He has been in the industry for over a decade and established himself as the go-to guy for comic characters. But it is in his new avatar as a producer that Riteish Deshmukh is making big news. His first two films, Balak Palak and Yellow — both Marathi — have received critical acclaim for addressing subjects that even Bollywood is yet to explore. That Yellow features thrice in the list of National Awards announced recently has only made the success sweeter for the actor-producer. In this interview, Riteish Deshmukh talks about backing Marathi cinema, experimenting with roles and how his choice of films as an actor drastically differs from that as a producer.
You have had a fantastic stint as a producer, with Balak Palak and Yellow. Why did you choose to turn producer with Marathi cinema as opposed to Hindi, where you have established yourself as an actor?
This isn’t about backing cinema of a certain language, but about believing in the content I am producing. Both Yellow and Balak Palak are stories that needed to be told and I am glad I, along with my co-producer Uttam Thakur, got a chance to bring them to the audience. That said, Marathi cinema does have the advantage — it’s not driven by stars and commerce so one can experiment with content. Also the audience is more receptive to offbeat stories.
So it’s easy to back offbeat themes in Marathi? Balak Palak is about a group of teenagers battling adolescence while Yellow is the story of a girl with Down Syndrome who becomes a swimming champion.
Not really, it is difficult to release such films even within the Marathi film industry. One needs conviction in whatever one is doing. If it’s fake, it shows on screen. But my third Marathi production, Lai Bhari, directed by Nishikant Kamat, is a complete commercial entertainer. It’s an action revenge drama, which hasn’t been seen in Marathi
For your role as a producer, do you draw from your experience in Bollywood?
It’s a give and take of knowledge. Bollywood has taught me that getting the best technicians on board can make a lot of difference to a film. So Mahesh Limaye who directed Yellow has been a cinematographer on Hindi films, and Balak Palak’s music was composed by Vishal-Shekhar.
Mostly actors are chosen to play characters with disabilities. What prompted the decision to cast regular people with Down Syndrome in Yellow?
It was the director’s decision. He didn’t want actors playing characters with disabilities. So he cast Gauri Gadgil to play herself in the film. Working with Gauri was fine because she’s old enough to understand what was going on, but Sanjana Rai, who plays the younger Gauri needed the team’s compassion during the shoot. Given her condition, she didn’t understand that it’s a film shoot so the director decided to keep the camera on, waiting for the right shot to happen.
Sometimes she would run around, refusing to give a shot. But it was a challenge the director took up. It must also have been very difficult for the girl. I’m glad the National Awards recognised the effort on the part of Gauri and Sanjana and gave them a special mention. Gauri, I think, is the only person with disability who has both a medal in Olympics and an award in acting.
Your choice of films as an actor is vastly different from the movies you have so far chosen to produce.
I’m glad I’m able to make that differentiation. I enjoy acting in films such as Masti and Housefull but they aren’t the films I’d produce. They aren’t wrong choices because they succeeded at the box-office and sustained me in this industry for 12 years. Choices are about what is offered to you. Films such as Yellow or Balak Palak didn’t come my way as an actor. They were offered to me as a producer and I took them up. Thankfully, that’s changing and now, if I’m doing Humshakals, I also have Ek Villain where I attempt a character that I haven’t played before. It’s a love story but explores the darker side of each character.
You also make your Marathi film debut as an actor in Lai Bhari?
I haven’t done a film like that, which makes it fun. The film is about one guy who rises to avenge an injustice to him. It centres on the relationship he shares with his mother. It also expands my repertoire as a producer and it’s the most expensive Marathi film to be made.
How do you take the criticism that comes your way for acting in films such as Heyy Baby, Housefull and Grand Masti?
Criticism is great. Thanks to great criticism films that may never have been made are now being made and doing good business. Also, the audience is never wrong. It’s okay for reviewers to not like a film but all of us are doing our jobs, so let’s leave it at that.
Would you be a discerning audience for your own films?
I haven’t seen Grand Masti. I never watch my films. But I like to watch different kind of films. Like I recently watched Queen, 2 States and D-Day.
How do you differentiate between your choice of films as an actor and as an audience?
If I’m not comfortable about something, I speak with the director and try to find a balance. Earlier I’d even wonder what my co-actors are thinking of me. What about the cinematographer, the lightman? Are they thinking, ‘Yeh kya kar raha hai? Fail ho jayega’? I’d wonder if these people have accepted me. But then one can only work hard.
What did it take to stop doubting yourself so much?
A few hits. I think more than myself, it’s the audience that’s stopped doubting me.