His name might not ring a bell immediately but you would remember his portrayal of Zayd Safarini, who along with his fellow terrorists, hijacks an aircraft in director Ram Madhvani’s much successful and acclaimed film ‘Neerja’. Abrar Zahoor, the actor with strikingly sharp features, will be seen as the antagonist again in his new film ‘Uri The Surgical Strike’. In this interview, he talks about his character in the film, journey from his hometown Srinagar to tinsel town, experience of working on ‘Neerja’ and forthcoming projects.
You were born in Srinagar but came to Chennai to study engineering.
Yes, I spent a lot of time down south in Chennai and Bangalore. I was offered a film opposite Priya Mani at the age of eighteen. I was just in twelfth standard, so my parents did not allow me to take it up and wanted me to focus on my education. I have always been a creative person. I loved sketching and photography. I made a hand-made air-conditioner for my mom when I was in the seventh standard. But, I did not want to be an engineer or a doctor. There are so many people doing it. After completing twelfth grade, I studied visual communication and 3D animation in Chennai. Then, I went to Bangalore where I was doing modelling and photography simultaneously. Soon, I realised I needed to do something else. There are so many people who are better looking than me. I wanted to act. There is more creativity involved in acting. I did a lot of commercials in Bangalore. I had a very weird notion about the South film industry. I thought doing South films was not a great deal. I was obviously terribly wrong. Now, I am dying to work in the South industry. I regret not understanding the reach and greatness of the South film industry. They treat respect with a lot of respect. At the age of nineteen, I shot for my first film which starred Dhanush and was directed by his brother Selvaraghavan. I played the role of Dhanush’s elder brother. Unfortunately, the film never released.
You worked as a model for a long time.
Yes, I worked as a model to earn a living. I was focussed on becoming an actor. After doing some work in the south, I came to Mumbai. I owe a lot to my brother. He was a big support system in Mumbai. The first thing I invested in was getting into an acting school. I joined Barry John and learn a lot there. ‘Neerja’ was the first film I auditioned for and it turned out to be my debut Hindi film. Six days after I finished Barry John, I auditioned for ‘Neerja’. A friend of mine was called for the audition. He could not come and asked me to go there. I auditioned for the role and bagged the part.
How did you get interested in films?
Actually, my grandfather was an actor. He did a film called ‘Anmol Kadi’ in 1949. He played the role of a postman in that film. He used to tell the stories of films and shoot to my father, who in turn narrated those stories to me. My father was always a fan of Bollywood and he himself wanted to become an actor but being the eldest among his siblings, he had certain responsibilities and could not pursue his dream of becoming an actor. When I told my father that I wanted to become an actor, he motivated me and was very happy. I was going to do something which is not normal in Kashmir.
Do you think you should have come to Mumbai to become an actor a little early?
Age is an important factor in modelling but not in acting. You see somebody like Mr. Rajinikanth playing a 30 year old when he is 68. I always wanted to become an actor and not a hero. I want to be a part of films which turn out to be memorable for the audience. What Bollywood was in 2010 and what it is now, it is completely different. The digital world has opened up so many possibilities. Actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Deepak Dobriyal are so popular today.
‘Neerja’ was almost shot inside an aircraft set. Tell us something about that experience.
Once that set was created, it was very easy for us to play our respective characters. We just had to believe that we were the characters we were portraying. When the film is about a forest, it makes a lot of difference when you actually shoot in a forest. You get to feel the environment and you act accordingly. Ram Madhavani was like an institution for me and I learnt a lot from him. I try to learn as much as I can when I am shooting. I observe what people are doing between shots – how a lightman is setting up the light, how the set is being constructed. It was great working with Sonam as well. We met on the sets for the first time. Since we were pitted against each other in the film, Ram did not want us to be friendly with each other from before.
While ‘Neerja’ was shot almost entirely on a set, ‘Uri The Surgical Strike’ has been shot outdoors, in real locations.
Shooting for both the films was a diverse and fun experience. We recreated Pakistan and parts of Kashmir in Serbia. The set was so amazing. I was surprised when I went to the set for the first time. Since I have spent a lot of time in Kashmir, I was surprised to see that the homes on the sets had the smell or the fragrance one associates with Kashmir. When I asked the set designer about this, he said the got a lot of things from Kashmir.
Can you share something about your role in the film?
I am playing a negative character. Everybody is hunting for me in the film. They have to find and eliminate me in order to complete the mission.
Did you audition for the role?
I have auditioned for every role I have done till date. I am happy things worked out that way. I do not like asking for favours. I have never done something I have not been able to. Journey is more important than the destination.
You have played only negative characters in films so far. Do you fear getting stereotyped?
No, If you see the kind of work I have done in commercials, you will realise all my characters are different from each other. Nobody can recognise me when they see me in person as I my look in all the ads and films have been different. I am getting offers to play different kind of roles. I am playing the role of a cricketer in ‘Cartel’, a web-series produced by AltBalaji.
The film has young actors like Vicky Kaushal and Yami Gautam and also veterans like Paresh Rawal. How was the experience of working with the cast?
I am a fan of Vicky. I have several scenes with him in the film. I love to be around actors and observe them. We are blessed with the internet and get to see performances from across the globe. Everything we want to see is there. There are few people who are starving for knowledge. Whenever I am free, I love watching clips of award winning films across the globe on my phone.
A lot of people have appreciated the trailer but there is a certain section which has called it hyper-nationalistic and anti-Pakistan.
People are judgemental about everything. This movie does not paint anybody in a poor light. The film talks about this brave act done by the Indian army and celebrates it. The only thing the film is against is terrorism.
The producer of the film, Ronnie Screwvala, is one of the finest minds in the industry. What is the kind of interaction you had with him on the sets?
I met him once during the shoot. It was late in the night when he came to the sets and he said ‘you look horrible’ (laughs). That was because I had just finished shooting for a fight scene between Vicky and me and had fake blood all over my body.
You are doing ‘Commando 3’ and ‘Songs Of Paradise’. Can you tell us something about these projects?
‘Songs of Paradise’ is a series of music videos which we plan to shoot in Kashmir. The situation is quite bad in the valley, so we have not been able to shoot there yet. We are still shooting for ‘Commando 3’ and will probably wrap up by the end of February.