Saaj Raja, who was born and raised in Crawley, appears as a Bollywood dancer in a scene alongside Marvel’s first-ever South Asian hero Kingo, played by Pakistani-American comedian, actor and screenwriter Kumail Nanjiani.
To keep his identity under wraps, Kingo becomes a popular Bollywood film star on Earth, and the Bollywood dance scene includes over 50 dancers of South Asian origin.
Saaj was delighted to see the South Asian community represented in a Hollywood blockbuster, and said he felt very fortunate to appear in the groundbreaking scene.
He said: “It was nice to see that much South Asian representation on screen for the first time.
“It means so much, because I’ve been on film sets where there’s not been as much representation or diversity.
“When I grew up as a child we didn’t really have those kinds of heroes in Hollywood or in the media to look up to.
“To see that occurring now is inspiring for the next generation. I also feel very fortunate to be, in some way, a part of that with the group that we had.
“It was also a big moment for Kumail too. He really was incredible towards all of us.
“He took time out to speak with all of us, he knew how much of a big moment it was, he even gave a teamtalk before we turned up for our first take.
“There were over 50 South Asians on a Marvel set. It just makes me so happy, and it made us so happy to see that.”
Saaj was full of praise for Nanjiani. The Crawley actor and dancer said that Nanjiani was more than happy to impart career advice, and even recorded a special message for the film’s dancers at a special screening of Eternals.
He added: “Nileeka [Bose, the choreographer in Eternals] got all the dancers together and we had a special screening in London. And Kumail was kind enough to film a special personal message for us, which they screened just before the film was shown.
“Even on set, I told him at the time that I was an aspiring actor and told him about some projects I was involved in, and he took time out to give me career advice and offer me five or ten minutes of his time.
“It was a really nice thing for him to do. He is genuinely hard working and a lovely person.
“I suppose it can be quite ego boosting to wear a superhero outfit, and go ‘I’m in a Marvel film’!
“But it’s always nice to know that these guys work hard and they come from all sorts of backgrounds.
“These gigs are few and far between because, most of the time, we could be dancing at a corporate event or a wedding or teaching regular Bollywood classes.
“It’s those building blocks which give you the confidence and capacity to go on and perform on big stages when the time comes.
“He was quite vocal about the dancers. He even mentioned Nileeka in talk shows, like on Jimmy Fallon last week. Usually actors don’t have to do that.”
Eternals also includes the first superhero to be depicted as gay in a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film, as well as the first deaf superhero in the MCU.
The deaf hero, Makkari, is portrayed by deaf American actress Lauren Ridloff
Saaj said the film’s level of representation was massive for the respective communities, and would leave a positive impression on younger viewers.
He added: “One of the characters in the film is deaf, and there’s been a huge increase in the interest in sign language, and a massive pick up in American sign language as a result of the film.
“It just shows the impact some of these films can have. We’re watching them as adults but a lot of children are watching these films, and it has quite an impact on them culturally and their impression of the world.”
And what’s next for Saaj after appearing in the Marvel blockbuster?
“I’ve got a feature film releasing next year called A Game of Two Halves. I’m playing the lead in that film and that should be exciting to see”, he said.
“Apart from that it’s taking weeks and months at a time. It’s nice to see that, after the last year or two of the pandemic, productions are increasing again.”
Marvel’s Eternals is currently being screened in cinemas nationwide.