AJ: There’s a really impressive cast here, from an Oscar-winning actress to Justin Bartha from the Hangover films. Being the central character, you get scenes with all of them. Can you talk about the experience?
SR: That’s what was really interesting: the set was an even stage, because nobody was doing this for the money. Michael Lerner has an Academy Award nomination; Mary [Steenburgen]’s got an Oscar, Justin’s done huge, big-budget films. Everybody did it simply because they responded to the script. We were shooting during the Oscars, and Mary was at one of the Oscar parties. She took the time to go outside and call Mahesh and Anu [Pradhan] from there with ideas for the script that had just popped into her head. She was that committed. And that was how everyone was on the team. They knew that it was an independent film, that we didn’t have a lot of time, and that they’d just have to come in and nail it. And that’s what they did.
AJ: While this was an indie, you’ve done quite a variety of work — television, a film in India, now this. Was it always the plan to be fluid between the mediums?
SR: I’ve never really had a grand plan. I want to do good work, but I never set out to say “I want to be in 100 million dollar budget movies.” At the beginning, I just wanted any opportunity. As I found more work and people started to know me a bit, I started to have options. Now it’s interesting because I’m saying no to things and it feels weird, just because I remember when I was dying for anything — a voiceover audition, something! And now somebody’s handing it to you and you’re actually saying “yeah, no thank you.” But I think that at a certain point you need to take a bet on your talent and say, “I’m waiting for something else that I know is out there.”
AJ: I can imagine that working in India is a whole different ball game from working in the U.S — or was it more similar than you thought?
SR: I’ve done Shor in the City in India, and I’ve currently been shooting a film called Momentary Lapse of Reason — like the Pink Floyd song — in Hyderabad with Kunal Nayyar from The Big Bang Theory. Yes, India is a totally different ball game, in terms of the way the business aspect of it works. But once you get in front of the camera, it feels the same. I’ve gotten to work with theater actors, who aren’t huge stars, but are just wonderful actors. And we bounce off each other just like with whomever I’ve worked with in Hollywood. So the acting is the universal, connecting language.
AJ: You’re right, it can be really refreshing to not have those mainstream actors, because it can end up being more about the star power and less about the acting.
SR: I don’t know if that’s limited to India, though. Even in Hollywood, there’s a machine that needs to be fed. There wouldn’t be an industry without those movies. I don’t have a problem with those kinds of films; I think they’d be really fun to do. It just gets to be a bummer when you see the same kind of films coming out. But I don’t think that’s happening. I think there is alternative fare for people who don’t want the huge blockbusters. But then, just because a movie is a blockbuster doesn’t mean it’s going to be terrible.
AJ: It seems that at the moment, that there is much more collaboration between India and the western studios on a larger platform, such as The Hundred-Foot Journey, Million Dollar Arm, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Would you agree with that? And what do you think the appeal of India is?
SR: The Hundred-Foot Journey is based on a book, and had nothing to do with Bollywood — they didn’t shoot in India, they shot in France, and it was a very “Hollywood” movie. Whereas Million Dollar Arm, which is also a big budget movie, did go and shoot in India. So maybe there, there was some crossover. I know that Disney has always been very interested in working in India and I think a lot of the studios in the United States will start to explore India and Asia in general. There’s lots of great stuff coming out of China. So I think that it’s only going to increase.
AJ: That goes along with the dialogue that’s been going on over the years about Indian Americans making their way into “mainstream” television and movies as regular characters without too much emphasis on their Indian-ness. But the Indian American niche remains significant. You’ve mentioned the importance of Indian American film festivals in getting publicity for Brahmin Bulls. Is the ethnicity thing at the forefront of your mind when you approach your work?
SR: No, it’s not really in the forefront of my mind at all. Sometimes it becomes hard for films to get seen at mainstream festivals. There are so many movies out there. I heard a statistic about 5000 being movies made a year and only 1 percent of them actually getting into theaters. There has to be a way for these films to be seen and I think that’s where these Indian film festivals are really helpful. You’re not going to make a sale to a distributor at any of these festivals; they’re not attended by those kinds of people. They’re more for word-of-mouth publicity, which is huge, especially for small films like ours that don’t have the money for much marketing. We were so grateful to get into some of these festivals.
AJ: How do you feel that Brahmin Bulls navigates that line between not wanting to overplay the Indian American-ness but also not rejecting it either; is there anything particular you did as an actor in terms of that, or that Mahesh and you did while you were forming the story?
SR: When we first decided what we wanted to do, we did say that we just want it to be two characters, who just so happen to be Indian, but that’s really not going to be a big factor in the story. Yes, there are things specific to Indian culture mentioned, like the three stages of life for instance, but Indians, India, and “Indian-ness” doesn’t really come up at all. It’s just the story of a father and son. We were trying to say it’s a universal story.
AJ: What do you hope audiences come away with from this story?
SR: I want people come away with the message that any relationship — whether it’s a friendship, or with a family member — can be salvaged, if it’s a worthy relationship. There’s so much baggage that we all carry with each other, and in the end you don’t gain anything by just being stubborn about it. You can have relationships with people that are very special and that you would greatly miss out on if you aren’t willing to forgive. And you can find a way to forgiveness by being able to see past unimportant things.
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Brahmin Bulls shows on January 22 at The Picture House in Pelham, New York, and will be released on VOD early this year. The film opened in select theaters on November 14, 2014. Visit the film’s official website or Twitter for updates on screenings, news, and more.
Anisha Jhaveri is a freelance writer and film blogger, and a recent export to Singapore from New York City. Find her on Twitter @jhavanis.