Entertainment in India seems to be going through a sort of shakeup, thanks to the steady rise of video streaming, propelled by the increased penetration of smartphones with 4G connections, and falling data prices. According to a study published by the Internet and Mobile Association of India in 2018, the number of internet users in the country crossed 500 million. Platforms like Netflix, Hotstar and Amazon Prime are broadcasting content that is bold and often transgressive, featuring gritty storylines, sharp editing and riveting performances. With a global internet audience at its behest, the entertainment scene in the country has never been better poised to finally move past its song and dance image.
Related | Gay India Awakens to New Freedom
Integral to this success story is a new cohort of actors who're all authentic, approachable and talented. With a sense of urgency and the self-belief to succeed, this new lot is hungry to rewrite an age-old industry's rules against a constantly evolving socio-political backdrop. Their willingness to bring their A-game to work regardless of the medium is earning them kudos from the critics, a formidable social media following and even opportunities to work with Hollywood A-listers. Despite being recent industry entrants these actors are known to fearlessly speak their mind and use their platforms to address important social issues.
PAPER met with the scene's brightest stars fronting this movement:
Shirt: Armaan Randhawa, Blazer: Gucci
Fresh off the success of his role as the beloved trigger-happy anti-hero, Guddu Pandit, in Amazon Prime's crime thriller series Mirzapur, Ali Fazal has managed what big Bollywood stars only dream of doing — straddling a dual career — one in Hindi cinema and another in Hollywood. The 32-year-old started his career in 2008 with the Indian-American rom-com Other End of the Line starring Jesse Metcalfe before making his Bollywood debut in 2009's big banner film Three Idiots in a small but memorable role. Fazal was also part of Furious Seven's ensemble cast and made a hefty impression in the role of Adul Karim, Queen Victoria's loyal attendant and confidant in 2017's Victoria and Abdul.
Shirt: Armaan Randhawa, Blazer: Herringbone & Sui
The role of Guddu Bhaiyya (in Mirzapur) was literally written for you.
I couldn't figure the part out in the beginning and that's why it was interesting to me. I was the last one to be cast, so I knew that some fabulous actors were already on board.
You also had to physically transform for the role.
A cranky phase I call it. Rahul Bhatt, who was my trainer at the time, and I embarked on a tough path with this one. We worked on compound muscles — longer and larger to enhance the beastly look of Guddu Pandit. I ended up lifting some real heavy weights, and while we did manage to get the results eventually the adrenaline kept me cranky and moody most of the time. We'd shoot for 12 hours straight and then I'd train for about two and a half hours everyday.
What was the best part about working with Dame Judi Dench?
My face lights up when I think of her! An actor can only dream to have that kind of interaction and opportunity. I had the chance to learn more about her work and the person she is and it was all very wonderful.
"Actors are vulnerable fellas. And that's what makes us strong I guess."
When was the first time you realized you were actually any good?
Maybe around Victoria and Abdul. That's when my mom told me, finally, that she had liked my work. Also many Academy members and Hollywood Foreign Press Association members loved my work in the film... that lot doesn't really bullshit so I was pleasantly surprised to receive compliments from them. Also when Jeff Bridges comes up and tells you you're good that means you're good [Laughs]. Jokes aside, I've still got a long way to go and lots to learn.
Even the most ambitious and disciplined people have hard days. What do you do on those days?
I eat. God I do love my food. I also watch movies. You'll find me walking into movie theaters alone all the time. That's where I find my peace... I cry my eyes out because someone else on screen is probably going through some shit. Actors are vulnerable fellas. And that's what makes us strong I guess.
You're in a relationship with actress Richa Chadda.
I am a fan. Not just of her as an actor but of the person that's behind all that. She is one of the few spiritually centered people I've encountered in my whole life. I think I just got lucky with her.
What's your go to karaoke song?
Never done that. Okay, "Hanging By A Moment" by Lifehouse or "Reason" by Hoobastank. Don't judge.
Follow Ali Fazal on Instagram (@alifazal9).
Dress: Gucci, Shoes: Jimmy Choo
If Indian entertainment has a new face then Radhika Apte is its poster girl. The 33-year-old made her Bollywood debut in 2005. Her easy confidence and disarming charm have led her to be a favorite with filmmakers and audiences alike. In addition to three film releases in 2018, Apte appeared in lead roles in two Netflix shows: Sacred Games and Ghoul, back-to-back. Apte spends her time between Mumbai and London, where she shares a home with husband and musician, Benedict Taylor.
Dress: Kanika Goyal, Shoes: Christian Louboutin
With three films and two shows out 2018 has clearly been your year.
