Ready to role

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Miss India Australia pageant founder Raj Suri speaks to The Indian Sun about his new life behind the lens – and in front of it — and the secret to having a long career in showbiz

 

Raj Suri has spent his life turning ordinary people into Bollywood stars. Blockbuster babes Pallavi Sharda and Vimala Raman were both sculpted and glossed to big screen perfection by the Miss India Australia pageant he founded back in 2001.

Now a surprise request from an old friend is seeing Raj step into the limelight for the first time to play a character role in SHAB — an edgy indie-flick that traces the lives of four Delhiites.

Raj founded the Miss India Australia pageant after moving to Australia nearly 20 years ago and finding a disappointing lack of role models and opportunity for Indians wanting to break into show business.

“They’re Australian but their talent could be bharatanatyam dance. Or their talent could be singing classical, or even mainstream, but they have no takers in the mainstream media, whether it’s on television or otherwise,” he said.

Having experience as a fashion photographer, Raj started running free workshops teaching young Indian women about the world of modelling and show business.

When he registered the domain name www.missindia.com.au, an unexpected opportunity landed in his lap.

“I got an email from an organisation based in New York saying ‘you want to take our franchise for Australia for Miss India worldwide? I became the national director for Australia… we did the first contest in 2003 and the Sydney Morning Herald [newspaper] came, and it just took off from there,” he said.

Raj has now switched Miss India Australia back to a workshop format after years of successful stage shows. But he said the demand from entrants, who see it as a springboard to Bollywood, is higher than ever.

“Fifteen years ago we would get about 60 to 70 applications. We get now close to about 150 plus. And we don’t advertise or anything like that,” he said.

Meanwhile, he’s been thrilled to see his dream of helping make role models for Indian Australians come true.

“They want to see their people who look like them on the mainstream television,” he said. “Now people see Pallavi as a role model; you know, she was on 60 Minutes… that gives me the greatest satisfaction,” he said.

In SHAB, Raj pays the part of Rohan, a strapping bachelor fashion designer whose success attracts a bevy of young hangers on.

“SHAB director Onir is a good friend of mine,” Raj said, explaining how he got roped into acting.

“He had discussed SHAB with me last year… I knew he wanted someone from the industry to play it. He never told me he has me in mind and I never thought that I would be playing this until he called me in Delhi and said, ‘Raj do you want to play a role? I said ‘Onir, you’re telling me now? Because you know, I have a flight to catch to Kashmir next morning’,” said Raj.

Raj auditioned at the crack of dawn the next day before rushing to catch his flight. “In two days I get a call in Srinagar, Kashmir, and he says ‘You’re on’,” Raj said. Before he knew it, Raj was flying back to Delhi to face the cameras and shoot his first ever scenes.

How did he cope learning to act on set?

“I’ve done television. You know, Bollywood Star on SBS? I was one of the guys on the panel. But that was a reality show. There was no script… this time I had to memorise lines,” Raj said.

“I had to rehearse with my co-actor Ashish Bisht, the lead actor. Onir’s direction helped. He can really plant the character in your head. We used to rehearse in the van before they’d say our shot is ready. And we would be there for about three hours before they would say ‘Your shot is ready,’ (laughs) so we had time to sort of kill it,” said Raj.

While Raj’s break into acting came out of the blue, he believes he may have what it takes for a lengthy career behind the lens.

“You know, I’m not young anymore, I’m 40-plus… I won’t make lead but I can keep making films. I don’t have that pressure of — hey you’re an actor now, you can’t do anything else — I can always pick up my camera and do a documentary, or I could do fashion. So there’s no pressure of being just an actor. As a character actor I’ve got a longer life,” said Raj.

SHAB is scheduled to finish shooting in January.

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