Not just an American in Bollywood: The Evolution of Prashantt Guptha

Interview by Mike Barnum

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Born and raised in Queens, New York (his family hails from Jaipur, in the Indian state of Rajasthan), Prashantt Guptha has had an artistic bent almost from the very beginning. As a youngster he took part in local festivals where he would often dress in costume, and later he began appearing in stage productions. His father’s love of old Bollywood further inspired Prashantt and helped lead him to consider a career in film.

In 2006 the aspiring actor was cast in the made-in-Guyana comedy Rainbow Raani, which then led to a part in an Indian romantic drama titled Ek Vivaah…Aisa Bhi starring Sonu Sood and Isha Koppikar. An extremely versatile actor, Prashantt has appeared in a variety of roles such as that of a bus passenger victimized by a witch in Kaalo, a doomed film-maker in 6-5=2, a spurned lover in Issaq, and a cruel police inspector in Identity Card. In last year’s superhit Neerja, Prashantt had a pivotal role as an Indian-American terrorized by hijackers, and in his most recent release, the eco-thriller Irada (2017), he plays a Punjabi Sikh battling industrial corruption.

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Amrya Dastur and Prashantt Guptha in IRADA

Though now based in Mumbai, Prashantt still keeps a U.S. connection as his family continues to reside on the east coast where they have a successful jewelry business. On the professional side, he is a partner in the Los Angeles based development and production company, Mulberry Films, as well as acting as India’s ambassador for the Festival of Globe – Silicon Valley. Recently, while visiting California on business, Prashantt was kind enough to talk at length about his work…past, present and future.

Mike Barnum:           It seems a number of things led you to become an actor.

Prashantt Guptha:   My interest for acting stems from two factors in particular. Growing up in New York, the community had annual cultural programs during the festival of Diwali, and I was a regular participant. I believe I started at the age of 3. In that category there was a costume based segment in which we could dress up like any famous character. I remember having once been Lord Shiva, and another time, Prince Salim. As I got older, I started dancing, doing poetry recitals and stage drama, and collectively, over the years, I feel this is where the actor in me was born. The other major aspect to support this inner drive was my father’s deep rooted love for classic Hindi cinema, like the films of Dilip Kumar, films made by Bimal Roy, and the music and songs of the 1940’s and 50’s era. So, very secretly, film appreciation and the craft of acting was developing, and it all came out around my turning 18.

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MB:     In a few of your films you are credited as Prashant Kumar, but now you are known as Prashantt Guptha.

PG:     I was born as Prashant Kumar Gupta. In my early years, I dropped the surname and hence a lot of my profiling online is under the old name.  The altered spelling was a desperate act of succumbing to numerology to make the name add up to a more favorable energy.

MB:     How did things get rolling for you?

PG:     My start was as methodical as asking my family for permission to pursue an acting career and to enroll in acting classes if I promised to also pursue a finance degree in college. I had to also graduate from both within four years and dive right into the unknown world of showbiz. My father had one basic instruction: “Go and figure it out, you have my support. If you lose interest or heart, stop and join the family biz.” My first stint in front of the camera was a commercial for a then newly launched marriage portal called Shaadi.com. It did well, came on TV regularly and was even in print in all the ‘desi’ papers.

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Prashantt (in jeans jacket) with the rest of the cast of RAINBOW RAANI

MB:     Tell me about your debut in Rainbow Raani.

PG:     Yes, Rainbow Raani was my first feature film and it was shot in Georgetown, Guyana. It didn’t have a release except for in Guyana. I got involved through a big Bollywood show promoter in New York by the name of Kamal Dandona, who introduced me to the producer/director of the film, Mickey Nivelli. Mickey happened to also live in Forest Hills, my childhood town in Queens, New York. I still remember my first phone call and he was as warm as ever, and still is. He invited me to his home and assured me the lead role was mine. Since then, I became his star-boy (as they say in Guyana), assistant, and like a son. You would be delighted to know that he was originally called Harbance Kumar when he was in Mumbai, and he was the close friend and manager of legendary Indian film star Sunil Dutt.

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MB:     Afterwards you then shifted to India and quickly found work there.

PG:     My first film in India was Rajshri Production’s Ek Vivah… Aisa Bhi (2008). A simple referral, walk-in meeting and a follow-up a few months later made this film happen and trust me, this was the easiest to obtain. But the journey thereafter, hmm, that’s a whole different story.

MB:     Why did you choose to go to India for acting roles?

PG:     As an Indian in New York, the opportunities were limited. So to make a film career, it was between Mumbai or Los Angeles, and my connect with Hindi films was far deeper, especially at that time, hence I moved to Mumbai.

MB:     You have appeared in a couple of interesting horror films, with Wilson Louis’ Kaalo (2010) being the first.

