What lessons have you taken from the year that was 2020?
It was as testing a time for me, as it was for anyone. We were cut off from the world around us and there was a complete overhaul of the way we see things and live our lives. The lockdown has completely written off 2020 as a year, for everyone. Even on the few days when we ventured out to restock supplies, it felt like an apocalyptic movie with people wearing masks; in fact, it still does. It’s so bizarre that you would think something like this could only happen in a film but here it is, happening in real life. Our generation is witnessing something quite spectacular and we need to learn from it to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again. It has caused such mayhem in different segments of society! My family and I find ourselves to be a little more fortunate that we didn’t get hit by it that hard, nor did anyone from our family and friends contract the virus.
You started your career in 2003. How much has the industry changed since?
I started off when the industry was on the precipice of a change. I remember shooting on film before everything went digital, which took a bit of getting used to. But the process of filmmaking has become so much easier and streamlined now; the crews are much bigger and everything is very well-thought-out and well-planned. There wasn’t that much planning earlier, at least not as much as there is right now. So many peripheral jobs have come up in the industry now and these people have only added to the whole experience. Like now, every actor has a stylist.
I think the content has also changed over the years. Now, actors want to play characters, rather than just being the hero and saving the day. I think the content has become more relatable; especially with OTT coming in, so many new stories are being told. So, it is a good time for cinema.
Are you open to OTT offers too?
If a director, who’s driven, offers me a story that I like, and if I find the character to be intriguing, I am up for it. The way things are, especially after Covid, there are a lot more mediums to tell your stories. It doesn’t really matter for an actor; at least, as far as I am concerned, I would love to do theater, which would hopefully bounce back soon, and even OTT, which is a longer format and an interesting journey in itself.
You were tagged as the ‘serial kisser’ of Bollywood. Did it come as a curse back then, or did it work in your favour?
I don’t know; I think it was a bit of both. It helped in a way because it’s like you are associated with something; I was getting the kind of bold stories that were unheard of. It was a different track; I had my own journey and roadmap. If there were any negatives to it, I guess it was the constant boxing up, the ‘tag’ was uncalled for. Why go down that road constantly when I am doing different stories and playing different characters. But, back then, the times were different, here was a country that was waking up to something and they found it to be very intriguing. They were amazed by it. I was just doing my job, but, apparently, millions of people were watching it and were fascinated by it. Good luck to them (laughs).
Now, onscreen kisses are no longer frowned upon. Do you feel you had a role to play in how we have started accepting it?
(Guffaws) It makes me feel so important like I was a part of some watershed event in Hindi cinema. But it was a paradigm shift from tilting up in the sky, and a bed of roses, to the actual peck. But when you’re in it, if you don’t see it that way. Maybe it was a cultural event for people who talked about kisses in hushed tones and didn’t expect to watch it on the big screen. To them, it may have seemed like I had brought this wave, but I don’t see it that way; I was just doing my job. As an actor, I was bringing the director’s vision to life and doing what was expected of me, no questions asked. I didn’t have the objective viewpoint of how it’s affecting people or the domino effect that it will have.
Was it a conscious decision to move away to more serious films?
How much of the same thing can you constantly keep doing? I wanted to try my hands at certain genres and play different characters. I still don’t have a problem with a kiss in a film; it’s just how it is written about and underlined, that I have an issue with. According to me, it’s just taking the story forward in the context of what my character is doing but it’s blown out of proportion. So, when directors started offering me the kind of roles that I wanted to do and I found those characters to be intriguing, I dove into it without thinking twice. I wanted to test my skills as an actor, I just didn’t want to do the same thing over and over again, even though it was working at the box office.
Has the gamble paid off?
It’s the journey of an actor to have both hits and misses at the box office. Some actors don’t want to try different things and that’s great for them, but I’m not that kind of a guy. I just wanted to learn the craft, work with different directors, and play different characters.
Is it the industry that stereotypes or the audience?
I think the audience likes an actor to do a particular thing and isn’t too happy when they do something else. I am a victim of it. They love you in something and want you to do it again. But, as an actor, you can’t do more of it. Also, not all scripts in the same zone will turn out to be gems; the magic only happens sometimes. It’s very easy to point fingers from the outside and say this is not working or that backfired. But the truth is that you can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again too as then those same people will complain that you are repeating yourself. It’s really tricky.
What is the thought process when it comes to choosing scripts? Do you try to strike a balance between mainstream and offbeat films now?
I have always done that. I don’t want to be a part of any particular kind of cinema; I want to tell interesting stories with characters that are as diverse as possible. So, while I play a cop in ‘Mumbai Saga’, which is a quintessential masala Bollywood film, I will also do an indie film like ‘Harami’, which will do the rounds of the festivals. That way I can do all kinds of films.
