We saw you last year in the over-the-top comedy Welcome Back and you began this year with a nuanced performance in the Marathi film Natsamrat. As an actor, one needs to keep exploring the possibility of playing different kinds of role simultaneously. When you are doing Natsamrat, the scenes and action make sense, they seem logical. When you are acting in a film such as Welcome Back, you are aware that there is not much logic in it, yet, you have to be convincing. That’s a tougher task.
You have been working on Natsamrat, a landmark Marathi play by Kusumagraj, for nearly two years. Have you seen the play?
I was in my early 20s when I saw Dr Sriram Lagoo act in a stage production of Natsamrat for the first time. I kept coming back to watch that play; I must have watched Dr Lagoo’s performance at least 25 times.
Natsamrat gave me an opportunity to perform a range of emotions in a stylised manner. Natsamrat is a typical family story in which the central character, Ganpat ‘Appa’ Belwalkar, a husband and father, can’t ever forget that he is an actor. In his prime, he never had time for his family and after has exited the stage, they don’t have time for him. I think actors are selfish — they live in their own world most of the time. They wish to be with their family or to be left alone, according to their convenience.
What kind of preparation did you go through for the role?
I could not merely replicate what others had done. Rather, I wanted to wipe out those impressions from my mind and conceive the role in a different manner. Fortunately, I had a director like Mahesh Manjrekar who had certain ideas. But then to keep on searching for the character in your own way, you need to have a certain perception. It is a melodrama and you have to restrain yourself yet convey those emotions. I wanted to play the role of Ganpat Belwalkar and get it out of my system. It had been within me for so long that it was suffocating. Fortunately, acting in movies gives you some space as compared to theatre, which is a continuous process. If you are doing regular shows, then you are living with the emotions of that character, which are not yours.
You’ve been longing to play this role for years. What took you so long to act on it?
People in the industry think I am difficult to work with and many hesitate to approach me. If something is wrong, I will point it out. Acting is not just a profession for me. This is how I breathe. I can overlook mistakes but if someone is committing blunders, I will object. If a renowned filmmaker is told that he is wrong, he would be upset. For me, there are no good or bad directors. They are just directors. They should be up to the mark and be able to convince me about something or get convinced themselves. Now after working with me in Natsamrat, Mahesh (Manjrekar) wants to direct me again.
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When someone disagrees with the other person, they express it verbally. I get violent. That’s the difference. I lost so many things because of that. I could not control my anger. I could not express my joy also. The expression of that too used to be violent.
Have you mellowed with age?
I have cut down on my work (laughs). I can work with people I am comfortable with. At this stage of my career, I am not hankering for money, name or fame. I want to enjoy my work without too many restrictions. I always worked on my terms as acting is my hobby. By profession, I used to be a commercial artist. I left that and my hobby became my profession.
You used to be a popular theatre artiste. What kind of relationship do you have with the stage?
I’ve been doing theatre for over 50 years. I never said no to theatre. I started doing theatre in school and continued to do both experimental and commercial after college. It was on the insistence of Smita Patil that I joined films. I knew her from before she joined films. I took a long time to be convinced — I thrived in the high that theatre gives. My first film was Gaman (1978) in which Smita played the lead.
When did you get noticed in films?
I got noticed in N Chandra’s Ankush (1986). Initially, I was offered the role of one of the rapists. I abused Chandra and threw him out. The lead role of the film was supposed to be played by popular Marathi actor Ravindra Mahajani who demanded Rs 25,000 as his fee and the producers could not meet his demand. I was offered Rs 3,000 before the film and Rs 7,000 if the film was sold. But I ended up mortgaging my house and giving them Rs 2 lakh to complete the film. Once it did well, Chandra returned the money and also gifted me a scooter, my first. After that film came Parinda in 1989.
Initially, you supposedly had some reservations regarding Parinda.
I was to play the role of Anil Kapoor’s brother that eventually went to Jackie Shroff. Anil Kapoor was a star then and he told Vidhu Vinod Chopra, ‘Nana won’t look like my brother’. Later, Chopra offered me the role of Anna. Initially, I abused him and asked him to go to hell. When he approached me again, I told him ‘I will rewrite Anna’s role’.
Do you think you got typecast as an actor who played eccentric and violent characters after Parinda?
Yes, I ended up doing many such roles as I was getting money for them. Instead of asking for money from people, I preferred letting myself get typecast for a while. However, there is one thing that I was always particular about — having good co-artistes. I may not be great, but I consider myself an above average actor. You should have good counterparts to share your responsibility. When someone did not perform up to the mark, there used to be gaali-galoch. Yet, I never demoralised anyone and tried to help them.
You played a very different character — that of Barish Kar — in Thodasa Roomani Ho Jaayen (1990) soon after Parinda.
Amol Palekar was reluctant to cast me in the film because he thought my looks are harsh. I tried to persuade him and gave a ‘test’ that lasted a fortnight. Eventually, he gave me the role.
What do you enjoy about your performances?
When I am not Nana Patekar. In Natsamrat, I have managed to keep myself out of the character. There are some similarities between us: both of us are actors and our thinking process is the same. I have not gone through similar emotions as Ganpat Belwalkar, but they are parallel. Now that this process is over, I am exhausted. After Natsamrat, I immediately shot a light-hearted film called Wedding Anniversary.
You played a negative character in Purush, your most popular and longest-running play. How was the experience?
In Purush, my co-actors — Chandrakant Gokhale, Reema Lagoo and Usha Nadkarni — were fabulous and they would build up the atmosphere. I played a corrupt and lecherous politician. Often, angry women in the audience would throw their shoes at me! I played the role for more than 16 years. We opened it in the ’80s and went on to do 1,860 shows. I stopped doing it when Chandrakant passed away as I believed no one else could essay that role the way he did. When I started doing Purush, I would get Rs 250 per show and when I stopped, don’t ask me what my remuneration was. If I had left Purush earlier, I could have done more plays but I was getting so much money that I could not leave it.
You also turned director with Prahar (1991). The film was well-received but you haven’t directed any other film.
Directing a movie takes up about two or three years and in the bargain, you earn less. I come from a lower middle-class background and wanted to make money to fulfill my dreams. I got trapped in it. Now, I am directing again. It is an untitled Hindi film that talks about the current communal situation. It would be predominantly about two families — one Hindu and another Muslim — and their perception of what is happening around them. It will compel you to think, in a positive manner. I don’t like negative films.