You new film, director Anubhav Sinha’s Article 15, is a movie that takes on the issue of casteism in India. What drew you to the project?
With Article 15, I am doing a movie about a social cause for the first time. This has also been challenging for me. For a while, I had wanted to do a movie like this, but I was waiting for a good script or opportunity. I believe a piece of art should cause a positive stir. It’s my background in street theatre during my college days that draws me to social issues. I have travelled the length and breadth of the country with my plays and spoken to lots of people. So that exposure came early in my life.
We were a bunch of socially aware students in college. This, I believe, is an extension of my theatre group sensibilities. I was the founding member of two theatre groups — Aaghaaz and Manchtantra — in Chandigarh. Aaghaaz is a DAV College theatre group which we founded in 2001 and it is still active. It does street plays regularly.
Have your theatre sensibilities influenced your choices while picking other projects?
That’s right. Theatre offers you a variety of roles. It also makes you a team player. Apart from working with other actors, you have to handle production or chip in with songwriting. Theatre allows multi-dimensional growth. More than anything else, it gives you discipline. That’s the most important thing in any profession.
Since you began promoting the film, you have been speaking strongly against the caste system on social media.
A few years ago, I came across a documentary titled India Untouched (2007). I was shaken when I saw that before a Dalit crosses the village of upper caste people, he takes off his shoes. It disturbed me to find that there are different wells for Dalit and upper caste people. A large part of India still suffers from this kind of social malaise. Discrimination is so deep-rooted that we don’t think twice about it.
You play a cop in the heartland for the first time. What kind of preparation did the movie demand?
Since I have usually played vulnerable characters, this was very different for me. I have also played characters that are boyish. But in this movie, I play a mature cop. For this role, I read a lot. I read Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan (1997). Director Anubhav Sinha gifted it to me. It was very disturbing and kept me awake at night.
Since I know a few cops in real life, such as my friend (IPS officer) Manoj Malviya, who is based in Delhi now, I spoke to them. I followed Malviya when it came to body language and other nuances. I visited some police stations in Uttar Pradesh. I tried to keep my depiction real and stayed away from making any filmi references.
As an artiste, how far can one carry out social responsibilities?
In the last couple of years, I have become a mainstream actor. So, I am encouraged to do a movie like this, which was also on my bucket list. I hope it will create noise and draw the audience. Also, I have been supporting the NGO, Gulmeher in Delhi, which helps rag-pickers and scavengers to explore their creative side, for a few years now.
How far would you go to get a role that you believe in?
When I entered the industry, my dream roles were different. I wanted to play Shah Rukh Khan’s character in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994), Aamir Khan’s in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992) or Amitabh Bachchan’s in Shakti (1982). I never thought that I would play a sperm donor in my debut movie. What I didn’t know was that a lot of script writers were thinking much ahead of what I had in mind and writing these crazy roles for me. Right now, a dream role for me would be to play Kishore Kumar in his biopic.
Most of your movies have an interesting ensemble cast. What kind of give and take happens between actors on the sets?
We need to be on the same page and believe in the subject so that we can have a healthy discussion on it. It also helps us in improvising on the sets. The theatre background helps in such cases. Kumud Mishra and Manoj Pahwa, who are a part of Article 15’s cast, are theatre actors. Ashish Verma, Ronjini Chakraborty and Sayani Gupta are trained actors from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune.
Last year, you did two very different movies, Andhadhun and Badhaai Ho. What was your takeaway from them?
Both are very different movies and are helmed by two different directors. I’m glad I got to work with them. Sriram Raghavan, who directed Andhadhun, is a legend. He has a very young mind. He thinks like an 18-year-old. He comes up with whacky stories. Amit Sharma discovered himself with Badhaai Ho. Interestingly, both of them worked in their home grounds. Andhadhun was shot in Pune and Badhaai Ho in Delhi. That way they were able to bring in the nuances. That’s why the films resonate with the audience, too.
What’s your day like when you’re on location? Do you get time for yourself?
It depends on the kind of movie or director you work with. Anubhav does not work for more than seven hours a day. We start from the hotel around 3.30 am and reach the location at 5.30 am. We shoot from 6-9 am. Then we take a break and rehearse the scenes. We shoot again at 5-6.30 pm. He wanted to have a certain feel to the movie. Since the subject is dark, to some way compensate for it , he wanted the movie to look beautiful. Currently, I’m shooting for Amar Kaushik’s Bala. This is about a man who is balding. Amar has an interesting way of working and does not take more than a couple of takes. After the success of Stree (2018), he is excited and raring to go.
Do you see Bala as a risk as you are playing a man with receding hairline?
Not at all. It is something that will resonate with many. Many people suffer from it. Even though my movies have talked about issues such as erectile dysfunction and body-shaming, I am surprised that no one had done a movie on this subject. It’s entertaining and emotional at the same time.
You used to write poetry. Do you still get the time to write?
In between shots or when I take flight, I write couplets. I don’t have time to write poems. I used to maintain a blog earlier. I have written some Hindi poems there. But these days, I don’t get much time to write. I miss that.