in ,

“I like essaying characters which are away from my reality as they push me to explore more” – Adi Chugh

Photo Credit: Supplied

Currently based in London, Adi Chugh was born in India before migrating with his parents to Germany at the age of 8. He completed his degree in Economics and Finance at the Pennsylvania State University and later moved to New York City (NYC) and started his first full-time job at Citibank. However, he decided to take a full dive to pursue his passion for acting after only two years in his role.

He then completed a Masters of the Arts – Professional Acting for Stage & Screen at the reputable UK conservatory Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and did theatre since then in NYC, London, Edinburgh and Manchester. The actor has also been active in doing numerous commercials worldwide.

He made his Bollywood debut in Vidya Balan starrer ‘Shakuntala Devi’ which released on 31 July on Amazon Prime Video. He has also done a lead in a feature film featuring Vinay Pathak titled ‘Three Dots And A Dash’ which is currently in post-production stage.

Do you still remember how you fell in love with theatre.
Of course. I had just moved to Germany. I was about seven years old. I played the wolf in ‘The Three Little Pigs’. When I had just moved there from India I had a very thick Indian accent right, and I am grateful for it because I can do a perfect Indian accent whenever I need it, but back then it wasn’t really my best friend because kids can be mean sometimes and they would bully me for my Indian accent because I would say “three” like “three” and “v for violin” and you know, I’d confuse the very usual kind of cute things that a kid with an Indian accent or anybody with an Indian accent does but, on stage was the only place where I wouldn’t be made fun of. So, whatever performance that I did, I kind of just let loose and I let my goofy side out and my playful side and that’s eventually what theatre is right. It’s called a play because you play on the stage. And that’s where my love actually began. It was the only place I wouldn’t be made fun of. I actually weirdly enough felt safer while being on stage because I could just let go and be myself and I wouldn’t be judged for it. So, initially, that’s where the love started.

Is ‘Shakuntala Devi’ the right debut in Bollywood? Is this what you expected?
Now, I am very grateful for ‘Shakuntala Devi’, even though my role is small, I get to play a few scenes with Vidya Balan and she is a brilliant actor. I think it’s bittersweet because I have been obviously working on my craft since I was a kid and everybody wants to reach bigger ambitions, bigger goals and over here, I fortunately in the productions I do I get to play lead all the time but, of course, breaking to Bollywood I don’t know if I’d expect that.

I’m not going to just walk into Mumbai and be like “here I am” you know (laughs) “hero aa gaya” (the hero has arrived). I don’t expect it to be that way and I am grateful for the opportunity I got. Of course, I strive to get bigger, chunkier roles which I can work with and create more interesting, several sided characters because I think that’s what acting is and that is easier when you have a lot more lines and lot more character to play with and yes, I do think that’ll come with time. I am patient but I am ambitious, I am hardworking as hell so I’ll get there. But yes, I am lucky and fortunate and very, very thankful to have received an exposure in ‘Shakuntala Devi’ and I hope to get bigger roles in good time.

You play the role of Kartar in ‘Shakuntala Devi’. How easy was it for you to prepare for it?
Now, any role that you play, there’s so many different layers of things you can add to it. In the way that you speak, a certain characteristic or a trait that a character would have. The way you hold your stress and your body pressure/posture, how you walk, how you think, how a person of this background would think in the time that they live in. How things are different from now, so obviously, you create a back story for yourself, you think about, you know, where does my character come from, where had they grown up, what are their experiences, what do they do? And you walk yourself through these issues so you can create a more believable character.

The lines is just, I mean, in the most basic of things. So, along with these physicalities, these back stories, I watched a few films to see how things used to be back then because it’s not current day, it’s shot a lot further, in the middle of the 20th Century. So, I watched a few films, I spoke to my parents about how things, what they heard, were different back then. I thought about how, a man back then, even if, the man is liberal and you know, doesn’t think any lowly of women, how they would react if a woman had to be traveling by herself because Shakuntala Devi was a very very forward thinking woman for her time, right, not only was she a genius, but she wrote books about homosexuality, she travelled alone, she did all these things by herself that women often didn’t get an opportunity to do because we still live in a very, a lot more patriarchal culture back then, even more so. So, thinking about these things have to be layers and I think acting is like an onion, you create layers to give it more flavour.

