Following its World Premiere at the prestigious UK Asian Film Festival, the highly anticipated Indo-British sports drama, A Game of Two Halves, is set to make its global debut in 2024. Directed by acclaimed British Asian filmmaker Khayam Khan, known for his work on Bus Ride, the film will be released in UK cinemas on 7th June.

A Game of Two Halves is a transformative, coming-of-age story that explores themes of identity crisis and racial dissonance. Set across the U.K. and India, the film follows the journey of Sanjay, a young British student. When Sanjay finds himself in India teaching football to underprivileged children, he is unaware of the profound journey of self-discovery he is about to embark on. His true self is revealed not amidst the academic pressures of a prestigious university, but on the dusty fields of Hyderabad, India.

We had the opportunity to ask Saaj Raja a few questions;

1. Can you tell us what initially drew you to the role of Sanjay in ‘A Game of Two Halves’?

Two things immediately drew me to the role; the fact it’s a coming-of-age story about Sanjay discovering his identity and roots. Also, it’s a film about football which I absolutely love and have grown up with.

2. How did you prepare for the role of Sanjay, especially given the film’s exploration of identity crisis and racial dissonance?

A lot of the ‘prep’ was inherently present in my childhood and teenage experiences as a 1st generation, British South Asian male trying to fit in and find his place. I had to journey through this experience and find the synergies with Sanjay. I also spent time in conversation with Khayam about his own past experiences which were similar.

3. The film is set in both the U.K. and India. What was it like filming in Hyderabad and how did these contrasting locations influence your portrayal of Sanjay and your overall experience for this role?

It was my first time in Hyderabad – just as it’s Sanjay’s first time. I got to go on that journey of discovery on camera. I loved the experience of filming in India. It was very enriching, working with the excellent local cast and an incredible crew. There was a certain warmth and vibrance to filming in India compared to the cold council estates and school pitches of the UK! I think this change in energy and warmth is very evident in the film and also for Sanjay’s journey. He is very cold to the prospect of coaching in Hyderabad but the real magic begins to happen when he begins to warm to it.

4. Can you share any memorable experiences or anecdotes from working with the children in the film?

The best part about the entire filming experience was working with the children. They were full of life and so giving. For many of the kids, it was their first time playing football. Practicing drills and playing games together during down time was a highlight. Sachin was a joy to work with and a dynamic presence on set, he loved getting stuck into the role of Harnidh. The most memorable experiences with him were shooting the sunset and sunrise sequences. We had extremely limited time windows to get the perfect shots, but we made them happen and they look beautiful on screen.

5. Director Khayam Khan mentioned his personal connection to Sanjay’s story. How did his vision and direction impact your performance?

Khayam’s vision for Sanjay was hugely influential on my performance. My ideas for Sanjay were more intrinsically linked to my personal experiences. But the character and narrative are very personal to him and I remained sensitive to that throughout the process. We conversed a lot about how Sanjay would be feeling at certain moments in his journey, this was key to the direction of my performance.

6. The film deals with themes of acceptance and self-discovery. How do you relate to these themes personally, and how did they resonate with you during filming?

These themes are very close to home for me because I’ve had to face them in social, familial and personal circles. If I behaved one way or another, I was either perceived as being ‘too white’ like a coconut by my family – or a ‘paki’ by kids joking in the playground. This is incredibly jarring, especially when you’re at an age where all you want to do is fit in and find your place in the world. The journey that Sanjay goes on is so important and telling because he goes through a lot before learning that it starts with self-acceptance, not external validation. During the filming process I was acutely aware of these themes being present in my own life and the life of the character. Going to India and experiencing life there for a month was instrumental for Sanjay’s self-discovery and also my own.

7. ‘A Game of Two Halves’ boasts a stellar cast. What was it like working with such adiverse and talented group of actors?

To work with such accomplished and talented actors on my first film was the stuff of dreams. The experienced cast really took me under their wings and I learnt so much from them. Sudha Buchar who plays my mother was very maternal towards me on set and it was a joy to film our sequences together despite external turbulence. In India, Swaroopa Gosh and Pawan Chopra and prominent Bollywood actors with a rich background in Theatre. It was an education for me to act with them and be shown the ropes in a gracious and loving way. The children were pure balls of energetic joy and made my job much easier on camera. Their reactions were priceless and you can really see this purity on screen.

8. How did the dynamic between Sanjay and the character Shreya evolve throughout the film, and what was it like working with Nikkita Chadha?

I feel like there could be a spin off series or alternate movie where we delve into this! The scenes I filmed with Nikkita were sparse and some have not made it into the film. Perhaps this could have been explored a bit further. Nikkita is great and it is brilliant to see her flourishing.

9. The film was selected by the UK Asian Film Festival and received well by audiences. How does it feel to be part of a project that has garnered such positive reception?

It was a surreal experience to be sat in the theatre amidst the audience. I could hear the audible reactions throughout moments in the film which is always great because we are striking chords. We had a great turn out at the festival and I’m just so proud to see it coming out after 4.5 years.

10. What do you hope audiences take away from Sanjay’s story and the overall message of ‘A Game of Two Halves’?

The film will resonate with audiences differently, but ultimately I hope that it gives them a bit of entertainment and a warm feeling of hope. It’s a story about love, identity and ‘doing the right thing’.

11. Are there any upcoming projects you’re excited about that you can share with us?

I’m in discussion with a couple of productions. We’ll see where they go. As a writer I am developing two projects for screen and stage. They are very personal to me and I’m looking forward to sharing them with the world soon. It was an honour to share the stage with David Harewood and Zachary Quinto last year in the West End.

12. What advice would you give to young actors who are navigating their own journeys of self-discovery within the film industry?

I would say that your personal experiences are unique and gold dust. Embrace them, dive into them, and introspect on them. They are the keys to enabling the most authentic expression of your truth. If you can find a way to communicate these findings through your acting and storytelling, people will take notice. There is no one linear route or blueprint for success in the film industry so lead with authenticity and follow the clues that resonate with your instincts.