For a long time, Vikrant Massey played likeable roles in television soaps. Four years after his Bollywood debut, the industry is taking notice.
At first, his Versova address makes him look like a “me too”. But for actor Vikrant Massey, the neighbourhood, home to many from the film industry today, has been all too familiar from the days it used to be a fishing village. Looking out of the window, Massey points to his school across the road. “Growing up with Koli boys is a different experience,” he says, recounting numerous trips taken into the sea in fishing boats. “It teaches you survival. Perhaps, it is that one lesson that has brought me this far”.
“Growing up with Koli boys is a different experience,” he says, recounting numerous trips taken into the sea in fishing boats. “It teaches you survival. Perhaps, it is that one lesson that has brought me this far”.
Massey, 29, is enjoying the spotlight after his performance as the lead in A Death in the Gunj, Konkana Sen Sharma’s directorial debut that opened the recently-concluded Jio MAMI 18th Mumbai Film Festival (MFF). Loosely based on a short story penned by Sen Sharma’s father, the “atmospheric drama” follows the chaos that wreaks havoc on a family during a vacation after one of them dies. Massey plays Shutu, a 21-year-old misfit, a contrast to Ranvir Shorey’s hyper-masculine character, and delicately brings out the character’s innocence and vulnerability.
Casting director Atul Mongia, who has worked with Massey, says that the actor’s biggest strength is his ability to surrender himself for a part. “He works hard and he places all his trust in the director,” says Mongia. This quality has allowed him to play distinct characters, in A Death in the Gunj as well as Alankrita Shrivastava’s Lipstick Under My Burkha, which was also screened at MFF. In the latter, he plays a street-smart Muslim boy in love with Aahana Kumra’s character, and their track explores the couple’s struggle to break free from social restrictions.
Only four films old, acclaim has come early. But Massey isn’t quite the newcomer: he has nine years of television roles behind him. It was only in 2013 that he transitioned to the big screen with Vikramaditya Motwane’s Lootera. “I have been in the right place at the right time,” says Massey.
The actor made his TV debut in 2003 at 16, after being spotted at a restaurant. “I was out with my friends when a casting agent came up and asked me if I was interested in acting,” he says. Massey, however, forgot about the meeting, until he started to get calls at home. “I was an assistant trainer with Shiamak Davar at the time and I would return home to messages. Finally, I called back,” he says. Pursuing a degree in commerce from Bandra’s National College, he was reluctant to quit a stable job that was earning him Rs 1,500 a month. The makers of the show, Contiloe Films, offered him a role and Rs 6,000 per day of shoot. “I am the younger sibling in a middle-class family, and the expenses are always more than the family’s income. I was financially independent, but taking up this opportunity meant supplementing the household income,” he says.
The show, titled Kahaan Hoon Main, was shot but never went on air. Offers, however, kept coming. His first screen appearance was on Disney channel’s youth show Dhoom Machaao Dhoom in 2007. Before he knew it, Massey was part of the big, daily soap churn.
His first big break was Dharam Veer on NDTV Imagine in 2008. In the titular character of Dharam, a prince in a fictional land, Massey is the righteous keeper of traditions. The show became a huge TRP winner for the channel alongside Ramayana. The success of Dharam Veer was followed by Balika Vadhu. “It was a two-month cameo that lasted two years,” says Massey, who played husband to the lead character Anandi’s sister-in-law. However, he grew bored and decided to quit, leading to his character being bumped off. “I had taken up Baba Aiso Varr Dhoondo and was shooting for it simultaneously. With the two sets an hour’s drive apart and hectic schedules every day, I was practically shooting all the time. I once went four days without sleep, shooting back to back,” says Massey. The experience played a vital role in his decision to move on from the medium.
It also didn’t help that Massey couldn’t quite relate to the content. “I grew up watching English films and listening to The Doors and The Beatles. The daily soap sagas, with clothes straight out of an Indian wedding for daily wear, outlandish stories and lectures on morality and outdated traditions felt like a different world,” he says.
Initially, the financial constraint at home kept him going. “It didn’t matter whether I was dressed in sherwanis or a dhoti — I gave my best every day so that my producers wouldn’t replace me,” he says. His immensely likeable screen presence soon made him popular. He was the boy-next-door whom everyone liked to watch.
The opportunity for films presented itself when he got a call to audition for Lootera. “Vikramaditya had recommended my name to Atul Mongia, who was casting for the film. I loved Udaan and I wanted to work with him, even if it meant having a walk-on part,” says Massey. But a few weeks passed and he didn’t hear from them. When he called Mongia, he was told someone else had been selected. Dejected, he went back to shooting for television when the call came. “They were to begin shooting for Lootera in a week. They didn’t have much time to explain my part and asked if I was still willing to take it up. Of course, I didn’t refuse,” he says.
In the film, based on O Henry’s The Last Leaf, Massey played Ranveer Singh’s childhood friend, Devdas. “I had first noticed Vikrant in Lootera. There is a certain innocence to his character as well as that of Ranveer Singh’s, even though they are both hustlers,” says Sen Sharma, who offered him Shutu’s role in Lipstick Under My Burkha.
The rise of character-backed films in mainstream Bollywood today has aided his career in films, says Massey. “While TV was swapping heroes who looked like real, regular people for stylish, beefed-up men, movies were going the other way. Irrfan had become a huge name, for instance, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui was rising to fame. The time was right for the someone like me to find acceptability in the industry,” he says.
A bunch of ads for Nescafe and Cornetto helped him reposition himself in the “young urban boy” space. As Rana Khanna in Zoya Akhtar’s star-studded Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), a sweet, dishy boy whom Ranveer Singh’s fiance (played by Riddhima Sud) is in love with, Massey showcased his ability in playing characters vastly different from the ones he essayed on TV.
While his career in films is just taking off — Massey has Half Girlfriend lined up next — he hasn’t ruled out television entirely. He is open to web content and television if it attempts to break ground. “Television has an unparalleled reach. The biggest stars today realise that. If I aim for longevity in my career, I cannot rule out options,” he says. So, does he have it all worked out? “Not at all,” he says, laughing, “My instinct for survival brought me here. Hopefully, it will come to my aid till I grow old.”