Ali Haji… His mother took him to an audition for a Johnsson’s baby commercial when he was just six-months-old.
After he got the part, he continued to do several advertisements and on the side auditioned for films, where we saw him as the little Rehaan in Fanaa and Champ in Ta Ra Rum Pum, amongst a few.
However, those cute and youngish days of acting far behind. Now, he has successfully dived into the deep-end of acting where he has emerged triumphant.
He makes his adult debut in Vandana Kataria’s Noblemen, in which he plays a high school student at an all-boys boarding school who is bullied to an extreme extent.
In an exclusive interview, Filme Shilmy caught up with Ali Haji to discuss his role in Noblemen, the current state of Bollywood and his career overall.
How did you draw from your school experiences to essay the role of Shay in Noblemen?
To be honest, I don’t have much that came from the school experiences that helped me with Shay.
Primarily, the reason behind that is because I didn’t attend school too much as I was always acting throughout my childhood.
I had a low-attendance at school.
The world of Shay, boys’ boarding school that he goes to where there is so much toxic masculinity, is completely different from mine.
At the age of 19, you’ve played such a dark and layered role. Did it ever take a toll on your psyche and mental health?
It really did. The main reason behind that is because I’ve never played such a dark character.
In my childhood, I did roles that are very frothy, simple with not much I had to do.
Before understanding the darkness, it was important for me to learn how to create a full-fledged character. That was a first for me.
When I got into creating Shay, I started enjoying but there were moments where I couldn’t take it.
I had breakdowns on set.
To separate myself from the character, I tried to take every day as a 12-14 hour work shift.
I would try and shut down the moment I was off the set.
As soon as pack-up was announced, I would speak to some friends, talk to my family, watch a movie, listen to music or do something that temporarily took me away from the world of Shay.
The film revolves around bullying. Have you ever encountered this?
Doing a film as Noblemen has really sensitised me to this issue.
In retrospect, when I look back at certain instances from my childhood where they were elder boys who just used to call me a girl because of my long hair and being fair, I used to think it was the norm.
But now I realised that it was wrong and a subtle form of bullying.
The youth are easily influenced by on-going toxic masculinity and foul behaviour displayed in the entertainment industry. Do you feel that Bollywood is partly to be blamed for it?
I don’t know if Bollywood is to be blamed for it, but as a medium of art, it has the potential of changing certain perceptions, which is what Noblemen attempts to do.
At the end of the day, as an entertainment industry, Bollywood is giving the audience what they want to see.
People are growing with the times and it’s been like a coming-of-age for the world due to progressive factors like social media and the internet.
People’s thought-processes have changed a lot and commercial films have always kind of been about giving the audience what they want.
I just feel that a lot of responsible filmmakers can use the audio-visual platform to evoke changes in thoughts and omit the toxic masculinity as well as the old patriarchal ideas we’ve been fed.
It is not just Bollywood, its the times that are changing the type of content.
But having said that, we still have some potboilers which make us scratch our heads now and then.
Post Noblemen, how do you hope not to be typecast and still be able to do mainstream films?
As of now, I can only hope not to be typecast (laughs).
Perceptions are easily built in the movie business.
If you attempt a homosexual character, makers will want to call because there’s this idea that you will do it again.
The right casting directors are really managing to look beyond the typecast and casting the ‘right’ actors for the apt roles… This what has happened with some brilliant actors like Jim Sarbh.
Eventually, the versatility comes to the forefront.
At this point, I don’t know how I will not be typecast or do a mainstream film. I’m sure a correct casting director will spot me.
People loved you as the young Rehan in Fanaa amongst many other roles. Whilst growing up, how did you balance fame with education?
I’m fortunate that my parents have been very supportive of me pursuing a career in film.
At the same time, they’ve been strict and stern enough that I do not ever let my studies take a back seat. I give a lot of credit to them.
That’s why I was consciously pulled out from doing movies post my eighth grade so I could just focus on the forthcoming, important years of education.
They made sure that I get good grades and I balance the studying with my work… Even if it was studying on sets.
Fortunately, I figured out how to balance multiple things and now I’m used to it.
I don’t think the idea of working in films ever got to my head at the age. Luckily, that is because my parents never let that happen.
My friends and the people around me are not ‘Yes Men’.
Despite the fact that I was the kid in Fanaa, Ta Ra Rum Pum and Partner, my nearest and dearest never treated me like the boy who comes in movies. I was just Ali for them.
The people around keep you grounded.
Was there ever a temptation to use your contacts to enhance your career?
I don’t think so. I’m fortunate to have worked with some great actors in our industry and they’ve been very kind to me.
I’ve had some great memories with all of these people. I’d never want to ask them for a favour just because I’ve been close to them personally.
I never really thought of cashing on a contact.
For me, what I share with them is very precious to me. What I’ve had with them is very special and memorable.
But I knew in the movies as a director or as an actor I wanted to figure my journey out on my own and I am enjoying the process.
Currently, there is a stigma around the term ‘nepotism’. It’s an industry, there are multiple assets and I’m just trying to figure my own way out.
When it comes to newcomers, there are so many debutants in Bollywood. What is your motto to continuously survive in this competitive environment?
We get satisfied after a good project and we start feeling content, which isn’t really a bad thing.
But at the same time, I feel like that somewhere holds you back from reinventing yourself every time you’re starting a new assignment.
I try my level best to not be completely satisfied and keep that hunger alive.
Eventually, if you put in the effort, you will find your place in this competitive rat race.
You’ll next be seen in Line of Descent and Super 30. Tell us about your role in both of these movies?
In Super 30, I am playing an aspiring IIT student who is studying in an elite coaching class in Patna. It’s a fun character, which was refreshing to do after doing some dark roles like in Noblemen.
It was very different for me because I got to play a character with a Bihari accent.
Every role that I’ve played up till now has been very urban doing something more rustic and rural was like a welcome change for me.
Plus, working with Hrithik Roshan is a big deal. He’s been like a childhood hero.
He has done Koi Mil Gaya, Krrish and all these movies which I’ve looked up to as a child.
Line of Descent is interesting. It’s about a gangster family and when the patriarch kind of dies, there’s a struggle for power between these three siblings.
I play the youngest of three siblings. It’s a very different character and he’s a Delhi boy, a bit of a brat.
He’s slightly aloof, not really connected with his family. There’s this vulnerability and scheming that is going on inside his head.
There was a lovely ensemble of characters I learnt from in the film. I learnt a lot working with Prem Chopra, Abhay Deol, Ronit Roy, Brendan Fraser and Neeraj Kabi.
I’m really glad that the three characters I’ve done (as an adult actor) are vastly distinct from each other.
The maturity and knowledge that Ali displays are admirable. His passion for cinema and acting comes across seamlessly.
Furthermore, the fact that he is currently studying whilst balancing his career shows how aware he is of his responsibilities.
More than an actor, Ali Haji is an ideal role model and a promising actor!