It was very exhausting — even if it looks like everything released in 2018 I was working around the clock for three years. I took a really long break of over a month and now I feel completely rejuvenated to start work.
You recently lent your voice to an audio book: S. Hussain Zaidi's The Mafia Queens Of Mumbai for Audible.
I used to listen to audio recordings of book readings as a child. I think with this new app it's like discovering new time. We travel so much now, so I make good use of it. Also as an actor voice is so important but we rarely work on it as much. I noticed how weak my voice was while recording. This is a very personal medium as people hear these not in groups but individually. There is nothing else but the voice to express it all.
What was it like on the Sacred Games set? Was the energy as big as we see onscreen?
It was a longer shoot — hectic and gruesome as well as exciting and fun. You need a lot more patience with a web series.
"I want to be able to do work that is inspiring."
You seem to have developed a great working relationship with Sacred Games director Anurag Kashyap.
With him (Kashyap) a lot of creative decisions are taken spontaneously. He observes and takes into consideration the energy of the group of actors. His methods are challenging and extremely exciting.
You're known today as the face of Netflix India.
It was really a fun ride. They take content seriously and their marketing team is brilliant too. Let's see what I sign with them this year.
Your husband Benedict Taylor has composed the score for Ghoul. It may not have been a direct collaboration but how was it working with him?
This was the first one I think — I am a big admirer of his music.
How do you want 2019 to pan out work wise?
I want to be able to do work that is inspiring. I want to travel and meet new people and be on set for as many days as possible.
Follow Radhika Apte on Instagram (@radhikaofficial).
Shirt: Sahilaneja, Pants: SS Homme
With his unconventional roles on screen and off-kilter style off it, Jim Sarbh is the pop culture icon India didn't really know it needed. Born into a Parsi family in Mumbai the 31-year-old made his Bollywood debut in 2016's Neerja as a psychopath terrorist leading a hijack operation — a performance that earned him plenty of praise. As an actor he has only grown from strength to strength since — as evident in his portrayal of Mughal king Allaudin Khilji's slave-general Malik Kafur in 2018's epic saga Padmaavat. Sarbh also starred in Smoke — the first Indian web series to be showcased at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018.
Suit: Sahil Aneja, Shoes: Trumpet Shoes
How did you discover your love for acting?
The earliest performance I remember was singing "Dig, Dig, Dig, Like A Wombat" for the annual student performance at Turramurra Public School in Sydney. I was dressed in brown sweatpants and a sweater, had a paper mask on, and with 10 other 6-year-olds took the stage.
Are you someone that stays in character when the camera cuts, or are you able to flip it on and off?
Well, in Neerja we were informed to stay in character. I did. We shot for 14 days straight. Padmaavat was shot over a year and three days. I reckon if I stayed in character my life would have changed quite dramatically, considering my character Malik's fairly bloodthirsty ambitions.
Do you feel the pressure to be political?
I keep hearing "responsibility of a public figure," but I'm not sure where I stand just yet. I find actors, including myself, to be highly sensitive people, and this sensitivity is to all things, not just good things. Therefore, while we can be all kinds of sublime and passionate, we can also be self-obsessed.
I'd defer to people who have spent their lives knowing what they're talking about; I don't expect a policy maker to be theatrical.
I know, I know, everything is political: well, I hope I succeed in standing for what I believe in, letting my work prove it.
What do you do when you're not working?
Sit around, pet dogs... go to the beach.
"I hope I succeed in standing for what I believe in, letting my work prove it."
Your Instagram is testimony to your brilliant taste in music. What are you listening to at the moment?
The soundtrack to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse.
For a lot of people theater is a stepping-stone to the big screen. But you've not stopped doing theater. What do you love most about the medium?
Everything: The rehearsals, the rigor, the live audience and the immediate feedback loop.
What will we see you in this year?
Sometimes, I Think About Dying: a short American film by Stefanie Abel, premieres in a couple weeks at Sundance.
Photograph: a feature by Ritesh Batra, also premieres at Sundance.
Baker's Dozen: an LA-based web series by Jessica Richmond, is set to release in February.
Made in Heaven: a web series that Zoya Akhtar, Nitya Mehra, Prashant Nair, and Alankrita Srivastava directed, set to release in March.
The Wedding Guest: a feature by Michael Winterbottom will release at some point I imagine, they just screened at the Palm Springs Film Festival.
Beneath a Sea of Lights: a feature by Neel Kumar
Massage: a short film by Bejoy Nambiar
Follow Jim Sarbh on Instagram (@jimsarbhforreal).
