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God, glory and gold: A portrait of Waris Ahluwalia
The nonpareil Indian of the New York City beau monde claims the universe is to blame for all his ventures and adventures making jewelry, acting in Hollywood and giving back to Mumbai
Waris Ahluwalia can only be introduced with the aid of multiple slashes. American/Indian, designer/actor, beturbaned/bespoke, teetotaler/celebutante.
On New York City’s dependably mercurial scene-and-be-seen barometer, Waris has been rising consistently. He’s the guy you know from The Darjeeling Limited, and he also owns House of Waris, a jewelry brand which retails at august institutions such as Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys and Phillips de Pury.
Waris seems to have had a taste of it all. A niche in Hollywood, a sparkling design career, an evolved social conscience and a wardrobe to suit.
How did he pull it off?
"The universe," he confides, "has a voice. We have to listen. The door is open, and you just have to walk through that door." And that is the simple secret to Waris Ahluwalia’s remarkable position in life.
Or at least, it's the secret to his successful projection as an accidental icon. An image sustained by his effortless elegance and that indolent, heavy-lidded gaze long sported by international men of mystery who get followed by hungry papparazzi.Here's why that happened.
For other first generation Indian immigrants, those with Merrill Lynch and McKinsey on their visiting cards, Waris is an object of fascination and envy.
They weren’t presented with any shortcuts to success. Waris acknowledges the pressures, "At least get an MBA for god's sake," was a refrain in his household too. But he committed early to an exploration of the arts.
To his mom he said, "I'm not going to follow the path. Just go through this journey with me." Not the hard sell that perhaps Wharton would look for, but a credo that has found its own justification.
God, glory and gold.
The pliability and resilience of gold, Waris' preferred material of expression as a jewelery designer, is an apt metaphor for his mutable personality.
In his 20s, before the inception of House of Waris, he tried to compile a book, open a restaurant, produce an album and co-produce a movie, none of which saw the light of day. He is pretty Zen about these experiences, "They gave me the confidence I needed."
They also brought him to the forefront of the New York arts and culture scene, which he now, for lack of a better word, dominates. While featuring on a list headlined by Lindsay Lohan can be a dubious distinction, he has bypassed arriviste status and simply arrived.
While he remains adamant, "None of this was intended," the nonchalance with which he eased himself in, belies the determination necessary to penetrate.
Waris dips back into his pocket philosophy to explain, "We’re all connected, personally, spiritually, but also," he says with a disarming laugh, "financially."
Each name that comes up in the conversation is enunciated, and then he adds a title and appends a glowing adjective. If his life were a movie reel, the credits and acknowledgements would roll endlessly.
Waris now travels to India six times a year to collaborate with master craftsmen for his jewelry creations. "It’s absolutely fulfilling. I design the jewelry, I design the packaging, I produce the events." But he's always gracious: "I work with incredible people."
He spends some time extolling the virtues of Abdull, his Man Friday in Jaipur, who is unlikely to capitalize on the publicity. "At the end of it all I feel absolutely blessed, dealing with the people I deal with, whether it's an incredible director like Spike Lee or my craftsmen in India."
While he’s not shy about naming the friends that invite him to partake in their fabulousness -- this past weekend he did a photo shoot for designer Patricia Field of Sex and the City fame and a test recording with short film maker Gary Tarn -- Waris is markedly quiet on his client list. It is clear that he takes the business of building an exclusive luxury brand very seriously and many of his paparazzi-ed appearances can be attributed to its promotion.
True to type, Waris ascribes the genesis of his career to a chance remark at über luxe LA store, Maxfield. "A salesgirl says, 'Nice rings!' I say 'Thanks' and that's the beginning."
Last year he was nominated for the extremely competitive Vogue/CFDA award, and Anna Wintour specifically mentioned the "strong applicant pool, particularly among the jewelers."
Waris tells a well-crafted story about the allure of gold. His voice takes on a dramatic narrative cadence, in contrast to an otherwise bantering tone, "Gold is part of who we are. Through the ages, we’ve needed it, wanted it, lusted after it. God, glory and gold.”
That could well become the title for his unauthorized biography.
