Three years ago, he sent chills down our spine as the antagonist Abu Usman in the Salman Khan blockbuster Tiger Zinda Hai. In Special Ops, now streaming on Hotstar, Iranian actor Sajjad Delafrooz returns as a villain, impressing as the mysterious “sixth man” Hafiz Ali in the series starring Kay Kay Menon that has won a lot of accolades. The Telegraph chats with the 35-year-old Delafrooz on being Hafiz Ali and reuniting for the show with his Baby director Neeraj Pandey.
Your entry into Bollywood was through Neeraj Pandey’s 2015 thriller Baby in which you had the bit role of a doctor. How was it reuniting with him on Special Ops in a much bigger role?
Working with him again gave me the chance to see where I was six years ago and where I am now... sometimes, it’s difficult to believe (smiles). I remember I did so many auditions for that role in Baby, even for that small role.... I had to put a bandage on Mr Akshay Kumar... that was my role (laughs). At that time, if someone had told me that I would get to work with Mr Neeraj Pandey as one of the leads in a show as big as Special Ops, I wouldn’t have believed it.
For me, Baby was just a two-day shoot and I didn’t get much time to interact with him. But I remember when I got a chance to talk to him one day for a minute or even less, I mentioned that I had really liked A Wednesday! (Pandey’s debut film) and asked him what kind of research went into it. He was surprised that I had managed to watch it because A Wednesday! is not a conventional Bollywood song-’n’-dance film and he didn’t know it had made such an impact even outside India.
For Special Ops, when I met him again in 2019, he exactly remembered what we had spoken about on the sets of Baby! This time, I had a lot more interaction with him... from the preparation for the role to the look test. He’s very patient and has so much knowledge... he knows exactly what he wants from his actors. I just listened to him and his guidance.
What were the challenges of playing Hafiz Ali in Special Ops vis-a-vis the challenges you faced playing the antagonist in Tiger Zinda Hai?
I didn’t do much research, to be honest. I just listened to Neeraj ji. When you trust your director and you know that you are working with one of the best in the business, then you are aware of the fact that he knows the character you are playing more than anyone else, even more than you. People who know me know that I do a lot of research before any role... but I didn’t do much here. It just flowed.
When we spoke after Tiger Zinda Hai, you had mentioned how you don’t think of yourself as an actor... you look at yourself as a person who fits a character. Has that thinking evolved with the work you have done subsequently?
It’s been the same. I never went to acting school or did any kind of acting course. I don’t understand the acting process, to be honest. When I am asked how I played a specific scene, I can’t explain it because I really don’t have a process. I just become that person and I allow him to lead me in that moment, in thought and action. I mostly go with my subconscious, and I don’t try to force anything. I let the character do the job.
You worked in the Zee5 web short The Overcoat before Special Ops. How do you view this space in terms of the opportunities and creative freedom it comes with?
As far as Special Ops is concerned, it was shot on the same scale as a big-budget film... so I didn’t feel any difference. Of course, the digital space has come as a boon for many, especially for writers, because they are now able to tell interesting stories. That gives actors like us the space to play varied roles. I have been living in Mumbai now for the last two years and the journey — from Baby to Tiger Zinda Hai to now Special Ops — has been interesting.
Is there the fear of stereotyping when you are largely approached for negative roles or do you feel that there is scope to bring in variety even within the confines of that?
What I played in Tiger Zinda Hai is different from my role in Special Ops, though both are antagonists. I try not to copy myself. With every role, I try and change everything... from the look to the way I talk and walk, everything. I know how critical time is in a career like this and I don’t want to let go of good opportunities, even if it means playing negative roles a couple of times. I know that if I do a completely different kind of role, people will adjust to it and accept me in it. I love working in India and my goal is to keep working here for as long as I can.