Congratulations, Shahid for the rave reviews on your performance in Haider. The film was a far cry from the usual escapist fare, a little disturbing even. So now at the end of it all, how do you feel about the film?
Even when I watched it, I took a day to recover—it’s very strong and because it’s effective, it kind of stays with you longer.
My mom and my brother didn’t speak to me for two days. After two days, I got a message from my mother, saying how much she loved it. My brother was like this— imitates his wide-eyed expression— all of two days.
We are very overwhelmed with the response. The fact that we released it the day we did and chose to come with another film (Bang Bang) which was so big, reiterates the fact that everybody really had a lot of faith in this film, right from the time we conceived it, shot it and viewed our own product. I see it as a victory for a certain kind of cinema. It is much larger than the fact that it’s a successful film for me or that we have recovered the money. All those are very important things, but for a film like Haider to have released and be liked by the audience not because it’s the only choice at the ticket window, goes to show that there is place for cinema which is not just trying to be commercial, but is honest and from the heart. And films are originally stories that people want to tell—that’s how films were made and over the years it is getting so driven by the market that we are forgetting what the core of cinema is all about. And because I come from a family where I have been told that it’s the actor in me that is going to make me a star, I constantly keep feeling the urge to participate in something like this once in a while. Actually, I was angry with myself that for four years after Kaminey I didn’t do a film that was risky. Why didn’t I have the guts to go out there and do another one of those films? Why did it take me five years to do as risky as scary and non-commercial film as Haider? When I do a film like this, a little bit of my heart and soul also feels enriched. Even before it released everything that I hoped to achieve from Haider, I did. The experience of playing a character like Hamlet or being in the same frame as actors like Tabu ma’am , Kay Kay sir, Irrfan sir was very enriching. Doing something as risky as Haider, and not knowing whether it will be accepted or not, whether it is your biggest mistake as an actor, are insecurities that are always there, but you take that risk because you need to have that experience as an actor.
So why did you not take a risk in the last five years?
I keep asking myself this question. We tried Mausam, it was an attempt to make a good film and it took two years of my life, but maybe because it wasn’t successful, I ran away from it for a bit. It took too much out of me, but that’s no excuse. I should have done more such films.
Did you finally take up Hrithik Roshan’s dare and watch Bang Bang challenge?
Yes, I did watch Bang Bang and actually put out a video on Thursday night. I went to PVR and saw the 11.10 show. We tweeted about it to each other. Neither of us had the opportunity to talk, but Hrithik sent a very kind message. So we have been kind of exchanging notes on a very public platform. But I have always appreciated his work. In fact, he is someone who has on various occasions inspired me as an actor. I am so happy that he was talking about Haider in such good spirit and that we were both talking about each other’s films without being competitive. It was really nice. That’s a good thing and everyone should chill out. It’s positive. We actually exchanged a few messages and he also said, ‘dude let’s just change this thing of trying to pit people against each other’ and it helped that our films are so different. The budgets are different, the sizes are different, the audience type is different. It’s like black and white; two different sides of cinema, so we didn’t even feel at any level that it was the same. And both of us wanted to dispel that notion of a clash.
Which is your favourite scene from the film?
The scene where I am bald and delivering that straight monologue was one of my favourites. We did the whole speech in one go—we did it in three magnifications. There is a certain madness when Haider starts ranting, so we didn’t want to take a break. We actually finished the scene in four hours, but Vishal sir and I had been discussing it for over a week, while we were there, because a six page monologue can get very boring. We were very concerned about making sure that it holds the attention of the audience. Vishal sir has worked with every possible actor in the country, so I was shitting in my pants, thinking if I mess it up, a lot of actors are going to come and whack me for wasting such an amazing opportunity. I still remember the night before we were supposed to shoot, we had dinner together and spent about 45 minutes discussing the scene and before Vishal sir left, he said, “You know na, that you are Pankaj Kapur’s son. Goodnight.”
