Before he became the villain in 2017 Bollywood blockbuster Tiger Zinda Hai (Tiger is Alive), Sajjad Delafrooz was a disillusioned marketing executive living in Abu Dhabi. While the world of film always had a special place in his heart, he says he didn't have the courage to work towards it. Or the know-how.
Also, there was a small matter of family expectation. “When you’re from a small village like me, success has a different meaning,” he explains. “For my family, success meant getting a job in an office, owning a car, a house and raising a family. If you have these, you’re considered successful.”
Delafrooz, whose family moved to Sharjah from Iran when he was 2, says he worked towards all of that, but found himself in a rut. “By 2011, I had finished my master’s and got myself a decent marketing job in Abu Dhabi, but I was so bored with my life,” he recalls. “I knew if I had to do something, I had to do it then.”
Despite his family’s protests, Delafrooz quit his job after a year and began modelling full time to pay his bills. In the meantime, he wrote to casting agents and producers in Bollywood and even travelled to Mumbai in 2014 in the hopes of getting his big break. “It was a brave thing to do because I spoke very little Hindi then, but I was determined. I went and knocked on the doors of different agencies every day, requesting them to give me an audition,” he says.
Delafrooz's determination eventually paid off. That same year, he was cast for a small role as a doctor in the acclaimed Bollywood thriller Baby, starring Akshay Kumar, which was filmed in Abu Dhabi. But it would take another two years, and many more failures and disappointments, before his big Bollywood break in Tiger Zinda Hai.
“I got a call in 2016 from Yash Raj Films saying they wanted me to audition for the role of the villain. It was like all the hard work and sacrifices of the last five years had finally paid off and I wasn’t going to let the opportunity slip,” he says. “So I rejected all other offers for commercials, grew a beard, learnt Hindi and began sending them tapes regularly.”
After three months of auditions, Delafrooz was told he'd been cast to play Abu Usman, an extremist who holds a group of Indian nurses hostage in Iraq. The film, starring Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif as special agents tasked with rescuing the nurses, was one of the biggest hits of 2017. Extensively shot in Abu Dhabi, Tiger Zinda Hai grossed more than $87 million globally, becoming one of the highest-earning Bollywood films in history.
Delafrooz was praised for his portrayal of the notorious Abu Usman and became a recognised face in India overnight. In 2018, with his new-found fame and confidence, he decided to leave the UAE and set up base in Mumbai. “I gave the role everything I had. It’s hard for anyone else to get noticed in a Salman Khan film, but so many people appreciated my role and that’s been very humbling,” he says.
Delafrooz can currently be seen in the Disney+ Hotstar series Special Ops, created by Baby director Neeraj Pandey. The espionage thriller, in which he also plays a terrorist, has been received with rave reviews. He says he's happy with how his Bollywood career has shaped up, but he's just getting started. "I haven't even achieved 1 per cent of what I want to achieve.
“I am so clear in what I want and I’m going to do everything I can to achieve it. I am currently based in Mumbai, but I see myself as an international artist and want to work in different film industries around the world.”
Delafrooz, 37, credits his upbringing in the UAE for shaping his path to Bollywood. “The UAE teaches you that you can connect to everyone. Every day you open your door you see 10 different people who are of a different colour and different language from you,” he says. “I grew up in an Indian society, playing cricket and in the 1990s watching Channel 33 when every Thursday night a Hindi movie would come on. We would wait for that night the whole week, and those were the things that built my love and curiosity about Bollywood.”
On Saturday, December 19, the actor was in Dubai to launch a music video he directed for UAE singer Zak Zorro, which was shot and edited in three days. The project, for a song called Jeeta Raha, was something he enjoyed sinking his teeth into. He says he'd like to do more in the UAE.
"We have so much talent here. My first short film called The Choice was an Emirati film. And we're currently in talks with an investor to make an Emirati film. We need more movies that can be recognised at big festivals and once we have that recognition, commercial cinema will come in," he says. "I would love to work in Arab films, too."
As for Bollywood, next year he'll appear in a different light, he says. “I am going to be introduced as something else rather than my acting. But it all depends on the current situation with Covid-19. The project was supposed to be 2020, but it’s been pushed to 2021.”
Delafrooz may have chosen a different career, but his family is proud of him now, he says. “They don’t know who Salman Khan is but they are happy that I’m working and paying my bills. But, he says with a laugh, "some of them are still not happy that I haven’t married”.