FROM DARJEELING TO HOLLYWOOD-ERICK AVARI
From Darjeeling to Hollywood, our very own charismatic, elegant, talented and renowned actor Erick Avari of Hollywood blockbuster hits like “The Mummy” “Stargate” “Mr. Deeds” “The Dictator” “ Hachi –a Dog’s tale” “Planet of the Apes” fame joins Adwiti Subba Haffner in an EXCLUSIVE interview where he talks about his Darjeeling days, about apprenticing with the iconic director the great Satyajit Ray and what his father the past owner of Capital Hall and Rink Cinema Hall taught him in his life. Read on about how he made his way from acting and directing plays in North Point School and College to Broadway in New York and then to this all glamorous world of Hollywood.
The mist looked unreasonably flimsy but it squirmed as its wraithlike scarves wrapped the Capital Clock Tower in a maze. Erick Avari heard the rhythmic tapping of his shoes echoing down Laden La Road as he hurried to catch the five o’clock movie “The Day of the Jackal” acted by Jack London.
The theatre had been fully booked for the past week and Erick had read great reviews in The Times of India. As he entered the hall he heard a group of kids, with snotty faces and enthusiastic voices saying “Paanch kunchee, paanch kunchee dus Jana bata uthayo bhaney pachaas paisa uthcha….lu som, utha utha, hero Ramesh lai bioscope hernu patha, tesley obber dammi garcha!” (If we collect five cents each from 10 kids then we will have fifty cents, let’s send Ramesh – our hero to the movies today. He does well with acting.)
Erick felt a gust of fascination as he ran upstairs to catch the previews, but he followed the kids with his eyes. They collected the money and sent Ramesh to the movies. It was a little bewildering and it intrigued him but he didn’t give it another thought as he became engrossed in the lethal elegance of the thriller!
The next day his father, Mr. Avari , owner of the two movie theatres in Darjeeling sent Erick to the Capital Hall with an errand. The mist crawled low that day and because he had a College play practice to attend to at 6:00 PM he was scrambling out when the thick mist carried the tiny enthusiastic voices of the kids he heard the day before, to him. Curious and intrigued he followed the sounds and to his amazement he saw the most poignant scene than any movie or any play that he had seen or acted in before.
They were huddled outside the cinema hall, close to the sound box where one could hear the whole movie clearly but not see it! Ramesh, the one who was sent to watch the movie was in middle, him being the best raconteur had been elected to relate and enact the movie for the rest of the kids. Like a camp fire they surrounded him as he acted, enacted, related, connected and unfurled the story like the movie itself, except that Ramesh was every character. The group of children whistled and clapped, Ramesh with his cheeks red with focus and heat of the performance had them enraptured!
The telephone rang and it was his agent calling “Erick, you have an audition tomorrow at nine” her scratchy voice pulled him out of his reverie. His eyes adjusted to his Los Angeles home, the Thanka next to the window and the warm bowl of soup still on his desk. “Oh…Thank you so much. Where and with whom?” Erick drew the curtains and the view of the Los Angeles city sprawled in front of him “At the Annie Grindley Studio. The Director is Woody Allen. The movie is called “Don’t Drink the Water”. It is a television movie. You up for it?”
“Up for it? Certainly! Woody is one of my favorite film makers!”
Erick hung up the phone; the sound of the little children behind Capital Hall enacting sequence after sequence rang in his ears as he prepared for the audition. The holographic scene of yesteryears superimposing with his life here in Los Angeles as an actor, an artist and a performer. A warm feeling entered his heart. He was living the American dream and he was from a small town in Darjeeling, tucked away almost like a fairytale.
Adwiti : In one of the interviews on YouTube you say that “Kasuf from Stargate has an arc, a journey” Does Erick Avari’s life have an arc, a journey? Could you please describe your journey from Darjeeling to Hollywood? Did you always dream of being in Holly wood?
Erick Avari : It has been an arc, a doubling back, a full circle and a parallel frame really! When I was growing up in Darjeeling my dream was to be in Broadway. I enjoyed films but I never thought that there was anything there for me or so I thought, I was not aware that my great grandfather was actually a film producer, theatre producer- in fact he was one of the first producers to put women on stage in Calcutta or India for that matter.
From Darjeeling to America I suppose, I was very fortunate. I had an Indian Bachelor’s degree and when I was applying for colleges, Charleston State University suggested that I should get my Masters in English instead of jumping into theatre, this was a way in. I studied one year in Charleston and a beautiful twist of fate lead me to New York. I answered a magazine ad It read: to act in the Summer Theater for $10.00 a week for six shows in seven weeks with free boarding. Twenty minutes from Broadway. Most importantly I was to earn six college credits. I had little money for the fare which was $100 roundtrip back then, which was huge! I borrowed the money from my friends and took the greyhound bus! It was only when I reached I realized that I had spent money I didn’t even have to audition for a part that hundreds were applying for just on a whim!!
