How was the experience of working on Andhadhun?
We did several trials to get the look right. To that end, it was director Sriram Raghavan’s idea to add a beret cap to my look. Initially, I said: ‘I still have hair. Why cover it with a cap?’ But I liked it. He was trying to conceive how a yesteryear star would look and behave in his 70s. The has-been star, who becomes a builder and has a younger wife.
Andhadhun brings you back into mainstream cinema.
I am experiencing the same adulation that I did in the 1970s. My phone has not stopped ringing ever since the movie released. Cinema is not new for me, and, in television, too, I’ve done 16 shows. But Andhadhun has definitely pushed me as a performer.
Your father was a banker in Kanpur. How were you drawn to acting?
I had no experience in acting but I was aware that I was good-looking and six-feet tall. Jeetendra, too, was a newcomer then. I thought if he could do it, I could do it, too. However, it was tough to reveal this dream to anyone because they’d dismiss it. One day, I came across an advertisement inviting applications for an acting course at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. I went to Delhi for the auditions and stayed with a cousin. Once I was selected, I told my father about my plan.
Your acting debut in Chetna (1970) happened even before you graduated from FTII.
The last two months at FTII were tough as I had to come to Bombay looking for work. Shatrughan Sinha had once come to our institute and I had struck up a friendship with him. He introduced me to writer-director Babu Ram Ishara, who finally cast me in Chetna (1970). We wrapped up its shoot in 26 days. So, by the time I graduated, I was one-film old.
After a slew of films in the ’70s, you started fading away from the mainstream after the ’80s.
In the ’80s, multi-starrers and action movies started coming in. I was a total misfit. I didn’t even make an effort to fit in. Instead, I started doing a lot of character roles. I made that transformation beautifully, though, many don’t believe in such transitions. They sulk and wait for bigger roles. I was one of the first major actors then to do a horror movie, Darwaza (1978). In the late ’90s, I acted in the television show Parampara, which was aired on Star Plus for four years, and, later, in Kora Kagaz (1974). So, I followed my conviction and didn’t listen to detractors. An actor has to survive, too.
You had the look and physique of an action hero. Why did you not work towards such roles?
Chetna showcased me as an innocent boy. The director, Ishara, said if the audience is convinced that this boy can genuinely love a sex worker, then the movie will be a success. That image created by Chetna was internalised by me. I confess I have not been able to break this mould till now. I still play characters which are good and follow the rules. But I don’t have any regrets.
Raghavan said one of the reasons he cast you in Andhadhun was because of songs that were picturised on you, which were popular and which he wanted to use in the film.
There certainly used to be heartfelt, romantic songs back in the day. In fact, I recently did a radio programme which, for the next one week, will play my songs such as Main to har mod par tujhko dunga sada (Chetna), Sabke rehte lagta hai jaise koi nahin hai mera (Samjhauta), Yeh jeevan hai (Piya Ka Ghar) and Guzar jaye din (Annadata).
Will you share your experience of being a popular actor in the ’70s?
Acting is like walking a tightrope. One wrong move or flop, and your career could be over. In 1971, I signed seven films during Diwali. I signed Do Raha (1971) during a party which continued till quite late. When I reached home, my wife Rashmi, who was then my live-in partner, was very upset. She had given time to different producers who had come looking for me, for the following day. Next morning, producer Avtar Bhogal came for Ek Hans Ka Joda (1975). Producer Sundeep Sethi met me next, the same day, for Samjhauta (1973), with Shatrughan Sinha and Yogeeta Bali. I had to meet director Asit Sen, too, immediately after that in Worli. I remember telling Rashmi that he won’t give me any role and I would only end up spending Rs 18 on the commute! But when I met him, I realised that they had already made agreements for two films — Annadata (1972) and Anokha Daan (1972). Again, later that day, I met NN Sippy at his office at the Naaz theatre to sign Haar Jeet (1972). I also signed another project with Rajshri Films that year. I preferred doing these smaller projects to the big ones which took a long time to be made.
What do you miss about the cinema of the ’70s?
The actors today are hard working but they also enjoy several facilities. They prepare themselves during workshops before the shooting begins. Whereas, we used to be briefed on the sets, just before facing the camera. We did not have the liberty of asking too many questions. While singing Samjhauta ghamon se karlo (Samjhauta), or Teri galiyon mein na rakhenge kadam (Hawas, 1974), I was alone on the camera. There was no one to cover for me if I failed to perform. Today, there is a lot more professionalism. However, a bit of raw-ness should be allowed too. You can’t regiment everything since filmmaking involves creativity.
You met your wife Rashmi at FTII.
She was 17 when I first met her around 1968 at FTII, where she was my classmate. After I moved to Mumbai, I had taken up a small house where we lived together, maybe we were one of the first couples to have a live-in relationship. For Piya Ka Ghar’s release we went to Delhi, where we stayed with my cousin. When my relatives realised that we were not married, they made the arrangements for the wedding the very next day and called my parents for a quiet ceremony. Later on, we had a reception at Bombay’s Sun n Sand Hotel, which was attended by the industry’s big names, barring the Kapoors since I was not acquainted with them then. Amitabh Bachchan, Navin Nischol, Vinod Mehra, Sunil Dutt, Rekha, Dharmendra, Yogeeta Bali and Rajesh Khanna were present at the reception.
Who were your favourite co-actors?
I did some five movies with Yogeeta, a lovely person. Leela Chandravarkar was so sweet while Jaya (Bachchan) was a classmate. While doing Chetna, I hardly got a chance to interact with Rehana Sultan as we were sitting with the script all the time. Babu Ram was a fine professional to have a bound script at that time. I did several movies with Shatrughan, who was a friend. He was a more spontaneous actor and could memorise long dialogues in no time, while I needed to prepare.
How have you have managed to stay so fit?
I’m 72, but I walk for five km every day. I’m a vegetarian and I don’t eat out or smoke.