Kids Corner

                           Waris Singh Ahluwalia


Photos - 1st from bottom: (L-R) Waris Ahluwalia, Jason Schwartzman, Adrien Brody, Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola and Bill Murray at the Venice Film Festival. 2nd from bottom: Waris Ahluwalia's portrait in oil, by Sandro Kopp.

       Darjeeling Limited



Enter the World of Waris

An Interview by ERIC KOHN


When I introduced myself to Waris Singh Ahluwalia at the Apple computer store in New York City's Soho, shortly before the public premiere of Hotel Chevalier, I discovered a witty, insightful character whose story was worth exploring. Ahluwalia, a native New Yorker with an Indian heritage, runs an extravagant New York-based jewelery operation, which is his primary source of "bread and butter". But moviegoers will recognize him as the guy with the brilliantly blue turban and flowing beard in Wes Anderson's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, or the most memorable persona in Spike Lee's Inside Man.

In Anderson's latest film, The Darjeeling Limited, Ahluwalia plays a cranky train conductor, but even in this amusing bit part, a vague aspect of the man's true self is apparent onscreen - and not only because of the turban and facial hair. Ahluwalia wears a nifty elephant pin - designed by his own company - to show his support for India's beloved endangered species and an organization called Elephant Family. While not quite a movie star, Ahluwalia has certainly caught the public's eye. So what does he have to say for himself? In a follow-up conversation later in the week, I asked him about his unique vantage point as a nascent member of the movie business, in addition to what it's been like to join the world of Wes, and how he feels about a rather perplexing argument put forth in a recent Slate magazine article.  



You run a successful jewelry business. How did you wind up in the Wes Anderson universe?

I met him at a peace rally through mutual friends, four years ago. We became friends, saw each other at dinner, this and that. One day, he just asked me what I was doing for the second half of the year. I had no idea what he talking about. I knew he was working on a film, but I didn't know anything about it. I didn't have any major plans. I said, "Why do you ask?" and he said, "I'll tell you later", and just smirked. Just because he's a friend and a director  -  that didn't mean anything. You know, if you have a friend who's a banker, he's not going to set you up with a job just because he's a banker. It just doesn't phase you like that. So I had no idea what he was talking about, and then called me the next day and said, "Go into the offices and read this script. There's a part in there for you, if you want it". So I read it, and it was Life Aquatic. It was funny  -  a great script. He was so funny: "You'll come, right? Beautiful locations. The food is going to be great". I said, "I'm coming. You got me". I'd never acted before. Wes is someone whose work I've admired. I believe in him as a director. If you believe in someone, it's a leap of faith. He obviously saw something that he needed in my person, so it wasn't my place to question that.

Did your experience on the Life Aquatic set make you decide that you wanted to act more?

I look at every experience as its own fulfillment. If that was my only film, then that was my only film. Then a friend of mine, an actress, said, "We should get you an agent". She called up her agent, and they didn't get it. They were like, "What are we going to do with him? Is he going to trim the beard?" I don't think my friend was expecting that. She was in a state of shock. I sort of expected that. It's fine. I don't need [an agent] and I don't want one. I got a call from someone involved in Life Aquatic, asking if it was OK if they gave Spike Lee my number. I said, yeah, of course. So Spike calls up and says, "I've been working on this movie and I want you to read for it". That was the first audition I did [for Inside Man]. So I walk in, do my lines, and I don't think I've nailed it. He calls me back two hours later and says, "You've got the part". I thought I was crap. He said, "I want you to make this part your own". The writer said it was the only part of the whole movie that he didn't write. It was great. Spike and I worked that character out. Someone sent me a review from The Boston Globe and I thought it was someone playing a practical joke, because it said the excellent part was mine. I was like, "You're kidding me, right?"

When did people start noticing you on the street and saying, "Hey, you're that dude from..."

It started happening after Inside Man. It's interesting how different people come up to you, depending on where you are. In the weirdest places  -  security guards, delivery guys  -  it started happening. People on the street being really excited. They're very sweet about it.

It's interesting how that happened in your case. People who gawk at movie stars on the street often notice how they differ from their onscreen personas. Physically, at least, you don't look different from the characters you've played.

