Some very exciting things are happening in your life now, aren’t they?
The most exciting, of course, is the prospect of being a parent again. There is also a huge amount of anxiety over my next movie, Batti Gul Meter Chalu, releasing in September. We had several problems during its making (The shoot for the film was reportedly halted due to non-payment of dues by its earlier producer). During this time, director Shree Narayan Singh and I used to talk of how badly we wanted to make this film. For the first time, I have played a character who is from the heartland, so to speak — he is imperfect, grey and loveable at the same time. I’m curious to see how the audience reacts to the character of Sushil Kumar Pant.
What about Sushil Kumar Pant appealed to you?
The story unfolds very organically — something the writers, Siddharth Singh and Garima Wahal, along with Shree Narayan Singh, did for Toilet-Ek Prem Katha as well. It’s a movie about a couple. But it is also about three friends who are figuring out who they wish to be in life. My character, if I may say so, is a harami. He is relatable because he is like the youngsters of today. He is a lawyer who is happy doing out-of-court settlements to make some money. Divyendu Sharma plays a character who is honest and straightforward while Shraddha Kapoor’s character is like that of a local Manish Malhotra. The movie explores the friendship among these three central figures. We are trying to say something significant through this film even though it’s a commercial Hindi movie with its share of fun, romance and drama.
How effective can cinema be in conveying stories with underlying messages? Mulk attempted that recently and earlier there were films such as Toilet… and Padman.
There are different movies depending on the mindset of the filmmaker and the nature of the issue that the film is addressing. A film also gets defined by its reach. There are various categories of movies and their reach varies accordingly. My movies, Udta Punjab (2016) and Haider (2014), are dark and the points of view of the filmmakers in these cases are hard-hitting, and, perhaps, not for easy consumption. However, a large number of viewers want to be entertained. Batti Gul… has a wider accessibility, and, can, thus, reach a bigger audience. So if you have the ability to create a complete package and say something meaningful in the process, then the message gets across to a wider section of people. That’s always the best thing to do if you wish for the issue to be heard.
Batti Gul… got stuck during its making. Other projects of yours have also faced issues in the past. Have you gotten used to your movies landing in trouble?
(Laughs) I have to agree with you, going by the fate of some of my previous releases. Udta Punjab (2016) had censor issues and Padmaavat (2018) had all kinds of issues. Batti Gul… had problems such as financing. But it is most satisfying when you get public appreciation even after going through so much trouble.
How trying are these times for an actor?
You feel very vulnerable and helpless. At some point, you also feel angry because you realise that since cinema is a popular platform, it’s a soft target to create controversies around. Having said that, all the films which faced controversies got a favourable verdict from the public. It is amazing to see that people don’t care about politics and other dramas. They connect to movies at an emotional level.
You have been in the industry for 15 years. How have you seen the industry evolve?
There are many chapters which the film industry has witnessed. The larger realisation is that, as an artist, you have to learn to adapt and evolve. You have to rediscover yourself. For me, that’s the most exciting thing. I have tried to rediscover myself through the choices I have made as well as the kind of performances I have tried to deliver. Today, the audience has also evolved and the movie business has changed. Stars have become accessible to the common people.
At what point in your career did you feel the need to adapt?
Honestly, what works for me now went against me in the first five-six years of my career. The fact that I like to play different kinds of characters helps me to rediscover myself, every time. This is something I was keen to do during my initial years in the industry. But it didn’t work then. Movies were more about the actor’s persona. So, you kept playing the same character repeatedly to retain your popularity, as stories were rehashed. There was very little space for new actors and filmmakers which meant that fresh thinking was not encouraged. Today, the audience wants to be surprised. Even if a movie does not, in the conventional sense, meet the parametres of being a commercial movie, it still finds an audience.
What has been the role of directors like Imtiaz Ali, Vishal Bhardwaj or Abhishek Chaubey in your rediscovery as an actor?
They gave me an opportunity and believed in me. That’s the biggest thing a filmmaker can do for you. Beyond that, it’s a journey you undertake together. I have learnt a lot from all of them. The experience of working in their films made me who I am today.
You have always been seen as a good dancer. Has that perception created limitations for you?
I love dancing. During the initial years, when I was referred to as a ‘chocolate boy’, the idea was to make me dance a lot in front of the camera. However, dance is a great art form and an integral part of being a Hindi film hero. So, it has benefitted me. Of course, there was a time when I have told the makers that I won’t dance in a particular film as it doesn’t make sense. Today, no one makes absurd demands. I’ve done enough movies in which I have not danced but my work has been appreciated.
You were always quite close to your grandparents who were journalists with Sputnik.
I was very attached to my Nanaji, who was the strongest male influence during the first 10 years of my life — my parents were separated and lived in different cities. He was highly educated and walking with him was like reading a book. Even the simplest of things he said instilled values in me. Living with my grandparents, I also got exposure to Urdu. That helps me today as an actor, especially in my diction.
Are you planning to take a paternity break soon?
I was supposed to take a break. However, due to the delay in completing this movie and its release, my plans went for a toss.
How hands-on are you as a father?
I would like to believe that I’m pretty hands on. I don’t do it out of a sense of responsibility but sheer joy.