Fortunately I got the job. I met my wife there too! They cast us as husband and wife, we did a show together, and the other important and truly interesting thing that happened was that one of the professors from Mont Clair State took an interest in me and was able to help me get enrolled for the masters program and the rest is history. I managed to stay on. I was class mates with Bruce Willis and lived with him as flat mates for two weeks.
So when I came to New York and started working in theatre, I was doing Classical plays as well as contemporary ones. The Shakespeare festivals which goes on all through summer was good, but the rest of the year..you grabbed whatever was out there it and tried to make the best of it.
In 1990, I came to Hollywood on a two week vacation. I got a call from my New York Agency saying that the Los Angeles Office wanted to meet me. So I went to the LA agency and they said that the audition was right away. I went after postponing my tennis match with my friend and got the job! It was one day on a show called Lauren Waters and they paid me more than the entire run I had done in New York. Then, I was the new face in town and they were snapping me up, while I was in Los Angeles..Then all the shows were in Los Angeles.
So I moved here in 1990 and have loved it. So then there was a major shift in my career and my path as I got sucked into the television shows and then the movies it was a whole new world and a totally different animal. And not often do you get the same sort of satisfaction, as you would with a good production on stage. And now after all these years I am really reconsidering taking the time away from Hollywood and going back to the theatre..I have achieved my goal for Broadway before but now this arc has sort of twisted and become a circle..And that is what I wanted to do when I was in Aunty Manisha’s ( Mrs. Chaudhary ) house in Darjeeling.
Adwiti : You have been in the industry for 30 + years and you have consistently provided the audience with skilled acting and believable characters. You have been a trendsetter for a generation of South Asian actors in Hollywood, when you first went to Hollywood there weren’t many South Asian actors at all right, leave alone from our hometown Darjeeling? How did you infiltrate this very tough industry and create a niche for yourself? What were the challenges that you faced.
Erick Avari : We were three in New York. Shelly Desai, Harish Nair and myself and I was very fortunate to get some very prominent jobs in such a minority. Prior to 9 11, people were open to seeing me play various shades of grey, the color and that look was not that significant. I feel after 911 that became a very sharp line drawn in the sand, that and my resemblance to that man, the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai who took my career away, with the strong resemblance that I had . People would say “ Well. We need to make a story about Hamid Karzai. All of a sudden, I started getting a lot of interest and offers but to play various terrorist type of characters. That was where I sharply opposed to war, violence and the spread of hate. We went to war with the wrong country and then continued to believe that the world owed us, I found it so wrong, that I didn’t want to put my name to that, but Hollywood hates to hear “no”! First time you say “no” then they think it is a contract negotiation, then when you say No again then it is a personal insult! Then the pressure is from all over the agencies but that was one thing I was very very clear on. That was another dipsy doo in the arc ..this of course came at the time when My career was peaking, or booming. I had big features with the Mummy, Independence day, StarGate , Mr. Deeds..I was on a roll. Then 911 happened and it was an interesting time. Now the roles are slowly started to be not so heavy handed or one sided. That is encouraging to see.
Adwiti : I do believe that there is a distinction between people doing supporting roles and you because all the characters that you act or enact are very believable and you add that touch of theater and class to most of the roles that I have seen you in, your diction, your clarity in your speech and the purpose of the character is very well delivered, they are alive, memorable and solid.
Erick: Well, that is very kind of you. You know I had a director once who told me that I am like an archeologist, you brush away all the other stuff and find the body of the character. That is my job, as an actor. I would like to be remembered for, if there is any kind of legacy I leave I would like to have played King Lear.
Adwiti : You have in Chicago’s Goodman Theater and The Cleveland Playhouse, played the role of the King in “King Lear” right?
Erick : They say you have to do King Lear at least three times before you could kind of , sort of get a handle on it..And when I act that for the third time, it will be my arc.
Adwiti : How involved were you with the family business in regards to the movie halls? Why did it close down?
Erick Avari: I wasn’t very involved, my brother went back to Darjeeling and helped wind things down. Thanks to him he saw the writing on the wall, kept urging dad to close down as the Gurkhaland agitation was escalating and his health was deteriorating, the climate was too harsh for him and fortunately it was just in time that he left Darjeeling.
Adwiti : It is of course no coincidence that the family that brought Hollywood to Darjeeling reaches the other side of the screen. It reminds me a little of that beautiful movie “Cinema Paradiso”.
