Arif Zakaria: Undervalued / underutilised?
OTT platforms can’t seem to get enough of Arif Zakaria these days. He has played the role of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in not one but two web series, Hutatma (2019) and 1962: War In The Hills (2021). He is also playing the lead role in the web film, Ahaan, and the antagonist in Deepa Mehta’s web series Leila as well as in Qubool Hai 2.0.
The spotlight may be on Zakaria again but it begs the question – where has the actor been in the last few years? There’s no denying Zakaria’s proficiency at his craft. However, the popular notion is that he has been underutilised.
Arif disagrees a tad vehemently. “Rather than underutilised, I consider myself undervalued (I could’ve been paid more for each of my roles) or under-viewed (I wish more people had seen my work),” he says, before quickly adding a rider, “Of course, I am saying this in jest, I meet upcoming actors regularly and I consider myself blessed and fortunate to be able to do whatever I’ve done.”
Straddling the worlds of film, TV and theatre, Zakaria, 54, has played lead roles as well as supporting characters for Karan Johar in My Name Is Khan (2010) and Meghna Gulzar in Raazi (2018). He concedes, “I don’t necessarily choose only lead roles for instant visibility. If a character excites me and if the filmmaker strikes a chord, I do the role. I’ve done quite a few small films with absolutely novice directors because I connect with their energy and enthusiasm. At times, choices are dictated by the phase you are passing through.”
The actor has learnt the hard way that “in this hyper era of visibility, the problem is if you aren’t seen somewhere every day, people assume either you are dead or not relevant or underutilised.”
Zakaria is a latecomer to the social media rigmarole that seems to have become a part of celebrity life. He doesn’t have a Twitter account and has been a tortoise on FB and Instagram. He reluctantly acknowledges, “The (show) business today is driven by social media and paid publicists. How am I to know how to resolve societal issues just because I’m an actor? I find most interviews tiring and farcical but I am always ready to talk about my work.”
Arif Zakaria picks his six most memorable roles
Immi in Darmiyaan
I played a hermaphrodite in Darmiyaan (1997), my debut film, directed by the late Kalpana Lajmi. It fetched me nominations for the best debutant award by Filmfare and Screen. Initially, I was slated to do a one-scene role in the film, but after a few actors refused the leading role, Kalpana called me to Kirron Kher’s house (Kirron played my mother) and made me undergo a screen test. In hindsight, I think I over-prepared for it. A big assist was the late Simple Kapadia, a friend of Kalpana and also an associate on the project. I enacted the scenes at Simple’s house and we meticulously went through each facet of the character almost on a daily basis for a month. And I would get live feedback from the makeup man on the project, Edwin Fernandes, whose voice and mannerisms I tried to subtly imbibe into my performance.
Jairaj in Dance Like A Man
Directed by the late Pamela Rooks and based on a play by the same name, it won the National Award for Best English Film in 2004. I had to undergo basic Bharatanatyam training under the tutelage of Deepak Majumdar in Khar, Mumbai. It is to the credit of my co-actor, the accomplished dancer-actress Shobana, that she kept the final choreography in sync with the moves I had learnt. Dancing with her was like playing a set of tennis with Roger Federer.
Professor Iyer in Haunted
Haunted was India’s first 3D horror film, directed by Vikram Bhatt. It was immensely popular. I just followed Vikram’s commands and didn’t prepare. Sometimes this is the best ‘method’ – just learn your lines and follow the director’s orders. This film is still popular for its innovative story, 3D effects and music.
Arjun and Rakesh in Gilli Gilli Atta
Punkaj Parashar cast me in this fun film as both a devilish don and a simpleton. His brief to me was short and sweet – just come on the set and have fun.
Bhai Mardana in Nanak Shah Fakir
Bhai Mardana was the first disciple of Guru Nanak. I immensely enjoyed the process of shooting for this film and several scenes were gratifying. It was perhaps my toughest film due to the prosthetics and different landscapes. It altered my body clock because call times would be around 3 am! As part of the initial prep, I spent four days at the Osho commune in Pune to learn to be still and meditate. I memorised the entire script. This remains a most cherished work experience.
Ozzy in Ahaan
Ozzy has OCD in this film directed by Nikhil Pherwani. It is a bittersweet film about Ozzy’s interactions with a boy with Down’s Syndrome. I am getting rave reviews for it. I channelled my own quirks and fetishes and tried to incorporate them subtly into the character. During the process of making this film, I realised that Ozzy and I have a few traits in common.
Dinesh Raheja is a reputed film historian, columnist and TV scriptwriter who has been writing on cinema for over three decades
From HT Brunch, May 30, 2021
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