Coat: H&M Exclusive, Shoes: Truffle Collection
35-year-old Kubbra Sait started her career as a model and television host. Although she appeared in Bollywood films like Ready and Sultan, the turning point in her career came with the role of Cuckoo in 2018's critically acclaimed Netflix series Sacred Games. 2019 sure has a lot in store for this promising performer.
Coat: H&M Exclusive, Shoes: Truffle Collection
What was your immediate gut reaction when you were asked to audition for Cuckoo's part?
It was Ankur Tewari, the musician and a common friend of Anurag (Kashyap the director) and I, who recommended me for the role. He was confident that I could pull it off. I was like "Hell yeah! We're doing this and we're doing this right — we're going to kick some serious ass at this audition." I literally grabbed the opportunity with my hands and feet — this is what I was born to do.
What did you watch in preparation for the role?
I had no time to prepare. I was confirmed and in three days flat I had to begin shooting. Also as a director Anurag doesn't want us to come prepared — he likes his actors to be raw and work on instinct.
Cuckoo and Ganesh Gaitonde's relationship subverted gender norms in such a refreshing way — that's never happened in Indian cinema or television before.
Theirs was a pure, unadulterated kind of love. Imagine Ganesh Gaitonde, who was Bombay's (now Mumbai) biggest don at the time, and he found his match in Cuckoo. It didn't matter that she was transgender or maybe that was her appeal — these questions are left unanswered. Above all Cuckoo believed she could have anybody she wanted. She was a diva. Everyone expected that she is going to backstab Gaitonde at some point but she doesn't.
"Things are changing slowly but surely."
Recently there's been a lot of backlash in the industry about cisgender actors playing transgender roles.
I posed the same question to my directors. They said to me that they had hit a roadblock with trying to cast a transgender person for the role and had found nobody suitable for months. Most people they met were afraid of being stigmatized. The release of the series was followed by the abolishment of section 377, which not only decriminalized gay sex but also brought LGBTQIA rights to the forefront — things are changing slowly but surely.
What's the best part about being on set?
I just love everything about it — being in front of the camera, memorizing lines, the energy, the anxiousness, the subtle shifts that happen in your body language when you're ready to perform — everything is just magical.
What have you been streaming of late?
I've become a serial binger. I recently watched the Coen brothers film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and enjoyed it a lot. I am watching Glow. I enjoyed the Israeli series Fauda — on Netflix. I watched Birdbox for Sandra Bullock. I didn't like it. There's Bandersnatch on my watch list now.
What will we see you in next?
I make an appearance in Zoya Akhtar's Gully Boy starring Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt in lead roles. Next I've got a film with Alankrita Srivastava coming out — it's called Dolly, Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare. Then there's a web series for ALT Balaji called Verdict, which is a take on the infamous Nanavati murder case of 1959.
Follow Kubbra Sait on Instagram (@kubbrasait).
Dress: H&M Exclusive, Shoes: Truffle Collection
Although she has been part of the Indian movie industry for some time, Priyanka Bose's big break came in the form of 2016's Oscar-nominated film Lion in which she shared screen space with Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel. Bose played Patel's biological mother Kamala in the film. She was also part of Italio Spinelli's Gangor and Jeffrey D Brown's Sold and is all set to appear in the Norwegian English fantasy film Mortal this year. Bose is very vocal about women's rights in the industry and is proactive about using the spotlight to challenge the status quo.
Dress: H&M Exclusive, Shoes: Truffle Collection
Do you remember your first acting job?
I think it was an Ad for a drink brand called Sosyo, or something like that. That was long, long ago. I was also part of the theater scene in Delhi at the time.
You were part of Yaël Farber's play Nirbhaya that debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and then traveled around the world. Recounting your personal experience with sexual abuse as a child must not have been easy.
I had to have empathy for the child in me that went through so much trauma. Survival is fragile and I just wanted to wipe out that dark past of mine without ever processing it sufficiently. It's only after we went through a few performances that Yael's process came together for me. I'm still in and out in this process of forgiveness and letting go. My anger is still very incoherent.
I'm sure you get asked this all the time but how was it sharing screen space with Nicole Kidman?
I truly think she is one of the best actors out there. And she is so generous about sharing space. She is a curious human too.
"Survival is fragile and I just wanted to wipe out that dark past of mine without ever processing it sufficiently."
What skill have you learned for a film that you utilize even to this day?
I make good round rotis when I have to. And I am better at using foul language now than I used to be [Laughs].
What have you learned from your daughter?
