Elena Kazan, the German-Russian actress who appears in German, as well as Indian films, has garnered a lot of attention post her appearance in ‘Bigg Boss 10’ and her debut performance in the Bengali film ‘Clerk’.
While the year seems quite busy for the gorgeous actress, she seems excited about her upcoming French and Ivorian films, and she’s also anticipating the release of Anil Sharma’s ‘Genius’ starring Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
In a tête-à-tête, Elena gets candid about the difficult times, and why the Bollywood film industry has taught her so much about life. Excerpts:
Q. What brought you to India all the way from Germany, and how did you end up in Bollywood?
A. I guess Fernweh (the German word, meaning something like “desire of the far”) has been the driving factor in terms of why I do things. I always want to go somewhere, do something new. I was studying in the US and worked for a year in New York after my graduation and after so many years in the US, I just really wanted to live somewhere else. I had studied modern Middle Eastern history and politics and wanted to study Arabic in Yemen, but the political situation there became unstable. So at that moment, there were a lot of thoughts in my heard as for where to go; South America, Ukraine, Palestine, etc. I remember I would be online at night, looking at jobs worldwide and then a post with the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce in Kolkata came up and that’s how I ended up in Kolkata.
I had never been to India before, but I had seen a lot of Indian films, from Guru Dutt’s Pyasa to Ritwik Ghatak Megha Dhaka Tara to International Khiladi, but I would have never imagined that I would be one day working in Indian films. Then, one day, when I was in Kolkata, as I have written above, I got invited to a film set and there got offered my first role in a Bengali film. Then slowly more Bengali film offers came and I did a couple of small roles in several Bengali films, like Egaro and Rang Milanti. And then I moved to Mumbai and started auditioning for Hindi films.
Q. ‘Clerk’ was your first Indian film, and it was in Bengali. How difficult was it preparing for a role in an unfamiliar language? Was the role was challenging.
A. It was a small role, which we shot over 2 days. I remember, I was repeating the lines, which were about buying fish constantly with everyone I met, to the amusement of my neighbours. My first line was: “Maach kinte hobe.”
I really don’t know what to say about this film, such a disaster it was cinematically… I got to experience for the first time all the craziness that is part of the Indian film industry experience; meddling producers, actors’ tantrums, obsession with light skin, sleazy coordinators etc.
Q. How did the role come to you?
A. I had met the first AD of Clerk on the set on an Australian film, Waiting City, onto which I had stumbled by chance, a friend had taken me along because they needed people to play backbackers in Sudder Street. He then introduced me to the director Subhadra Choudhury.
Q. You’ve been a part of Dear Friend Hitler which was premiered at Cannes Film Festival. Did that come as a turning point in your career?
A. I really don’t know what to say about this film, such a disaster it was cinematically. But it was a great anthropological experience. The main reason why I wanted to be part of this film is that I wanted to understand the reasons for Indian adulation of Hitler. And I got to experience for the first time all the craziness that is part of the Indian film industry experience; meddling producers, actors’ tantrums, obsession with light skin, sleazy coordinators etc. I do not believe that there was a screening at Cannes, but there was a paid screening at the Berlin film festival and the German film critics tore the film apart delightfully, writing that Bollywood’s Hitler who is “marching angrily though his cardboard bunker would have had great potential for comedy.”
Q. We’d want a bit of partiality and ask you to name your favourite director that you’ve also worked with?
A. Definitely the Filipino director Khavn. I have worked in his film Ruined Heart. He is such a creative and thoughtful human being. Even the script of Ruined Heart is a piece of art. It was a wonderful experience, shooting in Manila and everyone is his team was so inspiring to work with.
More recently, it was lovely to work with Vasan Bala on his film MKDNH (Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota Hai), which just has wrapped up principal photography. It is rare to find a director so composed and full of heart as Vasan. I really enjoyed the way he communicated with his actors and the rest of the team, calmly and very thought out. And the writing was very good. Am super excited to see the film.
Q. Also, tell us about your experiences with your co-stars?
A. Probably my most memorable experience was with Om Puri Ji. I have always admired his work since I saw him play an alcoholic Pakistani taxi driver who lives in the UK in My Son the Fanatic. We were working on a film in Delhi and I met him on the set. Unfortunately, it was during his last days and he was not feeling too well, but I will not forget the kindness with which he talked to me. And I couldn’t believe when he said, “Kya baat hai. Aapki Hindi toh bahut achhi hai.”
Only PSAs have a social message. I don’t believe that a film should have a “social message.” If it does it becomes pedantic. A film just shows a glimpse of life and makes you think.
Q. You’ve been a part of films like Agent Vinod, John Day, Prague etc. What is your takeaway?
A. All the films have been quite different. And while I always look for the perfect film, I have realised that it is equally important to learn to work together with all kinds of people and see the positive in each film as all of them have taught me something and contributed to my growth as an actor and human being.
Q. How was your experience sharing your screen space with one of the biggest stars in the industry? Were you nervous?
A. I am not really star struck and always excited to meet people. Probably the only time I was a bit tongue-tied was when meeting Naseer Saab for the first time. But after a few minutes of conversation, everything was fine. I think people tend to build up actors into unreachable stars, while they are just people doing very visible jobs.
Q. What is the most difficult part about dealing with popularity?
Q. What kind of cinema intrigues you? A role that you’d love to do and directors that you’d want to work with?
A. I like realism and I like creativity. A film that I really loved recently was Hisham Lasri’s The Sea Is Behind. I would love to do something in that vein. I like the films of Anurag Kashyap and Ashim Ahluwalia. And Q has been doing some interesting cinema, without any care for social taboos and boundaries. I would like to be part of films like that. In terms of roles, it’s a common complaint from actresses, but rarely, like never have I come across a role with any real agency. The female roles that are written are vehicles to show the ‘hero’s’ bravery or strength. I would like to play a woman that I myself find interesting, who is crazier than I am. A pirate, a spice merchant, a spy during the cold war, a prisoner laying railway tracks in Siberia, an assassin, a drug lord, a fur trapper; there are so many interesting and amazing women in this world.