Erick Avari: When that movie came out, it was just so nostalgic. It was really moving, because it did tell the story of Capital, Rink, my life in Darjeeling, my childhood.. there were so many similarities. I got to tell you the story about the movie theatre, not just to us, not just to the movie theatre, but I remember watching these little kids, the street kids who didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket, even the fifty paisa ticket, what they would do was that they would collect the money, buy one ticket and send in the best storyteller and then he would go watch the movie and the next day , they would crowd around the movie theatre right by the screen so they could hear the sound track , this kid would re-enact the whole movie, he would be doing this to any language, English, Nepali, Hindi listen to the dialogue, use the body language they were so intuitive . I spent hours watching these kids. Story telling is in our blood.
We grew up without television we relied on entertaining one another. There were so many people in Darjeeling that were such talented raconteurs. My dad being one. I could listen to him for hours. He would tell us jungle stories and make up like Disney characters, baby monkey was the hero. All his stories had morals. And that is why I am so drawn to this business. It is interesting when I tackle a script these days, I feel a lot of movies don’t stress the story..We are also so conditioned to neat Hollywood endings and tied up finales, but life isn’t that way. Life is messy and vague and as long as a movie makes you think then yes – mission accomplished.
Adwiti: Tell me something about your theatrical experience in Darjeeling? I know you and Robindra Subba were both very well known in that field.
Erick Avari: There used to be this beautiful lady Mrs. Manisha Chaudhary. We learned music with her. We were about 20 kids ranging from ages 5- 18 or more. Every year we used to do two productions including the nativity play. Then of course the elocutions and school plays. Then I went to North Point. We had a very high standard tutored by Father Van, Father McGuire, Father Burns and the plays were such a big event. The whole town came to see us. Then when we got to college, Robindra got to college too and then I don’t know how it started but we came up with this idea of doing a 2 man play called “Sleuth” starring Michael Cain and Lawrence Olivia. Robindra and I were the actors and we got a couple of our friends involved, composed the music and organized the props and we sold this not only in Darjeeling but also a club in Jamshedpur, we traveled with the play and of course drank all the money we made! The show was such a hit! We did things like they gave us money for the first class train ride and we took third class tickets and drank the rest. Acting was in our blood. There was so much honesty in the roles we did. And now I keep hearing such great things about Robindra Subba, his school, his school plays. I am so proud of him, for educating the kids and doing it so well!
Adwiti : All of us who lived in Darjeeling in the era when the Rink and Capital halls were still open and operational, remember your father Mr. Avari as a very dapper and humorous chap. I recall he used to even match his walking stick with his attire. What was the father-son relationship like?
Erick : His walking stick was a cherry wood walking stick and his tie was pretty much almost always the same color every day, so that is why it looked like he matched the two!
As for father-son relationship, I wish I had spent more time with him. He was so far ahead of his time. He was the one who started going for Shikaars with the British and he quickly became the Chief Game Warden of the West Bengal and his job was to shoot the man eating tigers or any sort of animal that was endangering the area and causing havoc through the villages. Even then he saw the necessity for conservation of our forests, for the water reservoir, his warnings about landslides, the over building in our small town was all that he professed and imparted generously to anyone who would listen.
My father would get the blockbusters and all the movies but never went to the movies himself. He would rather sit and read a good book. That was something he completely enjoyed rather than the movies. He is perhaps the most widely read person that I ever met. He was so interested in every subject and was able to hold deep discussions on any topic because he loved to read. He hardly ever went to the movies with us, now my mom took us to the movies yes. My dad was a great raconteur too!
And, more than anything about my father that sticks out was that he hated bullies and always tried to help the poor and the down trodden. One of the things we would do which drove my mother crazy was that he not only gave money to the street people, or the homeless but he made it a point to always touch them, touching them on their hands or their heads. And my mother would fuss at him about the billion germs he was bringing home but he would say to her more than once, that there was no point in giving money when there was no human contact. He made us understand that the human contact, the touch was more important than money. He was such a humanitarian and gentle and sensitive but he was also someone who loved the military. He would have loved for one of us to have joined the military about in spite of that he supported me through my journey and my career wholeheartedly.
Adwiti : Did you act in the movie “Kanchenjunga” with the great Director Satyajit Ray. Tell us how it was to interact with him, to feel him as an artist, to see his heart and to experience him and his art.
Erick: I didn’t exactly act with him. I apprenticed with him. I trailed him. He came to our house for tea one day, and I had no idea who he was. A tall very elegant soft spoken gentleman graced our house and I went up and asked him what he did. He replied he made movies. Then he invited me to the set and I went to The Happy Valley tea estate after school. I was a young boy then, but to be touched by someone of that caliber and to not realize by any stretch of imagination his greatness in the film world, but that was the beauty because I was not intimidated at all. He would talk to the actors in Bengali and I would ask for a translation and he would take the time to translate. He was a remarkable person.
But then, when he was in his death bed, I was performing what I feel was the highlight of my career. I acted as Vasques in “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore”, a New York Shakespeare Festival presentation of a play in two acts by John Ford . I sent the whole program to him through a friend who was going back to India. So, Satyajit Ray got to see the program which I dedicated to him on stage. And he did get to see it.
