Thursday, January 11, 2007

House of Waris

From an interview of Waris Singh Ahluwalia by Vishavjit Singh

He is 32 years old with long slender fingers, neatly tied dastaar, short bushy open beard and a New York hipness. He became a celebrity in the Sikh community after his last role in the Hollywood flick, 'Inside Man' by Spike Lee. I saw the movie after its DVD release and felt compelled to create a Sikhtoon. I ran into him last April at the Vaisakhi parade in New York City in the midst of thousands of Sikhs as he was carrying a langar plate for his mother. I introduced myself and he recalled me from the Sikhtoons. I got straight to the point. I wanted to know the man behind the Hollywood actor and asked him for an interview. It took a few months. Finally, we met at a small restaurant of his choice in downtown Manhattan. This is the story of Waris Singh aka Waris Ahluwalia, in his own words.

I was born in Amritsar. My father was a linguistics professor at Guru Nanak Dev University. My mother had a Master's in Education from the US and ran a school - she was a headmistress and teacher at the same time. My father gave me the nickname Waris and my parents never got around to giving me another name. So "Waris" stayed, and literally became a legacy since my mother named the school "Waris Public School" shortly thereafter.

My father had a burning desire to see America. So we moved to New York when I was five years old. We first lived in Brooklyn, which was an interesting choice since almost every other Sikh family was living in Queens. Since there were no jobs for a Punjabi professor in the US at the time, my father ended up working for the Census Bureau.

I was the only Sikh kid in my elementary school, middle school and high school. It created some interesting times. There were the regular run-of- the-mill bullies who I had to deal with but I made it through school without getting scarred. I was a very social kid. I remember, in elementary school, my parents expressed their wish for me to grow up to be doctor. I took my first Biology course in Grade 9 and quickly decided medicine was not for me. In Grade 11 I took a law class and my teacher told my mother I was a very eloquent speaker and I should be a lawyer. I developed an interest in politics and culture. My parents sent me to summer camps for leadership training as well as to Sikh youth camps.

I wanted to get away from the city so I enrolled at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York. I am not sure if it was the best choice. I was the only Sikh in school and you could count all the African-American and Asian students on the fingers of your hand. Freshman year I only wore a patka to school, partly out of laziness and partly out of perceived pressure that I felt people put on me based on my looks. But I think my parents instilled in me enough confidence to know who I am and defend my identity. I attended parties, raves, and warehouse gatherings for entertainment. I never drank alcohol or tried drugs although I was surrounded by people who indulged in recreational drugs quite liberally. In sophomore year, I started wearing my dastaar, off and on, but more often than not. I had my parents' support and love; their faith in Sikhi was strong enough to instill in me the concept about not being dependent or attached to anything or anybody.

Academically, my first Political Science class in college was a disaster as I slept through most of it. So that killed the Political Science adventure. I had no professional direction in my college years except my love for music. I did not play any instruments but I loved music. A lot of musical groups were coming out of the UK. So after 2 years in college, I spent a year abroad at the University of Manchester. England was great from an identity perspective since there were so many Sikhs. I started wearing my dastaar at all times.

My father passed away towards the end of my year abroad. I moved back. After a semester at college in upstate New York, I transferred to a college in New York City to be with my mother and take care of her.

After college I went on two interviews, one of them for an advertising firm. For the first and only time in my life, I dressed up and gelled my beard. The guy interviewing me gave me a run-down of the position and what I could do in five and ten years. The thought going through my head was: "I do not want to be seeing your face in ten years, let alone be with the company for that long." I just needed a job.

Early on in my adulthood I knew I did not want to be working for anyone else. So after attending the two interviews I decided to turn to my first love, music. I always loved attending events and gatherings with music and in college I had got interested in the production side of these events. I went to work with a group of people to produce musical events in Rhode Island and upstate New York. So now, having graduated, I wanted to start a music magazine. I approached the same people I had worked for in college, for support and funding. I obtained the seed-money and hired an editorial staff to start the magazine. I was running around like crazy for a month and even got some companies to advertise in the first issue of the magazine. But, after a month, I decided this was not for me. I did not want to be working those crazy hours month after month. So the music magazine which was titled 'Oscillate' never took off.

