At the All India Jat Heroes Memorial College, Rohtak, better known as Jat College, they still talk about a boy, Jaideep Ahlawat, who invariably took home all the prizes at the dance competitions. Ahlawat has since gone from dancing up a storm everywhere to becoming the bad guy of Bollywood. His most recent project has him portraying an intelligence officer in Raazi — a role which has received critical appreciation and subtly shifts his oeuvre from dark characters only to middling grey. And there’s more dramatic conflict in store: Ahlawat is playing the role of a man torn between the physical and emotional aspects of a relationship in Dibakar Banerjee’s segment of a Netflix anthology film, Lust Story, set to go on-air on June 15. He also reprises his role as a Taliban terrorist Salim in Kamal Hassan’s Vishwaroopam II.
“I would love to do a light-hearted role, maybe comic or romance. I love dancing and can very well manage Bollywood dancing. I’ve grown up with bhangra and Haryanvi folk dances. But,” he says, “nobody offers such characters to me. Once you do something good, everybody wants you to do the same thing again and again. An actor needs somebody to believe in him and then we do something different and people change their mind. Meghna (Gulzar) believed I could do Mir, though he was 15 years older to me,” says Ahlawat, 37.
Ahlawat’s Mir in Raazi, the “handler” of a 20-year-old spy, is a nuanced character in a film pleated with silences. An FTII graduate (2008), Ahlawat says he built a link between Mir and his own father to develop his character in Raazi. “My father would tell me my defects but never praise me to my face. The good things about me he would only tell others when I wasn’t around,” he says.
Ahlawat’s trajectory as an actor, though, seems far removed from the time he planned to enter the army — he was 17 — which was, he says, typical of a Haryana boy. “In my village, Kharkara, 20 km from Rohtak, I would work in our fields of sugarcane, wheat and paddy while dreaming of the day I would join the army, and receive a hero’s welcome every time I came home on leave. In our part of the world, a soldier is a star,” he says.
When he was growing up, Ahlawat nurtured another quiet love besides dance: books. His father, a teacher, handed him Premchand ki Mukhya Kahaniya when he was in Class VI. “I love literature. If I want to know anything specific, I start collecting books about it,” he says. His years of reading have given him an understanding, says Ahlawat, of the sensitivities of his character in Lust Stories and Salim’s conundrum in Vishwaroopam. Talking of Vishwaroopam II, Ahlawat says, “In the sequel, we see Salim’s journey from his terror outfit to America and his transformation. Everything that he is doing is for his people. For the outside world he is a terrorist, but, for his group, he is a revolutionary.”
Though Ahlawat never made it to the army, Bollywood offered the possibility of healing his broken dreams. Almost. That is when he was offered the role of Mir in Raazi. “Mir is one such army character, though not in uniform. When I read the script, I felt a strong resonance with him,” he says.
Ahlawat has consistently played characters who torment or are tormented. In Aakrosh (2010), he is a bad guy called Pappu Tiwari, in Khatta Meetha (2010), he played a corrupt politician and, in Commando: A One Man Army (2013), he essays a powerful and cold-blooded criminal called Amrit Kanwal Singh. His most popular role is of the pathan, Shahid Khan, in Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), also, a middle-of-the-road character as far as the moral compass goes. “I have stopped looking at characters as black or white. When you read Sophocles, Shakespeare or Manto, you feel characters are simply human. Othello and Hamlet are just people caught in bizarre situations,” he says.