You took a sabbatical just before the pandemic hit and you spent almost 2 years away from Bollywood. What prompted that decision?
After a period of time, everyone reaches a saturation point. Everyone feels that in their professional life. How long can one think about just acting and films, acting and films. There’s bound to be a time when one feels listless about it. During such times, you need to have something other than your profession that can drive you.
I think it was in 2019 when I felt like that and then unfortunately the pandemic hit. I wanted some time off and suddenly I got 2 years thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. You can say I was given 2 years of rest and realisation. After that I felt energised and I returned to work with full force.
What did you do in the 2-year sabbatical that you weren’t able to do when you were busy with your acting career?
I sat alone. Actually I stayed in my village for 2 months and then headed to a farmhouse in Dehradun. I spent 6 months alone there with just myself, all alone. After that my mother joined me. Those 5-6 months were the best time of my life. I realised a lot of things about myself.
We’ve forgotten how to give ourselves ‘me time’. We need that alone time to realise what we have gained, lost and learned in life. During my time alone, I realised where I have gone wrong in life and career. I figured out how bad I am as a person and how good I am as well. I figured out how much I lie and how often I tell the truth. I was able to analyse myself thoroughly. Being alone gives you the power to prove yourself wrong.
You had a long period of struggle before you tasted success with films like Kahaani, Talaash and Gangs Of Wasseypur. During that phase of 12-odd years how did you keep negativity at bay? Did you have any angst and have you overcome that anger after being successful?
I always had that anger within. It’s still there today. It will stay forever. Without it, I won’t be able to do my kind of cinema. I can’t just sit back and say I have achieved everything and just be happy and keep laughing and be content. I can’t do that. When you figure out that you are getting good cinema, good roles, you get charged. If I ever give a mediocre performance in a film, I won’t even be able to sleep.
Have you ever been caught opposite a mediocre co-star and that has affected you and your performance adversely?
See if the other person is a mediocre actor, that doesn’t mean I will treat myself as Fanney Khan. We are also actors, but in reality when we get to know that the other one is a mediocre actor, the only problem that arises is that you can’t make a great scene. People in the industry say, banda achcha hai par actor achcha nahi hai, we will manage (He’s a good person, but not a good actor, we will manage). You can’t make a mediocre actor give a good performance. Conversely, people say some great actors aren’t good people. First of all, who are you to judge another person? You’ve not seen his personal life to know whether he’s good or bad.
I am happy working with a good actor, who is not a good person because we are here to work and at least this person will be able to do the work properly. If someone is a good person, invite him to your place for food, but don’t give him work. Work is a serious matter.
The pilot of your plane is a nice person, but he’s a terrible pilot, will you board the plane? Will you entrust your life to him? What if your surgeon tells you, I am a nice person, but I am still learning the craft of surgery. Will you agree to be operated by that doctor? No one wants to trust their livelihood or well-being to interns.
Recently, when some asked you about balancing your personal and professional life, you used the word ‘hell’ to describe the feeling. That’s a very strong word. Why did you do that?
I said that in a general capacity. An actor like me can’t spend 24 hours just thinking about acting. There are other responsibilities as well, that one needs to take care of. Be it your friend, girlfriend, brother, mother or whoever, they will feel upset because you’re only thinking about acting and films all 24 hours. I am not really a responsible man in life, and that’s why sometimes there are conflicts among my friends. When I am in the middle of a gathering I am attentive and social, but otherwise, I really enjoy being lost in a different world. But that’s not good for reality.
You’ve worked with a fair share of superstars and commercial heroes. Has it ever happened that you were not treated fairly because you weren’t as big a star? Did you ever find your role chopped to maintain focus on the star’s role?
That’s never happened to me. Be it Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Kick, Raees or Heropanti, whatever the role was, it came out better than I had imagined. The directors who were directing those films knew me well. They knew about my education, about my temperament, they knew everything, that is why they hired me. I trusted them 100 percent and vice versa.
I know 100 percent that whatever was shot would be there in the film. On occasions it might have happened that a few shots of scenes got trimmed to make sure the story is taut. But I’ve never been surprised to see my role being cropped.
Since you’ve worked with both Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, how different are their processes as actors?
The best part of working with Shah Rukh Khan was that we got to do a lot of rehearsals. Even when the team would think that a particular scene should be redone, we would shoot it again. With Salman bhai, the experience is different. He’s so generous as an actor that he will give his best dialogues to you to say. He’ll be with you in front of the camera and say, ‘Ye le, ye dialogue tu bol le yaar’. I enjoyed working with bhai a lot.
Having achieved a certain level of success have you outgrown the pitfalls and challenges of not being conventionally good-looking or not having a fair complexion?