PG:     Kaalo was well made and a phenomenal experience in the making. To have an actual creature-feature come out of Bollywood is not an everyday attempt by a producer who has a low-budget, a non star-driven cast, and perhaps not a big enough audience for the genre. Kaalo was a clean-cut attempt at creating something new for audiences. It’s been over 7 years since its release and it is still regularly shown on TV. I have liked several horror films, but more so the ones made in America.

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With Madhurima Tuli in KAALO

MB:     I remember being impressed with the child actress in the film, Swini Khara. What was your impression of her?

PG:     She was great, and is all grown up now. I haven’t met her since the making, long time. I have observed though that children are a common feature in horror films. Not sure why. But as a performer, she was wonderful.

MB:     The film takes place in the desert. Where was it shot, and what were the filming conditions like?

PG:     The film was shot entirely in a village in Jaisalmer district, Rajasthan and it was scorching HOT. No tents, no vanity vans. One full month traveling to the location in a bus and then stationed in a make-shift kind of van and shooting in the sun all day. It was a full daylight shoot so once the sun started setting, we’d pack up. We were told much later that the actual village we shot in was haunted by night. No one could stay there and come out alive.

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Prashantt Guptha (center) is one of several doomed travelers in KAALO

MB:     Your next horror film was 6-5=2, which is about a group of young people hiking in the wilderness where they intend to make a film, and it is a remake of the Kannada language movie of the same name.

PG:     A Bangalore based producer-friend of mine introduced me to the producer who had acquired the rights to remake 6-5=2 in Hindi. Bagging this film was a simple process of referral, based on the previous films I had done, like Issaq and Identity Card. I was cast as the lead, Siddharth, who is an aspiring cinematographer and pretty much the whole film shoots from his point of view.

MB:     Like Kaalo, this film was also shot on location, and the scenery is breathtaking!

PG:     The entire month long schedule of the film was in the state of Karnataka, from where the language Kannada comes. Only whilst shooting there did I come to realize that the mountains, jungles, and outstations of this state are so gorgeous and serene. The trekking was very difficult in many situations, and that brought much reality to the look and feel of the story and characters.

MB:     Do you recall anything about the cast and the crew?

PG:     Like any film, there are some nice and not so nice people. I recall everything and will have to conceal my views for the sake of diplomacy. (Laughs)

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With Disha Kapoor and Niharica Raizada in BLAIR WITCH inspired 6-5=2

MB:     How does the Hindi version compare to the original Kannada version?

PG:     Frankly, I found the Kannada version better, or more authentic. Horror is the type of genre which is really tough to remake. I watched the Kannada version to understand what I was getting into, and it scared the lights out of me. Possibly because I was going in without expectations, as opposed to my own version wherein I shot and lived through the making of the film. That must be why I was less scared [by the Hindi version]. Overall, the Kannada version just seemed more raw and actual found-footage type, whereas the Hindi version had a few people who got involved and ‘attempted’ to make it cinematic. That doesn’t work for the found-footage formula.

MB:     And the Kannada version did better at the box office then the Hindi version.

PG:     The Kannada one was a true Blair Witch success story. The Hindi version wasn’t, for the reasons mentioned. More than anything, every film and person has its own destiny. Lack of promotional strategy also deters a film’s success.

MB:     Are you a fan of horror films?

PG:     I am personally very scared of horror [films]. My heart starts behaving in a very unsettled way and that is not my ideal choice of cinema. Having acted in two horror films already, I can say, though, that it is a genre that is much underutilized in India, and if made on a tight budget and based on characters/urban legends/superstitions that are widely prevalent in India, it could do well, especially today, if commissioned by Netflix or Amazon.

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As Siddarth, a budding cinematrographer, who faces an evil entity in 6-5=2

MB:     Issaq (2013) was a nicely done retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and you have quite a juicy role in it.

PG:     You are right. It was a Hindi adaptation of the story and the director’s treatment was to make it very stylish and contemporary, set in present day Varanasi. It surely was very in-between. Issaq broke the mold of my limitations as an actor. It opened my horizon to approaching and accepting any and every role that has substance to it. It was negative with shades of jealousy, lust, vengeance, and a bit of a romantic side. I enjoyed the process of getting into that space. It requires you to tap into certain aspects of your own persona that you would otherwise keep tamed at bay. I enjoy characters that require me to get out my comfort zone.

MB:     And at times your character was also quite humorous.

PG:     Comedy, as so I am told, is my forte. In a film of mine called Identity Card (2014), there are quite a few humorous situations created by my presence, albeit a serious film. There was no slapstick effect, but there were some subtle and yet deeply tickling moments of humor in my character. And yes, comedy is a genre I love.

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As the vengeance seeking Preetam in ISSAQ

MB      Your biggest film to date is Neerja, the story of the 1986 hijacking of Pan Flight 73, and you have received a lot of notice for your role.

PG:     I am honored and grateful that I got to be a part of this film as it surely is one of the greats of current Indian cinema. The exposure and mileage I received from this film opened many doors for me.