Q. When we talk about complex roles, we can talk about two roles that you have portrayed- Tabassum Habibi, a chronic alcoholic, and in Prague, where you have an identity crisis. What impact did it have on your personal life?
A. To portray a character, I always look into myself first and ask, how much of Tabassum is in me or how much of the gypsy girl. When we were preparing for Tabassum, I would actually go home and sit with a drink and think that about what it takes for a person to seek alcohol as a refuge. That is why I like acting because it makes you think why people do what they do, the psychology of our thoughts and actions.
Q. These were movies with a social message. Was that a serious decision to mark yourself as a serious actor?
A. Only PSAs have a social message. I don’t believe that a film should have a “social message.” If it does it becomes pedantic. A film just shows a glimpse of life and makes you think. I would not say that I have essayed truly serious and relevant roles so far. But am not interested in anything vacuous. If I do something, I like it to be of substance, something I find interesting or relevant. Unless, the motivation for the role is money, which of course is part of the reality of making a living as an actor.
Q. What was your experience and what is one basic difference between Hollywood, Bollywood and Tollywood?
A. I have not worked in any Hollywood films. It’s funny, I have been introduced in the press as a Hollywood actress several times, even though I have always clearly told everyone that I have never worked on any Hollywood film so far. But by virtue of being a ‘foreign’ actress, that somehow equates to Hollywood.
This is really a large topic, the difference between these film industries, but obviously, they reflect the culture that they emanate from. Bengali cinema reflects the fine and intellectual Bengali aesthetic, while Bollywood is more focused on masala and South films’ mainstay is hero adulation. But of course, these are just rough stereotypes, unable to properly describe industries that encompass a variety of trends and different directors. For me, the greater divide still exists between outright commercial cinema and independent films lead to the vision of a director. A good film is a good film whether it’s in Malayali or German. And commercial cinema will by its popular and commercially driven nature not be as good and carefully thought out the as good independent cinema.
Q. Tell us about your struggle from Berlin to Kolkata to Mumbai and finally finding a place for yourself?
A. I don’t think I have found a place for myself yet, I don’t think an actor ever does, we tend to be restless souls and constantly question everything. I am very grateful for how things have been so far and I do love Mumbai and call it home. But I always want to learn more, go somewhere, do better work. Let’s see where the coming years will take me.
Q. Out of all the films that you have done, which film has credited most to your personal growth?
A. I can’t single anyone film, every project and its difficulties make you grow. But the learning curve was probably the steepest in Prague since it was the first time I worked in a sizeable role.
Q. How has the industry treated you so far?
A. People have been kind and I am grateful for all the opportunities I have received. What I still can’t get used to is that the industry is very hierarchical and the amount of respect given to a person depends on their stardom or importance. I come from a family where basic respect is given to everyone, especially to elders. I have seen older actors on sets not even been offered chairs because they are not stars. To see that is disappointing. Also, it is very disappointing to see when sometimes whole crews don’t get paid by producers because they think that it’s an honour to work with them and that should be enough. This notion that people work on films for their own entertainment or a sense of glamour that many producers seem to have is very disheartening because people who depend on their income from the said films suffer due the lackadaisical attitudes of such non-paying producers. So to see things like that is very disappointing. I do hope that things will change and our industry will become more egalitarian and we become more sensitive to the needs of others.
Q. What is your opinion about casting couch situation that is prevalent in the industry?
A. You can’t set a foot into Mumbai and not come in contact with “casting couch” or “compromise,” how people who deal in that refer to this concept of asking for sexual favours in exchange for work. As soon as I came to Mumbai, my phone started ringing with shady coordinators or producers asking for “compromise,” sometimes sweet-talking and sometimes threatening that I will never make it if I don’t agree to their proposals. I used to try and reason with the callers, asking them if they don’t have a sister or a mother and that they should be ashamed asking such questions. But they were not. And I soon realised that this is not a problem of an individual lacking morals and scruples, but that of a system that believes that “exposing” and “compromise” are part of the film industry and that everyone must go through it. Especially women. The entertainment industry is still at large a highly sexist place where women are expected to cater to men’s whims and demands. When I started, it was shocking for me to hear such things, but now I am able to maintain an emotional distance and not be affected. But I do make sure that I post the name and contact details of any person who asks me anything inappropriate on social media so that there are repercussions for such behaviour and the film community knows about the actions of its members.
Probably my most memorable experience was with Om Puri Ji… I couldn’t believe when he said, “Kya baat hai. Aapki Hindi toh bahut achhi hai.”
Q. Tell us about your upcoming projects?
A. I worked on an Ivorian film last year, which is releasing next week in the Ivory Coast. It was my first film in French and shot in Abidjan, so am super excited about that. The Marathi film Rakhmabai the first practising female doctor by Anant Mahadevan should also be releasing in March.
We just wrapped the shoot for Anil Sharma’s Genius where Nawaz and I are playing villains, which would be released in August this year. Am super excited to see Vasan Bala’s film Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota Hai, which has a lot of amazing action and where I played a small role, which will also be releasing later this year. And there is a film by Ahsan Rahi, titled Woh Aadmi Bahut Kucch Janta Tha, which has been in production for several years now and I got word that we will be finishing shooting it this year in Ukraine, so I am looking forward to that. And there is another project that hasn’t been announced yet, so I can’t reveal the details, but it will be shot entirely in rural Haryana, which I am super excited about.
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