Gali Guleiyan, which premiered at the Mumbai Film Festival last year, is releasing next month. It was made almost a year ago. How do you sustain interest in such a project?
Movies which don’t easily get any attention from mainstream distributors stay with me. This is a movie which matters a lot to me, and I have worked on it knowing well that it’s going to take a lot out of me as an actor and an individual. The director, Dipesh Jain, is based in Los Angeles, and he does not know many people in the Hindi film industry. It is very easy to make a film. How to go about its release, promote it and take it to the festivals — that needs guidance from an experienced person. In this case, I happened to be the most experienced one. I have been by the director’s side from the time we started the project. On September 7, when the movie releases, my responsibility will be over.
What about this movie made you feel so strongly towards it?
Be it Aligarh (2015), Budhia Singh: Born to Run (2016), Rukh (2017) or this one, these are the kind of movies I have always wished to be a part of. I believe these are the kind of movies which are going to be remembered when people think of me as an actor. Which is why I want more viewers to come to the theatres and support the film. Though I have been part of some landmark movies, this is something I have not experienced before.
What are the challenges of playing a shopkeeper living in Old Delhi who is losing his grasp over reality?
I looked at Khuddoos as someone who has too many thoughts plaguing his mind. These thoughts keep colliding with each other as he tries to find answers to them. Had I consulted a doctor for the role, it would have been easy to figure out his ‘illness’ and the right symptoms before I approached it. I also had to learn some new skills to portray him.
What were these new skills?
You will notice that in no shot in Gali Guleiyan (In the Shadows) are my eyes still. They show some movement, always — an indication that this man is thinking all the time. He is always trying to solve a puzzle in his mind entirely of his own making.
How do you prepare for a character?
It’s a different approach every time. If it’s an independent movie, then the character and its surroundings determine the approach. In Aligarh, for example, I asked the chief assistant director to teach me Marathi. He said: ‘This film is in Hindi. Why do you want to learn Marathi?’ I asked him to do what I was requesting, and after 10 days he realised that my body language was changing. He then suggested videos of some Marathi poets. I had decided that Professor Siras being gay in Aligarh is not the priority while approaching the character. What makes this person unique is his love of poetry, literature and Lata Mangeshkar songs. His sexuality was his choice, and it was incidental. I knew if I could explore the elements that he loved, instead, then it would create the right atmosphere to locate this character.
How do you devise these methods of locating the character?
For Gali Guleiyan, I wanted to lose weight, though my wife (Shabana Raza) objected to that. When I lost weight, my immunity dropped. Suddenly, I was suffering from malaria. I recovered and then I had a relapse. I knew this was happening because I was essentially starving myself for the role. I wanted to achieve the look of my character, Khuddoos, who is sick. I thought about the character too much, and it was very unhealthy. At home, there were times when my wife would turn around and ask: ‘Did you say something?’ When I would say no, she would reply: ‘You were just talking to yourself. You seem mentally and physically sick.’ I knew if I looked and felt sick, the rest of it could be achieved.
Do you have to become the character even at the expense of your regular life?
If the method pays dividends, then it’s good. When I reached the sets of this movie, I told Dipesh that all his family members and relatives, who were curious to meet me, should stay away. I didn’t want to meet anyone during the 30 days of shoot. I married in Delhi and have done theatre there. So there are many people I had to meet up with. But I didn’t let anyone know that I was there.
What about spontaneity?
Spontaneity does not mean that you don’t prepare. I have improvised many lines for this films — but I could not have come up with these lines had I also not been in character. Spontaneity is meant to extend your method and performance. You can do improvisations only if you know your character inside out.
Do you believe in spending time at the location?
I have lived in Delhi and I have shot in Old Delhi earlier as well. I reached the location two days prior to the shoot and sat in the room where my character was supposed to be living. That place was quite dilapidated and dust would continuously fall around us; everyone was falling sick during the shoot. But I used to eat and spend time there. I even started feeling comfortable.
After Aligarh, were you offered interesting roles?
Offers came in after Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). All the independent filmmakers, new and old, started coming to me. But not all scripts that I am offered are up to the mark. A good film is not good enough unless there is an edge to it. I have done a short film Taandav (2016), directed by Devashish Makhija, which did well. I have also wrapped up a feature film, Bhonsle, directed by Makhija, and I’m committed to do yet another with him. I had been trying to find a producer for Bhonsle for four-and-a-half years. Producers came to me because of a certain market credibility I have, but they ran away after hearing the script! For Bhonsle we have six producers who chipped in and got the film made.
It has been 20 years since Satya released. That remains one of your personal best.
All of us, independent filmmakers and unconventional actors, should remember Satya (1998) and Ram Gopal Varma. It changed the whole grammar of filmmaking. Many non-mainstream actors like me aspired to play lead roles after that. Once at an airport, a gentleman stopped me and said, ‘In Satya and Shool, I could smell your sweat’. Bandit Queen (1994) also was a game changer in India.
How different was it to play a prince in Zubeida (2001) after essaying the role of a gangster and a cop on screen?
That’s basically our job. That is where I give all the credits to Mr Shyam Benegal for casting me in such a role. To boost my confidence, he showed me photos of some princes and said, ‘you are much better looking than them’ (laughs).