It is interestingly to note that you shot Zubaan, which is releasing on March 4, much before Masaan.
Zubaan is the first film I had signed as a lead. It was an opportunity I was waiting for, coming at a time when I was getting shortlisted for roles but was unable to make the final cut. That was the phase I used to wonder why it is not happening. I have lost count of the number of films I had auditioned for by then. For nearly three years, I used to try for lead roles, supporting characters, ads and anything else that came up.
I had finished shooting nearly 70 per cent of Zubaan when we started shooting for Masaan. In fact, after shooting for Zubaan from February to May in 2014, we stopped since the film has a winter portion. In the meantime, I shot Masaan.
In Zubaan, you play a very different character. Are you happy that so early on in your career you are able to avoid typecasting?
I am very happy that I am getting to play such layered and demanding characters. I feel blessed that directors are trusting me with such roles. There is a conscious effort, too, to pick up characters who are as different as possible from each other. This gives me a chance to explore myself as an actor.
How much unlearning did you have to do when you went back to the sets of Zubaan?
I had to understand why the character runs away from music. Personally, I had to understand why the film’s director, Mozez Singh, came up with such a character, and talking to him gave me a good understanding of it. That apart, the character stammers and I had to study that too. I used to visit a speech therapist in Pune, sitting through sessions and interacting with his patients. Initially reluctant, they started sharing their stories and fears with me. Later, when my stutter started sounding natural, the doctor asked me to stop doing it. He said: ‘By imitating it frequently, one can actually develop it’.
And how did you prepare for Masaan?
When I got Masaan, I was happy that I was getting to play Deepak’s character. But I could not relate to it or visualise the world he belongs to. Initially, I sat down with Neeraj Ghaywan and Varun Grover to understand his character. My first reference film was Children of Pyre. I used to put the audio of it on and go to sleep. I wanted to make the sounding of burning pyre and ‘Ram naam satya hai’ very mundane. I realised that I have to be there for some time to understand the people and place.
After three years of struggle, how did roles start coming your way?
All of it happened through auditions. Zubaan’s casting director was Mukesh Chhabra. Singh, the film’s director, was taking the auditions himself. It was a very intense and gruelling process. I was called every day for a week to audition for it — enacting different scenes and improvising. I even did a photoshoot with Sarah-Jane Dias, who was already cast, before I was confirmed for it. For Raman Raghav 2.0, directed by Anurag Kashyap, I got a call from him saying that he wanted to test. He said: ‘The biggest hindrance in casting the role of a cop, a complex character, was that you are good boy’. He asked me to read my scenes and said that he would test me after five days. For five days, I moved to our home in Madh Island and isolated myself. Anurag is my mentor and if he says that he wants an extra like me in a scene, I would gladly do that.
You spent a few years doing theatre. What made you do so?
That’s the decision I took while working as an assistant director for Gangs of Wasseypur. All its lead characters — Manoj Bajpai, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Richa Chadda have a theatre background. I wanted to work in theatre to polish my craft. One day, Manav Kaul asked me to make the announcement before the start of the play at Prithvi Theatre. That was my first theatre act. I must have rehearsed that line more than 100 times.
When did you realise you wanted to join films?
During my engineering days, we were taken for an industrial visit. I realised that I can’t do a regular job. I was always active on stage — taking part in dance competitions, skits and plays. Earlier my father wished that I would do my post-graduation in the US and live a secured life, earning a salary at the end of every month. On learning about my decision, he said I would have his support but the struggle was going to be mine.
Where do you see yourself five years down the line?
I don’t want to do that. What has happened to me is way better than what I had imagined. I never thought I would have three releases in 2016; after Zubaan, I have Raman Raghav 2.0 and Sameer Sharma’s Manmarziyan coming out this year.