Steve Dhillon - making Punjab proud at Leo Awards

Born and raised in Canada, Steve Dhillon, a talented North-American actor of Punjabi descent, who recently got nominated in prestigious ‘Leo Awards’ for his performance as the ‘Best Male Lead’ in the first ever Punjabi 3D film- Pehchaan 3D, spoke exclusively to about his journey from being a sports fanatic to an accomplished actor. At a moment when Punjabi cinema is undergoing a sea change in every way, here is an actor who is doing Punjab proud in his own way. Best known for his role in a film, 'The Godchild', in North America, Steve is equally gung-ho about working in Punjabi film industry, if given a chance. Read on to know more about this talented young man - an interview with reporter - Prakriti Malhotra. 

Q: How do you feel being nominated for Leo Awards for your movie - Pehchaan 3D?

A: This is one of the biggest accomplishments of my life and I don’t think it has quite hit me just.  To be nominated for the “Best Male Lead in a Feature Film” feels very surreal and I now know what it means to be absolutely humbled.  It is an honor just to be nominated; anything more than this is a bonus to me.

This is something that I worked and trained towards for almost 10 years and to be honest, it came much earlier than I thought it might. 

Q: Tell us more about these awards and Pehchaan 3D.

A : Pehchaan 3D was an independent film, (directed by Manny Parmar), based on an idea that stemmed from the minds of a few young friends.  An idea that I feel much honored to be a part of.   The first Punjabi 3D film ever that was released in India and Canada and has now been nominated for 3 prestigious Leo Awards!  This film is a story about self-sacrifice and doing the right thing; a story about friendship; a story about family; a story about love!  Films like this are very rare in today’s age and these nominations are just affirmations of something we already knew.  It means we all did something right.  Something special!

Pehchaan 3D is a full Punjabi film that has been nominated as the top film among 50 feature North American Films submitted for ‘Leo awards’. The first time for a Punjabi film to accomplish such a feat! The judging panel is composed of over 50 people and to the best of my knowledge; there is not one Punjabi person on the board.  This means the film is universally accepted and appreciated regardless of language.  This is a HUGE moment for Punjabi Cinema, so it is hard not to be excited and nervous.

Q: How was your experience while shooting for Pehchaan 3D?  

A: I have been lucky to have been on fair amount of sets, some of which had very large budgets and some smaller.  In terms of feature film budgets, the Pehchaan Budget was quite low.  However, despite the financial constraints, things were very organized and ran very smooth and on schedule.  The set had a real family atmosphere to it and everybody gave whatever they could to help.  When over 40 people who have never worked together are forced to combine efforts for a month or two, there are bound to be problems, but they were very minimal on this set. One thing that stands out was the maturity and patience level of Manny Parmar (director &  producer) and Gurpreet Sohi (producer).  In my experience in the film/TV industry, this is usually inherited with years of experience and age.  Gurpreet and Manny are very young and are beyond their years in this aspect.

Q: When did you decide to become an actor? Have you been trained for acting?

A: All through my youth and adulthood, I was very active in sports playing competitive soccer and ice hockey.  In 2003, I suffered a serious knee injury and was on crutches for nearly half a year and I found myself going crazy unable to play sports and with a lot of free time.  I had considered taking acting classes for years but had never taken the step.  I contacted a prominent theatre actor/coach and started training and never looked back. It seemed late to start my training in my mid 20s, but I enjoyed the challenge and I was already settled in my career outside of acting (I have my Degree in Mechanical Engineering and went on to earn my MBA as well).  I later went on to take the Professionals Acting Program at the Actors Foundry in Vancouver. 

Q: Which film/TV serial did you debut in?

