We see more Sikh characters in Hindi films now being played by Sikh actors. Do you view that as a sign of diversity?
I am not sure of that; I only see me getting a steady stream of opportunities at the moment. Although I have to say I have no idea why filmmakers approach me. At first, I refused Soorma because I didn’t think I would be able to pull off the character of a national-level hockey player, that too, of a former captain. But Sandeep Singh’s story is quire remarkable, particularly his return to the sport after a debilitating injury from an accident. I took it up because it offered me an opportunity to explore something I had not done. But quite honestly, if I don’t get offered such challenging roles, I am not going to fight too hard. I don’t have that hunger in me.
Bollywood is quite competitive and if you don’t have the hunger, how will you survive in the industry?
I have a hunger for good work but not for Bollywood. Good work can mean Punjabi films, my music and stage shows.
Does music score over acting, then?
Acting happened by accident. My priority is to make a new song every day, and it need not be a film song. I make music for myself. Also, I am not dependent on others for making music. Films are different, especially Hindi films. It’s a different market and I choose from what I get offered. How the film turns out depends a lot on the director and producer. I have little or no control on the end product the way I have with my music.
How about turning producer?
I have a lot of shortcomings. I am not very well-educated and my English is extremely poor. I will never find that acceptance in Bollywood without English-speaking skills, be it as an actor or as a producer.
As an artist, isn’t it more important to have the ability to communicate?
See, if I get offered a Hinglish film, I cannot really take it up. When I do a Punjabi film, I am able to take a scene, interpret it my way and offer variations. I already struggle with Hindi because of my limited vocabulary. I try to watch Hindi films, pick up a word or an expression but usually, I end up delivering the dialogue I have been given. You cannot do your best unless you have control on the language. But I am not going to let this pass… I am already working towards improving my Hindi and I am not going to die an English illiterate.
What sport did you play growing up?
None. I was consumed by music. I was learning tabla too, which is a tough instrument. It needs extensive practise because one can easily tell a novice from a seasoned player. I worked hard because I thought I will grow up to become a professional tabla player. But then I turned to devotional music before I discovered folk.
And now, after having trained for the film, can you play hockey like a pro?
I can look like one. I know the stance and Sandeep Singh trained me to do the drag flick, what he was famous for. But I can’t play well. I was quite bad when I started — I had never entered a hockey ground before, never really held a stick in my hand for the purpose of playing (laughs). I am used to running but not like a sportsperson would. Sandeep worked hard on me. I think he was more worried because I had to play him in the film.
Punjabi films usually stick to the comedy genre. Does that feel constricting?
Yes, but the audience seems to only enjoy that genre. Action or drama don’t quite work with them. We do keep trying though. I was recently a part of Punjab 1984, which did win the National Award but it didn’t work like a Jatt and Juliet or Sardaar Ji would. I also did Sajjan Singh Rangroot, set against the backdrop of World War I. But it fared like Punjab 1984. When I meet intelligent people, I feel I should make these kind films but the audience response comes in the way. It does get tiring because after a point, you stop growing as an actor because you are repeating yourself, and money stops mattering too. You see the world is making films on such myriad themes and you want Punjabi cinema to get there too. But I know it will be a while before that happens.