same thing that I have faced in India; it was very tough for me, but I understood the path that I had to go. I understood that I have to learn the language. I have to understand how to act the way people want me to act in Bollywood. So I made a plan for myself and I follow that plan. But yes, it is difficult when you enter an industry where they don’t welcome foreigners wholeheartedly because they have their own criteria, right? If you’re making an Indian movie (the makers would) rather looking for an Indian woman or somebody who can speak the language well. I can’t say it’s the industry’s fault altogether, that’s why I made sure that when I’m learning the language, I learn it well. I can speak it in a way that people don’t really judge that I’m not from their country, or you can’t be an artist who speaks Hindi, but it doesn’t sound fluent. So, I tried from my side in every way that I could to you know make sure that I fit in. I would say that difficulties are always going to be there, and you have to know that if you want to step into this kind of environment.
How comfortable are you with Hindi now?
I’m very comfortable with Hindi, agar aapko abhi Hindi mein baat karni hai, toh hum Hindi mein baat kar sakte hai (We can talk in Hindi right now if you want).
‘Hello Charlie’ is a lighthearted entertainer. How was it shooting for the project for you?
Shooting for this film was not easy. The movie was set completely on the road. We were under the sun, in the heat, in a truck, or on the road constantly. It was not a film that you shoot in a studio, so the shoot was a task but it was fun, as I got an opportunity to work with Jackie (Shroff) sir. Aadar (Jain) is a cool guy and we had so much fun off-camera. But on-camera we were having a tough time, as we were handling the gorilla, handling the heat, handling my leather jacket under such heat. I have decided that if I ever have to wear a leather jacket in a movie that is not shot in a studio, I will refuse.
What do want to say about the mixed reactions that the film has drawn?
There are people who have really loved the movie and said,’ Oh my God, this was so funny. I couldn’t stop laughing.’ And then some people are saying, ‘I didn’t understand what was going on. Like, what is this movie?’ So, we’re getting extremely polarised reviews of the film, and this is actually making me understand that you can never really cater to one kind of audience. There are so many different people, some will love it and some will not. It’s the same thing that happened with ‘Sacred Games’, the show has more people who liked it, and fewer who didn’t. But then those who didn’t like it, didn’t like it at all. They rejected it by saying that they can’t consume such content. So, as an actor, I’m learning. For me, it is really important that I should perform well, and stay true to the character and myself. Then you have to see if the people like you or not.
When you had decided to enter Bollywood, who was your first contact?
When I came to Mumbai, I had zero contacts and I didn’t make any contact. I just came to India and I had no clue. I met a lot of people on the way; I met a lot of wrong people on the way, who promised me a lot of things. I guess it was just a journey that I cannot explain. There is no fixed formula. Everybody has their own journey and everybody has a different journey. So, I can’t really tell you who I contacted, and how did I land ‘Sacred Games’. I auditioned for the role, and they liked it, that’s a different thing. But you have to find your way everybody has to find their own way in some way. It’s not that easy.
You also shared your personal struggle and joined the #MeToo movement by leveling allegations against Vipul Shah. But then, you completely went silent about it…
(Sighs) There’s obviously not much to speak about anymore. But for me what was important was that when the movement started, and when I saw a platform to speak about what I had gone through, I took it. For me, all that was important was that I speak about it and that people know about it, that’s it. If I wanted to take any kind of action, I could have taken it before or after, or I can take it in 10 years also. This is because after the emotional distress somebody puts you through, you can’t be asked as to why didn’t you speak earlier, and why you’re telling it now. We’re humans, we go through different kinds of phases, and then we take a call. But for me, it was just important that I support the other women who are speaking up, and that I just let it out there and let people know what kind of a person I have dealt with. Now, for me, as a person, that was enough. I didn’t need to go and file a police complaint; I didn’t need to do all of that. For me, it was just enough to speak about it and to let the world know. The respected people who were spoken about also know, and now (they) know how to behave better. So, that movement alone was enough for a lot of change to happen. Sometimes all that is needed is just to speak about something and let it be. You don’t have to stretch it. I don’t want to stretch the matter further.
While sharing your story were you scared that it might hamper your career prospects?
