In most families, it’s the middle child who inhabits the “invisible” space, between the first born and the youngest. In Kanu Behl’s recently-released Titli, Bawla might have suffered a similar fate, caught between the volatile elder sibling (played by the talented Ranvir Shorey) and the titular character of the youngest (played by Shashank Arora), on whom the film centres. But Amit Sial’s competent and understated portrayal ensures Bawla isn’t overshadowed as a supporting character in the powerful ensemble.
In a house with four men and no woman, Bawla is the one who keeps the family together. This, says Sial, was arrived at during intensive discussions with Behl. “When we sat down to ‘decode’ the character, we realised that given their temperaments and the constant struggle to survive, this family would implode unless there is someone holding it all together. Bawla plays that glue,” says Sial.
Sial first worked with Behl in Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex aur Dhokha (LSD), where he played the sting journalist in the last of the three stories in the film. Bawla, thus, was a role Behl wrote keeping Sial in mind. But in a story about oppression, where the lines between the perpetrator and the victim seem to blur, Bawla was turning out to be uni-dimensional among an array of nuanced characters. That changed when they began to explore his alternate sexuality and the “relationship” with a minor.
An unusual film from the Yash Raj Films stable, Titli, co-produced by Banerjee, may not have performed well at the box office, but last year’s Cannes selection did impress critics with its take on dysfunctional families and commentary on the increasing disparity in urban centres. For Sial, however, the film has managed to do a little more — it has brought him under the spotlight after 11 years of struggle in the industry.
Born and brought up in Kanpur, the 41-year-old remembers his love for performance since his early years. “At that time, it was the stage, but at the root of my passion was my love for attention, not so much the craft,” he says with a laugh.
When that changed, the actor cannot say, but it took a while for him to identify his calling. Unsure of his own talent and under pressure to have a “normal” profession, the actor opted to pursue academics. “I was fairly good at studies but lost interest in it. After graduation, I flunked my CA foundation exams thrice and made it clear to my parents that I will not sit for any more competitive tests,” says Sial.
His parents packed him off to Melbourne, Australia, nonetheless, where Sial got himself an MBA degree. But with Randeep Hooda for a flatmate, who was also there to do an MBA, Sial secretly nursed his acting dream. “We would talk about cinema and how our lives were on a course so different from where we wanted to be,” he says. Many years later, Hooda, slowly beginning to gain a foothold in the industry, would urge his friend to give up theatre in Delhi and move to Mumbai. He would also get him his first break in Tanuja Chandra’s Indian-American film, Hope and a Little Sugar.
While Mumbai gave Sial his livelihood and the opportunities — he has been part of several films, including the 2010 sleeper hit Phans Gaye Re Obama and the satire Yeh Hai Bakrapur — he doesn’t view his journey here as any different from that of other “struggling actors who made it”. His other films, such as Issaq and Peter Gaya Kaam Se may not have worked, but he is glad that the opportunities came his way. “As an actor, I cannot sit and wait for that one film. I prefer to face the camera, make mistakes and learn from them,” he says.
Sial cherishes his life in Delhi as the crucial years when he learned and came to terms with himself. “After my MBA, I took up a corporate job. It would be two years before I would finally find the courage to give it up and return to acting. What triggered it was a chance meeting with a friend with whom I used to do theatre at the Delhi College of Arts and Commerce,” he says.
Sial gave up his job to join his friend’s group that was attempting a fusion performance of rock, jazz and Indian classical dance forms. Alongside, he started a takeaway joint in east Delhi to supplement his income. “I grew up in Kanpur and would miss the Mughlai and Awadhi preparations. I could cook some of it decently. So it became my natural choice for a business,” he says.
The performance did not get staged, nor did the business model succeed, but the stint in the city gave Sial the exposure to a world outside Kanpur and helped him get acquainted with the craft of acting. “I did an acting course, attended workshops extensively for the fusion performance, let go of my inhibitions and worked on my English, without which, I realised, I stood little chance as an actor.”
His familiarity with Delhi and the years in Kanpur also helped his portrayal of Prabhat in LSD and Bawla in Titli. “Most of us live sanitised lives in Delhi and Mumbai, away from the problems of those for whom getting past every day is a struggle. But in Kanpur, aggression and violence is so well-entrenched in daily life that it ceases to affect you. I have lived that life where you trip a boy who is running and laugh when he bleeds through his mouth, later wiping it and befriending him. When I came to Delhi and was faced with boys bigger and tougher than I ever was, it gave me an idea of where I stood in the bigger hierarchy,” says Sial. He channelled these memories and experiences to portray Bawla and his struggle against the oppression within the house and that he faces outside.
While Titli has got him noticed, he is hoping that his role in Umrika, which will release in India early next year, will further add to his repertoire. He plays a character who migrates to the big city from a village, setting an example for others after him.
His parents, meanwhile, have moved with him to Mumbai but continue to “worry” for him. “They’ve just learned to act their part out better. They don’t ask me to make safe choices anymore but their concerns show when they say, ‘Oh, you did a fabulous job, the audience applauded you but how much did you get paid for that role?’” says Sial, laughing. But he isn’t about to give up his career. “I tried my hand at writing with Charlie Ke Chakkar Mein, which released recently. But now I have decided I will die an actor, whenever I do. Never mind if it takes time till I really make it.”