Filmmaker Veena Bakshi was struggling to find the right actor to play Death in her film The Coffin Maker till one day at a party, she heard someone laugh out loud. The laughter had a mischievous, mocking quality which to Bakshi’s ears embodied the “all powerful death”. Bakshi had heard Randeep Hooda laugh. (Pics: Randeep, Alia on Comedy Nights With Kapil)
Hooda put up a compelling act as the sleek, black suit sporting Death in The Coffin Maker, which premiered at the International Film Festival of India, last year. In his latest release — Imtiaz Ali’s Highway, Randeep Hooda changes his appearance drastically to play Mahabir Bhatti, a Gujjar with a criminal past. He’s making a career out of effortlessly slipping into diverse roles. Think back to Karan Johar’s segment of Bombay Talkies where he played a sophisticated married man who hides his homosexual orientation. In that role, Hooda locked lips with his co-star Saqib Saleem. “I don’t know who I am because I can be a lot of different people. And as an actor it helps me become different personalities,” he says.
For someone who made a promising debut in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2000), Hooda took his time to earn his following. Randeep Hooda admits he took himself too seriously early in his career. “I thought I had to just stand in front of the camera and people would flock to the theatres to watch me,” he says. “But over the years, I realised, unless you are a superstar who controls everything, you really are at other’s mercy,” says Hooda, on his way to the Mahalaxmi Race Course, Mumbai, a place that he visits regularly. Randeep Hooda’s equine passion is well known. The horses he owns, were a source of comfort in his dark phase. “I would have no reason to get out of my bed, or to go out to eat what I liked. Thankfully, for my horses, I always knew I had something to come back to,” he says.
The shift in his 13-year-old career has come with Randeep Hooda doing more mainstream films, mostly as part of ensemble casts — Once upon a Time in Mumbaai (OUATIM, 2010) and Saheb Biwi aur Gangster (SBAG, 2011). There are more lined up, such as Rensil D’ Silva’s Ungli and Kick starring Salman Khan. Then there are the lead roles in Main Aur Charles, where he plays the notorious serial killer Charles Sobhraj, and that of a patriotic gangster in Shooter.
“No one wants to act in front of a bathroom mirror. Besides, I have seen life without work,” says the actor, who started out as a model and did amateur theatre in Delhi in the late ’90s. Later on, he acted in plays such as Waiting for Godot and Arms and the Man with Naseeruddin Shah’s theatre group, Motley. Randeep Hooda’s biggest lesson from his struggle in the film industry is that success is a result of associations, with filmmakers and production houses.
The nepotism and unfair ways of the industry don’t affect him anymore. Originally approached as one of the two leading men of Jannat 2, he was eventually relegated to a smaller role. Randeep Hooda felt bad, but he quickly recovered, determined to make it count. “It gave me my biggest compliment from Naseer. He said, ‘after this performance, you could sleepwalk through the next 10 years of your career’,” says Hooda. This coming from Naseeruddin Shah, who Hooda considers a “mentor, guide and friend”, could have been flattering, but a story Shah told him, punctured his vanity.
“It’s about this group of monks who create beautiful and complicated structures out of sand. And once they are finished, they destroy it and start building another one. That is something I caught on to,” he says, adding, “I try to have a bit of irreverence towards my work after its over. Otherwise, it is just trying to see more worth in it than there is.”
Hooda can go to extremes to sink his teeth into the character. “Sometimes, I feel I have suffered with the character far more than it was captured in the frames,” he says. His SBAG director Tigmanshu Dhulia, remembers Randeep Hooda as a “rebel” and “temperamental” from the time he directed him in one of his first acting assignments — a two-bit role in Dhulia’s television serial Rajdhani in 1999. “There are good actors who lack screen presence and then there are actors who only have screen presence. Randeep has both. He has cultivated himself as an actor by working with Naseer sahab over the years, even when he did not have films,” says Dhulia.
Like Dhulia, director Milan Luthria also believes that Randeep Hooda, although in his late 30s, has the potential to become a popular star. For OUATIM, Luthria wanted to cast someone who could stand on his own, when pitted against star-actors such as Ajay Devgn and Emraan Hashmi. He thought of Hooda, who always struck him as a “unique personality that doesn’t emulate anyone”. “I always believed doing something more mainstream will unlock certain qualities within him,” he says.
For Highway, he prepared for his role with such sincerity that in order to keep the initial distance with Alia Bhatt’s character, Hooda didn’t speak to her for about 25 days. “She thought I was uninteresting. But I only started talking to her once the characters do,” he says. To become Mahabir, Randeep Hooda banked on method acting stills acquired from theatre. He exposed his face to the sun till it was weather beaten and grew a scruffy beard. Finally, one day he landed at Ali’s office with his newly cultivated look of yellow, broken teeth, split lips and one big scar over the eye. “I imagined it as the Beauty and the Beast. When I told Imtiaz about my ideas, he said, ‘No, I also want women to like you’,” says Hooda, who hates the tag of the thinking women’s poster boy or sex symbol.