Yes. See, you always have that thought that in life, whenever you speak about something critical, that it might hamper your career, or your personal life. But be it in terms of my career, or personal life, I live fearlessly. If you’re scared of something, you won’t overcome or succeed. At that moment, I thought about who is Elnaaz? Elnaaz is somebody who would like to support other women in such a big movement. Because if only one woman has spoken had spoken up, and nobody else because they were scared, then the movement would not have happened, right? All the other women came in support and shared their stories and that has changed the world. Now, it has changed for the better. I’m telling you, I’m still in the industry, and I see it. The same kind of men that we used to hang around with are changed men now and that is the most beautiful thing. Imagine how many women paved the way for just by speaking up! And yes, there might have been some people who didn’t work with me because of that but then more people respect me because of that right now. They’re working with me. So I guess it’s worth it. People just see who you are; people understand the kind of person you are. And if the intentions are noble why should you not get work? That’s the kind of work I want, where it’s good to work and where you don’t have to do anything else to get the good work. So that’s all I’m getting now.
Kangana Ranaut, on Twitter, keeps referring to the Bollywood personalities as Bollywood mafia, and she openly shares her opinion that in some way, they try to suppress the opinions of newcomers. Kartik Aaryan also lost ‘Dostana 2’. Being an outsider, what do you think about nepotism?
See, I don’t know exactly what has happened with Kartik. But what I do see as an outsider is that it is much harder (to make a mark in Bollywood). See, if 10 movies are being made right now in Bollywood, as an outsider, I might only get the chance to audition for two of them. This is because the other eight are already given to the people who they’re given to, right? And it’s just that the reason why maybe this topic is so big in Bollywood, is because somewhere else in the world, it is not as much like that. For instance, if you have 10 films being made in Hollywood, you get the chance to audition for eight of them, and only two of them are gone. So, to a certain extent, it (nepotism) is there in Bollywood, and maybe people should be speaking about it. But then, as you see, there are people like me who still do get the chance. So, we should see that as well. But yes, (for outsiders) chances are way less, but I’m glad that they’re being given. If I really worked so hard on my acting, if I really worked so hard in my Hindi, then there are biggies like Excel (Productions) who do give me the chance. And then other people go ahead with actors who may not be as great, but will bring bigger numbers. That’s their choice, and we can never stop people from doing what they want. All we can do is be the best of what we can be, and then get the chances because nobody said life is easy, nobody said that everything is going to be fair, life is sometimes unfair, and we have to just box our way through it.
Elnaaz, you also said that it’s quite difficult to maintain beauty standards all the time. When actresses get married, perception towards them changes, besides the pay disparity. What is your opinion on that?
Are we talking about controversies only (laughs). The beauty standards are nothing. Honestly, this has not only to do with Bollywood. Beauty standards, right now have become a complete thing in the entire world. There are apps which change your body shape, skin colour, hair colour, there are apps that change you into a completely different person which you are not and that is a problem in itself. And then it is there in Bollywood as well, where you constantly supposed to have beautiful hair, beautiful and radiant skin. And films are being made, where we’re talking about these issues. Hopefully soon, with people making more films like ‘Bala’, it will change.
For the first time in my life, I put on eight kgs during COVID last year. I had never been that big before in my life. I was on a holiday and I was very uncomfortable in my bikini. I took a picture in that bikini and just a couple of months back, I posted that picture. My stomach was looking big. So, a lot of people were like, oh, it still looks thin blah blah, but for me, it was something that I had never seen before. And I was like, okay, let me post this. Let me talk about what is real. Yes, I also have a lot of pictures that were Photoshopped. There is a lot of makeup and everything. But then I guess it’s very important that we, as women, talk about the fact that we are also not perfect. None of us is perfect. Honestly, if I would have sat in front of you without makeup right now, you would see under eyes dark circles. Just because we’re actors, we’re not flawless. That’s what we really to address because people go after that beauty standard, I have gone after that. So if I have done that, if I see somebody looking flawless, and I want to look like that, imagine other girls’, younger girls, or anybody in the world. So maybe we should make it a point where pink hair isn’t important. It’s just that it looks nicer. But if you don’t have it, it’s fine.
How do you deal with online trolling, hate and mean comments?
