I am someone who is very content, says Bollywood's Suniel Shetty
The inspiring actor, who has been granted a Golden Visa by the UAE, dropped into the Khaleej Times office for a chat.
One of our favourite films from Bollywood actor Suniel Shetty, Priyadarshan’s comedy caper Hera Pheri, turned 21 this year and a few months ago, the actor had commented on Twitter, “It seems I blinked and 21 years went by.”
We felt the same when the soft-spoken and articulate actor dropped into the Khaleej Times office on Tuesday for a chat. It’s hard to believe Suniel recently celebrated his 60th birthday (we were awed by his fitness levels and made a mental note to kickstart our own regimes).
When we last interviewed Suniel for his film Pailwaan back in 2019, he mentioned how the future held great promise because “characters are being etched out and written keeping me in mind even though there’s a certain age that I’ve reached”.
Tuesday’s visit only echoed the actor’s upbeat attitude and positivity from two three years ago, as he chatted about the pandemic’s effect on Bollywood and how the big-screen experience is a unique one despite the boom of OTT, one that should be celebrated.
The Border star, who has been granted a Golden Visa by the UAE, is on a visit to Dubai with his family. Suniel also opened up on his latest film Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea, his son Ahan’s debut in Bollywood, the app he launched to give youngsters a better chance at a Bollywood career and why he never gave up despite some dark times in the industry.
What brings you to Dubai this time?
We hadn’t taken a break for a long time. It was my 60th (August 11), but unfortunately I couldn’t come at that time because I lost a very close friend of mine. We decided that just the family, the four of us, would come down here and it matched with my wife Mana’s birthday on August 22.
Were you hesitant to travel because of the pandemic?
Not really. Somewhere down the line I think I was hesitant to stay at home now, because it’s getting to you. These are testing times for movies, producers, production houses and staff.
So I was always keen to get out and work. It’s been over a month that I have been working regularly on Marakkar. I am excited about going out. Of course you take the measures that are required; I am very cautious about it, double-vaccinated and praying for the best. Rather than sitting at home and die of depression, it’s better to go out there and face the world and look at things more positively.
What do you like best about Dubai? What do you like to do when you visit?
First of all wherever you travel, when you realise that you are welcome, it’s always a high. Whether it’s the locals or the people who reside here, you’re recognised, you’re loved, you’re respected. I think it’s multicultural and that’s beautiful. The minute you get down at the airport, it starts with the immigration, people recognising you. So I think that’s one thing that brings you to Dubai.
Then, you’ve seen the growth of Dubai over a period of time — for me it’s an extension of India, a prettier, better looking, far more robust (place) when it comes to business enterprises, innovation and always doing something new. So that excites me.
Then there’s the food! You get food from all over the world here so you’re never tired of eating in different places. Just about everything with this city brings you back. It’s the closest destination. And everything about this place is safe and secure.
You mentioned working with Media Free Zone twofour54 in Abu Dhabi for your app, FTC Talent. What can you tell us about that?
ftctalent.com is about giving young kids opportunities. We were blessed to win India’s Aatmanirbhar App award for best app in the entertainment space, giving jobs and opportunities to young kids who believe that Bollywood or cinema is only a dream. We believe if you have the talent you have the job. So the whole idea is to do recruiter and talent engagement.
And with twofour54, we did workshops for them, tied up with them; I came and took a workshop personally because I wanted more people to come out. It was a three-day weekend during which we sourced a lot of talent which is also on our platform thereby being available to producers from India or all over the world. I think we have tapped more than 75-80 countries right now on this very proactive app as we speak!
It does sound amazing especially when you consider that when you started out in Bollywood in the early ‘90s, obviously the process of auditioning and of getting a role was completely different. Over the years do you think it has become easier for people to enter Bollywood, with the advent of social media and other platforms?
Yes, and there is appreciation of talent. I think OTT has brought good content to your home and what you’re appreciating is good subjects and good talent. You see so much of talent in India — more reason why the app works.
Plus, the pandemic. Kids didn’t know where jobs were, what was happening. They could audition online. Even today they can audition online. My only insistence is — stay home, educate yourself. Don’t just jump on to the Bollywood bandwagon because you believe you have it. Train yourself. Learn the language. Understand how Bollywood or cinema works. And then when you get an opportunity, move in. Don’t just run away from your home!