She calls out the bullshit but with kindness. And she is reflective and kind when it comes to her own fears unlike me.
What's one film of yours you wish people had paid more attention to?
Gangor — it got me a lot of accolades in Rome but never saw the light of day in India. The Indian producers didn't do a good job in nurturing that film. It's my first film and it'll always have a special place.
What are you looking forward to in the coming year?
Self love, taking pleasure in the small things and just having fun. Not like a drunk uncle but with reflection and joy and love.
Follow Priyanka Bose on Instagram (@priyankabose20).
Full Look: Rajesh Pratap Singh
A graduate of the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India, Rasika Dugal's brush with acting came in the form of plays in college. In 2018 the 34-year-old actress proved her mettle with two prominent roles — as Safia, the wife and companion of writer Sadat Hassan Manto, in Nandita Das's biopic Manto, showcased at the Cannes Film Festival and as the feisty Beena Tripathi in Amazon Prime's web series Mirzapur.
What was special about your role as Beena Tripathi in Mirzapur?
It was very different from anything I had been offered before and dramatically different from Safia in Manto, which I was shooting for when I met Karan Anshuman — the series director. The script was an absolute page-turner and the women's parts were really all about breaking stereotypes. I had some initial apprehension about how Beena's scenes would be played out. But the sensitive directors and respectful co-actors took care of those insecurities.
My only grouse is the women didn't have as much screen time as I had hoped for. Maybe season two will care of that!
Women's sexual desires are underexplored in Indian cinema and television but things seem to be changing now. What does it feel like being a part of this new wave?
I feel very fortunate. I think it is a very interesting time to be an actor. More interesting, nuanced and important roles are being written for women. But sometimes I feel, some parts are written to just check a box. Are those stories really progressive? Or are we simply falling into another stereotype in an attempt to move away from one because our inherent prejudices are still intact? These are important questions to ask. I feel we are in a moment of change. And while we must celebrate that we must also have these conversations.
How did you breathe life into Safia's character in Manto?
From the time I met Nandita for the film, I knew Safia was very important to her. She had spent a lot of time with Manto and Safia's daughters in Pakistan where she learned a lot about Safia because unlike Manto there wasn't much written about her. Anecdotal information from the family contributed to an understanding of what the relationship between them might have been. From the time I read the part, I felt instantly connected to the character. And it helped to have a detail-oriented and involved director and a brilliant co-actor.
"Good stories have the power to transcend borders and boundaries of language."
You've done the rounds of film festivals several times now. What do you enjoy most about them?
I enjoy watching a diverse and discerning audience respond to the film. It is touching to see how people connect with a story despite being unfamiliar nuances of the place or the culture it is set in. It is a reminder that a film's rootedness is directly proportional to its universality. That something is truly relatable only if it is authentic. It reaffirms my belief that good stories have the power to transcend borders and boundaries of language.
You joined hands with industry heavyweights like Cate Blanchett and Salma Hayek for the Times Up Women's March at the Cannes Film Festival 2018.
There are very few moments in life when you are a part of something that big. The power of that moment was incredible. Without saying much, there was an understanding of what all of us might have been through to be where we were today. The memory of that will stay with me forever and I will always be grateful to Nandita for making me a part of it.
There's a certain old world charm about you.
I seriously think I was meant to be born in another era. I felt so even when I was in my teens…this is not a 30s crisis [Laughs]. I am not as fast paced as most people I know. I cannot multitask. I could qualify as technologically challenged. I mostly listen to music from the 60s, read writers from the 40s and 50s and so on. Someone up there messed up on the timelines.
What makes you happy?
A long run, a delicious meal, a good film, an addictive show, a good performance — I am easy to please.
Follow Rasika Dugal on Instagram (@rasikadugal).
Coat: Dhruv Kapoor, Trouser: Herringbone & Sui
Born in Morristown, New Jersey, Akshay Oberoi was a student of theater studies at the John Hopkins University in Baltimore. He also trained in ballet, jazz and hip-hop at the Broadway Dance Centre. The 34-year-old also happens to be Bollywood actor Vivek Oberoi's cousin. He got his foot in the door with the 2010 film Isi Life Mein. His work in subsequent films Lal Rang, Gurgaon and Piku received good reviews. This year Oberoi appears alongside Radhika Apte in Bombairiya.
Coat: Dhruv Kapoor, Trouser: Herringbone & Sui
You're a trained ballet dancer.