A: Following dozens of TV commercials and some short films, I had a small role on a CBS TV series which was filming locally.  However, my first major lead role was in the film - “The Godchild” which was written, directed and produced by Philip Spink and Zuzana Novak.  Godchild follows the journey of 4 people who are directly affected by an unknown spiritual power of a young boy.  I played the role of Dr. Arman Powar and the film had very strong reviews and had a small distribution in the US as well.  Interestingly, the casting call was for a Caucasian male but they allowed me to audition anyway.  After landing the role, they soon re-worked the role for an Indian doctor. I’m glad they did, as they were some of the classiest and professional people, I have ever had the pleasure of working with.

Q: Which projects are you doing currently?

A: I recently completed a three-part epic trilogy (yes, three full features) based on true events in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia.  Principal photography was in 4 countries (Punjab/India, Vancouver/Canada Los Angeles/USA and El Centro/Mexico).  I play a lead character whose story is inspired by an actual person.  The film’s name is Maple Heart (Punjabi Title - Rukkh) and I filmed in English, Punjabi and Hindi with over 50 days on set.  If I say anymore about the film/character, everybody will know who and what it is about and the producers will kill me so I have to stop there!!! I also recently filmed a principal role in a TV film called, “The War Reporter” based on the Lebanese Civil war.  I actually delivered some of my lines in Arabic.

Q: Do you ever plan to come to India and work here?

A: I am being considered for a North American TV film, which is set to partially film in India.  I think it is a very exciting time to part of the Punjabi Film Industry and I would love to come and work in India in a role that I could bring all of my effort to whether it be a Punjabi or Hindi film.

Q: What's your dream role?

A: I have been fortunate that the roles that I have auditioned for and landed were all very appealing.  The scripts were well written and the characters followed a true arc throughout the stories.  They all have an internal struggle, which is a great challenge to play without going over the top or “indicating” as we call it.  I would love to do a film with Deepa Mehta and have been hounding her production office for the last 5 years!! Vik Saran is another prominent filmmaker here in Canada and it would be an honor to work with him as well.  I’m open to anything as long as it doesn’t involve me singing and dancing too much.

Q: Who is your favorite Indian / Punjabi actor?

A: I was always a fan of old movies (Laawaris, Qurbani, Desh Premi) and was never really into anything new.  That all changed after I watched ‘Rang De Basanti’.  I think that Aamir Khan is nothing short of a genius. I am also a big fan of  Irfan Khan’s natural delivery, and Salman Khan’s great screen presence.  It is what keeps the audience’s attention and energy absolutely focused on an actor and it is something that cannot be taught.  Salman Khan has it! In terms of Punjabi Cinema, Raj Babbar is amazing.  A lot of my training has instilled that comedy is the most difficult form of acting as it is based almost strictly on timing and less on dialogue.  That being the case, I would say I have huge respect for Gurpreet Ghuggi.  He has a great positive energy that shines through and he has a special ability to make the audience feel good. 

Q: Tell us something about your hobbies.

A: I am quite simple in my personal life.  I have been a workout junkie since I was 9 and in addition to my gym membership, I have my own outdoor gym at home.  I like to watch films and spend time with family/friends.  In my free time, I like to do renovations around the house or work on my cars.  I find it very therapeutic to work with my hands.  It helps keep my head clear and I have conceived some of my best business and film ideas while doing fix up jobs around the house.

Q: What are your views on Punjabi film industry?

A : In what I have seen, I think Punjabi cinema has come a long way in the last few years.  This is a very good thing, however, I do think that the genre of films which are successful in Punjabi cinema seem to follow the same formula.  But I don’t think there is anything wrong with this.  This is a business and the producers must create whatever brings them the best return.  As it is in any other job, we have to keep the bosses happy and the customer is always right!

That being said, I do feel that Punjabi Cinema is prime for new genres to emerge.  The formulas that work should remain but new areas can also be explored as well. I feel that the audience should drive this change.  You cannot tell the people what they want.  The people will tell YOU what they want. The talent is coming along and the technical abilities have already been seen.  It is now a matter of the critical mass deciding which new direction they want the movies to go.  Punjabi audiences are very smart, passionate and supportive so I’m sure we will see them drive the industry into new horizons.

( Pechaan 3D trailer)