INTERVIEW: ‘Mogul Mowgli’ and ‘The Serpent’ actor Alyy Khan
Alyy Khan is a successful British-Pakistani actor who has had an eclectic career comprising of Bollywood and Hollywood productions, as well as extensive roles in British Television series. He can currently be seen in the hugely successful BBC series The Serpent and the Riz Ahmed-led British independent film Mogul Mowgli. For his role in Mogul Mowgli, Alyy has received a Best Supporting Actor Nomination at the British Independent Film Awards and he is longlisted for Best Supporting Actor at the BAFTAs.
How did you find the transition between working on a film like Mogul Mowgli to working on a BBC production like The Serpent?
I’m used to working in all three formats, film, television, and theatre and I have been doing it for a substantially long time so there isn’t that much new you can take to the table each time you get a different project.
Mogul Mowgli was an extremely difficult film to work on simply because it was so demanding and challenging as an actor. It didn’t work on the normal premise which television works and while it was scheduled as tightly as a TV production process, we knew that we were trying to create; I’m not going to be arrogant and say something special but we had the luxury to try to give it as much commutative input as we could from various angles and at that point if the director felt or even if the actors felt that the written word on the page was not translating as organically through the medium of the actor then we had the luxury of experimenting and trying different things because it was an independently controlled production.
I think when you are working on a larger set with corporations and networks involved, I think it becomes that much tighter and so I don’t think you have that much luxury to have your creative juices massaged if such a term exists when you’re on these sets. And, while you’re off set you don’t have that much of an opportunity to challenge the script or the scene because even though working actors might be living in the same hotel for example like we were in The Serpent, we could hang out and work the scene, the director was always away working something else and to have everyone together in the same room would only be possible just before you shot the scene. So typically, you would be on location and you would have your 30/40 minutes to iron out the scene and become satisfied with it, you would get straight into the filming.
So, I think that there is a difference. In one there is that labour of love and the other was, not just another job because it is a very special job, but on a much larger scale so it was handled and managed differently.
What attracts you about the UK film and television industry?
Well, the writing for a start. Obviously, in our parts of the world, our mannerisms, our sensibilities, our personalities tend to lend themselves more towards melodrama, all our emotions are that much more heightened. We’re louder, our body language is that much bigger. When you come to the West, it’s not just the UK, even American writing I feel is much more contained and internalised and so as an actor, it’s great to have a handle on being able to play both types of person.
Then again, there is a fine line between a brown person whose natural inclination is full-drama and then put that person into a white setting, for example, how would that have changed his mood and personality and so how much would that have reduces his exuberance but at the same time give you a glimpse of the mannerisms. So, there are many reasons, but obviously, the first thing is the writing, for sure.
How have you kept yourself active during the Pandemic?
Well, we are pretty lucky, we get a lot of bang for our buck, I live in Pakistan, in Karachi, and it’s pretty warm here nine months of the year. We are lucky that we have had a bit of space, we haven’t been cooped up indoors, the weather lends itself to outdoor activities. So I’ve been focusing on staying fit really, it lends itself to a healthy release of endorphins. It’s all related really, you can either drink yourself into depression or you can take some positives out of it which I’d like to believe that I’ve done.
What was it like working with Riz Ahmed?
It was an interesting process, conventionally I like to take the script as bible and to stick as close to it as possible because, again, there isn’t that much time to muck about on the set. When I got hired for the film and I came from Karachi, I came about a week earlier for rehearsals and fittings and I thought that Riz and I might get into a room maybe for a day or so and try to work on our parts but it was very interesting to see how he likes to work and he was an extremely spontaneous and organic kind of actor and so to understand that type of work, I think it took me a couple of days, but it only makes things more challenging and keeps you out of your comfort zone so for me it was a great learning experience. I think it forced me to bring my A-game out, it was brilliant.
Has working on British TV productions changed from Sharpe to The Serpent?
It’s a relevant question, while there might be more opportunity and more diverse casting and that ‘colour-blind’ seems to have become the catchphrase, it’s important to remember I came to England because I was impressed by the writing. I don’t think enough research and importance have been given to the writing of a brown character. I think Caucasian male/female characters, their authenticity is down to minute details but when you look at a brown person you are not differentiating between a Londoner, a Cockney, a Liverpudlian, or Mancunian. Each is an individual, each has unique ethnicity, a different accent, a different voice.
Similarly, the subcontinent being that much larger has different types of people living all over so you might be telling a story that is set in the north part of the continent in Delhi and you cast it which a bunch of actors from the southern part of the continent. For a white person, a brown person is a brown person, but to a brown person watching it you think come on, they’re not from Srinagar, there’s no way. It is the same when a Londoner is trying to play someone from Liverpool, if you don’t have a scouse accent you don’t have it. So, I think that is the only place I feel more work is necessary. Otherwise, the volume of work has gone up which is great.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m excited about a Marvel project which could be happening soon depending on Covid but the other one is The Serpent which is airing at the moment, it’s a BBC One project and I believe the show is quite exciting and people have liked it a lot so try and watch that, particularly a couple of episodes near the end.
Mogul Mowgli is currently exclusively available on BFI Player Subscription and will be released on Blu-ray by the BFI on 22 Feb. The Serpent is available to view on the BBC.
Full Review of Mogul Mowgli – click here