There seems to be no stopping Iranian-German model-turned-actress, Elnaaz Norouzi.
After completing her debut film Maan Jao Na in Pakistan last year, she flew to India to shoot Punjabi film Khido Khundi during the summer and then moved on to filming for India’s first Netflix original, Sacred Games in the fall. She flew back to Pakistan in time for Maan Jao Na's pre-release promotions.
“Actually, the last day of Sacred Games was so chaotic and they had to manage it because I had to leave for Pakistan,” Elnaaz told Images as we sat down to discuss her new projects. “In fact, I came late for the promotions. I had to come [to Pakistan for the promotions] much earlier, but we had to finish Sacred Games and send it to Netflix.”
Although the press and industry moguls in Pakistan welcomed Elnaaz’s inclusion in local cinema as cultural exchange going beyond the Indian trade of talent, her film Maan Jao Naa opened in Pakistani cinemas in February to a rather lukewarm response – both critically and commercially.
“There’s so much to making a film. You never know what will happen after editing. You can shoot the best film of your life, but they will destroy it in the editing if they can," Elnaaz maintains.
"I was very confident after Maan Jao Na because Aabis [Raza] sir is an incredible director. He got the best out of me; I just wasn’t able to see that in the film. Yes, I didn’t expect it to be the way it turned out, but even then, it was an amazing experience. I learnt a lot, which went on to help me during Khido Khundi. I think for your first film, you want to choose the right one, but you never know how it would turn out.”
However, Elnaaz decided to take it in her stride and felt that with the state that cinema is in, Maan Jao Na’s completion and release in itself was monumental considering it was being put together by a new production house and first-time actors. She seemed particularly satisfied for having been able to dub herself, despite not being very fluent in Urdu.
Elnaaz's Punjabi film Khido Khundi, in which she stars alongside acclaimed Punjabi singer/actor Ranjit Bawa, releases across the border on April 20. Set in the village of Sansarpur, which produced some of India's finest hockey players, the film revolves around the Indian hockey team’s rivalry with its British competitors. It narrates a young athlete's determination to bring back Punjab's prestige. One wonders how important the women are in the film.
“I’m not just romancing Bawa; my role is of getting the protagonist back to playing hockey when he stops. The other woman in the film [Mandy Takhar], is a lawyer who helps fight a legal battle between Britain and India,” Elnaaz revealed. “I feel the women in the film are very important and if you wouldn’t have had either of them, you would lose. It’s a family story at the end of the day as well.”
Having had fairly varied experience in modelling and acting across Asia and Europe in the past decade, Elnaaz feels that representation of women has improved in South Asia, with women playing roles that wasn't just eye-candy.
"I’m glad things are changing. I’ve grown up in Germany and I’ve been brought up in a way where girls can live by their own terms, and I related to my character in Maan Jao Na at a very personal level. I do think it’s very important for me to have a substantial role; it can be short, but it has to be important in taking the story forward. I loved Maan Jao Na’s story that was based on a woman. I’ve also heard Verna was told from a woman’s perspective as well.”
Her breakthrough to the mainstream, however, would most possibly be through her detective-thriller Netflix original, Sacred Games, being helmed by Anurag Kashyup and Vikramadatiya Motwane. The series tackles organised crime, Indian politics and espionage and is based on Vikram Chandra’s 2005 bestselling novel of the same name. Co-starring some of Indian cinema’s finest talent, Saif Ali Khan, Radhika Apte and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the budding starlet was able to bag one of the four protagonist parts after a tedious three months of auditions.
“I’m not playing a cop; it’s very different from the others. It’s extremely complex, so much so that at times, we ourselves weren’t sure,” she remained tight-lipped about her character, but spoke of having enough space alongside industry bigwigs. “There was always so much space for all of us and I loved that women could work together. Radhika and I have something of our own to offer and we complement each other well. I’m very excited about it. I can’t speak a lot about my role, but you’ll see a lot of twists and a complete change towards the end of the first season that will continue to the next.”
Though, judging by the book, Elnaaz is likely to be playing a particularly wild character by the name of Jana, but does not confirm my guess with even a hint of a smile. But she says she felt her career came full circle, as Elnaaz was now acting with Nawazuddin, who had awarded her a certificate during her acting workshop with casting director Mukesh Chhabra. She also had high praises for the Nawab of B-Town.
“My very first day on the set, I had a scene with Saif sir. I was so excited; I was shaking and I had forgotten my lines. I had no idea what was happening, but it went really well,” she narrated with child-like exuberance. “He was so supportive. We did our lines together and he didn’t leave the sets when my close-ups were being taken. He was there throughout, giving me the lines so I could react better. We see them as stars, but they’re incredibly humble.”
“When I was in Germany, I would watch all these films like Kal Ho Na Ho and I dreamt of meeting all these stars,” she added. “I think the whole of Bombay, in fact, India, was auditioned for my role in Sacred Games, but I got it! I am very much working with Shah Rukh and Salman, and I know I’ve been very lucky, because not everybody gets to.”
Elnaaz, who had earlier been scheduled to star in hit Punjabi film Jutt & Juliet’s Bollywood reboot under Salman Khan’s banner, SK Productions in 2016, had to explore other avenues as the film got shelved. “I think the script had some reworking to be done, but our director Ahmed Khan got involved in Baaghi 2 and the production house had to move on to its next film, so it unfortunately didn’t happen,” she shared.
Nonetheless, Elnaaz has her plate full with two scripts from the Hindi film industry, one of which will go on floors this year. She says she’s naturally become more cautious as an artist of what she takes up and hopes to return Pakistan with a meaningful assignment.