Bollywood has always been about big. Big money, bigger productions, the biggest stars. In an industry obsessed with bluster, with overpriced stars and their PR machines on manic overdrive, we tend to forget that the machinery of magic that we know of as the film industry is equally run by the ‘little people’ - ushers who double up as ticket vendors at single theatres, reporters who practically invented the Page 3 format without even realizing it, gym instructors who sculpt superstars battling mid-life crises, rickshaw drivers who invented dhinchaak, the sound that has come to define Bollywood music. Also Starring is our tribute to the foot soldiers of pop culture who stitch together the dazzling quilt we call Bollywood.

Teaching German, playing Russian

The many avatars of Elena Kazan
Most would think that Bollywood’s imports from the West are restricted to item girls who barely pass for being stunning and little else. But there is a growing new league of actresses like Giselli Monteiro (a Brazillian model who acted in ‘Love Aaj Kal’), Hazel Keech (Kareena’s friend in ‘Bodyguard) and many others who are willing to go against the grain and prove that ‘firangs’ can make a mark in Hindi films instead of being stereotyped like Bob Christo.
Elena Kazan is one such actor. Some might remember her as a face that endorsed many brands or as the Russian spy from ‘Agent Vinod’ or for her supporting role in ‘Gandhi to Hitler’. Her filmography is particularly impressive for a foreigner as it extends beyond Bollywood and includes Bengali and Tamil films as well. Her biggest break, ‘Prague’ (yet to release) opposite Chandan Roy Sanyal will be her first lead role in a Hindi film.

But acting was a chance encounter for Elena who had never considered it professionally. Born in Germany and studied in the US, Elena’s brush with acting was limited to a bit of theatre in high school and college. Her interests and vocations were history, genetics and photography. She shifted base from Berlin to the United States on a student-exchange program where she studied modern middle-eastern history. Her interest in the subject grew tremendously and she planned to move to Yemen to study Arabic. But once the country was ridden with war, it didn’t seem like a safe option and skipping between three jobs in New York, she really wanted a way out. This is when she got an offer from the German Chamber of Commerce to teach German in Kolkata and her Indian journey began.

From teaching German in Kolkata to films, how did it come about?
There was an Australian film that was being shot in Kolkata called ‘Waiting City’. It was a film about adoption and someone called me to fill in as an extra. So I went there and as I was waiting, one of the assistant directors came and started yelling at someone who couldn’t dance. She was firing a sweet Manipuri guy who was a model and couldn’t dance. I had trained in dancing in college so I took him to the next room and decided to help him out by practicing on some moves. That is just when I was approached by someone there, who said, “I am shooting a film, would you be interested in working in it?” That’s how my first film came about; it was a Bengali film called ‘Clerk’ with Prosenjitda.
Didn’t they check if you could speak in Bengali before you were cast?

I could speak a bit of Bengali and I managed. I remember my first line was, ‘Maach kinte hobe’ (I need to buy fish). And I remember going around telling everyone just that for some time (smiles). I found it very strange initially- being on a film set. It was very different from theatre. At a film set, there was no sequence and you had to stick to one emotion for a long time. At first I didn’t like it as I found it very odd. But later I got used to it.
Since you have some experience in theatre, what, according to you, are the limitations of films and what are the perks?
I think films offer a greater challenge for an actor since you don’t get to practice with a group and work on your emotions over a period of time. You have to be very precise with the emotions that you deliver. While it may be hard for an actor, I think it’s a great thing since it hones your skills. I can only think of advantages since I find it very challenging.
In theatre, you can also play off another actor but in films, you have to play with the camera and imagine the camera to be that person and that for me is very challenging. You have a very small amount of time to convey any emotion and then the obvious limitation is that – in theatre if you do something, it’s there at that point and then it’s gone. But in films, you have to face it again and again. If it’s great then it’s wonderful but if it’s bad, then there’s no getting away from it.

So how did you manage your first break in Bollywood?
I got the role in ‘Gandhi to Hitler’ through a casting site. They called me for an interview in Delhi and I found it to be an interesting option. I was just told that the movie is based on Hitler. When I used to teach at Max Muller Bhavan, I always asked my students why they wanted to learn German and one hand would invariably go up to say, “Ma'am, I love Hitler and I want to read his biography in German.” In Germany, the book is illegal and you can’t find it in any library. So I was very curious about why people were so fascinated with Hitler. We shot for two weeks in Delhi and that was my first Hindi film.

