Arfi Lamba (Picture by Mayank Sehgal, makeup by Kajal Sharma)
A chemical engineer by training, Arfi Lama (AL) could have been content designing pump and working on refineries. In fact, it was a job he did in Delhi for some time before he began to realize there were other possibilities. Growing up in Punjab, where he says everyone wants to be an actor, had primed him for a different career. A son of a farmer in the small town of Moga, Arfi says films were never far from his consciousness.
One lucky break in 2008 set him off on a career that he says is now beginning to look up. British filmmaker Danny Boyle was casting for ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and Arfi got picked up for a cameo in it as a character named Bardi. Although it was a bit presence, what it did for him in terms of immediately exposing him to the rarefied world of the Cannes Film Festival has proved to be a great asset.
Arfi, who is a friend, is now preparing for the release his latest film ‘Fugly’ directed by Kabir Sadanand.
I do not not movie interviews as a matter of routine. I have probably done about half a dozen in 33 years. I have chosen to speak to Arfi because I wanted to find out how a young actor with no connections in the industry goes about making a career. This conversation might offer some insight into that. Here is the conversation:
MC: You come from a family unconnected with the movie world. What are the challenges of a young actor in Mumbai?
AL: I do not know about the challenges that other newcomers or so-called outsiders face, but for me the journey has been one of growth and perseverance. I knew I was following a dream. I wanted to live this life. So whatever struggle or hardship came along with it, I was okay with it. I knew what I have signed up for is not just success or fame but a huge price I might have to pay in terms of keeping the chin up in the face of rejection and failure as I had no connections or Godfather here.
However, being a farmer’s son I know that when you sow the seeds and nurture them with discipline, they bear fruits. I knew I had it in me to survive it all. I know what I want, I want with my whole being. That is to entertain people.
MC: You are a chemical engineer by training. What prompts a chemical engineer from a well-to-do family to take the plunge in an unforgiving industry?
AL: I think everyone in North India, especially in Punjab, wants to become an actor. Films move us all and they did move my entire being. Somewhere deep down, the seeds of acting were born because of the impact the movies had on me. As a kid, I might not have ever realized what I was after but I was totally fascinated by cinema. Being from a very small town, I never knew that anyone can be an actor. I was a very shy kid. But somewhere the fire to become an actor and to entertain and touch lives was spreading inside me. When I did my engineering and came to Delhi for a job that is where I started realizing that I can go for a career in the movies. Delhi fascinated me with endless possibilities and the freedom I got with my job made me more restless. I was designing pumps and refineries. But I wanted to be with people and not with machines. The transformation from a shy kid to someone who took a big risk by quitting a government job and landing in a city where none knew him happened without me knowing anything about it.
The industry might be unforgiving, but my heart was high on a dream and my mind focused on achieving it. I never saw the hurdles as downers. I was just moving and falling and moving again. I was very happy even when I was struggling as I was doing what my heart willed.
MC: ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ gave you visibility. How has it helped in furthering your career?
AL: I owe a lot to this wonderful film. I went to Cannes on a sponsorship from Pierre Cardin that year. I played a cameo (Bardi) so I was not hoping for anything but knew that being a part of the film I would manage to be at the success party of the film. At that time, I did not even know what a film festival was and I landed up at one of the biggest film festivals of the world. That year the party got cancelled as there was a major controversy about the house of one of the girls who acted in the movie being burnt down out of jealousy. The whole team cancelled their trip to Cannes, but I was already there. And I go to meet such wonderful people as Tilda Swinton — I am a huge fan—and Quentin Tarantino and many more. The exposure I got changed me forever. I met many people, including Katharian Suckale with whom I founded Bombay Berlin Film Productions later on.
I can never thank Cannes and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ enough for the exposure they gave me and for changing my whole understanding of cinema and its business. I was finding it tough to break into Bollywood. But I ended up starting a boutique company that deals with service production. When I am not looking for a job as an actor, I work to build this company up. There was hardly any time to get disappointed and frustrated. While I wait for right projects to come, I still remain associated with cinema, the profession that I love.
MC: As you prepare for your film ‘Fugly’ what expectations do you have from it?
AL: The other day I saw the film with our director and the entire primary cast. I am very proud to be a part of ‘Fugly’. How audience reacts to it is beyond our control but our efforts show in the film. We have worked hard and made it as a labor of love. I hope it touches many people and the message we want to drive home hits them at the right spot.
MC: Describe to me a typical day for a young actor trying to make space inside the world of Hindi cinema?
AL: The day begins with me going to office of the company and working for whatever is coming up next. After a couple of hours of work, I get on with meeting producers or directors or to just catch up with some friends in the industry. Evenings are for gym and nights to watch films if there is no event that requires me to attend it. I am a real movie buff and I can watch all films. It is very difficult for me to walk out of a film however bad it is as I know that films are made with a lot of effort and I can never have the heart to walk out on them.
MC: I am particularly interested in the process of seeking a role. What is the nature of conversation you have with a potential director or producer?
AL: The script is the primary criterion but not the only one. I am always keen to know the work of the director and try to see if their earlier work connects with me. Then comes the production house as I want the movies I act in to reach out to people. What I am earning out of it as long as it covers the basics comes as the last criterion.
MC: I know that you have your own line production company. Does that help in establishing access?
AL: In fact, that makes things tough. Often, new directors come with the hope that I will invest or get the investment and produce their films. That’s not the case. I would love to act in films which I do not produce. T he focus of company is primarily to provide line production services. That does open doors but if you come across as a producer first, I find it difficult that people hesitate to cast me as an actor too. I hope ‘Fugly’ will change that.
MC: Tell me about your upcoming projects. It appears is that you have strong connections in Europe.
AL: There’s a lot in pipeline. There is an international project, another one by a national award winning director and even one from your side too. But right now, I am basking in the glory of a job well done. ‘Fugly’ has surpassed my expectations and it has grown much bigger form what I signed on. So right now I am enjoying the response we are getting. I am totally in the promotion mode for the film.
MC: You have come into the industry at a time when it is supposed to have been corporatized. Do you get that sense of corporate discipline in your interactions?
AL: People who are professional in their dealings will do so even when they are independent producers and those who do not have this quality will fail to deliver even in a corporate set up. But that’s my personal opinion.