From a young age I knew I wanted to be an actor and work in Hindi cinema — I literally did whatever it took to achieve that dream. At the time I didn't really know what kind of actor I wanted to be. I've kind of managed to find my own voice and a lot of the films I now choose sadly don't involve any dancing [Laughs]. But I guess it also indirectly helps in things like body language. I find that I approach a role with How does this character walk? or How does he wear himself? And thanks to the dance training I think can align to a character better.
You didn't have the kind of opportunities that Bollywood star kids usually do.
No I didn't. I guess that would've helped me reach where I wanted to be faster. But other than that I find my own journey quite fulfilling. I think I've had fun chasing the right kind of gigs. Every actor has a different story. My struggle plays a big role in the kind of actor I am. The angst has helped me in a few of my roles. And everything I am today has come from being tenacious and trying to do my best in every role.
Who do you look up to in the industry?
I am inspired by everyone from Amitabh Bachchan, Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui to Sanjay Mishra and Pankaj Tripathi. I am generally attracted to people who didn't have careers built for them. They took on small parts and kept at it — working, experimenting, challenging themselves and eventually getting public attention. I see my own journey reflected in theirs. Not everybody made it in their twenties as a big heartthrob of the nation [Laughs]!
"Every actor has a different story. My struggle plays a big role in the kind of actor I am."
What kind of roles would you like to take on in future?
I think there's no greater challenge for an actor than playing someone real. With a biopic there's an actual context to the person you're playing and it's a very specific type of adaptation. Otherwise characters are open to interpretation.
Your latest film Bombairiya, which also stars Radhika Apte, is a black comedy. What do you find most challenging about the genre?
Comedy has a very specific timing and rhythm to it. You either get it or you don't and that's what is scary about it. If it were a play, for instance, we would've immediately known how the audience is responding: is the joke going to work or will the joke be on us? Comedy doesn't come as naturally to me as other things so I need work extra hard.
What's your current vice?
I go on Youtube a lot. I can escape into a Youtube black hole for hours and be like where did half the day go. It's the best way to procrastinate in my opinion.
What's the one future project you're most excited about?
I have a film called Junglee with Vidyut Jamwal directed by Chuck Russell who directed Jim Carrey's The Mask. I'm truly excited about that.
Follow Akshay Oberoi on Instagram (@akshay0beroi).
Full Look: Gucci
From participating in a dance reality show, to appearing in adverts, and then going on to land a role in the biggest Bollywood blockbuster of the year, Sanya Malhotra's story is the stuff dreams are made of. The dancer-turned-choreographer-turned-actor is slowly but surely finding her feet in a cutthroat industry.
Full Look: Gucci
You were part of one of 2018's most successful Bollywood films Badhai Ho. How was it working with that crew?
I feel extremely blessed that I got the opportunity to be a part of such an amazing film. The astounding response that we've received for it has filled me with gratitude. I've had the opportunity to learn and evolve as an actor and meet some really talented people.
You played Babita Kumari in Dangal. Did you want to become an actor before that?
Yes, I always wanted to be an actor. Not a lot of people get this opportunity — one that literally changes your life. It was surely a spectacular start to my career and I'm living my dream life.
Your new film Photograph is set to release this year.
Post the release of Dangal I was not expecting any major change in my career: I thought one film won't really make a difference. But the first director to call me after that was Ritesh Batra who made Photograph. I was anyway a fan of his previous film Lunch Box. I immediately got hooked on to the simple yet beautiful script. I couldn't wait to live the life of my character Miloni.
"Not a lot of people get this opportunity — one that literally changes your life."
You had a pretty intense experience shooting for Pathaaka.
I learned a lot by playing Chutki in Pathaaka. We did acting workshops and readings and also stayed in a village for a week to prepare.
Fatima Sana Sheikh, your co-actor in Dangal, is one of your closest friends today.
We started our journey together: met at the auditions for Dangal, and although we were competing for the same role we got along pretty well. Fatima, Aamir Khan, Nitesh, Kiran and my whole Dangal family is really special and close to my heart.
What's your favorite party trick?
If I'm going to a random party where I don't know a lot of people I play my own music and dance. It saves me from awkward small talk.
What's one career advice you ignored when you started out?
Go out more, go to the parties and meet people. That really hasn't worked for me ever.
Who do you stalk on Instagram?
I don't really stalk anyone on Instagram, but I'm kind of obsessed with slime videos.
Follow Sanya Malhotra on Instagram (@sanyamalhotra).
Photography: Ashish Shah
Creative Direction: Kshitjij Kankaria
Styling: Ruhani Singh & Kshitjij Kankaria
Fashion Assistant: Nayanika Kapoor
Hair: Clover Wootton
Makeup: Akgun Manisali
Production: IKP / Imran Khatri Production