You have started shooting for Gully Boy. Have you left Alauddin Khilji behind?
I try to live in the present as much as possible. Today, I had a great day of shoot. There was awesome energy on the sets with the Bboys of Dharavi and rappers. I let Khilji go the day we wrapped the shoot (of Padmaavat). My last scene was waiting all night for the gates of the Chittor fort to open and trying to get the first glimpse of Padmavati. It was a very difficult character to play and harbour in your being.
And now, you have physically transformed too.
For one-and-a-half years, I was eating mutton with every meal and lifting heavy weights. Now, I eat less of it. I can’t give up red meat as I love it. These days, I don’t do weightlighting. Instead, I swim a lot. Even though my process keeps changing with each character I portray, I mostly stick to ‘outside in’. It often starts with changing my body type, wearing clothes of the character and working on my appearance. After that, I let the rest follow.
Did you develop this process as you went along?
I have always been very serious about the craft of acting. I have a theatre background and have done a lot of study in the theory of acting as well. Yet, the most I have learnt is on the job. My approach is different from a lot of my peers. Apart from being on the sets, it is the process of developing the character that I find most fulfilling. For Khilji, I lived in isolation for three weeks. I didn’t speak with anyone. During that period, I tried different things. I studied tyrannical figures and oppression in history.
Would you call this role the most challenging one so far?
The biggest challenge was the shooting process. There were many delays. I was really tested — mentally and physically. It is unheard of to shoot for 47 days at a stretch for a costume drama. It was extraneous circumstances that made me perform in that kind of situation. In an ideal situation, I would have shot for six-eight days and then taken a break. I had a meltdown on Day 37. So, I had to really dig deep to keep going.
However, each film has its own set of challenges. I would say Lootera, Bajirao Mastani and Dil Dhadakne Do were challenging in their own way. In Lootera, it was very demanding to play a part like that as I was still very kachcha (raw) in the craft.
The characterisation of Khijli has received a lot of flak and the movie is seen as a saga of bad Muslim vs good Hindu.
I disagree with this criticism, outright. That’s extremely myopic. The critics have missed out a lot in their criticism. They have overlooked his brilliance. What they fail to see is that Khilji is an extremely sharp strategist and great statesman. He is intelligent, perceptive and a patron of art. Sure, he has flaws as a character. From my personal moral compass, if I have to pass a judgement on the character, I find him to be evil.
Did you have second thoughts about showing the bisexual relationship between Khilji and Malik Kafur?
People from whom I seek advice were very apprehensive about it. Their logic was that the majority of audience still have a very traditional mindset. This is a big risk to take, especially since no one had done this before in mainstream Hindi films. I’m a very liberal person and did not have issues with it, as I thought it made the character more layered.
Your next three films — Gully Boy, Simmba and 1983 — are very different from each other.
I have to prep very differently for each of these movies. For Gully Boy, I had to spend time with Zoya (Akhtar) and the rappers on whom the movie is based. Simmba involves a lot of action sequences. Its director, Rohit Shetty, wants me to do acting workshops with his writers. For 1983 (a film based on India’s first World Cup Cricket victory and directed by Kabir Khan), it would be a different ballgame to embody Kapil Dev — to get his physicality, speech pattern and bowling style.
Would you ever branch out to direction or production?
It takes a lot of courage to direct a movie. Maybe, one day I would muster enough courage to helm a project. I don’t have the acumen to handle the business side of movie-making. Maybe, I would be a creative producer someday.
Your sartorial choice often makes news. What drives your fashion?
I don’t fear being judged. I find fashion another means for expression. While all these so-called fashion statements I make gets noticed, I also dress normally. I enjoy wearing good clothes. For lack of a better expression, I would say I have always been experimental. I had a Mohawk hairstyle and pierced my ears in Class III. I used to wear hippie tie-and-dye clothes. I was the first one among my friends to wear chunky silver jewellery and baggy pants.
What made you pick up a T-shirt with a ‘Papi Gudia’ poster?
My love for Papi Gudia! Isn’t that an amazing T-shirt? I have an Ajooba T-shirt too.
With your every outing you give the vibes of having a lot of fun.
I’m surprised that so many people think: How can someone be so happy? I find that an appalling question. According to me, happiness is a choice. I get to do for a living what I love to do. Maybe I would have been a different person had I not been an actor. I wanted to be a hero in Hindi films and today, I have become that. I’m genuinely happy most of the times.