Who is your sounding board when it comes to discussing work?
No one, really. There are so many variables in filmmaking that I myself don’t know how something will turn out to be. But different people will have different takes on the same script and it can confuse the hell out of you. So, you have to go with your gut instinct, make the decision to jump into a film, and then see what happens.
Do you discuss your work with your wife, Parveen?
Yes, sometimes I read out the script to her to get an objective point of view, but I never ask her if I should do it or not. Deciding whether to do a film or not is entirely on me.
You had once said that you buy her a bag for each kiss in a film. Is her bag collection dwindling now?
(Laughs) Yes, she has enough bags now, and all vintage ones at that.
How was it donning the uniform for the first time in ‘Mumbai Saga’? Did you feel like a cop?
(Laughs) I don’t know how cops feel. I am guessing it’s a very high-stress job but I didn’t feel that when I played one in the film; I was enjoying myself. As actors, we have the benefit of getting staged scenes; cops don’t get that, unfortunately. For me, it was a new experience as I had never played a cop earlier nor donned the uniform. I think the audience will also find it interesting to see me on this side of the law (chuckles), as otherwise, I always play characters with shades of grey, or the gangster. It was great to sport the uniform–it’s very dignified and looks good on screen. Sanjay Gupta, who has helmed the film, is a fantastic technician and a great storyteller, so, I was stoked to help him see his vision through.
Didn’t you feel tempted to play the gangster instead?
I’m not that picky; I go with the decision of the filmmaker. Way before the narration started, I had a preconceived notion that it might be a gangster’s role, but when I was told I was to play the cop, I felt like it would be something new for me to try. A gangster, for me, would be a little been-there-done-that thing. I’m always up for giving the audience something new.
Is he a good cop or a bad one?
He does what it takes to get the work done, which is his duty. I don’t think you can always be extremely straight in the way you conduct yourself, especially when you’re dealing with thugs; sometimes you have to bend the rules. I would never judge a cop for that; they can’t play things by the book.
I approach every character by giving him a back story of my own which helps me understand him better. I envisioned this character as a workaholic and a loner; he finds himself belonging to his job so he keeps himself immersed in it. He isn’t driven by money or rewards. He gets bloodthirsty after Amartya Rao but isn’t interested in the reward that he would bring him because he doesn’t know what to do with the money. He is just interested in doing his duty because that’s the world he knows.
What are your memories of growing up in the gangster era of the ’80s and ’90s in Mumbai?
We used to hear a lot about the things taking place at the time. There was a lot of intrigue around Dawood Ibrahim; he had suddenly become a cult figure, and even the kids were talking about him. You know how wild kids’ imaginations are; so it was very intriguing to hear about the dreaded guy. Riots also broke out in the city back then due to which our schools were called off, and I saw his name linked with that, which added to my curiosity. There was a lot of confusion around it and to understand that there was a big, bad world outside your safety net of school, cartoons, and playing with friends, took some time. I didn’t really understand why would people do such things.
Mouthing heavyweight dialogues in the film with John must have been fun…
Oh, John is a thorough professional and very secure, which makes him a great guy to work with. He just walks up to you, discusses the scene, understands what he is required to do, and delivers. He is a very good human being too.
How did your son Ayaan like your look as a cop?
He doesn’t care (chuckles). He is 11 right now and bordering on his teens, so, he is currently at a stage where he considers himself to be the best, and everything else is just ‘whatever’ to him.
It’s commendable how you have kept your son away from the paparazzi but is it easy to do so in the age of social media?
Oh, he loves the paps! Whenever we step out and the photographers want pictures, he jumps in and wants to get clicked. That’s his choice completely; we have never thrust him in front of the camera or tried to get anything written about him. Nowadays, kids his age have their own social media accounts but we have decided to keep him away from that because I don’t think kids understand what it means. Social media seems exciting, but, if you look at it, it is pretty shallow; there’s no depth to it. I don’t want him to have any sense of entitlement; I want him to earn whatever he does by himself. So, just let him at least find himself and then make a choice. I will never push him into acting; that’s a choice he gets to make.
Does he plan on getting into films?
He used to, but right now he is in a different zone. Due to Covid, he has had to cope with a whole new world while being away from his friends. It can be quite trying for a kid.
Why don’t we see you doing lighthearted films? Don’t you enjoy comedy?
I do. If I get a good script, and I’m looking at something in that genre, I will be on board.
Are you a part of ‘Tiger 3’?
(Laughs) That I can’t really commit to right now, but you will find out soon.
What is the plan for the year ahead?
There is a backlog of films–not just for me but for everyone–so, now there will be some back-to-back releases. ‘Mumbai Saga’ has released, next up is ‘Chehre’, followed by ‘Ezra’.