It is great to watch SAHIL SALUJA and VIDYA MAKAN off screen. Their banter, laughter and camaraderie are quite infectious. The two have come together in their debut film The Colour of Darkness which scored a prized screening at the just concluded Indian International Film Festival of Melbourne. Post the film, both are headlong into pursuing their dreams.
For Chandigarh-born SAHIL SALUJA, 26, the acting bug was not something he caught in his childhood. However, as the only child to doctor parents ‘who were never home’ he did spend a lot of his time watching films. “I was a fat kid too so sports was out of the question. When other kids used to talk about sports, all I knew were films. They were my shelter.”
The push towards academia was strong and so he was packed off to study engineering in the United States where he discovered his love for theatre. He got into a local production which was doing two plays a year – one a contemporary and the other on Shakespeare. “It was very hard. I had to work harder on my accent and because I was an Indian I could never play any of the lead roles because they were predominantly written for White people,” he says. However he did get to do a lot of roles and he recalls the director telling him never to stop doing what he was doing. That’s where and when he really started giving acting a serious thought.
After completing his degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Michigan, Sahil got a job with Deloitte in Chicago with a fat salary. Being in Chicago also meant he could enrol himself in Second City, an improvisational comedy enterprise, best known as the first ever on-going improvisational theatre troupe. “That’s when I started really loving the environment.”
From Monday to Saturday, he was putting in 100 hours at his job and on Sunday he was at Second City. “That was my sweet release,” he says. But after one-and-half year at his high paying job, he decided he had had enough of the best hotels, accumulated enough airline miles and wanted to go and train as an actor. By then his parents had also moved to Melbourne from Chandigarh and when they suggested that he come here and train he did not think twice about it.
In Australia, Sahil, started training at the Melbourne Actors Lab with Peter Kalos for two years. “That was really good. Yes I nailed the taxi driver and all those roles but that was not what I really wanted to do. I wanted to move to India.” But in between came a surprise offer.
As part of dance company Jalwa (which he cofounded), Sahil was performing at the Telstra Bollywood Dance Competition when Girish Mkawana, producer and director of The Colour of Darkness, spotted him. But Makwana did not audition him then because he was still looking for his main heroine of the film. When he finally did, Sahil also fitted well into his scheme of things.
Playing Girijaj, a student and an ‘untouchable’ (belonging to the the lower caste) from India, Sahil realised this was going to be a challenging role as he was raised in quite a privileged background. “It was the absolute opposite role for me. This is not a normal guy, this is someone who has seen discrimination in its widest phase I knew so little about this character,” he says, adding, “Growing up I always resented the Indian government’s policy of reservation but after I did a research on the people for whom these reservations are in place I realised that from the moment they are born they are made to realise they are untouchable. Theirs is a difficult journey. Untouchability as a subject is massive in India right now and if we as actors can do even five per cent to spread awareness, I am happy.”
With one debut film in his kitty, Sahil moved to India last November. He says jostling life in Mumbai teeming with million people, travelling by local trains and waiting outside the Prithvi Theatre every day for a month just to get a toehold into the industry was one of his most humbling experiences in life. Yet he persevered and through some stroke of luck got into casting becoming an assistant for well-known casting director Nandini Shrikent and then eventually meeting theatre veteran Akash Khurana with whom he is now working on some big projects.
This November, Sahil is in a mega play called Guards of the Taj that dramatizes a dark myth about a building that stands as a grim allegory of the supreme divide between the powerful and the powerless in 17th-century India.
“I don’t know if I will get a break in Bollywood, I guess I will just keep on doing work,” reflects Sahil. When he left for India, his father told him to give it two years but knowing how slowly things move in India, he feels he is lucky to have found a break in theatre for now, something he loves doing.
“Acting is a craft that you work on and it takes years to reach a certain level,” says Sahil. And that is just what he is doing now in the hope that being in the right place and the right time will, for him, catch the rays of a clouded sky.
