Waris Ahluwalia is a master of the deadpan. It’s a skill he’s no doubt sharpened while being part of Wes Anderson’s films, appearing in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, The Darjeeling Limited, and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
“Yeah I lived with the gangsters for about a year.” His eyes crease into easy laughter and he catches me off guard when I question if he’s that type of method-actor. It’s that witty spirit that makes Ahluwalia a perfect fit for Manny, the getaway driver who’s as comfortable telling a long-winded joke as he is shooting a rival in Deepa Mehta‘s upcoming gangster film, Beeba Boys.
This film is a bit of a departure for you in terms of length. What was it about Manny’s role that attracted you to the film?
So it’s not so much a departure, because you start with smaller roles and then they keep getting bigger and bigger. So it’s more of a natural evolution. Deepa came to me and said she envisioned me in that role, and so I immediately took to it. In real life, I’m a prankster. I don’t necessarily tell jokes in that way but I am a big prankster with my friends (laughs). So it wasn’t a stretch. I don’t tell jokes because I don’t remember jokes otherwise I may tell a few. It was a great character to play and she had written a great role. There’s a criminal element, but it’s just a bunch of guys who grew up together and unfortunately went the wrong way. In a sense for me, Manny was interested in that sort of brotherhood and keeping his brothers together and having fun. Whenever things went a little dark or intense, adding that moment.
How did you prepare for the role?
Yeah I lived with the gangsters for about a year. (Laughs loudly at me!) No, I read a bit about the real stories. I always trust it to the script and then the director. If the director says, “I need you to go do research for this” then I’ll do my research. Other than that, I read it, I learn it, and then I go to set and I trust that the director will guide me.
There was a writer there and she says, “Ohh that’s amazing. You always wear the turban and beard in all your films?” I said, “Yes” She was like, “That must be limiting.” I said, “Actually it’s not limiting. I’m not actually limited, you’re limited. Your perception is limited. Mine’s not because I can do anything I want to do, and I’ve done that and proven that.”
How much input did you have in the style of the film, and was it Waris-approved?
Yeah, I like to take a backseat when it comes to a film and for it to be whatever the director needs. We talked through it and with the costume director, so I was more of a sounding board. It was all Deepa. When you look at it now, it’s pretty straightforward: great suits, a clean look, and no socks. But the colours come from such an obvious thing now, like the colours of India. I don’t know if it’s from this style or that style, it’s like we’re Indian. We wear colours. I mean look at yourself! (Laughs) So I think it’s just looking at ourselves, and the vibrancy of India. So she took that and put it in a modern context. Sometimes, it’s just the simplicity that makes for the strongest voice or message. You don’t have to complicate things.
How did you feel that played into them needing to be seen?
Yeah so that’s the whole point. It’s these guys that are first or second generation in Vancouver, they haven’t been able to get good jobs, and that desire for respect and power. It’s that male desire or that human desire for acceptance and visibility. It’s like Native Son by Richard Wright, it’s the same thing that idea of being visible. These boys didn’t want to be invisible anymore. They didn’t want to be looked through, right? And that’s why using the suits as a uniform, and the colours and using the press, they were superstars in their town. In a very small section, but that was their world. So they were no longer invisible one way or another.
How do you feel the film might open up a dialogue about stereotyping of Sikhs in Vancouver or Toronto?
On the one hand, it’s amazing, because it’s about telling stories. So aside from the subject matter the fact that it’s about Sikh criminals, there is that one element of people saying, “Ohh we shouldn’t be talking about this.” But if it’s happening you should be talking about it, you never put anything under the rug. If there’s a problem the only way to bring it to light or change it is to talk about it. If there’s a criminal element or if it’s something that’s growing, then we should all do something about it as a community. That’s the talking about what’s going on, but then the film itself in terms of entertainment and changing perception, it’s amazing to show the wider audience that a Sikh or a South Asian is a part of society or doesn’t have to play a doctor or an accountant. I’m not a doctor or an accountant so I don’t think I’m defying anything. I don’t even consider myself an artist, even though I make things.
We were at a press dinner last night, and there was a funny moment, it was almost close to an epiphany. There was a writer there and she says, “Ohh that’s amazing. You always wear the turban and beard in all your films?” I said, “Yes” She was like, “That must be limiting.” I said, “Actually it’s not limiting. I’m not actually limited, you’re limited. Your perception is limited. Mine’s not because I can do anything I want to do, and I’ve done that and proven that.” Fashion or modelling, there is no limitation for me. It’s important that besides we need the actors, but we need more storytellers, more writers, and we need the next generation of Deepa Mehtas. We’re not getting enough of them, because the community doesn’t push that and you have to have your own telling your story. No one else is going to tell our story. Someone that’s not from the community is not going to know the story so we need more writers. That’s why Deepa is so amazing and challenging for people within the community because she shakes things up. Like next year there’s got to be ten more Deepas, because the actors can only do the roles that they’re given. If the right roles aren’t written then there’s only so much we can do. So the power really starts from that director or writer. So write and be a part of that change. Change the face of media, and make it reflect reality.
I saw your short film Indian Gigolo, which completely flips the opening of American Gigolo. What was it like working on that?
It’s basically the same idea, like I just made an art piece. But the fact that I’m me and I’m making an art piece, it becomes a cultural identity conversation. The idea to make it wasn’t, “Let’s make a thought-provoking piece” but it’s inevitable like Jackie Robinson wanted to play baseball like, “Look, I just want to play baseball.” I just want to make art, I just want to make movies, not to try to do anything more than that. As a result, it just becomes about identity and flipping the script and looking at the Indian male as desirable.
Yeah, because all the women were staring at you and your tailoring.
It’s fun but then it inevitably becomes a conversation about cultural identity. There’s no running away from that.
Beeba Boys opens in Canadian theatres on October 16. Read our interview with Deepa Mehta on why she made a gangster film, and our interview with Randeep Hooda on channeling a Vancouver gangster for his role in Beeba Boys.
Photography: Mongrel Media