Saurabh Shukla is one actor who makes sure that the character he plays becomes an inseparable part of every film. Be it his Justice Sunderlal Tripathi in Jolly LLB, Tapasvi Maharaj in PK, Kallu Mama in Satya or Sudhanshu Dutta in Barfi, each character has stood the test of time.
Shukla, who’s been in the business for 25 years, has also played prominent roles in films like Taal, Baadshah, Nayak and Raid, to name a few. He has also directed movies including Raat Gayi Baat Gayi and Pappu Can’t Dance Saala.
As part of our special series, the National Award winner revealed how he bagged his first film, Shekhar Kapur’s iconic Bandid Queen (1994).
1. How did the film Bandit Queen come to you?
It’s a long story. I was working with NSD Rapporteur. I got two offers and the screen test was to happen in Bombay. One was for a TV series for BBC based on Habib Qureshi’s novel. Second was for Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha. Both went very well and with two international projects, I thought now my life is sorted. I will move to Bombay for a few years and then shift abroad and work there (laughs). The same time Shekhar Kapur had come to Delhi. Seema (Biswas) was my colleague and she made me meet him. Shekhar was one of my favourite directors. He shared that he was making a small film called Bandit Queen. He said it is fine now that I am travelling abroad, or else he would have offered me something in it. That was just a passing chat. Even I didn’t pay attention to it.
The casting of Bandit Queen continued and all my friends got cast in it. Then I received a letter that the actor in BBC series has been changed and they did not require my services. I didn’t get through even in Bertolucci’s film. I had no option but to return to work at the Rapporteur. I felt really bad that all my friends are working in Bandit Queen, baring me. One day, Shekhar came to watch Seema’s play which I used to open. After it got over, he called me backstage. There, he kept looking at me silently for a long time and just left. I got confused. Tigmanshu Dhulia was his assistant director at that time. I asked Tigmanshu, “What’s the matter?”. He told me that I need to leave for Dholpur tomorrow where the film was to be shot. I asked him whether it was for a small role. He said right now only main actors were travelling there for a study as the film will go on floors after sometime. So if I am being sent, then it is for some major role only. Later Shekhar revealed to me that when he came to watch that play, he decided then and there that he wanted me for his film. He went back and merged two real life characters to create an important role (for me) – Kailash. And that’s how I got my first film. After Bandit Queen, it was Shekhar who brought me to Bombay. And my life in Bombay started because of that.
2. What do you remember of your first day on set?
If you can recall the film, there’s a small scene where Seema and I are chatting on a cycle and climbing a mountain. Seema then says that she will ride the cycle and I should sit behind. I do that and the cycle slips from the incline and we fall off. This was the scene on my first day. As soon as the camera began rolling and we started climbing the mountain, everything went for a toss. I just couldn’t breathe because of the strength needed while going uphill. The path was also rocky. It was difficult to manage between the cycle, the dialogues and other stuff. The entire acting part, expressions and the plan of saying my dialogues in a certain way, all of it just disappeared! I spoke all my lines in one go just to finish the shot quickly.
I kept thinking that I should kill myself as Shekhar must be wondering what kind of an actor has he got who just cannot act. We reached the top of the mountain and the shot got over somehow. I went and said sorry to Shekhar that I was unable to deliver. He clarified that it was a great shot. Later, when I saw that in the film, it became a big lesson in my life that if you try to put in a lot of dramatics and make it ornamental, it doesn’t remain real. Emotions might require things like breathlessness to make it look authentic. After that first scene, I enjoyed shooting the whole film.
3. Were you nervous? How many retakes did you take?
2-3 takes I think. I have never been an actor of many takes.
4. And how was the rapport with your co-stars when you got to meet or work with them again later?
It was wonderful! After Bandit Queen was made, Manoj (Bajpayee) and I came to Bombay. We took a flat together and later we made so many friends. Then we shifted to a bigger two bedroom flat. There, we were four boys – I, Victor (Vijay Krishna Acharya), Manoj and others. One day Seema came and said she was shifting to Bombay and since she was new to the place and we were like her younger brothers, she would be staying with us. So, we gave one room in our flat to Seema. That’s how all of us got settled in that one flat. It was a lovely time which we spent together. Tigmanshu, who stayed with his brother, used to visit us almost every day. Even Irrfan (Khan) stayed in our neighbourhood. We all had a closed knit group at that time. I am very happy that everybody has gone places.
If there is one person I am in awe of in my life, it is Shekhar. He is magical to me. There’s one very interesting story with him. After Bandit Queen, he called me once and asked what I was doing. I said I was about to finish my contractual job. He asked me to come to Bombay and booked flight tickets for me. He had directed the first two episodes of Tehkikaat series and got me cast in that. He asked me where was I planning to stay in Bombay. I was a Delhi lad and had no clue about life here. I jokingly said that since you are calling me, I will stay with you obviously. And I didn’t realise it was not supposed to be that way. He gave me his address to come and stay with him. He kept me at his place for almost a month. Then Manoj took a room and I shifted with him after a month.
5. If given a chance to go back to your debut role, what’s that one thing you would like to change or do better?
I will not approach it as an old role. I will approach it as a new role. So, everything will change. I see what is in present. It’s nice that what I did in the past was liked by people. But I never evaluate it, that this is how I could have done it better or differently. I played the same character in Jolly LLB, and then in Jolly LLB 2 after a few years. In Jolly LLB 2, I understood the present circumstance of the character. I don’t not think how to take it forward and better it from the previous film. I don’t work that way.
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6. One film or role that inspired you to become an actor?
Frankly speaking I never wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be a filmmaker. I am a writer essentially because a filmmaker should know how to write too. Once Sudhir Mishra told me, “You know why you are a great actor? Because you are a reluctant actor. You don’t act or try to prove a point by acting.” I think that was very good. That’s how my approach has been. I think what my character is going through and what’s happening around him.