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With Sonam Kapoor in a tense moment from NEERJA

MB:     It is a very serious and somber film, what was the filming like?

PG:     The set was alive and kicking. But the environment in the aircraft was as you saw on screen. Very few people know that the film-making approach to this movie was quite unique. Some of the shots in the plane were actually an hour long. Actually sleeping, actually using the bathroom, or using the upper-deck, all in real-time. It was kept real. The hijack in the film was designed just as in the actual incident, and never before [filming] had the [actors playing the] passengers ever had any interaction with the [actors playing the] terrorists. It was a genuinely successful experiment.

 

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At The Festival of the Globe – Silicon Valley with his  19th JANUARY co-star Deepti Naval

 

MB:     You have done two Kashmir based films.

PG:     19th January (filmed in 2014) has yet to release and is a very hard-hitting drama based on the actual genocide of the same date, in 1990. Beautiful music and an interesting role for me as a modern-day National Investigations Officer doing a case-study on what had happened back in ‘90. The film stars veteran actors Deepti Naval and KK Raina. Both this film and Identity Card were shot in Kashmir, though my portion of 19th January was shot in a Mumbai studio. Specifically, Identity Card was shot in Srinagar and I have only fond and safe memories of it. Beautiful location!

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With Saurabh Shukla in IDENTITY CARD: EK LIFELINE

MB:     Your involvement with Identity Card went beyond just acting in it.

PG:     Oh yes, I was involved in promoting it in the USA for release, and showing the film to various distributors. Not an ideal scenario for an actor, but I tend to give added value to the films I do, especially when a big studio isn’t involved. The film will always be close to my heart. I got much appreciation and acclaim for it.

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As Inspector Dogra in IDENTITY CARD

MB:     Your most recent release is the conspiracy thriller Irada.

PG:     Irada was special because it brought me into the company of acting legend Naseeruddin Shah, and allowed me to become a sardar. It was an overwhelming experience, growing my beard for so many months, understanding the Sikh faith, going to Gurdwara, and of course the actual feel of shooting in Punjab’s prime cities, Patiala and Bhatinda.

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As Bhagat Singh in IRADA

MB:     So what can we expect from you in the near future?

PG:     There are two films ready for release but until announced, I’ll have to keep my lips sealed on that.

MB:     When not making movies, what keeps you busy?

PG:     For relaxation, and all other times when I’m not shooting or working, time is spent in the gym or with my kids and wife, as well as watching film after film or reading book after book, traveling and more often than not, constantly meeting people in the industry. Networking is essentially the name of the game.

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At the premier of IRADA

MB:     You are a modern day actor but you, like your father, have a soft spot for the classics, don’t you.

PG:     I am a huge fan of vintage films and songs. HUGE! Amongst actors, Dilip Kumar and Balraj Sahni of that era and the songs of Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi, Talat Mahmood and Hemant Kumar. As you are a well-wisher, can you pray I do a film with Amitabh Bachchan soon! (laughs)

MB:     You won an award at the Rajasthan International Film Festival in Jaipur where noted actor Om Puri was being honored. What was the experience like?

PG:     That was a memorable experience for a few very specific reasons. It was the first time this festival was happening and I received the most prized honor of the evening, The Pride of Rajasthan. Being a Jaipur native, this was very special. The added glory was to receive it not only in the company of Om Puri, but to receive it in the presence of my parents.

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With actor Om Puri (left) and producer Rahat Kazmi (center) at the Rajashathan International Film Festival

MB:     I understand you have also bagged an endorsement for a company out of Rajasthan.

PG:     Yes that’s true, though a formal announcement and campaign will be launched in a few months. Once again, coming from a Rajasthan based company, it feels like I’m the potential poster boy of the state in terms of Bollywood.

MB:     What were your duties as ambassador of the San Francisco Global Movie Awards? Was this a one-time opportunity or will you continue to be involved with it?

PG:     In its first year in 2014 it was called The San Francisco Global Movie Fest. It then became The Festival of Globe in 2015, and yes it has continued and is now in its 4th year. In 2014, I was invited because the film Identity Card was accepted to the festival. That year they not only gave me a best supporting actor award for the film, but a few months later the festival’s founder, Dr. Romesh Japra, offered me the position of being the India Ambassador for the festival. My duties in this position include everything from curating films, bringing on stars and sponsors, and handling all aspects of its branding and promotions in India.

MB:     You have recently added singing and writing to your repertoire. Is this something new to you, or have you always harbored an interest?

PG:     The passion and talent has been there for a very long time, honed over the years, and now showcasing it for the world. The writing area will revolve around poetry and inspirational blogs, and the singing will start with producing covers of old Hindi songs.

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MB:     What brought you to Los Angeles?

PG:     Hollywood dreams, meetings, and much work in the film company that I’m a partner in. Major announcements coming soon!

MB:     You have been in show business for 10 years now, how has your outlook and your aspirations changed from when you first began.

PG:     Nothing has changed and everything has evolved.

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