“Notorious. Most people don’t like me for my guts,” replies Uzair Merchant, when I ask him to describe himself. His candid response, becomes an ideal curtain-raiser to our hour-long zoom interview, detailing his life as a maverick production designer and filmmaker in Hollywood.
On an early morning call from Vancouver, Canada, the 30-year-old former Dubai resident, spelt out his life mantras, in between sips of his favourite double-espresso coffee.
One of the first Indian production designers in Hollywood, Uzair’s bio includes blockbuster movie franchises – Deadpool 2, Star Trek Beyond, Fast and Furious 7, Skyfall, Superman & Lois and most recently The Misfits, the first Hollywood film made in the UAE, by Renny Harlin (of Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger fame).
An alumnus of Nottingham Trent University, UK, and New York Film Academy, Uzair has amassed immense accolades and critical acclaim in just over a decade of being in the industry. His last short film, Chasing Lines, currently streaming on Amazon Prime and shot on an iPhone, won him 14 international honours, including at the Los Angeles Film Awards and the New York Film Awards.
He has also been a set designer for Global Village for over six years, winning the best pavilion award several times. For now, the self-confessed creative junkie, is basking in the success of his latest release – Stardust – a bilingual, new age rap song, soon-to-be minted as the first ever NFT music video in the world.
“I love what I do and it’s more than just a job to me. I’m always on a quest to make the most of this journey and have never really cared about what people say,” Uzair sets the tone of this conversation, recalling the personal breakthroughs of his career.
Born to Indian parents and raised in Dubai, he credits his upbringing in old Dubai’s Deira for shaping his life’s fearless outlook. “Growing up in the bylanes of Baraha and Muteena, I was witness to a gamut of experiences. The interactions on the streets opened my eyes to life, way ahead of my years. Most people spend a lifetime gaining these perspectives, that I did early on,” he says.
As a single child living with parents striving to find a foothold in their respective careers, young Uzair spent several hours outdoors, mingling and learning from his peers and elders in a bustling neighbourhood. Curious and inquisitive about the world around him and the one beyond, he often shocked his parents with his existential questions. This quest to unravel metaphysical mysteries led him to read several religious texts and explore a range of creative media.
From learning karate at the age of three to honing his artistic talents by sketching and listening to world music and later exploring coding, his eclectic pursuits fuelled him towards new discoveries. “I was VR game testing by the time I was nine, and by 13 working as a DJ, also developing websites and doing event photography,” he says. It helped that he was hands-on at his father’s interior design studio and with his mother’s event management business.
A keen observer of life, Uzair says he has always been drawn towards social realism and the power of telling stories. So, after his schooling (at Dubai Gem Private School), he enrolled in a production design for film and TV course at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) and later to study filmmaking at NYFA. His nonconformist attitude came in handy here as he shares, “I was an outcast, the only brown person in class. But I found a way to keep egos out of conversations, to be myself and to think from my heart.”
Right through university cruising towards success, he amassed production credits at Universal Pictures, Paramount, BBC and Marvel Studios. “At university I had the best experiences learning from great teachers and from industry veterans. Even while studying I was working on sets of Skyfall and Star Trek,” he says.
Deeply spiritual and disciplined (he wakes up before dawn to pray and to practice karate), one of his life’s philosophies stems from his belief that we are all “spiritual beings having a human experience”. The interconnectedness of the universe is reflected in each of his productions. The first part of his movie trilogy, In Between Lines, released in 2010, compared roads and people, showing how our lives are a lot like the roads we build. Chasing Lines, the second part in this series, made in 2018, dwelled on the subconscious search for cosmic creativity.
In two years, Uzair hopes to make the final film, Beyond Lines to complete the trio. “The lines trilogy when completed will be displayed as a single artwork made over 16 years in three continents on three different media exploring life and patterns of lines,” he shares. His latest release Stardust again, is an ode to his love for the sci-fi genre, and was inspired by a poignant personal experience. “I started writing and envisioning Stardust while in a hospital, nursing my dad who had become immobile following a cardiac arrest. In the video, we have shown the tussle between two worlds, where the character is desperate for an escape, to find answers, only to learn that, life has a flow of its own. It is to be observed, not fought with – the idea that we all come from stardust and to stardust we shall return,” he says.
Made under the banner of his company, bKreativ Productions as the original soundtrack to the upcoming TV show Black Rose, Stardust has already won the Best Music Video and the Best Original Song at the New York Movie Awards and at Milan Gold Awards, 2021. Some of the well-known international artists who have worked in the single are Genevieve Clements, Sian Flanagan, Aaron Drew and Salim Dahman. With both Chasing Lines and Stardust, shot on iPhone, Uzair has proven that technology need not be big or small to create and dream.
Any advice for youngsters seeking to emulate his film career? “I would tell them to introspect and ask some honest questions – why do they want to create? It is important to know the intention of what we do. For me it’s never been the money or the fame. It has always been a way to create bridges that are beyond race, religion and culture,” he replies.