Elena has modelled for several apparel and cosmetic brands in India

Were there any myths about the industry that were shattered once you got your first break? Anything that surprised or shocked you about the industry?
I think the thing that surprised me was the politics involved in making a film in terms of who is involved and who has a say in the final product. I still had the idea that it was solely the director.  But I was surprised to see how much the producer had a say. I wouldn’t say that it made it a democratic set up because I personally feel that it’s spoiling the product because it’s somebody who doesn’t know about the craft. I guess, since the producer puts in the money or sources the money, they expect to have some say. Is that based on some sort of expertise? Not necessarily. So they would be like, ‘Yahan pe gaana lagana hain’ or some friend’s daughter wants to make a debut in the film so that would have to be considered. I always thought that every input was towards perfecting the product but I learnt that it was largely based on relationships. If you are from this town and the producer and director are from the same town, it will dictate how visible you are in the film. I never approached it from a career perspective and always looked at it from the backseat as an observer.
Were there any learnings as an actor for you once you began doing more film-related work?
The more you are exposed to the camera, the more you learn. So I don’t think I was learning much as an actor but I was getting familiar with the camera and how shots are taken. My shots in ‘Gandhi to Hitler’ were very taxing as I was crying in the shots and they were very intense scenes. Neha Dhupia and Raghubir Yadav were on the sets with me. It was a great experience working with Raghubirji and even when I doubted what I was doing there, watching him perform was enough to motivate me. He’s a wonderful actor.
Once you began getting offers to do a range of roles, how did you evaluate them? Are you comfortable doing certain kind of roles?
Firstly, the project has to be interesting. The director, the script and the role make a big difference. For the Hitler film, it was more like a social project, to learn what intrigues and interests people about Hitler. I am too new an actor to comment on the kind of roles that I am comfortable doing since I am still exploring. I do like roles or characters which have a background. I would often go for auditions and they would tell me that the character is a beautiful girl and she’s this and that. And if you ask what does she do? They’d say, “Kuch nahin. Padhaai karti hai.” So I’d ask, what does she study? And the answer would be, “Kuch bhi.” The brief is not important and it’s like the girl doesn't have a character or any interests and because that is not necessary. If a character is a housewife, I can understand but many characters are not real. Most of the time, they give you a scene and I ask the director for a brief and he would respond saying, 'she’s a modern girl' and that’s it. So what am I to read from that? That she smokes and drinks?
Elena got her first acting break by chance when she dropped in to fill in as an extra for an Australian film

Since your next is your big lead in ‘Prague’ what excited you about the project?
I saw the project develop in front of my eyes. It’s a very interesting and unusual story. It was shot in Czech Republic and I play a Czech girl who has a gypsy background and who has been to India. She’s a dancer and works in theatre. It was something that was real and tangible and interesting. I was only in the Prague part which lasted a month. The movie has been shot in Mumbai and Delhi as well. It was shot on a Cannon 5D which makes a big difference. Being a smaller camera, it allows for the film to be made on a much smaller budget and it’s very mobile. It’s essentially like an SLR camera.
Did you experience any challenges while working in ‘Prague’? Did you overcome any of them?
I had done only smaller roles before so this was one of my first major lead roles. So, just understanding the character and getting into it was emotionally taxing. When you’re trying to get into the skin of a character, you get into the emotion required in the scene and stay with it for a long time. So you have to draw from your emotions and you end up feeling like that even after the scene is shot. There was a lot of crying and a lot of anger and that leaves you very drained. It’s like after you have a fight with someone, how do you feel?
Apart from the cases where producers trying to stomp their way through, have you come to appreciate anything about films made in India?
The whole industry is not like that. There are films and people who do what they care for. I think the variety is one thing I appreciate. And with 5D coming into Hindi cinema, it has changed the game and now it gives a chance to make films with real characters. I would like to meet directors who really take the project on their own. Sometimes, you meet directors who’re like, “Chalo, film banayenge. Writers lagaao etc.” If somebody has their own project and script that they want to back- that is the kind of films I connect with.

Elena's first lead in a Hindi film is 'Prague' opposite Chandan Roy Sanyal

Having worked in Hindi, Tamil and Bengali films, what were the defining characteristics of each?

The Bengali film industry is so small that it’s like a family environment. It’s very warm and people usually don’t mess with you. So if anything happens, everyone gets to know about it. In Bombay, people are very different, very commercially-minded and things aren’t very clear. It’s harsher too in the way they deal with people.

But one would assume Bollywood is more systematic and organized when it comes to contracts?
Contract doesn’t mean anything unless both the parties respect it. In the Bengali film industry also, people have contracts and it depends on the filmmaker. And if you ask me about my experience with Bengali films, it’s been very professional and I’ve never had to run up to a filmmaker to follow up for payments and it’s been quite organized. The Tamil industry is great too and it’s so unionized that they start and pack up on time. If it’s a 6pm pack up, it’s going to wrap up by that time. They are also very good with lights and the technicians are very efficient. So the shots can be set up faster than usual. In Bengali films, the technicians would have chai first, sleep for half an hour and then start work (laughs). Also, the Tamil actors discuss every minute detail before filming. In Bollywood, it’s very hierarchical and you cannot say anything to a senior actor. But in the Tamil industry, they’re more egalitarian, at least among actors.

Have you got any feedback on the sets from any of the filmmakers that you’ve worked with?
The director’s opinion is the one that matters but sometimes directors would point out something only if there’s something he doesn’t want. There would be no feedback on the sets. But then, it depends on the filmmaker and some would discuss things with you. And the end call is the director’s since the actors aren’t making the film and that’s how it should be.
What would be your advice to the thousands who flock to the city hopeful of making it into films?
It also depends on who you want to be. If you want to be the next Kareena Kapoor, it’s going to be very difficult for anyone to do that. But if you concentrate on your acting and that is what you goal is, then if you get the right role, it’s a good time as there are so many different projects being shot that it’s possible to get a wide range of roles. Firstly, you will get a platform to act and then it’s upto you. People leave a lot of things to luck and so many people come into the industry wanting to be just stars. So they look at things like big banners and stuff like that. I think you should find joy in the role that you do and nothing else. This is because ultimately if you get a good role and you can do a good job, it will give you satisfaction and if you do a good job, automatically you will be recognized. So it’s very simple. But then, people run for the big banners. I mean if you get a shitty role in a big banner, how does it matter?

Check out Elena in a commercial for a sunscreen brand:

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