Touchwood, I’m pretty strong when it comes to such comments because I have just prepared myself to tackle such faceless trolls. And why should anybody else’s opinion be important to you? Just take the love and filter the hate out. I guess that’s all you can do. We need to become a little bit more conscious. Honestly, I must say that you can’t just go out there and hate on people, right? Without knowing what people are going through? But I guess it’s becoming better. Honestly, I see more love than hatred, but the latter is there, and you cannot stop it, it’s social media where everybody can express their opinion. Nobody tells them not to. But yes, I can say it’s always better to spread love than hate.
A lot of people compare you to Katrina Kaif…
Really? She’s obviously beautiful, super successful, and an amazing personality. I’m happy that I’m being compared with her. It’s great. But we were two different people. She’s made her mark brilliantly, and I’m sure it was hard for her too because she also is an outsider. So, I’m glad; it’s always great to be compared to people who are so successful.
What’s keeping you busy these days?
So I have ‘Sangeen’ with Nawazuddin (Siddiqui), which we shot for at the beginning of the year in London. And we’re just waiting to see when the theatres open. Like ‘Hello Charlie’ was supposed to be a theatrical release, ‘Sangeen’ is also supposed to get a theatrical release. So, we’re waiting to see when we can do that. And then I have done a series as well, which is supposed to come out very soon. It was actually slated for May but I don’t know if it’s going to still happen or not. And I’ve done a really amazing catchy song in one of the films that is coming this year, and I’m super excited for that, but I cannot really talk about any of these because none of them have been announced. It’s just that everything is on hold. It’s so irritating, but then the lives of the people matter the most. I’m actually super happy that from May 1 everyone will get vaccinated because life can get back to normal then and everybody can be healthy again and hopefully, nobody’s going to be sick with COVID. So, we just have to hang in there. I’m also hanging in there.
‘Sangeen’ marks your second collaboration with Nawazuddin. How was your experience working with him?
Fabulous! I actually miss him. Every time I think of him, I’m like, ‘Oh, I wish I was on set with him.’ He’s so cool to work with, you know, he’s all in his zone and the scene. But then when he gets out of it for a second, we just constantly laugh together. And we have so much fun. And I guess our chemistry is really good, especially because we worked on ‘Sacred Games’ together. So, I am excited for ‘Sangeen’, which is a thriller; the story is just gonna blow you away. I cannot wait for it.
Salman Khan announced a simultaneous release for ‘Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai’ in theatres and OTT. Do you see a chance of theatres reopening of theatres?
I don’t know if theatres are going to open, I don’t know what’s going to happen. But what I know is that once the theatres reopen, we all need to support it. We make movies for the people who are going to watch them, right? So we do need the support of everybody just as much as we are trying to support everyone else in the COVID season. I know a lot of people watch movies OTT now but I would say go wherever you want to go when everything opens up. But please, wear a mask. You know if people would have followed the rules, and washed their hands, and worn their masks, maybe all of this wouldn’t have happened. When I came back to my Mumbai home in January, I was sanitising everything and spraying everything and washing everything. The neglect has brought the second wave. That’s the thing, we have to keep educating people to wear the mask and use the sanitiser. We have to be careful about the situation. We can’t roam around carelessly without the mask, or with a mask under the nose. We need to take all the safety measures seriously.
Staying home, especially right now, when it’s really bad, is very important. But we cannot stay at home till the end of our lives. So what we have to do for life to return to normalcy is that we have to really take care of things. Like, I don’t know where my drivers come from every day. I don’t know where my cook comes from every day. But what I know is that before they enter my house or car, I spray her fully then she goes directly into the washroom and stays there for two minutes and washes her hands, then she comes back and takes a fresh mask. You know, maybe that’s why I didn’t get infected by COVID. And even on sets when I see people are not wearing masks, I get very angry. I’m like, ‘What is this?’ Especially since, as an actor on set, you cannot wear a mask because you have makeup. A lot of actors are getting COVID, that’s because they are being exposed to the most. I guess right now is a great time to stay home and let the numbers come down. Let people heal, and then, after that, once life starts again, go everywhere you want to go, but wear your mask, wash your hands, sanitise them, and maintain social distancing.