Meet the Speedy Singhs
Writer and actor Vinay Virmani wasn’t nervous at all during the filming of his feature debut Breakaway a film about an all-Sikh ice hockey team trying to make a name for themselves. Despite the presence of some heavy hitting Hollywood and Bollywood regulars on set, Virmani said he didn’t have time to be nervous.
“I’ll tell you something, a lot of people ask me if I was nervous working with Rob Lowe and Russell Peters and Anupam Kher, who is a living legend in Bollywood and now all around the world, and I say no,” insisted Virmani. “And that’s just being cocky because there’s no time to be nervous on a movie set. As a young actor, you gotta have your homework done. I had my rehearsals done and my workshops done with my director, I knew my lines, I knew my character, because there’s so much money and time and pressure involved. You have legends on your set so you can’t waste anyone’s time.”
Virmani is just as charming and bashfully thankful in person as he is onscreen; he’s the kind of person aware of his abilities but constantly in awe of the work he gets to do. Sitting on the top floor of the Roots store on Bloor Street, in a team jacket made especially for his on-screen hockey team, he’s only days away from the world premiere of his film at the Toronto International Film Festival and he has just learned that his film was picked up for distribution in India and the U.K. He wasn’t nervous on set, but now is a totally different story.
“I really wasn’t nervous then, but now as the world is going to see it I am nervous. Hopefully that’s normal, but it’s something I am taking day by day.”
Virmani plays Rajveer Singh, a young man stuck in a rut at his family’s long haul trucking business in Brampton, Ontario. Rajveer has dreams of playing hockey for a living, but bemoans not being taken seriously by his on ice peers or his disapproving father (played by Kher) and his blowhard future brother-in-law (played by Peters). Without a chance to make his own opportunities in the hockey world, Rajveer forms his own team of Sikh friends, called the Speedy Singhs, and enlists the help of a wash-out junior hockey prospect-turned-zamboni driver (Rob Lowe) to coach the team in an illustrious amateur tournament.
Just like on a real hockey team, Virmani has surrounded himself with an onscreen team of supporting actors willing to bring their own special brand of on- and off-ice talents to a tale that is very relatable to anyone who has ever chased a near-impossible dream.
Al Mukadam comes to Breakaway after notable television stints on Radio Free Roscoe and Degrassi: The Next Generation. Ali Hassan is a gifted comedic talent who will return to the ice next year in director Michael Dowse’s Goon and later this month in Kevin Tierney’s French Immersion. Prem Singh is a physically gifted and athletic young man with a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and a healthy lifestyle that his cast mates like to take good natured pot shots at. Rupinder Magon is, along with Singh and Virmani, the team’s third actual Sikh, as well as a multitalented touring musician.
Together with the rest of his team, Virmani and company sat down with Dork Shelf to talk about coming together as a team on screen, working with some very recognizable faces, and making a personal and universally relatable film.
Dork Shelf (Andrew Parker): What attracted you guys to want to be in a hockey film?
Prem Singh: For me, I love hockey, so that sells itself for me right there. (laughs) My dad, he’s a Sikh as well and he wears a turban so for me to get a chance to do this in a film, I thought it would be great.
Al Mukadam: For me it was just that crux of the idea that a bunch of Sikh guys playing this traditionally North American, very Canadian sport and just the oddity of it all. That was a funny, interesting concept to me and I wanted to see how it would play out. Being born and bred in Toronto I think it’s a natural part of your childhood. I played a little house league, so yeah, same thing for me.
Rupinder Magon: Well, the money was really good if you want honesty. (laughs) Actually, as you can see I am an actual Sikh and there is a movie in Toronto about Sikh hockey players. If there is ever a movie I am going to get a role in this better be the one. (laughs). For me, it was a no-brainer, and long story short Ali helped me get the role and here we are.
Ali Hassan: My situation is almost too good to be true. My background isn’t Sikh, but it is Punjabi. When I read the script and I saw that this guy has challenges with his family because he wants to explore something different I could relate to that. For me it was more my artistic side. I wanted to explore life being a chef, stand-up comedian, comic actor, and my parents were not comfortable with that at all. Even though the lead in this film, his artistic side is hockey – and I did play hockey as a kid – I thought this was a cute idea to make into a film.
DS: This film has a lot of really personally relatable moments and elements to it. Were there things in the film that struck you on a very personal level, and Vinay, how much of yourself did you put into this role?
Vinany Virmani: Thanks for saying that it’s a personal film because elements of Rajveer’s journey and his relationship with his father and his girlfriend are definitely inspired by my life. You know, where I was two years ago is exactly where Rajveer is in this film. He was somebody who didn’t know what his calling was in life, someone who was trying to balance his dreams and match up to his parent’s expectations at the same time. I had just finished acting school and I had moved back to Toronto and I was auditioning and reading scripts and wondering if it was really for me since I wasn’t really going anywhere. I want to be my own man and I knew I had chosen an unconventional career path, something no one in our family had ever tried or ever thought of.
Rajveer, same place. He dropped out of school, and that was something that I almost did. He chooses hockey as a career path. His family is a modest, middle class family. He works in a family business. I was at a point in my life where I was really confused and I wanted to do something else and my father gave me this great advice one night. He told me I should write something for myself. It might not go anywhere, but how did I want to envision myself? That’s what it was. I sat down and started writing things that were personal to me and I took it to some amazing people and some amazing international talent and here we are today.
Magon: There’s a scene where Rajveer wants to cut his hair and lose his turban, but no one in his family can understand, and that is something I can totally understand. I grew up in a French school in the south side of Montreal and being only one of, I think, three of us with turbans, it felt so real to me. And it comes up in a really nice way. It’s not in your face and it’s not heavy. It was lighthearted and it brought the issue out.