He left me with that thought! (laughs). And then we had fun, because I had learnt the six page monologue, I can rant it anytime now. But we just had fun for four hours, like that noose around the neck, and that whole thing of hitting the head, those were just random things. Vishal sir just kept saying, “achcha theek hai, tum aisa kuch kar lo.”
How do you approach dialogues? Some actors are very uncomfortable memorising lines, leave alone a six page monologue.
It’s different for different films, but a six page monologue like this needs preparation because if you don’t prepare for it, you can’t create any kind of a graph, and could end up just going into a completely random zone. But in several movies, it’s better not to rehearse, because it keeps it more natural and more real. It also depends on what the character requires. Ideally, I like to be spontaneous because if you are preparing too much, you have already created a scenario for yourself where you have decided what you want to do. The film-maker might have a different point of view, so it’s better to go with an open mind and then create whatever you have to as a team. It has to happen under the guidance of a film-maker. For Haider, though, I had to prepare for the role.
How was it to have Irrfan, KayKay Menon and Tabu as your co-stars?
Very intimidtaing and fascinating, especially working with Irrfan sir. I did about three scenes with him, but just the way he acts is so different from what I have ever experienced earlier. Actually, he hardly does anything, but it is so effective. His performance is so subtle that even for a co-actor, it is difficult to see what he’s doing. And he’s very chilled out. One day there was Tabu ma’am, Irrfan sir, Vishal sir , Kay Kay sir standing, and there was me and I was like, ‘wow, I am actually standing with all of them’. I told one guy, ‘photo le’.
I felt none of them really make a big deal of themselves. None of them are acting; they are who they are. In fact, you get the feeling that the more time you spend, the more casual you get about the process. They are so interested in what they are doing, that it’s really cool hanging around with them, because after so many years of work and when you are so good, you don’t have any point to prove. That’s something to learn from. Their energies are so focussed on getting the characters and scenes right.
Every actor is different. They all have their own quirks and are unique. Tabu ma’am, toh, you don’t even know when she’s ready for a shot; she will be talking normally about sundry things and the next minute she will start crying, and you will be like, ‘oh, really’? Irrfan sir walks in and out of the frame almost the same way as if the camera wasn’t rolling. Kay Kay sir has an amazing amount of intensity and all of them are extremely sensitive to the film-maker’s needs. I have not seen any of them ever put their foot down about anything. They have, I guess, that much of love and regard for Vishal sir as a film-maker. Tabu ma’am and Irrfan sir have done some of their finest work with him.
Did you have a good feeling about Haider from the word go?
I felt it in my bones right from the beginning. From the very first time we landed in Kashmir, and entered the world of Haider. Everyday we would talk about it being very unique and very special. There were a hundred fears too, like, ‘will people get it?’ And yet, for Haider, that good feeling was always there. I felt it with Kaminey and Jab We Met too.
Even for my first film Ishq Vishq, I felt kuch achcha hoga. You get that feeling, for most films that have turned out to be special. Sometimes it happens because the team comes together so well, you start seeing rushes of your work and you feel, ‘wow, it’s come out so well’. But sometimes you get that sense for films that don’t do well too. (Guffaws).
Did you read Hamlet as part of your prep?
I read Hamlet just for a reference. There was so much talk of Hamlet that a month before shooting, we just shut ourselves to that because it was Haider that we needed to create. I thought if I have two different things in mind, it will create a conflict for me, choices which I didn’t want to make, so I just made it about Haider, which I think was the right thing to do.
There was some debate on the politics of Haider— did you anticipate a backlash?
One was aware that this is a film that will make people sit up and have a view point. It’s the sign of a mature society, when film-makers can put different points of view that are respected. Can we say that about some of our neighbours? Would China accept a film which questions any part of their authority? Would any part of Pakistan or any of our neighbours be able to do that? The fact that Haider has been made, passed by the Censors and loved by the audience, that I think is the biggest and most amazing thing. In my entire career, I have never received the kind of appreciation that I have got for Haider. And for me, as an actor and for the film, it has been such an amazing response. It goes to show that we are a mature society.
