In 1996, when Ashutosh Rana auditioned for the role of a villain in Ghulam, its producer Mahesh Bhatt laughed him off. Rana looks like a kid when he laughs, Bhatt had said in jest. A couple of years down the line, this would be unimaginable. Rana eventually didn’t play that role in Ghulam (1998) but his blood-curdling performance as Gokul Pandit, a postman who assaults and murders women in Dushman (1998), and as Lajja Shankar Pandey, a terrifying eunuch, who hunts children for human sacrifice in Sangharsh (1999), went on to become the strongest screen images of his career.
“Those two characters were so strongly etched in people’s minds that the only way to go forward was to do something bigger, very different or not do anything at all,” says Rana, who in his subsequent roles in Hindi films, failed to come out of the shadows of his career-defining roles. “All my life, I have tried not to repeat myself. I could have done 150 films that way. But I waited patiently for the right opportunity,” he says.
It came in the form of Shashank Khaitan’s Humpty Sharma ki Dulhania (HSKD), which has given a fresh lease of life to Rana’s career, that was stuck in mid-life inertia and saw him play forgettable roles in films such as Kismet Love Paisa Dilli (2012) and Zilla Ghaziabad (2013). Immediately after the release of HSKD, Rana bagged “a very prominent role” alongside Akshay Kumar and Sidharth Malhotra in Warrior, which will be directed by Karan Malhotra and produced by Karan Johar’s Dharma productions.
His role in HSKD, however, was far from villainous. Getting Rana to play Kavya’s (played by Alia Bhatt) father was a classic case of anti-casting, a sort of modern antidote to the traditional stern, patriarchal Hindi film fathers. “People were pleasantly surprised by my performance in the film,” says Rana, sitting in his Lokhandwala gym. Sporting track pants, a vest and reamless specs the clean-shaven actor looks nothing like his on-screen characters. “People associate me with negative and intense roles. They weren’t expecting me to appear in a light, breezy rom-com like Humpty…,” says the 46-year-old actor.
Fresh from the success of HSKD, Rana has signed on to do a full-fledged comic role, a first for him, in Ismail Darbar’s directorial debut, where he will play four characters. He also plays one of the main characters in the upcoming Desi Kattey. However, there is no reason to believe that Rana will keep away from negative roles. In The Dirty Politics, he plays a cold, calculative manipulator alongside Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Anupam Kher and Mallika Sherawat. “I approach negative characters with positively, perhaps that’s why people remember me in these roles,” he says.
In his hometown in Gadarwara, Madhya Pradesh, a young Rana was always chosen to play Raavan in the local Ram Leela celebrations. “Simple characters never fascinated me, I have always liked the grey ones that have the possibilities to both rise and fall,” he says.
About the lull in his career, he doesn’t have any regrets. There was no frustration, he insists. It was made possible by his spiritual practices and a supportive family. “My needs are small and so is my family’s. I have the food, house and car I want to have. My wife Renuka Shahane is an inspiring lady. When you have such a partner, you are excited, full of life,” says Rana, who devotes a lot of his time to Hindi literature.