Tell me what you mean by that.

Just that you wear a turban and have a beard  -  like in the movies that you've appeared in.

Oh, yeah.

You can't hide behind a pair of sunglasses or something.

No, I can't. That was the thing with the agents. If I was going to do this, it was going to be within the framework that already existed. So I had a meeting with someone in L.A. and they were just like, "Is he always like that?" It was amazing, like I was back in the fifties. In the meeting with that agent, they said, "We're afraid you're going to get typecast". I'm like, "Well, me too. But it hasn't happened yet". And the roles that I've gotten as an Indian could've been anybody. Wes' role [in Life Aquatic] didn't call for an Indian-looking guy. It wasn't a typecast role. This just means that fifty years from now there are going to be more Sikhs in movies. I'll be that person. After Life Aquatic, the Sikh community reached out to me. They started writing, sending e-mails, just thanking me. What did I do? I worked for a friend. I'm not trying to be a role model. I wasn't involved with my community that much, so it was a strange turnaround to go down to Capitol Hill to get awarded by Hillary Clinton for my positive portrayal of Sikhs in the media. It's amazing, but I try to limit that. I can't keep going with these things. I understand that it's important to them for me to be there, but it just doesn't feel right for my own sense of vanity.

I don't want to be honored that much. I really don't. I'm humbled and utterly confused to be put in this position. All these galas and fundraisers, they're really important  - especially after 9/11, when we're seen as one of the major religions, and nobody knows who we are. In terms of the Sikh community, we'll raise our families, go to work, pay our taxes, be American citizens, and that [should be] enough. Guess what? That's not enough. With Inside Man, I was directly addressing the concerns of the community itself, and they were so excited. I don't know if you expected to get into any of this with me.

Since you bring it up, can you address the recent Slate magazine article accusing Wes of "fetishizing" India in Darjeeling? He cites several examples, such as the scene when Francis (Owen Wilson) gets his shoes stolen by an Indian boy and remarks, "I love these people".

[laughs] Really. I didn't even know about that. Good old Slate. I think that's the writer projecting his own feelings. We knew that was racist. It's the character. It's done to agitate Owen's character. When you go into a foreign country, you run that risk. Wes treated the country beautifully, in terms of how he shot it. It's earnest and honest. The films of Satyajit Ray are something that he loves. He got really into it. So why is it fetishistic in a bad way? We all fetishize things. Maybe he did.

It's good to hear that from you. Obviously, Wes wouldn't help his case if he tried to defend the charges.

Yeah, he'd be like, "I'm not racist. I have an Indian friend". It's like saying, "My friend's Black". But, you know, I know him. He's curious about cultures and experiences, and he was drawn in by those films he saw - the magic of them. Everyone has a tendency - not just this writer from Slate, God bless him - we look at everything through our own eyes. Sure, it could be construed as racist. I won't argue with you there. You can look at anything out of context, and it's going to be racist. I think there might be racist things in Spike's movie, but I'm not sure. [laughs] Someone needed a good angle for their story. And that's a good angle! I commend him on his story. These are good things to explore. That's fine. It's an opinion. But he's talking about someone who I know and have spent a great deal of time with over five years - I know that's not him.

You probably would've realized it by now.

Either that, or I'm just lying to myself.

[Courtesy: New York Press]

Conversation about this article

1: Satvir Kaur (Boston, U.S.A.), October 19, 2007, 11:24 AM.

I like him. He's cool, very humble, calm and down to earth.

2: Prabhu Singh Khalsa (Española, New Mexico, U.S.A.), November 14, 2007, 3:11 PM.

He is cool. I was really happy to read this article and felt so proud of him. It's hilarious since I don't really know him, but his role in the Inside Man has really done so much for our image in the media and potentially for people on the streets.

3: Preeti (Bangalore, India), March 20, 2008, 12:06 AM.

Wow! I din't know that there was an internationally recognized Sikh actor existing! You can be a great inspiration for all Sikhs who lose their religion just to fulfill their desire of becoming an actor, for fear of not being accepted by their audience. Way to go!

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