Brijendra Kala, 45
You saw him in: Mithya, Paan Singh Tomar, Ankhon Dekhi
Coming Soon: Peekay, Running Shaadi.Com, Pranam Valekum (as screenwriter)
With about 17 years of folk theatre behind him, Brijendra Kala wanted to spend his life performing on stage. In 1992, the Mathura resident applied to National School of Drama’s Repertory. But by the time the intimation regarding his interview at NSD reached his hometown, the batch was full. Undeterred, he applied for a similar programme at the Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts in Delhi. Luck didn’t favour him this time either. “Angered, I walked out of the Shri Ram Centre campus; it was raining. I looked up to the sky and pledged — in full filmi style — that now, Bombay is where I’ll make it big,” Kala says, with a laugh.
That was, perhaps, the actor’s most dramatic performance ever. Known for his subtle portrayals of characters rooted in reality, the 45-year-old’s career is just about flowering now, 22 years after he moved to Mumbai. In the last few weeks alone, he’s had three releases — Bhootnath Returns, Youngistan and Ankhon Dekhi.
In all those years, his determination and love for acting kept Kala going. His director from theatre days, Sandeepan Ashar, and
the latter’s mother, screenwriter Achala Ashar, took him under their wings and he assisted them in screenwriting for Amiri Garibi and Vishkanya, among others. Later, he wrote the dialogues for several TV shows produced by Ekta Kapoor, including Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii. His acting debut came much later, in 2003, in Haasil by Tigmanshu Dhulia, whom he has known since their “struggling days”.
But it was Rajat Kapoor’s Mithya, five years later, where he played the character of an inspector, which turned the tide — and proved the beginning of a long relationship. “I’ve done nearly all of Rajat’s films, starting with Raghu Romeo. But Ankhon Dekhi (where he played the phoofa who spends most of his time at his brother-in-law’s hole-in-the-wall home) was special for the environment it offered. Each one of us had a theatre background. We cherished our parts, coming up with nuances for our characters,” he says. Kala decided that he’d always be seen with a cigarette in his hand, albeit unlit to avoid censor issues. “So I keep asking my niece in the film for a matchbox but never get it. The one time that she does give it to me, I get so engrossed in the conversation that I forget to light up,” he says.
Although the going’s good, most characters that Kala plays last no more than a few minutes on screen and are, thus, easily forgotten. “I don’t mind the bit roles because they keep me visible. My tiny part in Jab We Met as a taxi driver is getting me noticed now because the film airs on TV every weekend,” he says. “I, too, may some day be offered an author-backed role like Sanjay Mishra’s in Ankhon Dekhi.”
Salman shahid, 62
You saw him in: Kabul Express, Ishqiya, Dedh Ishqiya
Coming Soon: Azaad, Tamanna and Namaloom Apradh (Pakistan)
Seated on a high chair on a stretch of barren land, Mushtaq Bhai holds a gun to Babban’s head, and asks a question that has become a memorable dialogue: “Sar kaatun ya gilli?” The five-minute scene in Dedh Ishqiya makes Mushtaq Bhai the only character, other than the lead pair of Khaalu Jaan and Babban, to make an appearance in both Ishqiya as well as its sequel. Director Abhishek Chaubey credits actor Salman Shahid, who brought an edge of comic menace to his role, for that decision.
With over four decades of work behind him, the 62-year-old Pakistani stage and television actor is a known figure among the arts fraternity of his country. “Performance arts are a part of my lineage and upbringing,” says Shahid, whose mother was noted Pakistani stage actress, Khursheed Shahid. His father Salim Shahid, after working in Radio Pakistan, moved to London and became a producer of television shows for BBC. “My parents separated when I was very young, so I would spend my days on the Arts Council campus in Lahore, while my mother rehearsed for her plays. This exposed me to all kinds of arts.”
He was drawn to dramatics while at Government College in Lahore — the training ground for Bollywood stalwarts Chetan Anand and Balraj Sahni — and concluded his education with a three-year filmmaking course in Russia. His first TV show, Such Gup, where he played a nerdy comic, was a huge hit.
Shahid’s filmography, though, is rather brief. Of the five films he has acted in, three are Bollywood productions, one a cross-over with international producers and one a Pakistani movie. “Cinema in Pakistan has not been to my liking, so I’ve done only those films whose scripts I liked. Nazrul Islam’s Khwahish in the ’90s was my first, followed by Khamosh Pani, where I played postman Amin, who discovers the truth of Kirron Kher’s character. Then came Kabir Khan’s Kabul Express,” he says. In the film, Shahid played a Pakistani soldier sent to Afghanistan to support the Taliban. He was also signed for Shaad Ali’s Jhoom Barabar Jhoom, but couldn’t travel to India due to visa issues.
“Cinema in Pakistan is changing with a number of independent filmmakers exploring strong content. We’ve had some of our films release in India recently, like Khuda Ke Liye, and one hopes this exchange will grow over time.”
jameel khan, 39
You saw him in: Loins of Punjab, Gangs of Wasseypur, Goliyon Ki Rasleela – Ramleela
Coming Soon: Guddu Ki Gun, All Is Well, Bambai Fairytale
You may or may not have seen him as Asghar Khan, the passive but loyal companion to Manoj Bajpayee’s Sardar Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur. But you are sure to remember him as Sunil Babu’s nosy neighbour, who stops by to comment on the latter’s “naya ghar, nayi gaadi, nayi missus”, from the near-iconic Asian Paints commercial from 2004. “That was the first time I explored the visual medium,” says the actor, sitting in his Mumbai home, simultaneously watching over his three-year-old daughter Mayesha, as she plays with a stuffed toy.