This 21-year old singer and dancer by profession is still adjusting to the Melbourne weather having just moved from sunny Brisbane. Unlike Sahil, VIDYA MAKAN grew up as a sporty kid. “When I was six-years old, half my friends thought I was a boy because I was just as good as them.”
But alongside the sporty nature, Vidya was musically inclined and played the piano from the time she was three. The turning point in her life was at age 14 when she was selected to go to England on scholarship to play soccer at a training camp at Manchester United. During one of the weekend breaks, her father took her to West End theatre to watch a show called ‘Wicked’. “Like any other teenager who fell in love with the show, it did something to me as well. Something inside me clicked,” she recalls.
When she got back to Brisbane, Vidya auditioned and got the lead in the school musical. “It felt that the stars were aligning. I started to keep getting roles in school, I started thinking maybe this is something I need to take up – acting and singing, and I had never done acting before.”
After completion of high school Vidya got into the coveted QUT Bachelor of Fine Arts (acting). “That was a huge thing, I thought maybe I was good in acting. I was there for a year and absolutely loved it, it expanded me so much.” But she also realised she missed the music element and went an auditioned for another course on musical theatre. Luckily she got into that as well and she realised it was still the best thing.
She trained for three years at the Queensland Conservatorium doing a bachelor in musical theatre learning a range of skills. She graduated last year.
However it was in the second year when she was going for her first professional musical audition in Melbourne that Vidya got a call from her mother who told her that a family friend was looking for an actor. “Eventually it ended up that the man was Girish Makwana and he met my mother. They read the script which was an actual story about real people and that meant something. It had a very bold message and that attracted me towards the script.”
Makwana himself says it took him years to find the right girl for his movie and when he saw Vidya he instantly knew she was the one. Vidya’s lineage is Gujarati and her forefathers moved to South Africa eons ago but her parents migrated to Australia from there. Vidya is Indian but very Australian which made her fit into the role of Maria, the young Anglo-Indian journalist in the film whose coverage of alleged racial attacks against Indian students becomes her own journey of discovery of her roots and identity.
Working in The Colours of Darkness, says Vidya, was an incredible and exhausting experience. For one, she plays a person who is six years older to her real age, which was her main challenge. “In the journey of filming I realised Maria’s life, culture and roots paralleled me. In that month I learnt so much about my own culture and heritage that it’s insane. So for me I could fit into her shoes and relate to her views, even the questions that she would ask were questions that I would ask.”
Asked if she was satisfied with her acting skills, Vidya says every actor is most critical of themselves “because you are constantly striving for perfection, in fact everyone is in anything that they do. When you are acting it is something that gets reviewed, which fortunately is not the case with theatre where one is performing live and at the peak of what one can do.”
Since the film completed shooting last year, both Sahil and Vidya have, obviously, grown up a lot. “Now it is no more about us, it’s about the story, about the message that Girish Makwana wants to portray. The message is powerful and huge and that’s why our film exists,” says Vidya.
She expresses her appreciation for Makwana who she says has done an incredible job. “There were many people who thought he wouldn’t be able to make it.”
This year, Vidya was incorporated into a production of Hairspray, the musical. Hairspray is based upon the New Line Cinema film written and directed by John Waters, with a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, music by Marc Shaiman, and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. “It’s an American musical. We are doing Spectacular and doing different seasons throughout the year. I am lucky to be performing with Australian celebrities like Christina Anu and Tim Campbell, they are incredible actors and singers in their own right.” In Brisbane, for instance, the group performed in front of thousands and thousands of audience.
Vidya is in the showbiz industry known for its unpredictable nature. But one thing she does realises is that “If you want to keep getting better, you got to keep taking classes and lessons. You got to make sure that your wardrobe is right because you don’t know how many auditions you are going to go for. It’s such an expensive thing to condition yourself because all that cost money. It is a sort of a weird industry,” she laughs.
But what if she does get a Bollywood offer? “I will never say no to work I believe in”. With her good looks, dancing, singing and acting skills, this very talented girl is well prepared for the road ahead.
By Indira Laisram