Mukadam: I think the idea of the family and the character pursuing something that he wants to do that’s outside of the norm is great. Being an actor, writer, artist, and director as well, doing something that you are passionate about is something universal across the board and across race, culture, and religion of any kind. There is always that concern, that doubt, that it isn’t a stable industry to go into. To kind of have the belief and confidence in yourself that you can go out and do it is something I can certainly relate to.
Then there is this other idea of this Indian guy who wants to play hockey. I said before that it was an interesting crux that got me excited in the first place, but that shouldn’t come across as that crazy or outlandish. He’s born and raised in Brampton. Nowadays, if you come here to become a part of this country and this culture, it isn’t that crazy of a concept anymore. You see these younger kids coming up now that are really getting into it, and I like that. That’s how I always saw my childhood since I am part Indian and part Italian as a mixed race kid, but I was never made to feel uncomfortable at all by the culture. That’s something to really instill in kids as they are growing up and maturing. Yeah, you for sure should be here and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Because why not? Then that puts the onus on the other person to say “Well, it’s weird for a guy in a turban to say that” because then that guy comes across as an asshole. And that’s wrong. Anybody should be able to do what they want.
DS: How hard of a sell was it to get this film made in the first place?
Virmani: To be honest with you, it really wasn’t that hard because it was kind of a novel idea, but I don’t think it could have been made anywhere else other than in Canada because we really respect multiculturalism and diversity. The idea of these Sikh boys and this cross-cultural love story has themes and messages that anyone could relate to regardless of what nationality they were or wherever they were from they all had something they could pick out as their own. It just goes to show you the heart in the story to see everyone from Rob to Russell to Camilla (Belle, who plays Rajveer’s love interest), to Anupam, to Akshay Kumar and Ludacris who do this song for this film to Drake who is this amazing guy who has made all Canadians proud and agreed to do a cameo in the film to see that there are so many different people who saw something they could relate to.
DS: What was it like getting in shape to be on the ice for this film?
Magon: I learned to skate for this movie, so for me it was the hardest. My feet not hurting was a big thing for me to overcome. These other guys have been skating most of their lives.
Hassan: I am an incredible skater. (laughs) We actually had this boot camp where we had to audition in this proper environment and then we had a hockey casting, and I’m trying to skate backwards as fast as these more professional guys tend to do almost three days a week for a few years, and I can barely close my pants around my pads out there. So, I’m just trying to find my bearings out there and I’m thinking I blew it, but in the end it worked.
Magon: Ali was probably the best skater on the Speedy Singhs.
Hassan: Yeah, but the guys I was trying to emulate were trying out for the Hammerheads, the other teams in the film. These guys played major junior and all the way through university. Trying to keep up with these guys when I haven’t played since my early 20s was tough, but it was definitely worth it because I was so pleasantly surprised when they offered me the role. As a team we all worked together so that everyone got their skating up to the level it needed to be for the movie.
DS: What are your thoughts of working with a supporting cast this stacked with Hollywood and Bollywood legends?
Magon: I think I’ve watched a lot more movies than any of the other guys and for me it was great to have the chance to work with Anupam Kher, who has been in over 300 movies. I never worked a scene with him. I mean, I have half a scene with him where I created my own line, but just to be around a guy who has done that many films and I am working on my first is really something. The experience that he has being on set and dealing with directors is something that I can’t even begin to imagine. It was intimidating, but I couldn’t wait for it.
Hassan: I never had any intimidation, just excitement for such a great opportunity. I don’t think it’s the type of environment where you get intimidated or scared. It’s really supportive and everyone wants to do well. No one will step over your toes so you look bad. Everyone wants to make each other look good. It’s not the same as being on the ice. It was inspiring. Rob Lowe, on the North American side, is just inspiring to watch. And Anupam Kher is like Rob Lowe times four. And Sakina Jaffrey as his wife; every time she hugs her son in the film, and she does five or six takes each time, just gives a flawless delivery every time.
Mukadam: Rob Lowe is like a living legend in Hollywood. He’s one of those iconic guys from the Brat Pack back in the day. He is super cool and super handsome. I do have a little bit of a man crush on him. He’s super chill and he brings this vibe into the room that everyone picks up on, but he’s like, you know, whatever.
Magon: I think I can speak for all of us when we say we love to ad lib, but when you love to do that and you are in a scene where you have no lines and you want to say something but you have someone like Rob Lowe in front of you, you start thinking if you should do something or not. So we have this scene where we are all really tired and hungover after we had a really rough night and a worse practice where Rob Lowe as the coach has to storm into the locker room. I didn’t have a line, but I really just wanted to do something, and in the scene he came up and he’s just talking to me and I just yawned this big massive yawn right in his face, just being disrespectful and he just says “YOU’RE JUST GONNA YAWN RIGHT IN MY FACE?” And then, I was like, is he acting? Then after the scene he came over and said it was really good, and I’m just thinking, thank God, you know? But that’s what I’m talking about when I say we were really supportive and we were all willing to try.
Singh: I think the way that he took on the coach wasn’t like your typical coach. When people expect a coach, I think people are going to have different expectations than what Rob does. He’s sort of reluctant and it really works.
Mukadam: Yeah, you’re right. It’s kind of like if Youngblood grew up to become a coach. And the way he was on set. You would never see someone with that kind of experience just be that relaxed. Actually, maybe because of his experience it’s why he’s so calm.
Singh: And Russell Peters, he’s like a one man bomb, you never know when he’s going to go off. He keeps you on your toes because he is so razor sharp and his mind is always racing and he’s always checking every angle.
Mukadam: It’s like playing a game of double dutch with him, you have to know when to get in and when to get out. I’ve always been a really big fan so it was a real treat to be able to work with him.
Breakaway opens in theatres across Canada September 30th.
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