From a traditional Muslim family in Uttar Pradesh’s Bhadohi, Khan had been active on stage since his school days in Nainital. While studying for his bachelor’s degree at the Aligarh Muslim University, he became one of the founding members of Aligarh’s IPTA chapter. So when he decided to move to Bombay at the age of 22, it definitely wasn’t for the lure of Bollywood. “I came with the hope of joining Naseersaab’s Motley,” Khan says.
But it wasn’t easy to meet and convince Shah. “A college friend arranged a meeting. Naseersaab asked me if I’d come to act in films and what kind of roles I expected.” When Khan said he was even willing to work backstage, Shah took him in.
He soon bagged acting parts, and his performance in the acclaimed play Ismat Manto Haazir Ho brought him recognition. “That’s where I was spotted for the Asian Paints ad and also by Rajiv Rai for Asambhav (2004).” The film tanked and so did Aziz Mirza’s Kismet Konnection, where he played a negative role. It was Manish Acharya’s cult Loins of Punjab Presents that gave his career the thrust it needed.
By then, Khan had moved on from theatre, focussing on ads and voiceovers to make ends meet. He knows that meaty roles don’t come by often. “On paper, my part in Gangs was also minuscule, but Anurag Kashyap assured me that he won’t waste me. And he kept his word,” Khan says. Now he waits for a director who will see him worthy of playing a strong character as Ram Gopal Varma did in Manoj Bajpayee and Kashyap did in Nawazuddin Siddiqui. “Until then, I can’t choose scripts; scripts choose me.”
Rajesh sharma, 45
You saw him in: No One Killed Jessica, The Dirty Picture, Special 26
Coming Soon: Dolly Ki Doli, Tevar
Gulzarsaab once said his tragedy is that neither does the literary world fully accept him nor does the film world see him as its own. I used to feel the same way, that I was hanging between the world of Bangla, the language of my hometown, and Hindi, my mother tongue.”
But today, Rajesh Sharma views his fluency in the two languages as an advantage that allows him to work in quality Bengali cinema back home in Kolkata and also take up select acting assignments in the Hindi film industry.
His impressive filmography — Aparna Sen’s Paromitar Ek Din, Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Swapner Din, Shuddh Desi Romance and Ishqiya, among others — is the result of his disillusionment with theatre. Having started performing on stage at the age of 15, Sharma viewed theatre as a way of life. Part of the Rangakarmee group, a Hindi theatre company, he acted in several acclaimed plays, including Holi and Kashinama. “But after dedicating 12 years of my life to it, I realised it did nothing for me financially, even though our group’s coffers were always full,” says Sharma.
Since a large section of the movie-going audience also watches plays, it wasn’t difficult for Sharma to break into the Bengali film industry, where he went to play several negative characters. However, Sharma was also keen to work in Hindi films.
The opportunity came when Dibakar Banerjee, impressed by his Punjabi accent, offered him the role of Munjal, secretary to Boman Irani’s character in Khosla Ka Ghosla, set in Delhi. “When the film didn’t release for over two years after completion, I gave up all hope of an acting career in Hindi cinema,” he says. The eventual release marked the beginning of a prolific career for Sharma. His versatility is visible in the variety of characters he has played, from the Tamilian producer of Silk’s films, Thulasidas, in The Dirty Picture to the quirky Titu mama in Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana.
Today, he juggles between the two cities, handpicking his roles. “The distance works in my favour; this way I am able to choose the best in both Bengali and Hindi films.”
Amardeep jha, 60
You saw her in: Zakhm, Devdas, 3 Idiots
Coming Soon: Peekay, Dil Patang
As the short-tempered and manipulative mother of Nagarjuna’s character in Zakhm, preventing him from marrying a Muslim girl of his choice, Amardeep Jha evoked in the audience a sense of repulsion. Off-screen, however, she is soft-spoken to the point of being inaudible. “I lack the courage to confront anyone or even raise my voice. It’s only on screen that I manage to alter my persona,” she says, with a smile.
Sitting in the living room of her Andheri apartment, Jha talks about how, at 60, she feels like a newcomer in the industry. A National School of Drama passout of the ’76 batch, she was handpicked for the course by veteran thespian Bansi Kaul during theatre workshops in her hometown Dehradun. Soon after completing her course, she turned to the academic side of theatre, helming the dramatics programme at Welham Girls’ School in Dehradun, sometimes also performing with local theatre groups. When she moved to Delhi after marrying a journalist, Jha joined Theatre in Education, an NSD initiative wherein they conducted workshops for children in dramatics.
But when she lost her husband to an accident, her daughter Shriya, then in Class V in a boarding school, suggested that her mother move to Mumbai and pursue acting as a career. Says Jha, “It proved to be cathartic.”
By then, Jha already had an offer to act in Train to Pakistan, which she started shooting for when she moved to Mumbai in ’96. After that, Jha, who was in the same batch at NSD as Dolly Ahluwalia, reconnected with ex-students who helped her bag a role in the TV show Amanat. “But my film career took off when Mahesh Bhatt spotted me in a small role as Kajol’s maasi in Dushman and cast me in Zakhm,” she says. She did Lajja, Satta and Aetbaar, among other films, thereafter.
One of Jha’s most memorable on-screen moments is her two-minute role in 3 Idiots as the mother to Sharman Joshi’s character. While preparing a humble meal for her son’s friends, and complaining about rising expenses, she takes the belan to scratch her husband who is discomforted by eczema. “I told Raju Hirani it’s a nauseating scene and he should change it, but he had the vision and told me it’ll be a landmark scene. He was so right,” says Jha, laughing.
Meanwhile, she is hoping that she will continue getting work with acclaimed directors even if they are small roles. “I work hard on my roles nevertheless, building their history in my head, looking for emotions within myself to play them well. That’s enough to keep me happy.” n