How they’re living life to the fullest beyond the Bollywood buzz.
By Aiden Jewelle Gonzales
Despite not having grown up in an Indian household, the culture of Bollywood was still a pervasive part of my childhood growing up, from films, to songs, to gossip about actors who even I knew were household names; a film industry that was somehow richer and yet more accessible than Hollywood in distant L.A. My knowledge and appreciation for newcomers in the industry, who braved the hurdles of nepotism, tabloids, and the intense scrutiny of critics and the public alike, only grew over the years, so it was with anticipation that I sat down to speak to Nivaan Sen, a Bollywood actor and producer who started off as an industry neophyte at the tender age of 13 or 14.
“I’m never satisfied, I’m always searching for the next role; the next challenge to improve myself,” Nivaan tells me, as I bring up the success he enjoys now, having starred in well-known series such as Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, Do Hanso Ka Joda and Pyar Ka Dard Hain Meetha Meetha Pyara Pyara, and more recently, as one of the lead roles in Ghum Hai Kisikey Pyaar Meiin. “My journey is still ongoing, and yes, frankly speaking, there are a lot of trials and tribulations in Bollywood for the common person. At the outset, so many producers asked me, ‘Who are you? Why should we invest in you?’”
Surely, I ask, his talent, theatre and classical dance background from Banaras Hindu University, and even his ‘Best Actor’ award from India’s Best Cinestars Ki Khoj would allow him a foot in the door, but he laughs. “Back then, they’d always say, ‘So what? Who is going to see or watch your films? You’re not a star kid – at least if they perform, people will come and watch them.’ But I’ve kept fighting for my dreams, and my achievements, and I’m enjoying the journey, along with my wife, who is one of the best things in my life. Together with my father, who is the godfather of my career, she’s always boosted and encouraged me.”
Listening to this with a smile, his wife, Thai-Indian Neelu Mahadur Sen, who runs their production company Urban Boat Films with Nivaan, agrees about the importance of fighting for your dreams, even in their love-match marriage. “For many people, our relationship is like a dream – Bollywood actor falls in love with a normal girl from another country,” she says with fond laugh. “But the reality is that we have gone through many ups and downs in the years before we got married. We only met once or twice before our wedding, because we’re both working professionals based in different countries. It wasn’t easy.”
“So at the end of the day you can’t say that you’ve already succeeded,” Nivaan chimes in. “I’ve had ups and downs since 2005. Sometimes I have work, sometimes I don’t. Sometimes it’s all fame, glamour, popularity, and sometimes nobody knows you. But at the end of the day, I believe everything is destined. God has written something for you, you just have to believe.”
Nivaan and Neelu speak further to Masala about the realities of being an actor and producer in Bollywood, adapting to their cross-continental marriage, and the possibilities of Thailand’s burgeoning film industry.
Tell us about your childhood, and what interested you in acting.
Nivaan: I was born and brought up in Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh, which is where I completed my entire education, including a Master’s in sociology with a specialisation in criminology from Mahatma Gandhi Kashi Vidyapeeth, one of the oldest universities in India. Although I lost my mum as a kid, God bless her, my journey to the arts actually started with her side of the family. Pandit Ravi Shankar, the renowned sitar master andcomposer, was my uncle. Although I’m not into music, I believe the talent and desire started there. My father always encouraged me, and so when I was 13 or 14, I joined Season 1 of Zee Cinestars Ki Khoj, the first reality show that included acting and dancing together. The rest is history.
What genre of film or series do you prefer acting in, and how do you immerse yourself in such varied roles?
Nivaan: When I started this journey, I had certain dream roles: patriot, war hero, sportsperson. But now, as an actor, I just want to take on new challenges. Over the last decade and a half, I’ve played different roles – mama’s boys, loverboys, football players, and even superheroes. I try to give honesty to every character because if I decide that I’ve already gotten my dream role, I’ll settle; I’ll limit myself. The key is to go beyond your imagination.
One of my most challenging roles was actually a recent one in Jhumke, where I had to play a taxi driver, who’s the father to a girl who grows up on screen, from eight years old to 20 something. And that’s not something I have experience in – I’m definitely not old enough to have a kid that age! [Laughs] But my producers had full confidence in me, and when someone puts their faith in me, I will justify that faith.
As you said, your relationship sounds like something out of one of the movies that you’ve acted in. Can you tell us a little about how you both met?
Neelu: I met him through an app, and I didn’t believe that this was the real Nivaan Sen. [Laughs] We just started talking, and he was very down to earth and easy to talk to. I didn’t believe that this was an actor working in Bollywood! We talked for years – he was in India, and I was in Bangkok, and we only met for the first time after three years, when I went to India with my mum and my sister, and he was on leave to Varanasi. His whole family came to pick us up, and they were so warm and welcoming, and showed us the real Varanasi.
How do you handle the cross-continental relationship, especially during COVID, when you were both in separate countries for a few years?
Neelu: While we may not have been physically together, mentally we are 100 percent together. For example, we just bought a new house here in Bangkok, our first house together. Throughout the whole period of purchasing the house, I was always on the phone with him – we ask each other’s opinion about everything.
Nivaan: Even at the beginning of our relationship, we did not have Facebook and FaceTime, and so we wrote letters, we had normal phone calls. COVID has made us realise that you don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and that you can’t plan for the next five, 10 years. But we are trying our best to accommodate the fact that we are working professionals in different countries.
Tell us a little more about Urban Boat Films, your production company.
Nivaan: We started the production house in 2017, and so far, we’ve made approximately 6-7 films, including short films, which have won national and international awards, including the Best Producer award from the Kolkata International Film Festival this year, and the Best Writer award for Neelu, from the same festival a year ago. We intend to bring the production house to Thailand, and we’re looking to collaborate with the right people, who are honest and genuine – which I think is the most important thing.
Thailand is also heavily investing in their movie industry. In your professional opinions as an actor and producer, do you see a bright future for the industry here?
Neelu: Because I live here, I can say that Thailand has grown in this industry. While things were hard the last two years because of the pandemic, before that, Thailand was one of the hubs for film shootings, not just Thai ones but Bollywood, Hollywood, etc. Once things open up again, there will be more investors interested in working with Thailand. The country is also trying to produce their own talent, which is important because we have to make the industry strong here first, and only then can we can bring in more projects from all over the world.
Nivaan: Hopefully, because of our experience and the goodwill we have, we’ll find the right investors. And then the sky’s the limit!
What would you say is the biggest challenge in Bollywood?
Frankly speaking, money matters there. Talent is fine, but to win any battle, you can’t just go in with bare hands. You need a weapon. That weapon in Bollywood is not just your talent, but a background of money, and financial planning, so that you can survive long enough to show off your talent.
Moreover, nepotism used to make things hard for newcomers, there’s no doubt about it. But everything has changed because of COVID. There are so many new actors now, and in fact, during the last Filmfare Awards, pretty much all the awards were taken by outsiders. There didn’t used to be OTT (streaming) platforms where people can show their talent; the monopoly was in film and TV only. But now, people can see your talent and pick you up on OTT platforms, and you can make projects with limited budgets. Now, content is the biggest star; it is king.
Do you have any advice for those wishing to start out in the film industry?
Nivaan: Everyone is a star now – on their phone, on TikTok, on Instagram Reels, or on YouTube. To be famous is easy in this day and age, but success is very difficult. Viral is not the same as success – getting an Academy Award, a BAFTA, a Filmfare award. To sustain that level of success, you have to be honest with yourself. Do you have the talent, the dedication, the drive? Are you willing to give your life to this profession? If you are, you are welcome.