On an overcast Mumbai morning, we step into one of the city’s chicest restaurants, only to find a coterie of stylists, managers, technicians and makeup artists huddled in a corner. All eyes are (quite literally) trained on Gurfateh Pirzada, who exudes a calm charisma, commanding the room with effortless ease.
The camera adores him, and the room buzzes with admiration as he effortlessly transitions through outfit changes during the fashion shoot. As for his personal style, the actor admits, ‘It keeps changing every month. I had a phase of florals, one of black-and-white tees and now I’m in the streetwear zone.’
After the shoot wraps up, the model-turned-actor sits down for a chat with HELLO!, diving into all things Bollywood as he marks a decade in the city of dreams.
HELLO!: Gurfateh, as an outsider to the industry, how did your friends and family react when you first told them you wanted to pursue acting?
Gurfateh Pirzada: “I didn’t have anything else to do. I didn’t go to college. I knew that I wanted to act by the time I got out of school. But we finally made the move to Mumbai because I had to earn money to survive. And by then, my sister [Mehreen Pirzada] also became an actor so that we could be together. We were just trying to make ends meet, doing whatever came along. At the time, I wondered if I could become a mainstream actor; did I have the confidence to be one? Would I make it? And on a good day, I would say I’m going to sign a Dharma movie or that I’m going to work with Karan Johar. I had absolutely no idea that eventually, that’s exactly what I would do. I think when you’re starting out, you say things aloud but you don’t really believe them until you manifest it. And I still am…”
H!: Tell us about someone who has particularly inspired you.
GP: “Personally, it’ll have to be my mother. She’s been a fighter all her life and a lot of my strength comes from her. When I was a child, I never thought about the workings of everyday life or how the bills got paid. We encountered hurdle after hurdle, and she didn’t have time to think, she just had to act — no excuses, no complaints, no breaks. Sometimes, I sit down and wonder why certain obstacles come my way, why I have to be the one to face them? But then I remember that everyone has their fair share of struggles and that one simply must power through. Professionally, I draw inspiration from many different people. I’ve read Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s memoir where he spoke about his early days, living in a small place with numerous people who worked odd jobs to sustain themselves. What I liked was that if someone fell short of money, the others would pitch in to help cover it..
My biggest inspiration, though, comes from the failures of others. I remember someone telling me, ‘if you want to do something right, don’t look at the successes in the industry, look at the failures and don’t repeat their mistakes’.”
H!: We believe that your character Neeraj, from the Netflix show Class, was based on a real story of a Dalit boy. How did you tap into his anger while portraying him on screen? Do you think India is witnessing a real shift in its approach to caste-based narratives?
GP: “It’s constantly evolving and gaining more attention, as seen in director Neeraj Ghaywan’s episode in Made in Heaven—which was beautifully done, by the way. The boundaries are becoming less distinct, yet the issue persists. I remember one of the cast members asking me what my caste is and I didn’t know, because I’ve never really asked or cared about it. It doesn’t matter in my world. I’m a Punjabi-Sikh, and while I don’t come from a place where it matters, I have heard people making derogatory comments on the subject in light banter. That’s not right. And after Class, I’ve started telling them to stop, because in the end, we are all simply human beings. As for channelling that feeling of anger, of being wronged, that can come from anywhere. I draw from my own life experiences as a substitute, such as the nepotism-outsider debate. It exists and though it doesn’t always matter, it can undermine and make people feel looked down upon. That’s how I understood the feeling and then built upon it.”
H!: People say you’re officially ‘in’ the industry now. What does that mean to you? How did you gain access to this seemingly exclusive community?
GP: “I have no idea. (Laughs) I think it’s always a work in progress. It’s about leaving a lasting impression in people’s minds, getting traction and staying relevant. That’s essentially what gets you work; to be seen, but not too much. Although, it is primarily outsiders who need to ‘enter’ the industry, taking on roles that ‘big’ actors might be hesitant to attempt, and hoping that audiences will appreciate it. That’s what happened with [my Netflix film] Guilty. The character I played was a rapist, a particularly challenging role during the MeToo movement. But at the same time, it was also a leading man role. I remember a renowned director had told me that it was a very tricky part and if I hadn’t done a good job, my career would’ve been over. But that’s what got me on the map. There’s no single big breakthrough moment where you think—now, I’m in. Instead, there are many small moments that will someday be talked about, that people will then call an overnight success. But it’s never overnight.”
H!: How do you manage to remain grounded amid all the glitz and glamour of Bollywood?
GP: “That’s not a choice, I just am. I’m grounded because I go back home to my mother and sister. They keep me humble. If I lived alone, maybe things would be different, but I don’t think I could do that. And self-importance is so last century (laughs). Plus, the more important I try to be, the less significant I truly become.”
H!: What’s next on your plate?
GP: “A show that I have almost finished shooting for, which is slated for a possible release early next year. The announcement should follow soon. And Season 2 of Class, of course. I want to hone my craft through a few acting workshops, which I pursue during my free time to learn new things. For instance, in South India, many workshops focus on the physicality of acting, bringing out the animal in you. I also want to learn filmmaking in the US at some point.”
Photos: Sheldon Santos; Creative Direction: Avantikka Kilachand; Styling: Anushree Sardesai; Assisted By: Ila Parakh; Makeup: Anu Maria Jose; Hair: Swapnil Pawar; Location Courtesy: Yazu Mumbai
This story has been adapted for the website from a story that was originally published in Hello! India’s September 2023 issue. Get your hands on the latest issue right here!