If Ajay Devgn is the hero of director Raj Kumar Gupta’s upcoming release Raid then his heroism on-screen would not be as prominent and striking as it is now without a villain like Saurabh Shukla, who plays Rameshwar Singh aka Rajaji. In a career spanning for over two decades, Saurabh has carved a niche for himself. Be it Satya’s Kallu Mama or a fun but dedicated officer Sudhanshu Dutta in Barfi, Saurabh has never failed to make a mark on screen but when you tell him about it, the actor says, “a character works when a film works”.
In a conversation with indianexpress.com, Saurabh Shukla gets candid about his role, how he prepped for it, his go to characters for negative portrayals and his love for Gabbar Singh, Amjad Khan’s character in Sholay.
To begin with, Saurabh explained how his character of Rajaji is not plainly negative, “We pretty much know such people exist. He is a power-driven man who thinks nothing can happen to him but he is hit by this honest officer. The interesting thing about him is that he is not just a black character but his deeds are black. The whole approach was no matter how dark a character you are, at the end of the day, you are a human and have your own moments. He hates this officer but is amazed and fascinated by him because he has not met someone like him. For me, it was interesting because he is closest to the darkest character I have ever done. I have done grey-shaded characters before and I enjoy that but this was much darker.”
The actor said that much attention was given to the dialect of the character but since he has a Lucknow connect personally, it was not much of a task for him. He said, “Of course, because the film is based in Lucknow’s nearby areas, I had to work a bit on lingo and dialect but it was not difficult for me. My father is from Lucknow. I have a connect with Lucknow. I have childhood memories of the place. So, a bit of the lingo I knew. But the film does not show the Urdu speaking Lucknow. It is the country side of Lucknow where Hindi language is used.”
In the film, Saurabh’s character is fearless. He has so much power and control over people of his village that he knows he has nothing to be scared of but in real, he says he never really got to know the working of an IT department so closely. When we asked if he has seen any Raid situation for real, Saurabh laughed and said, “I have been in the industry for the very long time but luckily I have never earned that much that IT department would have to raid me. I never got paid so much. This was one fantasy I had to have so much of money that I would be raided but it got fulfilled in the film.”
But while we wonder how the film would be able to grab attention of the audience as it talks only about Raid, Saurabh corrects us and tells us some interesting things. He quipped, “When I heard the script for the first time, I thought how long will the story hold the audience but what all happens in a raid is so interesting. We are so unaware of it. Also, the film is set in an interesting time. Today, if a raid happens, the officers are secured because the penetration of media is so much that if someone raids a big guy, the news will be out. But we are talking about 80s in the film where penetration of media was not that much in politics or public. You get locked in the culprit’s kingdom and anything can happen with you. It is not as simple as we think. It becomes a violent and mucky situation, which is an interesting angle explored in the film. There are also traps for officers. They can be charged with anything when they are raiding. All this made the script interesting and intriguing.”
Going by the trailer, one can safely say that Saurabh’s character compliments Ajay’s character, making the entire good vs bad chase interesting. Talking about the same, the actor said, “The story is about raid. Of course, there would be two characters – one who raids and one who is being raided. It celebrates protagonist’s point of view, victory and courage. However, at the same time, having a strong antagonist always helps. I directed a film called ‘I am 24’ in which one character says ‘everyone reads Ramayan and the hero is Ram’, but the other character responds – ‘would people read it if Ravana does not exist?’ So, even Ramayan is not complete without a strong antagonist. So, we all value the antagonist as he becomes obstacle in protagonist’s journey so dramatically.”
However, over the years, the concept of villain has diminished. When we asked Saurabh the same thing, he slightly agreed with us but also explained how villains have become an internalised concept in many films.
“Conceptually, what happens today is that even if you have one person, you have two personalities in that. It has character flaws, the character itself is the antagonist of his own journey. For example, you see Baazigar, SRK was the one who was taking the revenge but he is the hero. You like him and do not want him to go in the way he wants to go but you also understand his point of view in seeking revenge. So, it is an internal fight. Whereas we also have physical existence of villains. For instance, Ramayan. Ram is good person and Ravana did wrong deeds which made him the villain. So, yes you are right that off late we had characters who fight their internal evils but it also nice to have a villain who is physically there like in Raid.”
He continued to point out the changes in storytelling which are bringing these major changes too, “I think it is not that only one sort of stories will work. It depends on the kind of story you are doing. When I did Jolly LLB 2, there was a clear-cut demarcation of antagonist and protagonist but we also see the latter struggling with his own flaws and overcome them. Right now, we are in an interesting time when people are telling more complex and layered stories.”
But does Saurabh have his favorite character? “Yes, and it has to be Gabbar Singh because Sholay is my favorite film. It is an iconic character. When I saw it as a child, I had never seen anything like him. So, it had a long-lasting impression on me. Gabbar singh was a different league altogether. You have to understand this, what was interesting in Gabbar? It was not just his physique or dreadfulness, he was mentally and psychologically a complex knotted person, which made him dangerous. How do human beings become dreadful? We all have two eyes, two legs, one nose etc., but it is because of their devious, dark mind, which is capable of doing darker things and that make us hate or fear them.”
Talking about villains, Saurabh also recalled Amrish Puri who was one of the best actors in the industry. The actor had the honour of working with Amrish Puri in Nayak. He remarked, “What I learnt from him is that though he was such a big star, at par with a superstar, in the category of character actors, he was a vanity free man. He had a slim staff. He did not walk with army of people around him, which was liberating. I was new at that time. Things were confusing to me. And I used to feel when you walk with a crowd, you are a bigger star but he proved me wrong. It is just like how a lion does not walk in a herd.”
One of the characters that made him popular was Kallu Mama. Does he expect his role of Rajaji to gain the same popularity? “First of all, that is up to the people. In sports they say, when you are at the ground and playing, you do not think of victory, you think about the game. If victory comes, it is the manifestation of what you do at the ground. So, I never spend time in accessing or figuring out will a character match up to my earlier work or not. Also understand, an actor does not work in isolation. The film worked hence the character did.”
He continued, “If people remember me for something I have done in past, I am happy but I do not take pride that ‘remember I did that’ because I believe what I am doing today is my identity. My past work is not my fixed deposit. So, I am more concerned about what I am doing and where I am heading.”
In a career of over two decades, Saurabh has done hundreds of films but he tags Rajaji as his most difficult role after PK’s character. The actor said, “Two characters I can name immediately. Raid because it is a demanding character and I was pitched against the protagonist. Ajay has a huge history of different kind of films he has done. Raid is not his first. He has done Gangaajal and other interesting work. He is way much senior in terms of film acting and a good actor. I was pitched against a good actor. So, I had to be on my toes all the time. Another one is the Swamyji character in PK. It was difficult because it was completely against my ideology.”
Explaining it further, he said, “The thing is when you play a character you draw a lot of references from your own ideology but in PK, I had no association with my character. I could not understand how a man or a fake godman can live by playing with sentiments. I had no understanding of how a man, who was constantly lying, can find pride. That was one tough cookie for me. Raju (Hirani) really made me feel through the whole thing.”
As the conversation came to an end, Saurabh spoke about what’s in store for the audience this year from his end. “I have of course Raid and later in the year, I have Daas Dev, in which I play a layered and important character. I am shooting for another film which is tentatively called Democracy directed by Anubhav Sinha. I hope to be a part of Jolly LLB 3 if Subhash Kapoor makes the third part. Another director I love to work with is Anurag Basu.”
As far as his filmmaking ambitions are concerned, the actor whose last outing as director and writer was in 2012 with I Am 24 said he has some plans this year but did not reveal details.