The adventures of 'le chic Sikh' in Hollywood.
And that may start with the fact that Waris is Sikh, with an impressive beard and flawlessly tied turban, the ever present visual signifiers of his faith.
As the lone turbaned Sikh at the frontlines of Hollywood, he is aware of the advantages of that particular distinction. But Waris has been a responsible torch-bearer. "I’m the picture of tradition. I’ve never tried to assimilate. I have turned down (film) roles that ask that sort of typecasting of me. But honestly, nothing offensive has ever been demanded of my ethnicity."
And when I rather offensively demand which of the five Ks of Sikhism he’s currently sporting, Waris does a mental count, laughs, and answers, "Three." The Kesh (uncut hair) and Kada (iron bracelet) can be spotted on him at all times but the Kirpan (dagger) is really not frequent-flier friendly. The Kanga (comb) isn’t that interesting so by process of elimination I’ve just asked the counterpart of the eternal boxers vs. briefs question, with regards to his Kacha (underwear).
He has variously been dubbed 'le chic Sikh', the 'punk maharajah', and even Indiana Jones by the stylist at his photo shoot for Turkish Vogue. He seems to collect these monikers at the same pace as identities. In an e-mail exchange, I referred to him as a 'new age Midas'. He liked that too.
His characters on the silver screen haven’t acquired quite the same range yet. But then Waris plays offbeat like it was a symphony. He is quirky and funny and as any fan of Wes Anderson’s films will attest, memorable on screen.
It is his prowess as scene-stealer that lets him hold his own against stalwarts such as Denzel Washington and Jodie Foster in "Inside Man." For that role, Spike Lee got his number from Willem Dafoe who was Waris’ co-star along with Bill Murray in Wes Anderson’s "Life Aquatic" with Steve Zissou. A lot of Oscar buzz there, this year.
And that’s not counting the film Waris has out on the Sundance circuit now, "I am Love", which stars another Oscar winner, Tilda Swinton. He seems to appeal to both the Hollywood heavyweights and indie enthusiasts.
April will see the release of "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Undead", an absurdist comedy which marries Shakespeare and vampires. Vampires! And he has faith that they exist too.
"Maybe that’s a part of my Indian heritage. If you can get into a car in India and drive and believe you’re going to get where you’re going, you believe in everything. Who’d have thought this -- I’m going to act in some major films, I’m going to work with half a dozen Oscar winners. I’ve never even trained as an actor."
He doesn’t even have an agent. Perhaps the universe has something to do with this after all. An agent might have helped him score in Bollywood though. Without any irony he gripes, "One of the only Sikhs working in movies in the U.S., and no one from India has come knocking. Nothing, zero, zilch."
Mumbai, I got your back!
Not that Waris has never been one to wait for opportunity to come calling. Despite an aura of the inveterate flâneur, behind-the-scenes Waris makes carpe diem seem like laziness. He tries his hand at everything (besides booze), which may be why he co-founded the charity Mumbai We Got Your Back! after 26/11.
Waris thought the international media coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks was inadequate and decided to address that void. "It played like a mini-series. Compelling, horrific, and then it vanished, and the blame game started."
The primary objectives, as he enumerates them, were to, 1) raise money 2) promote tourism and 3) most importantly, "balance the equation. We needed to show we cared, because someone out there did the exact opposite of caring."
He insists Mumbaikers are as much his neighbors as the folks from Bay Ridge, his old Brooklyn hood. "I travel so much, that nothing is far. I can be walking in a back alley in India one day, laughing about what I’m doing here and be at the front row of New York fashion week the next. India is about time travel."
Despite being trans-atlantically 'next door', he is still discovering Mumbai. "I’m young in my history with the city. I first came when we were trying to figure out where to bring in the new millennium -- Y2K. Where do you go if it all ends, everything shuts down, what would still keep going? So we got on a plane and went to Mumbai. It is so uncharted for me, such a wild town."
Last November his foundation released a book "To India With Love" the proceeds of which went to the Taj Welfare Trust. And now we must add philanthropist/book curator to that earlier set of hyphens.
Waris literally means heir, and he is the scion to our collective and recurring daydream of stumbling into the life fantastic.