Is there a sense of vindication after winning the National Award for Jolly LLB?
Winning a National Award was always a dream but I was not chasing it. Its value is much more than any other commercial award. Throughout my career, I’ve had people telling me that I’m a good actor but the awards always eluded me. And then to get this one — given by the government of India — is a great feeling.
How much of the Jolly LLB role was written in the script, and what did you add with your performance?
I made sure I didn’t portray the character of a judge merely as a person with a hammer. On paper, the role was just that much, but I knew that the crux of the film lay in this character, and it was up to me to underline that.
It was a beautifully written part but I improvised a lot. I worked out his back story on my own. That’s the work the actor puts in.
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But you’ve done roles with greater impact than Jolly LLB. That usually happens, doesn’t it? For instance, Sean Penn didn’t win an Oscar for I Am Sam but Mystic River. Martin Scorsese didn’t get it for Raging Bull or Taxi Driver but won it for The Departed? Do you think that maybe your other roles led to this win?
I don’t know the mystery of it. I’ve been lucky with good roles. It started with Bandit Queen and then Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin and then, of course, Satya’s Kallu Mama, which got me a lot of attention; people’s expectations grew. But that went against me, because over the next 10 years, I felt taken for granted.
Everyone would tell me, ‘Saurabh, we know you will do a good job,’ and that’s it. No further encouragement. In that sense, being a good actor is the biggest cross one carries. People would say you belong to a different class, don’t do roles in regular films but I wanted to tell them that I have a house to run. So I do commercial films for which I charge money, but I also do two films a year for free. I guess, in that sense, it all leads up to something.
When did you get interested in acting?
I come from a family of musicians. My father is a vocalist while my mother, Dr Jogmaya Shukla, is the first woman tabla player of the country. We grew up with art and culture. Unlike other families, my elder brother and I were allowed to watch four films a week. My exposure to cinema began at an early age. When I was in Class VI, I wanted to make a film. Of course, I didn’t have the means but I thought that if I bought lots of film rolls, take pictures and join them together, it would become a film!
When I joined college, a friend suggested that since we will never have the money to make a film, let’s do theatre — that’s also telling a story with acting, just that it doesn’t need a camera! From 1984 to 1993, I did theatre and found my passion in acting. I had no desire to act in cinema. Then Bandit Queen happened and here I am.
What is your favourite memory of Bandit Queen?
The way I got the film. Seema Biswas, who was my colleague in the NSD Repertory Company, was already cast in the film. Shekhar Kapur came to see her in a show, where I was acting with her. Shekhar called me and he just kept looking at me, he didn’t say a single word to me and just left. Tigmanshu Dhulia, who was his assistant, then asked me to come to Mumbai. I had no idea about the role. Nobody was given a script. There were no dialogues. Everything about Bandit Queen was created on the sets, was improvised. That’s the genius of Shekhar. If I’m in awe of anyone in my life, it’s Shekhar.
Bandit Queen is an iconic film, why didn’t your struggle end with it?
Even though I was shooting for 30 days for the TV show Tehkikaat, we were all strugglers — from Manoj (Bajpayee), Tishu (Dhulia), Victor (Banerjee), Kannan (Iyer) — all my friends from Bandit Queen. We were all waiting for our moment.
If anyone got a job, we would have a booze and mutton party and get wasted. I was busy with television, but I had to pause and reflect after I got a call from Sudhir (Mishra), who told me, ‘Saurabh, by working so much in TV, you are getting exhausted. It will become difficult for me to cast you in a film because I can’t imagine you as a character.’ That was it. I had five TV shows and I gave them all up. I took up Kareeb and then Satya happened.
For all the acclaim for Satya, it didn’t really jumpstart things for you. How did you deal with this period?
The real lull started after Satya. For almost six years, I sat in this office without any work. I just wrote every day and took up small roles that came my way. The industry was not offering me anything worthwhile. I had neither money nor job satisfaction. I started teaching at the FTII (Films and Television Institute of India). Then, Anurag Basu called me up for Barfi. I was so disillusioned that I didn’t take his call seriously. But when he told me about the role, I came alive. Anurag and Ranbir (Kapoor) revived me as an actor. I would look forward to go on the sets — the process of shooting Barfi was very similar to Bandit Queen. Then Jolly LLB came my way.
For all the knocks that come with the territory of being a character actor, what keeps you going?
It’s not money, status or popularity. Obviously, I need all these things, I even want them, but what keeps me going is my art. What keeps me going is the answer to two simple questions: Did I write a good scene today? Did I surprise myself today? If money motivates you, then you are in a race where you can never keep up. Social media is depressing — it’s a bad ride the moment you get into the “how many followers you have zone.” The biggest happiness is to enjoy what you create on the set.
What are your insights about contemporary Bollywood?
When I came to Mumbai, it was a great time to be in television. Now, it’s a great time to be in films. When we came in, if we had an original story to tell, the producer would ask us to leave the office. So we started hustling. We started telling producers that we have taken this scene from that film. In the last 15 years, it has changed so much. Now producers say, please meet us if you have original scripts.
The success of Gangs of Wasseypur, Paan Singh Tomar, Kahaani, and Barfi have proved that we can make tedha medha mera films. We are telling our stories, our way.
What’s the one piece of advice you offer to aspiring actors?
I tell them what they told me when I was young: slow down, take it easy, it’s going to happen. If you are in too much of a hurry, you’ll end up on a bad ride. An actor’s job is to believe. Believe that it’ll happen.
You write, act and direct. What do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy making a film the most. All the other things are a part of that. I’m trying to make a film but like they say in our business, till the time you’ve made it and released it, don’t talk about it.
Tell us something about your role in P.K.
The only thing that I can tell you is that it’s going to be my big thing and I have a very important role in the film. I’m also acting in Kick, a film with Aditi Rao and Pulkit Samrat tentatively titled Ticket to Bollywood and Nila Madhab Panda’s Kaun Kitne Paani Mein. n