How many times have you been to your hometown Bhilai? How much has changed?
Actually, most of my mom’s family side lives in Raipur, some of them, well, one of her brothers is in New York who I see every time I go to the States. I spend a lot of time in the States of course, but, most of them, she has four brothers so three of them live in Raipur. So Raipur is very close to Bhilai. So often when I go to Raipur I get to visit Bhilai as well. And Bhilai has changed drastically. So has Raipur – it wasn’t the capital of Chhattisgarh back in the day, things have changed quite a bit, but Bhilai is still moving along slowly to be honest, I don’t remember it that much because I was only six-months-old when we moved to New Delhi. But I assume time and the way that I remember it from the pictures that I saw, it looks so different now.

You tend to constantly move countries. At this age, what do you find the most fascinating in this? For how long can you keep doing this?
I keep moving countries, yes you’re right. I’ve had my ups and downs with it. I think that in a way it’s a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because I’m fortunate to have seen so much of the world, I have travelled over 35 or 40 countries, I speak four different languages, I have been exposed to so many different types of cultures and characters and that’s where I think it’s a blessing because now, as an actor, I look back and I almost switch back from these characters and I steal from them, here and there. I’ll have a friend in South Africa in high school and I’ll be like this guy used to do this, this way and I can try that for a character. So, I feel fortunate in that sense that I’ve met so many different types of people that I feel like I have a cheating card, you know, like I met so many characters, that I can borrow from each one of these.

And they’re people I was very close to once upon a time so, yes it is a blessing and a curse in a lot of ways because I always ask myself “Am I Desi, am I German, am I South African, am I American, am I British?” but I think there is a big silver lining in all this, that I can be all of these because they’re all a part of me. So, will I do this forever? I don’t know, I mean, if you look at the lives of successful actors which I am working towards (laughs), you’ll see that they’re always traveling a lot and I think I might have it easier because I practise it so much. Travel is a big part of this career and especially when you’re working a lot, especially in Hollywood, whether it’s Hollywod or Bollywood there are a lot of Bollywood actors who are also traveling overseas to do shoots and work in Hollywood or different industries. I think I’ll be okay, I think it’s a lifestyle now and I think it’ll be forever, but I don’t know, I feel fortunate, maybe I can hope to, one day, have a base in Mumbai, one base in London and one base either in New York or L.A. but most likely in New York because I love the city and I used to live there.

You played Josh in the international hit theatre show, Afterglow, which explores an open relationship between a married couple and where both are allowed to sleep around as long as the set rules are followed. How did you land this gig and are you interested to play such characters for web series?
It was a very successful play and made over a million dollars and then it was transferred to London. I had given three auditions for that part and I was auditioning for the lead role and eventually I got it because maybe I fit the character and got something extra which they wanted to see and the producers really liked it. It was absolutely fascinating and a lot of fun to play because not only was it super intense but the roles that I like to play are completely different from my reality. I am not in an open relationship, I am not against these relationships neither do I judge them in any way but I don’t always lean towards those. If I can convince people through my character, then I feel am doing my job well. I would love to play more characters like this for any format as I like essaying characters which are away from my reality as they push me to explore more, change more and look at a subject that I would conventionally follow.

What did you dislike the most while completing your degree in Economics and Finance at Pennsylvania State University?
That’s a tough one! In retrospect while I was doing my Master in the UK, we did some extensive learning tests and I discovered I am highly dyslexic. It took me a lot more work to study the books that I needed to study for Economics and Finance as they are very material heavy. I wish I had known back then that I was dyslexic because then I would have changed my learning style and been able to write my exams better and this I disliked because it was really hard.

After working two years in corporate, how did you decide to change your career? What made you realise you were in the wrong career?
For me it wasn’t so much that I was in the wrong field, I always wanted to be an actor, but my parents weren’t so keen on that fact hence I initially didn’t go down that path. In 10th when I asked my mother if I could be an actor or what she thought about the idea my parents got really freaked out so they made me drop drama. I don’t blame them for it because I do think that the life as an artists is very difficult as initially your life can be very unstable, it can also be very difficult to break into the industry and any parent won’t want this for their child.

