By: BARNIE CHOUDHURY
The best thing about Adeel Akhtar, apart from his charisma, his ability to give life to ‘ordinary people’, his brilliant acting, must be that he thinks about your question, and then he answers it without spin or trying to sell his latest film Ali & Ava.
He is, by the way, promoting his latest movie, Ali & Ava, and I must be one of a dozen or more journalists he will have to speak with.
But he does so with a ready smile and a humble grace, both difficult considering it is 10pm in New Zealand.
While many of us are preparing to retire to bed, Akhtar is fielding queries after a hard day on the set of the second series of Sweet Tooth, which will be shown on Netflix.
And that’s the other thing. This actor has the charm to explain to this journalist what Sweet Tooth is about without being offended that I had no clue what he was talking about.
“It’s about a hybrid boy named Gus, who’s born half deer, half human,” he explained, while I was chuckling at this ingenious idea.
“And there’s a pandemic that’s struck the world and these hybrid children are either the reason for that pandemic, or they are the cure.”
Akhtar plays Dr Aditya Singh, who is trying to find a cure for the H5G9 virus, also known as The Sick.
Why? Because of his wife, Rani, played by Canadian actress Aliza Vellani, who has the virus.
The thing about Akhtar is that he is immensely talented, and he forces you to watch his performances.
From playing a bungling extremist in Four Lions to his BAFTA winning performance in Murdered by My Father, it is Akhtar who steals every scene – just as he does in his latest movie.
“It’s been pretty lucky to play lots of different parts,” said Akhtar humbly.
“When I was back at drama school, I just always thought, well, why not? You know, there’s no reason why, just because people were sort of casting things in a particular way.
“I always just thought that that’s my job. I’m an actor. I can do lots of different parts, and it’s lucky that at certain times and certain parts of my career, there were people who saw that as well, and they were encouraging of that.
“I’m really grateful to be doing it.”
Ali & Ava
Ali & Ava tells the story of an Asian man whose wife is about to leave him, and how he cannot admit this to his Pakistani family.
Neither can he admit he has fallen for a white grandmother teaching assistant.
Such dramatic themes are still hidden and unspoken in south Asian communities, so what does it tell us about today’s Britain?
“What it says is that in this sort of post-colonial world that we’re living in, that we can define the world that we want to live in, and that might mean leaning more into culture.
“For some people that might mean finding a way for things to coexist in a harmonious way.
“But I think it means for me, this film represents a way in which we can sort of take authorship or define the world that we want to live in, and it gives people space to think about it.”
Ali & Ava is set in Bradford, and it has earned Akhtar his second BAFTA nod.
In 2017 he was the first non-white leading actor to win the award for a father who murders his own daughter after pressure from his community before taking his own life.
“Murdered by My Father, it did bring up a lot of interesting questions about the motivation for that character to behave in the way that he did.
“I suppose it depends on your perspective of how you saw him. You could see him as a man, you could see him as somebody who felt the cultural pressures.
“You could see him as somebody who was religious, you could see him as a father, you could see him as a man who’s just completely lost to himself, who seems somebody in need of help.
“Then there’s the conversation is where you see his humanity, or you see what makes him human or doesn’t make him human.
“That’s the thing that is in amongst questions of cultural representation, and race and ethnicity and religion and stuff like that.
“So, it’s sort of like feels like an easy argument or an easy conversation to have. We’re more so in a position now, than in the past, to see things in a nuanced way, in a complicated way.
“And so, we should be afforded a right to be seen in the entirety of who we are, as opposed to just belonging to one culture, one ethnicity.”
What Ali & Ava shows is how alike south Asian and indigenous communities are, each with its own problems and secrets.
“I remember when I was looking at things like the Buddha of Suburbia and Bhaji on the Beach, I looked at those stories being told, and you could say that those people were a part of a particular traditional cultural heritage.
“But what came through to me was the humanity of those characters. So, their stories were always being told.
“Now, we’re sort of commanding people’s attention a little bit more on sort of saying, well, we want you to pay more attention.
“We want you to really look at what it means to be a British Asian, because it’s not just steeped in culture. It’s not just steeped in race.
“In Ali & Ava, what music that person listens to, what professionally he has, what relationship he has, all the things, the entirety of what it is to be human.
“We’re looking at that more now than we ever have done in the past. We’re sort of afforded that privilege more now than before.”
Last year actress, Meera Syal, explained to Eastern Eye about the “lazy racism” which exists in her industry.
Akhtar believed non-white actors were now living in exciting times.
“The life of an actor is essentially knowing that they can play a particular role and waiting for that opportunity to play that role.
“So, as an actor, you’re consistently frustrated, because you’re like, well, I should, I want to be doing that, and I’m not being afforded the right to do that,” he said.
“But then wrapped up is an extra complication in that we have an appetite for people to see you play that particular role, to see you play the ‘every man’, and I feel now that we’re on the cusp of that happening.
“I feel we’re in that that moment of change where we can look at maybe myself, but I more so look at other people.
“Dev Patel or Riz Ahmed, and they go, yeah, I think I could see him in that, and I’m seeing him in that role.
“I’m actually seeing him in that role, and you suddenly realise the questions of culture and race and everything become less important.
“Actually, I think maybe it’s more so that I’m looking forward to the point where we don’t have to talk about it, we can just sort of see somebody play a particular role.
“That will be the sort of magical point that we would really be feeling accepted where there’s no question. It’s just you just accept what you’re presented with.”
We are almost out of time, and I ask him if he has a role he truly wants to play?
“I think we’re just living in such an exciting time where the opportunity, I can’t really fathom it.
“Really, you know, I really didn’t think that, again, talking about Riz [Ahmed], that you’d have an Asian fellow on the cover of Time magazine, for example.
“I didn’t know that there would be Asian guys nominated for an Oscar. We’re sort of living in a in a place now where, if you talk to my parents, your parents, it was like, that would be that’d be tantamount to magic almost.
“So, I really don’t know what the role would be. I just know when it’s there, I’ll grab the opportunity to do it.”
Throughout the conversation, I realise that I have been smiling and laughing, and that Akhtar has seriously considered my questions without fearing to respond authentically, which is so refreshing.
You see him processing the answer, and my final question is the obvious – what would he tell his 16-year-old self? And yet the answer brings a surprise.
“Probably say that if people are giving you advice, they’re giving you advice from a good place, because they want you to succeed and do well, whether that’s your parents, or whoever, or like anybody who’s older than you.
“But that’s just their way of doing it. It doesn’t make it the right way of doing it for you. Give yourself space to think critically about the advice you’re given.
That suggests that he did not always take the advice that he was given and that he is his own man, I retorted.
“No, my dad wanted me to do law, and I did do law.
“Then there was a point where it just happened. I just knew it’d be so terrible if somebody hired me as a lawyer because I’d just be so bad at it.
“I can’t retain any information. So, there’s a point at which you sort of step into the thing that you think you would be good at, well, that was acting.”
Ali & Ava is out now in cinemas, and the 75th British Academy Film Awards are on Sunday 13 March.