Adwiti: Do you miss Darjeeling? What do you miss most about her?
Erick: I miss our Darjeeling perhaps more than what it is now. I miss the mountains, the walk, the people , and the lifestyle. In a way growing up my life was such a joy. I miss watching movies with my mother and my brothers. One the way home I used to ask my mother to tell me the story of the movie we just saw, just so I could recapture the film and prolong the moment. To be surrounded by that kind of beauty, Kanchenjunga.. is what I miss most. It is so overpowering. I went to Barcelona and I thought about how when people are surrounded by so much art and culture it affects their values, their minds. It reaffirmed my belief that art is such an important aspect in life, I wish we could embrace that more as a nation . Art is a service to the community. Money should not be the reason for a show living or dying.
Adwiti : What has Darjeeling taught you?
Erick: Education definitely. I should give the Jesuits and lot of credit or blame! They are a wonderful teaching institution that has put me in good stead more than anything else because I came to America with a suitcase and just US $ 15.00 in my pocket and now I am living the American dream. What else can you attribute it to, you know -your upbringing, your education, your values, and appreciation of beauty. You cannot be not affected by the majesty of the mountains because when you see something like that every day, you realize how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things, it is a reminder to keep your ego in check.
Adwiti: If you went back right now and you strolled past Sinclair’s hotel, Chowrasta, Das Studio, Keventers, Ladenla Road what would go through Nariman Eruch Avari’s mind and heart? Can we get a glimpse?
Erick: A lot of nostalgia, memories just flashing, being such a small town those were such significant land marks, so many things just happened there but I think nostalgia would just overwhelm me and in some sense I think I am a little afraid to go back , about how it’s going to affect me. I have heard about how Darjeeling has become now and what it was then and I want to keep the pristine memory of Darjeeling in my mind I suppose, but it really would be very interesting to go back to where I came from. Growing up in Darjeeling is such a privilege and I tell people here when I say I am from India, they ask me what was it like and I reply nothing like you would imagine it to be..Nothing like what you would think it would be. It was a special place and will always be a special place for me.
Adwiti: What in your opinion is the future of cinema?
Erick: Future of cinema..I wish I knew ! But where I would like cinema to go? I would like to see many more independent films from all corners of the world, stories with real storytelling, I think what we are passing off as entertainment is more often than not detrimental and it is affecting our society, affecting the way we communicate with each other, the way we look at each other. It is affecting our CORE!!! I would love to see that change.
Adwiti: Beautiful! Lastly, what advice do you have for the people who are chasing their dreams?
Erick: Don’t wait for someone to tell you to create something, create it now! I think especially for filmmakers today, you can shoot, edit and create the film in the house. But to kids in Darjeeling, with all that talent and that beauty for a back drop, the story almost doesn’t even matter. They are off to a great start, so use it . I would love to see some films coming out of Darjeeling , The Darjeeling/Nepali culture lends itself to so much to art and culture and music and storytelling should not be any different. When you think about it your eye is already trained for natural beauty , so I think kids in Darjeeling today should not feel any lack, they are perfectly well equipped. Get the right story, shoot and get it out there! And throw it on YouTube! And you learn more from doing it than any college can teach you. I can say this from my own experience you learn more on the job than any college degree, not that education is a bad thing but I still see and hear people my age talking about their Yale and Harvard education and I think good God are they still talking about the four years of education forty years ago? So the education down the journey they close down to that. One should be to learning on the job. College education is nowhere near what it is in the real world. So go out there. Get what you want. Do not be afraid to experience, to learn to make mistakes. There is no dearth of talent in Darjeeling. I taught myself the blues guitar.. Do it! Do it! Do it!
After the interview, his words, his warmth, his charisma continued on in my mind. I felt like I visited an extensive flower shop or a flower garden and walked away with a beautiful bouquet in my hands and the fragrance of his humility, his humor and his demeanor captured my senses not just as a memory but as a beautiful impression in my mind. Erick Avari, you are not just an archeologist in the field of acting, but you, have I believe, have chipped and brushed away negatives and ego based bearings in your personality to emerge as a beautiful human being as well! I hope that one day you can visit your alma mater and your hometown. Darjeeling awaits you! Thank you.
This verse I dedicate to you Mr. Avari:
“In all places, then, and in all seasons,
Flowers expand their light and soul-like wings,
Teaching us, by most persuasive reasons,
How akin they are to human things.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Erick Avari’s website is www.erickavari.com
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[Adwiti Subba Haffner is an entrepreneur, social worker, writer, freelance journalist, world traveler, mother, wife, meditation instructor. You can find her at https://www.facebook.com/AdwitiHaffner and her website iswww.alivewithadwiti.com]