Saqib Saleem, the skating coach in Hawaa Hawaai, has won rave reviews. He talks to Sudhish Kamath about his Mumbai journey
He moved to Mumbai to be with his college senior girlfriend a few years ago.
He went for auditions because she went. They broke up in two months. And she blocked him on Facebook.
That is the only sad part of Saqib Saleem’s dream journey to showbiz, I realise, as I meet the actor for lunch at Indigo café right next to his house in Andheri West. In fact, he got his first break even before his sister Huma Qureshi did. And he moved to Mumbai about ten months after her. “I have to thank my ex.”
Saleem is sporting thick stubble, looks much older than he does in films, and the size of his biceps suggests he has spent quite a bit of time at the gym. “If I shave, I’ll look 15, bro,” he says, sitting down and skimming through the menu and asks me if I would like to split a sandwich with him.
It has been four and a half years since he first came to Mumbai and he has moved four houses since — a steady growth from the 1BHK he sometimes shared with as many as 13 people. Now, he’s set.
Saleem got his first ad during his very first audition in his first month in the city. Tata Docomo and soon, Pepsi with Ranbir Kapoor. “I had no idea I was going to be doing this here. I was planning to go to China and be a model there. But I’m just glad that people in my colony in Delhi know me now. I’ve been very lucky for a guy who didn’t want to act.”
His designer friend Varun Bahl introduced him to Shanoo Sharma, who heads casting at Yash Raj Films. “I was my cocky self. I didn’t know who she was. It’s only much later when I realised who she was that I sent her a text and got a chance to audition.”
The natural actor cracked that audition too and got the part in Mujhse Fraaaiendship Karogei. The three-film contract with Yash Raj Films also fetched him Mere Dad Ki Maruti and he has one more film to go with the banner. There are plans for a Maruti sequel apparently.
He then kissed Randeep Hooda for Karan Johar’s film in Bombay Talkies — the first onscreen gay kiss in mainstream Indian cinema — and won rave reviews for his performance in Amole Gupte’s Hawaa Hawaai that released a couple of weeks ago.
He had almost said No to Karan Johar. “I come from an orthodox Muslim family, so I first said no, but the film came to me again and I went to meet him. He gave me the best narration. I was blown away. I said: I’m doing it. It didn’t sound wrong. I knew he wouldn’t do it just to titillate. I would have been a fool if I didn’t do it.”
Saleem wasn’t homophobic but he was still very nervous about it, he admits. “Randeep walks in at four, he calls me ‘Luscious Lips’ and we say our What’s ups… It is awkward for a moment but then, one take and we are done. I had built it up in my head so much but it was no big deal. I have never been homophobic. Some of my very close friends are gay. I thought my family may be uncomfortable with it but when my mother saw it, she said: This is your best performance till date.”
The biggest shift in approach happened when he started working on Hawaa Hawaai. “It’s a film with a pure, clean heart. I saw Stanley Ka Dabba and loved it. Amole makes it so real. His camera captures emotion, it’s never in front of the face. I didn’t need to act. I just had to feel the emotion from within. And it was an indie set-up. No vanity vans or entourage. No special treatment. But I had a ball.”
“These kids (from Hawaa Hawaai) are my favourite co-stars. They have lived with the script for five years. When I went to meet Amole in his office, he said: Let me show you something. He asked them to act out a scene and they would do it instantly. They knew their lines by heart. Even during the shoot, they always got it right on the first take. I knew I needed to up my game.”
He wants to do films strong on content. Like Aamir Khan or Ranbir Kapoor, he says.
“I haven’t done theatre, I am not a trained actor. So I listen to the director. I need a good director and a good script. Not directors I can fool,” Saleem explains.
“I will take a break for as long as I need to get a good script. Why are you doing this? Because it’s a race or because you enjoy doing this? But I do know what Varun is doing or Sidharth is doing or Rajkumarr is up to. I do get jealous because they are all very good and there is a sense of competition, but I want everyone to do well. I think there’s space for everyone.”
He sounds content for now. “I have been grateful to Allah. There are a lot of people better than me, better looking than me, but I have been very lucky. So I don’t want to do a lot of films. Not films for the sake of numbers. I have a great family business I can go back to (a chain of restaurants called Saleems in Delhi) but I enjoy expressing myself.”
For someone who claims he has always had stage fright, he feels extremely comfortable with the camera. “In front of the camera, there’s no fright. I become besharam.”