ACTOR Suraj Sharma gets the jitters. Ask him about a bunch of short films that he has written, shot and directed while studying film and television at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and he, with a nervous smile, proclaims that he does not want to show them to the public ever. “They are bad,” says Sharma. During the two-and-a-half years spent on the course so far, he has written four short films, handled the camera for three more and directed two music videos, apart from working on many of his classmates’ projects.
“My class has a group of very talented students with a deep understanding of cinema. They break down everything that I do. I have to do better,” says the actor, who shot to international fame with the success of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi.
Away from the classroom for a few days, the task of dissecting movies is what he has been carrying out in Mumbai. As the juror of “Dimension Mumbai” at the 17th Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, he has been watching short films made by the city’s young filmmakers. Choosing the best films has not been easy. “Some movies work. Some don’t. But they all have the spark. It is difficult to come up with a compelling idea. It is even more difficult to write it. But when you are less experienced like me, the biggest challenge is to show what you have visualised,” says the first-time juror.
The jury duty gave Sharma an excuse to “escape” from the gruelling schedule at the school. Seated at a sea-facing hotel lobby, he says this also gave him an opportunity to spend a few days with his mother and younger brother, Sriharsh. “It has been more than five years since the production of Life of Pi started. Everything that followed has been new to me,” he says. Notwithstanding the exposure, he was a bit undecided about his career before he joined film school. “I was a year into studying philosophy at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, when I chose to join the film course. I wanted a better understanding of what I was doing,” says the 22-year-old.
The course has been extremely demanding, allowing him time only during the holidays to take up acting assignments. That’s how he has acted in six episodes of the American series Homeland and Prasant Nair-directed Umrika, which had its Indian premier during the film festival. “I can’t compromise with my studies. The course is too tough and the university does not give any special treatment to anyone. So I try to get acting jobs only during the half-yearly breaks,” he says. And all the cheques he earns for these assignments go into paying his course fees. “Trust me, I am broke,” he says.
In his last winter break, he shot for Umrika, his first Indian film. Preparing for this role required him to revisit India of the ’70s and the ’80s through Hindi films and music. He also had to learn Bundeli dialect to essay the character of a boy from a small village in Madhya Pradesh who comes to Mumbai in search of his brother. During the shoot he got along famously with Tony Revolori, the American actor of The Grand Budapest Hotel fame, who plays the role of his friend. “He is one of the funniest people I have ever met in my life. We became really good friends,” he says. It will take him another year and a half to complete the course. “After that, I will have to figure out once again what to do next,” says Sharma, who eventually wants to focus more on writing and direction. Though winter break is coming up, he doesn’t have anything concrete in the pipeline yet. However, given the nature of his profession, he doesn’t rule out the possibility of something working out at the last minute.
Post Life of Pi, Sharma hasn’t had much free time. Whatever break he gets from studying and acting, is spent in travelling, photography and playing football. There is also a long list of movies that he has to watch. “Everyone at my school has watched at least 500 movies more than me,” he says. However, what tops his priorities is heading to his Delhi home and spending time with his siblings.