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How I became an actress while studying medicine – Terina Patel

She is one of the leading acts in the Bollywood movie industry, but Terina Patel is now making waves on the global scale. Having acted in hundreds of movies, she lets the world into her business as an ex-medical student, achieving actress, producer, and philanthropist. She spoke to our man, AKANBI QUADRI, at a chance meeting during the recently concluded  Africa International Film Festival (Afriff)  in Lagos. Excerpts:

How do you describe your acting style?
I’m more of a thinking actress. I like to understand my character, what her background is, where she comes from, why she is the way she is. Once I have a better understanding of my character, I can then lend that knowledge to the scenes that play out, and the things that she does throughout the film or throughout the series. I also tend to rely a lot on my director for his guidance because he’s got a greater overview of all the characters. So, instead of my character being, in its solo sort of understanding, it’s always good to gauge the understanding and the dynamics between my character and the other characters through the vision of the director.

How did you find yourself in the acting world?
I was in India as a medical student. I was in Bombay studying to become a doctor before I got spotted. I was spotted repeatedly where, you know, people would approach me with their details and suggest that I get into modelling or suggest I get into films. And as I was out and about on weekends with my family, at dinners, filmmakers would approach me and say, look, you’ve got, like, really beautiful bone structure, and you’re really beautiful. You really should, you know, are you interested in doing films?

Or are you interested in this? It’s so bizarre because I come from such an academic family. And nobody in the family is in the arts; it was quite foreign to them. And it was certainly foreign to me because I’d also never seen myself that way. I’d never thought of myself as somebody who could be in front of the camera. I was just a girl with the head in the books. That was it.

That was my life. And then I decided one day because my friends goaded me on, and they were like, come on, Terina, just give it a shot. Like, why not? Like it could just be the most amazing thing and you never know, and why not? You have nothing to lose. And I went ahead, I did this photoshoot, and I couldn’t believe the result. I couldn’t believe that that was me. I had this out-of-body experience where I was looking at these pictures and saying, Oh my God, that’s phenomenal. I had never seen myself or thought of myself as being this really beautiful girl. And so yeah, one thing led to the other, and before you know it, I was shooting commercials around the world.

Talking about your debut in 2006 with the film, ‘One Night with the King’, how has the movie influenced your style as an actor?

Part of my career was working with stalwarts and legends like Omar Sharif, Peter O’Toole, and Laurence Olivier. I mean, life does not get any better than that. Because here, we are upset with these people and then offset just sitting with them and engaging with them. And I guess from a very young age, I was just like a sponge, absorbing everything, watching my environment, learning from those. I was blessed and fortunate enough to be around. Life is such a gift. Life is such a gift, so enjoy it.

Since you’ve been in the industry, how many movies have you produced or acted in so far?
I have been in the industry for a long time. The first film that I produced was ‘Mandela’s Gun’, which we took to the Cannes Film Festival and festivals around the world. It was a beautiful film, and I was very excited about it because of the nature of the subject, the team that I put together, and for somebody whose first film to be that big, is quite a feat. I’ve also produced TV commercials, music, videos, ads, TV series, things like that. I have starred in countless films – 1618 films; countless TV shows and the biggest TV shows in South Africa, from the wild, to ‘Generations’, to international franchises like the ‘Real Housewives. I currently have a show on the air called ‘African Dreams’. I have a slate of films that I am producing. One film is in post-production for Netflix. And I will be working with Netflix and Amazon going forward.

Of the lot, which are your favourite films and why?
I have a particularly favourite genre. I think that it’s very much mood-based, and so now, with the change of format in the world – we live in TV series which have gained a lot of momentum in my passion and in my entertainment in watching TV series. But again, sometimes I’m just in the mood for a movie. And then, of course, I’m in the mood for a TV series. The thing with the TV series is that I get so invested in the characters, that it almost becomes a part of your life. And I watch films almost most nights. I watch TV series almost most nights. And I feel like, they become a part of you, they start to shape how you think. And I remember watching Olivia Pope, scandal the fixer, and I loved it. And the way she was just so strong and kick ass. I became very much like her, though I’m already very much like that I became even more so being inspired by her character. So, I think I gravitate towards shows or films depending on my mood.

What are the challenges actors are facing in the Bollywood industry?
The kinds of challenges that actors face are pretty standard around the world. There’s always a shortage of work, for the most part. I think that’s what actors suffer from. This is why I take the route of producing my content. And even in producing, you know, you’re always going to have challenges and difficulties, obstacles in raising money or trying to get to the right sort of cast and crew. I do believe that your script is really important. I think it’s probably the most important part.

And in terms of working with the right sort of talent in getting your script ready, or putting your team together, there’s a challenge. You know, I don’t think that any of these things are impossible. I just think that that’s part of the series of challenges that one would face if one took that route. And the thing is, is that the industry itself is like no other in every other industry.

You know, there’s a template, there’s a specific structure which one can follow, whether you want to be a doctor or a lawyer, or an engineer or whatever it is you want to be. But the difference with the arts is that there is no set formula where you can copy, paste, and get your work done and achieve and, you know, be a pivotal part of the industry because in a role it is there.

There are thousands, there are tens of thousands in India, there are hundreds of thousands of girls who could equally fit perfectly the character or the role. And why would one get it over the other when everybody is equally talented and equally beautiful and equally everything? So, there’s just such a huge sort of reliance on luck and fate and all these things that aren’t in your control, which is what makes it challenging.

Tell me about a time where you had difficulty with a character, what was the role, and why was it challenging?
How your challenging roles can be addressed is like, I said, is that you engage with people who understand the character and characters better. You can always consult with an acting coach. You can watch actors that you love. I watch a lot of Meryl Streep. I will watch anything and everything she makes. Yeah, and you go about it in that way.

What does it cost to make a good production?
I mean, a question like, what is it cost to make a good movie? All of that is so relative. It is. I mean, some films have been made with practically no budget. But if the story is beautifully told, it carries you through as an audience. Of course, there are certain types of films where you’re recreating a certain era that costs, or if it’s a Marvel type film and you’re going to space or, it’s these great characters that you’re creating, as the American studios, make, futuristic films or, like I said, superhero films, those things cost, but not every film has to be that sometimes it’s just an emotion-driven story versus a plot-driven story where you’re following a person or two people or the dynamics of a family, and it could be set in a home in one location. A good film is not dependent, ought not to be dependent on a huge budget.

What has been your greatest accomplishment as an actor?
When people ask me what my greatest accomplishment is, I feel like there’s so much more that I’m doing that I cannot say what my greatest accomplishment is. To be a working actor is a huge feat because there’s a small percentage of actors in the world that are working. So to constantly work and to constantly be relevant and to constantly reinvent me and to always be top of mind for producers and directors is huge. I’ve worked in India, I’ve worked in South Africa. I look forward to working in Nigeria. I’ve worked all over the world, in the UK, in the states. And I’ve been there for pilot season.

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Tell me about what you are working on now?
Currently, I’m working on a book. It’s a story with my father and me, it’s a beautiful journey with father and daughter. I’m also working on a slate of projects there at various stages of readiness and development. One film is in post-production as we speak. It is a Netflix film that will be released in February. I am a producer on that. I’m also working on a variety of other films: a docu-series, some fictional films, and a real-life story. Yeah, there are some exciting projects that I’m working on right now.

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