Because a lot of kids were just getting out and coming to Bollywood and getting lost. And then going back depressed. Not because there was any shortcoming in them but because there was a shortcoming in the system. So it’s super exciting when it comes to giving young talent a job and that’s what we want to do. And it’s growing as we speak — we want to connect tourism boards and producers, destinations, locations. So probably the app will be a robust system when it comes to anything to do with entertainment.
Back in the day even a debutant kind of dived headfirst into Bollywood, perhaps even without proper awareness of the pitfalls and everything..
Yeah! I was called ‘wooden’ after my first film. I didn’t know how to react. But the fact was that it made money at the box office. And I had an audience! So who was somebody else to tell me that I didn’t belong there?
I believed I belonged there — I did death-defying stunts and proved everybody wrong and I’m here! But not everybody gets that lucky, to get an opportunity. You get opportunity after opportunity, so I learned along the way. It’s not that way anymore. Kids are super-talented. They know what they want, they know what they want to achieve, they know how much they want to do it — it’s crazy!
Speaking of kids, your son Ahan is debuting now in the highly anticipated Tadap; the release date has been announced as December 3. How do you feel about that?
Over a 100 people saw the film and were super excited about it unanimously — and the production house who were attached decided that this is large screen entertainment.
We need to wait for the large screen and not just push it on to OTT like the fate a whole lot of other films have faced. So that’s the exciting part, that the producer believes in it, the studio believes in it.
I’ve seen it and am very excited for Ahan. It’s a great film and I’m also excited about the fact that for the first film Ahan genuinely got a guru (Milan Luthria) as a director and not just a young yuppie director. He’s made sure that Ahan has performed well. It’s not about great or branded clothes or song and dance — it’s about a performance — can that boy make you cry at the end of the day?
And as a father of course there are two different emotions that we’re looking at, father-son and an actor emotion. The boy in the film made me cry and Ahan as a son to the father made me cry. So I think he ticked all the boxes as far as I’m concerned. So I’m happy. The rest is Ahan’s luck and how things work and how the pandemic pans out.
You mention big screen releases being put on hold because of the pandemic and cinemas being shut. Recently Akshay’s big-budget film BellBottom released — do you think that it’s a positive sign and things will be better moving forward from now?
I don’t think we’ve ever seen a period like this — at least we can look back and say there were times when we didn’t wear masks! But children — a 2,3 or 4-year old who is understanding life now suddenly sees people without a mask and it looks like he is seeing an alien. Whereas when we grew up, wearing a mask was alien.
So we want this to improve. I am somebody who is very positive. People say, he sits on a horse and doesn’t look back at all. Failure? Move on, move on, move on. We all need to move on. Probably it (the pandemic) has taught us so much. There’s a good side and a bad side to it.
As far as business and other things are concerned, we are at the lowest. The only way is up, there is no other way. If we lost in the theatres, we gained on OTT. But then again there is a different audience (for both). Big screen is big screen. If there are no claps or whistles, whether you’re an actor or a sportsman, or someone on stage... his life won’t work at all. There’s no ‘pump’ — there is no food for us.
What projects are you working on right now?
I’ve just finished Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea which is a multi-lingual film. It’s a film that we have shot through the pandemic and it’s close to completion. I’ve got one or two massive OTT shows that I am doing which are very interesting.
I took a sabbatical for a long time. My father was unwell and I just couldn’t work. For four to five years I just got out of everything. Those were probably the best years because I spent quality time with him, I understood my mistakes and tried working on them. So I’m back fresh. Fortunately for me the media has kept me alive. People have kept me alive. I would have been a has-been very easily but I worked on myself, changed the way I looked, adapted to what today’s requirements are.
I think I’m in a beautiful space and I am someone who is very content. I have no complexes. No ‘Friday blockbuster actor’ gives me a complex if I am standing with him. Because I believe there are qualities that I have that probably he doesn’t even possess!
So I always balance everything in my life. My Friday is not everything. The quality of my life, the sport that I am playing, my involvement with nature, is how I look at Suniel Shetty, actor, father, entrepreneur, whatever you call him.
How do you stay so fit?
I guess I am very conscious about it. I am a conscious eater. My whole aim was that at 60, I should show my six-pack. Unfortunately because the loss of a friend hit me so badly I said, you know what, I don’t need to do anything.
But that is something that I will do not today, tomorrow, but soon or through my cinema. Just to tell the kids that everything that you need is at home. It’s not expensive. It’s not special. Mom’s cooking is the best. You just have to tweak it and learn the science behind nutrition.
I train every day. However tired I may be — could be an hour, could be 15 minutes, but I do, and I believe that’s the only kind of discipline that you need and it’s very achievable.