If they need fair people, then they need me as well. I am in demand. ‘Kale rang aaj kal kafi demand hai’. The beauty that a camera can capture is very different. That is an honest kind of beauty. If I am honest in front of the camera, the audience won’t realise but even I’ll start looking beautiful. Look at Rinku Rajguru in Sairat. Despite having an unconventional look her presence in the film starts mesmerising you after a few minutes. At one point while watching the film I actually remarked, ‘Yeh ladki kitni khoobsurat hai!’. I honestly believe that the camera captured the beauty of Smita Patil like no other Indian actress. According to me, she was the most beautiful actress on camera. I feel the on-screen beauty is very different from real-world beauty.
Have you ever hesitated from speaking your mind in interviews or public platforms?
Every person wants to speak the truth in every conversation. The problem is with the people who have to listen. They don’t want to listen to the truth. If the setting is right, the mood is right, the person who’s going to listen to you, assures you that you have their complete attention and they will not judge you, every person will bare their heart out. But people often don’t speak for the fear of being judged.
Do you feel an actor should be free from ideologies? Do you feel an artiste should not have any political or social affiliations?
There shouldn’t be any rigidity about any thought. An actor should be like water, so that he / she can mould according to any shape. As actors we get different roles, we need to be like that. The best thing about being an actor is that we have a platform to express our feelings and ideas. It needn’t be done on a personal level, it can be said through your craft, your art, your profession. There was a lot that I wanted to say and I said it all through my film Manto.
What according to you should contemporary and young filmmakers and actors do to make Indian cinema better?
We should experiment more with the cinema. We should always have progressive thoughts. We should make cinema that our forthcoming generations can benefit from. We shouldn’t be bothered about hits or flops. We should make films with passion, without thinking about budgets and box office. Cinema has to be progressive. I hail from a small village. When I watched Ek Doctor Ki Maut, one dialogue by Pankaj Kapur stayed with me, where he spoke of people being born into the world with a purpose, with the ability to think and solve the mysteries of the universe.
Someone pushed themselves to the brink of madness to invent the light bulb. Creative people courted chaos to create the film camera which has given thousands of people like me a reason to exist. Ever since humanity has existed, progressive thoughts and experiments have fuelled growth for future generations. That’s how we should make cinema as well. If a simple village guy like me can draw inspiration from one line in Ek Doctor Ki Maut, then the possibilities of cinema inspiring change are limitless. Let’s not relegate our films by saying they’re meant to entertain the average rickshaw wala. Why do we have to underestimate the rickshaw wala? Why can’t we say, the rickshaw wala could be the owner of 10 rickshaws and his world view could be so much more than we assume. How can our films be limited to mindless entertainment catering to a mindless rickshaw wala? Let’s not underestimate our rickshaw walas, our youth, our audience.
What is more important in cinema – big budgets or big ideas?
It is a historic fact that money has always chased good ideas and passion. I could have a trillion dollars but if I don’t have the ability to think of one decent idea, it’s almost a certainty that my trillion dollars will get reduced into pocket change. From the film industry perspective, if a person has a remarkable script, producers will run behind that person with endless money to get that script. We should give more credence to a capable brain and a person who can come up with good ideas.
Are you saying creative people like actors should not be bothered about commerce? Most actors are affected by 100-crore collections.
Looking at box office numbers is the responsibility of the producer. An actor should not be bothered about ticket sales. I see it as a corruption of the craft. Why should an actor be talking about box office? The stars who charged 100 crores per film are the ones who have ended up harming the films. A small budget or a modest budget film doesn’t fail. Everytime a film’s budget is beyond the limits of viability, it will be a flop. Actors, directors, storytellers don’t flop. It’s the film’s budget that makes it a hit or flop.
Do you feel the film industry and its designs have changed of late? Are we no longer part of a star-driven film industry?
Yes the star driven concepts of the film industry are ending. The reason is that the audience is getting updated but our stars aren’t updating. The makers should know that these days a 19 year old boy sitting in some rural area has access to global cinema and he is watching it. Due to social media and technology the user is enjoying a variety of experiences. With time you have to change cinema. You can’t drag the same old movies of the 80s to date. People don’t take well to repetition. Why should I devote two and a half hours to the theatre? I have access to OTT, I’ll look for something better over there. Also, the price of cinema tickets is too high.
A lot of voices within and from outside the film industry feel that 2023 needs the big star movies like Pathaan, Tiger 3 and Fighter to work at the box office. There’s a lot of anticipation. What do you feel about the prospects of commercial films in the coming year?
I don’t have an opinion on it. Inn baaton pe kucch kehne ki meri aukaat nahi hai (I am not qualified enough to talk about this subject). I can only talk about the artistic films that I have done till date.
You’ve worked in commercial films, too. You are as much a part of Bollywood’s big ticket movies as the superstars.
It’s not like that. Thousands like me come and go, but cinema keeps going whether it’s good or bad. Lot’s of big stars have come and gone, the industry keeps on going, it’s unaffected by people. One thing I would like to say is that earlier, bad films used to become hits but nowadays bad films become flops. Only the good films make the cut with the audience. That’s because our viewers have changed, they have evolved, they have an understanding of good cinema.