I kind of went behind their back and did drama anyway so I started part-taking in the drama organization after school like the extra-curricular activities and I was also competing at the university level in theatre and my parents didn’t know about that. It wasn’t just banking I also worked in consulting and Accenture as well, but I had already made my mind after finance I really didn’t love my job, I had a very difficult time with it. And now as an actor I really love my job and dislike very minimal parts of it and I always knew this was something I wanted to do.

You have featured in quite a lot of commercials. Describe the experience so far.
There are good and bad experiences. The good experiences are the Vodafone ads in the UK that we shot was a lot of fun being on set. I have done furnish commercials, hair commercials, Star Line commercials which is an airline conglomerate, Ford the automobile company and also Michelin Tyres. Michelin was bitter sweet, I had flown to Ukraine for the commercial and it was a great experience on set and a high production value. What was heartbreaking was that I never got paid for that and it was a lot of money. It think it was not a good experience nor was it professional. The ad was well received and ran on several platforms and was translated in several languages and was also played in theatres.

How do you stay fit, especially during lockdown?
I have done many different classes, I am part of a gym called Gym Box here in London, which is a really awesome gym. It’s a place where lot of heavy lifters go, but I like to be lean and slightly muscular as if I need to change my body type for my next role it gives me the chance to do it quickly. I do a lot of cardio, dance, yoga, a lot of high intensity training, tabata which is a form of hit.

What did you learn the most from this lockdown?
I learnt that happiness is the most important thing, I am very ambitious and I work hard and long hours but at the same time that doesn’t always brings me happiness. I think happiness is a balance and a mindset. Projects like ‘Shakuntala Devi’ or ‘Three Dots and A Dash’ that I have done in my life bring me a sort of happiness in my career but happiness is a state of mind and I learnt not to waste your time in doing things which do not make you happy and that will not get you forward in your life. I learnt to cut away a lot of things that weren’t needed in my life.

Photo Credit: Supplied

What was the most challenging character you did while doing theatre?
The most challenging character I did while doing theatre was definitely ‘After Glow’ where I was in a gay open relationship and I had to be naked on stage for at least 10 minutes in an hour and a half show. Nudity is a whole different challenge, on theatre because it is not a recorded medium, it will not remain there forever unlike a film but at the same time I am okay with nudity and work towards it if it’s for a professional reason and justified. I don’t know if I would be willing to do that kind of nudity for a film as yet, unless it’s with an amazing director and if the sequence really requires that then I will consider it.

It is challenging because you have so many eyes and it’s live, you have to really really get your head out of being naked and into the character. You must be mature and confident with your nudity on the stage as you must be in your bath or at home that was challenging and that was something I had to work on every single time I performed. It’s challenging but as time went on it also became very liberating and I grew a lot from it and I became confident that I could do a lot more things that I thought I could do.

What do you value the most in relationships?
Open communication, willingness to learn and acknowledge each other’s good side and bad. I am far from perfect, but just like any other human being I hope that if I am going to spend time with anyone, I would hope that they can accept me for the way that I am in a truthful way and I can accept them the way they are without judgement.

What are your views on nepotism in Bollywood?
Nepotism exists anywhere in the world, whether it’s Bollywood or Hollywood or any other field. You will always prefer people whom you know most. I think that nepotism no matter where it exists is damaging as it keeps you very narrow minded. You do not step out of your comfort zone or you don’t explore the types of artists or creativity that exits outside your circle but at the same time I do not hate it or judge it. I understand it, I see where it comes form and see why people want to stay in their comfort zone. Especially films are a very risky industry and you don’t ever know what will be your return on investment and because of that people like to stick to things they know will work.

The rise of OTT platforms in India is phenomenal. What are your thoughts?
Yes, my thoughts are more power to the people, we just spoke about nepotism and I think that the OTTs are breaking away from the nepotism and I think they are challenging themselves and the industry realm that exists outside of what we already know of Bollywood. There are so many different kinds of characters and people not just in India but the world and OTTs are exploring that, they are giving lot of younger writers, artists, directors a chance to be seen and if you are good you can be up there and that is exciting to me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

John Abraham – An outsider who earned respect

Vivek Agnihotri’s next book Who Killed Shastri?: The Tashkent Files