My motto in life is to learn from experience. I do things and learn from the process and as soon as the process gets boring I am on to the next thing. After the magazine effort I went to work for an internet start-up. That lasted for some time and then I decided to change gears again. I got involved in an effort with a friend to jump-start a non-profit organization to increase HIV/AIDS awareness in South Asia. We made a lot of trips to India, specifically Bombay, and worked on prevention efforts through educational campaigns. I was involved in it for a year and a half.

By this time I was immersed in New York arts life, having lived in this creative capital of the world for years. I started getting involved in arts-based projects and ideas. I worked on a New York Yearbook Project which was like a high school yearbook but about the arts in New York. The project focused on the entire creative production process and analyzed the role, for example, of all the players that made a painting-exhibit possible.

I was trying to burst out of my shell. Trying to find my place in the world. I had this guy in New York's jewelry district make some rings for me. As soon as the rings were made I left the city. I do not like the cold weather. I can't function in the cold weather although I have lived most of my life in New York. I have some friends who had moved to Los Angeles. So I started spending the winter months in Southern California. I helped a friend open a restaurant in Los Angeles. I worked with friends on other projects.

While in Los Angeles, I happened to go to Maxfield's, one of the most famous and lavish boutiques in the world. I noted that people were literally afraid to walk into the store, given its lavish surroundings and prices - clothes, jewelry and vintage items. The place was frequented by Hollywood stars and as I walked around the store the owners noticed my rings and placed an order for a supply of rings to be delivered within a week. Each ring had a silver base with an elaborate assortment of diamonds and was quite hefty.

The rings sold out. Before long, the fashion press started writing about them. I needed a name for this new endeavor. I chose 'House Of Waris'. I tired to learn about the entire process of jewelry-making and spent time with big wigs in the jewelry industry and attended jewelry conferences.

One day I was having dinner with Hollywood director Wes Anderson, who was a friend. Over dinner, he asked me what I was doing for the second half of the year. I said I had no big plans. He sent me the script for his new movie and told me he had a part for me in the movie. He did not even call me for an audition. So I took a break from the jewelry business and headed to Italy for the shooting of 'Life Aquatic'.

My second night in Italy and I am having dinner with Bill Murray, who leads the cast in the movie!

I spent five months on the project.

While in Italy, I found a workshop in Italy to resume my jewelry work. House of Waris was back in action with jewelry coming out of Italy. Later I started another workshop in Jaipur, India.

With House of Waris in full swing and getting regular media coverage in fancy magazines and newspapers, one day I happened to get a call from Spike Lee who had got my phone number from Hollywood actor Willem Defoe, with whom I had become friends on the set of Life Aquatic. Spike Lee wanted me to audition for an upcoming movie. I went for my first ever audition and thought it went horribly. I was called for a second audition since Spike Lee could not attend the first one. Two hours later, Spike Lee calls me and tells me I got the part. I was shocked. I am not even an actor and Spike Lee was offering me a role in his upcoming movie, 'Inside Man', with Denzel Washington!

I spent a few weeks on the shoot in New York. In between, I was traveling from US to Europe and back, and then to India and back, for the jewelry business. This was the hardest summer of my life. I have never worked so hard.

I have been getting press for almost all my projects for the last ten years but the Sikh community really got to know me through 'Inside Man'. I was getting e-mails from young Sikh kids from around the country saying 'Thank You', which was amazing. I never intended to be a role model since I never felt I fit into the regular or normal mold, given the crazy journey I have taken in life. But it's amazing nevertheless, imagine! to be considered a role model to young Sikhs. I feel humble.

I already have my next Hollywood project lined up. I will be spending the next few months in Darjeeling, India on Wes Anderson's new movie, 'The Darjeeling Limited' starring Owen Wilson and Adrian Brody.

To all young Sikhs, I can share a couple of things from my life experience:

Follow your heart.


"if you are not willing to take any risks, nothing is going to happen".


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