Amid the noteworthy cast of Amazon Prime Video’s Paatal Lok, one character that grabs eyeballs is Imran Ansari, played by Ishwak Singh. Ansari is a soft-spoken Kashmiri Muslim, who is a new recruit in the police department and the right hand of Jaideep Ahlawat’s Hathi Ram Chaudhary. In fact, Ansari is the yin to Hathi Ram’s yang.
In a candid chat with indianexpress.com, Ishwak opened up about landing his breakthrough role in Paatal Lok, approaching his character with sensitivity and how a theatre background helped him.
Here are excerpts from the conversation:
Q. You are literally the second lead in Paatal Lok, and we got to know that only after watching it. Were you prepared for the audience reaction?
An actor doesn’t have control over publicity and marketing, but I wouldn’t do it any other way. It’s been presented just in the perfect manner. I know Ansari is a very important character, pretty much like the second lead. They (Hathi Ram and Ansari) are both heroes, solving the case and have the virtues in the right place. It’s not like a character is tagging along. He has his own identity, background and has a beautiful relation with Hathi Ram. So I felt amazing right from the time I got the script. A lot of people told me it’s our favorite character because it’s so endearing. It’s a trance when you get a part like Imran Ansari.
Q. Ansari shares a beautiful relationship with Hathi Ram. How do you see that?
The overall writing is so intelligent. The character has so many dimensions to it – his personal crisis, identity, religion, professional ambitions. His relationship with Hathi Ram changes from a mentor to a friend to a parent to a sibling. When you are doing these scenes, things come to you organically, and you kind of start seeing the other person like that instead of a character.
Q. How did you come on board Paatal Lok?
We had a very rigorous casting process. I got a call from Casting Bay and I auditioned for it. Then a month passed and I thought maybe the part has gone to someone else. But then again they called to audition. In the audition room, some magic happened. We enacted the Principal’s room scene. We did Kabir’s interrogation scene. We did multiple takes. I went prepared and so it just came out very beautifully. Then instantly in a week’s time, I got a call that I have been locked.
Q. You play a righteous cop who believes in the system. How did you plan out the character before getting on the sets?
You don’t plan how to act, but you do create a thinking process. You create another person in you in terms of his mind, heart and soul. I read some books on what it really means to be an Indian Muslim today and books about Kashmiris, just to give it a certain background. I interacted with some Kashmiri Muslim friends. So, I know what their journey has been. But then you sometimes ask yourself why am I doing this, why am I making such choices. The writing is the target. You need to push yourself to get there. That’s why I went to read these books and identify with the Jamuna Par Thana, which is one of the busiest police stations of Delhi and located somewhere in Mangolpuri. In fact, a documentary has been made on that, and exactly the word “keede” has been used in it. There are heavy crimes there and every investigating officer has more than 50-100 cases on him. I went there and hung out with those people to understand the vibe at the police station, to recreate those moments between Ansari and Hathi Ram. Like I realised some people take this as a government job while some people have this passion for policing. So Ansari also has that dimension.
Q. Your character gets targeted several times because of his religion, yet he sticks to his moral compass.
It’s so interesting that in a place like this, where he’s in a position of power, in a subtle way, he realises that he’s being othered, being treated as an outsider. We all have felt marginalised at one point or the other in our life. So we approached it at a very human angle. For me, it is part of a larger issue, judging people on the basis of their appearance, caste, religion.
Q. What was the most difficult scene to shoot?
I have seen such things happening around me. I think empathy is very important for acting because then you can identify with the other person’s space, and that is something you can make part of your performance. The thought behind the scene where Hathi Ram interrogates Kabir and makes derogatory remarks against Muslims, while Ansari refrains from reacting, was something I learnt while interacting with the police. You do things to physiologically break the accused. So Ansari knows these things happen. He knows it’s part of the job.
Q. How much do you think your theatre background helped you?
Acting is acting, be it on stage, street or screen. The foundation is the same. Over the years, I realised that it’s only about adjusting your performance in terms of realising whether its a close shot or far shot, more audience or less audience. Also, adjusting your voice and tone accordingly. Of course, it’s not that simple and takes a lot of practice and understanding in terms of how you do that. You perform a play in a linear manner, but when you shoot a movie, you may start with the last scene, then you go to the middle, then shoot the first scene on your last day. So if you practice theatre constantly, you can develop a great sense of character graph. And at a very granular level, you are able to pick up the nuances and the variations that the character is going through.
Q. Now people will remember you as Ansari and not as Sonam Kapoor’s fiance from Veere Di Wedding. Is that a good change?
(Laughs) Every character is dear to you, and I take pride in all the work that I have done. I also have a lot of faith in the industry. I have no complaints about why I got smaller roles before and a big role now.
Q. How are you taking all the female adulation coming your way at the moment?
It does make you feel extremely good that people, including girls and boys, are liking you. Another reason why it’s amazing to be an actor in India more than any place else is our audience gives so much love. I am flooded with fan messages. They have actually picked up some really intricate points of the performance. They are hungry for good stuff, so when you are giving them something authentic, they really give you a lot of love.
Q. Finally, did Ansari manage to clear the UPSC exam?
(Laughs) I am also waiting to find out!
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