For me, the two lines in Haider—-one when the grandfather says, “Hindustan mein bhi azadi lathiwala laya tha, bandukwala nahin.” And when Haider chooses— the choice he is given and the line that precedes it is, ‘intqam se sirf inteqam milta hai. Jab tak hum apne inteqam se azaad nahin ho jate, koi azaadi hume azad nahin kar sakti,’ was the deciding factor for me to do the movie. The thought of non-violence after showing you such a violent film, because you need to know that violence to feel its futility and how meaningless it is. And how it’s not leading to any logical conclusion. Blood leads to more blood. That’s the truth of it. A large part of the audience has connected with the human journey and what the film is saying in the end. But every point of view has to be respected. There are so many stories that deserve to be told, Haider is just one. Any one film cannot cover everything that happened in Kashmir, I hope many more films are made. This is just one story and one film- maker’s point of view. It’s not a documentary.
Is it important for an actor to be socially aware to further hone his craft?
A lot of people who are socially aware may be bad actors.
Among two equally good actors, can awareness be an advantage?
I don’t think you can do Haider if you don’t have any kind of awareness about society. Politically I am not very well informed, but my fundamentals on morality, ethics, what’s right or wrong are quite clear. I am spiritually inclined. I think about life and death and about God. These are themes that often come up in Shakespeare’s works too.
How familiar were you with Shakespeare’s works?
I am familiar with Merchant of Venice, but both Vishal sir and my father are highly influenced by Shakespeare. There are a lot of conversations about Shakespeare that I have been a part of, but my fears about Shakespeare were always, ki arrey yaar if we are making a film, it can’t be so authentic that people don’t connect with it. A lot of people might not even be aware of Shakespeare, so how do you rediscover it in a way where you can make people relate to it?
I was reading somewhere that Hamlet has been adapted innumerable times. Romeo and Juliet was a tragedy, but it was a big hit. Shakespeare is remembered more for his dramas than for his comedies, at least for me. All three— Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet are perhaps his strongest works.
Which role from any of Shakespeare’s works would you now wish to play?
I have played Hamlet, so I am spoilt for choice now, because it is the most difficult work. I think I would like to play Brutus from Julius Caesar. I actually want to play a negative character, like an out-and-out unapologetic villain because for 10 years I’ve been told, ‘Oh, you’re this sweet-looking guy’ . So I really want to break that mould. I’m gonna show you guys. I actually felt so cool, when promos of Haider were out, and people walked up to me and said, ‘you are looking very scary. We are like very scared of you’. And I was like yeah man, yeah be scared! It was awesome. It feels amazing when you can break those parameters of perception from a typically physical point of view, ki, “oh, sweet-looking guy or whatever.” And if you are able to break that barrier because the actor in you has been able to convert them, it’s the coolest feeling.
How did you get that manic look?
It was the insecurity of f****g the role up (laughs)! I ended up wearing contact lenses so that nobody could see my bloody eyes. I swear that’s the honest truth. I kept doing that (glowers with his eyes popping) in the film because I felt that I would be able to hide my nervousness with the lenses. In Bismil also, I kept doing it and then it seemed to work, so we decided to stick with it. And then of course, going bald and the dadhi (beard); all those things really helped. I enjoy playing these kind of characters. My father had told me this long back, that everyone is looking at you as a romantic hero, but you must do dramatic films. You are good with intense dramatic stuff. Even when I did Jab We Met, dad said, “If you observe, you are the quiet intense type in this film and that’s why it’s working so well for you.” So what I have come to realise is that, I might look a certain way, but as an actor things that have worked for me are very contrary to the way I look, like even in a Kaminey or now in Haider—it’s very different from how people view me. And that to me, is very exciting. The actors I have always been curious to see are those who have been able to surprise me. So that desire to surprise the audience is always there.