Heading for Hollywood

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From 1,250 television shows to 14 feature films, Rishi Deepak shows the quest for satisfaction is endless

A wealthy and cruel businessman lords over the dockyards in Mumbai while making slaves out of all his workers. Three brothers with a troubled past decides to fight against his injustice. That in a nutshell is the story of 1991 Bollywood blockbuster Hum starring some of the industry greats such as Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikanth and Govinda. For Rishi Deepak, an 11-year old then, it was a movie that captivated him to the extent that he could not complete his food – his spoon constantly severing from his mouth.

At that point, his father’s words, ‘can you just eat properly?’ cut through his reverie. Watching Hum, Deepak knew right away he wanted to be an actor. In later conversations with his father, Deepak remembers being asked what he wanted to do in life and his answer remained the same: to become an actor. “Koi dhang ka kaam karle (get a decent job)” was the terse reply he was often met with. Like every Indian father and growing up in India, Deepak’s father had bigger ambitions for his son. And with every next-door family producing a doctor or an engineer offspring, it kept Deepak in the competitive pool.

“So my dad had all these conditions. If you want to become an actor, first do your engineering and after that do whatever you want, he told me,” says Deepak. True enough, he took up mechanical engineering at the Career Institute of Technology and Management (CITM) in Faridabad and whilst studying managed to get roles of an extra in television shows. Sometimes it meant standing behind the main actors but he did manage to work in three TV series with very small roles.

Once Deepak completed his engineering degree, his father wanted him to look after their factory, DW Technologies, which dealt with mechanical engineering products. “I felt my dream going down the drain,” he recalls.

However, by some change of luck he moved to New Zealand for further studies and that is when Deepak says he ‘got lucky’. Literally. New Zealand in the early 2000s was buzzing with opportunities for people like Deepak. He got straight into the television industry through Dreamz Productions, New Zealand’s own Bollywood production house. From 2005 to 2010, Deepak worked in 1,250 episodes of different shows including as host of Indian Idol, Crazy With Dance, Kaun Banega Superstar, Bollywood Hungama, and Jhalak Dikhlaja in Sydney where he was the judge for the grand finale.

“I was the first Indian guy to come on Indian television in New Zealand, that was a huge thing. I was lucky to get this break. I am thankful I didn’t have to struggle,” says Deepak.

After 2010, the first film opportunity came from his Pakistani friend Fahad Hussein. “He came out with a wonderful script on three students and how they are surviving on student visa, and their struggles at finding jobs so they can qualify for permanent residency (PR),” explains Deepak. The film titled Mr Singh Wants PR was Hussein’s and assistant director Jonathan Paul Paynter’s first 90-minute feature film, complete with the customary Bollywood dance dream sequence but made on a shoe-string budget.

“It was a wonderful experience and the film is close to my heart,” says Deepak, who went on to work in many other movies. He played the lead in Dark Side of Revenge (2011), Highway to Suva (2012), Urban Turban (2014 ), supporting in Stars in her Eyes (2012), Not For Children, Last Star, Waiting For you (2011), Twisted Families and Foreign Flame (2018).

In Ek Ka Do Aur Dhoka Ek (2016), a thriller, directed by Yogesh Pratap, Deepak recalls a wonderful experience of sharing space with well-known New Zealand actor Ben Mitchell and Aryan Vaid, former Grasim Mr India.

Between 2010-2016, Deepak did 13 films. 2016 was also the year he moved to Australia where he did his 14th film Foreign Flame. “The journey has been brilliant till now,” he says.

Incidentally, apart from the persuasion of his family (his three brothers and parents are settled in Australia), Deepak says it was Foreign Flame director Jagga Peddi who convinced him with the script of the film that made his decision to move here easy.

Most of Deepak’s films have been released in New Zealand, Fiji, Australia and the United States. “But of course, distribution is something our producers and directors look into in details. Feeling Lucky was released in India as well and was received well,” he says.

Foreign Flame was released in Village Cinemas in Melbourne, and showcased in Sydney, Adelaide, New Zealand and Fiji. The film also won the Best actor and Best director awards at the Festival of Globe (FOG) in San Francisco. Now it has gone to distributors and will be released on Netflix and other digital platforms as well, says Deepak.

For Deepak, a career highlight was working on Fijian film Highway to Suva, which is a story about love, family and friends and produced by Unifocus Pictures. “I had to learn Fijian Hindi. My director didn’t trust me in the start as I had to learn the language, he was like ‘you are too fair for the role’ but after the audition he said it is definitely you,” laughs Deepak, adding, “The film was received very well in Fiji and people in Fiji knew me and loved me. It’s a wonderful feeling to be loved in another country that much.”

Since having moved down under, Deepak says the opportunities have not stopped coming although he rues the fact that there are not full-time producers, directors or actors. But as a qualified mechanical engineer, he has his parallel career going and takes time off when projects come his way.

At the moment, he is brimming with excitement for what he calls the deal of his lifetime -a Hollywood film for which he is on preparation mode growing his hair and so on. For reasons of privacy, he cannot reveal much except that he plays a decent character in the movie. “The film has A listers of Hollywood and I am keeping my fingers crossed. This is not a small film, it is a huge action thriller, it is Hollywood action. So let’s see where this takes us.”

Deepak reveals he was in the US when he got recommended for the film. “I was dumbstruck. I can’t tell you in words how I felt when I was told who all are in the film. I believe it is destiny, they saw my work earlier and that’s how my journey started. It’s been a year now and I am trying to get the looks right,” he beams. The film will be released in September 2020 and shooting is commencing soon.

Other upcoming projects include a horror film which he is doing with a Melbourne-based producer and director, and a Punjabi film with a Sydney director where he will share space with few known names from the Punjabi film industry in India.
Deepak does harbour Bollywood dreams but to go and stay in India is going to be a bit of a challenge, he believes. “I am settled here. If, God willing, the Hollywood film opens my doors to all the other opportunities then I am more keen towards Hollywood than Bollywood.”

Asked what his craft is, Deepak says, “I do research because if you are not true to yourself, you cannot play that character. If a director has a clear vision I will be his mirror, I will deliver what he wants and I am open to suggestions.”

As the first Indian on New Zealand television, Deepak has enjoyed fame. “I had three shows running in a week’s time so I got visibility. People in New Zealand really love me and I feel blessed they are all in touch with me. Its humbling. The films were also received well. They do connect when they see a local actor coming up.”

Having always been fascinated with films since the age of 11 and how one character can live so many lives, Deepak is sure of not giving up on this passion he has nurtured. “I have been doing this for 15 years now and I believe everything happens for a good reason. Bigger things are bound to happen if you are a firm believer!”

By Indira Laisram