Would you call this phase in your career the high point?
I don’t know whether it’s high or not but I feel blessed. I always thought about doing movies, being part of a 100 Cr or 200 Cr movie was something called success but connecting with the common man, connecting with the needy is the most satisfying experience. This is something I have never experienced.
What can you tell about your character Chand Bardai in Prithviraj and the prep that went into playing it?
My Mom was a professor of history in Punjab. And I always used to hear stories about Chand Bardai and Prithviraj, how they fought, and their friendship. So, when I got to play the role of Chand Bardai, he was a loyal friend, poet, astrologer, and warrior. When you get to play the role of a person that you have heard stories about as a kid, it was quite challenging, but again very satisfying. The director Dr. Chandraprakash Dwivedi is a textbook himself who makes life easy for you. You just have to be in the character and look like one.
It took me almost 3-4 hours every single day. I used to come here 3-3:30 at night and get ready by 7 o’clock to be on the set. It was very exciting. Sometimes, when you are charged about the role you don’t feel those 3-4 hours struggling at the studios at night. Because you really look forward to facing the camera on set. It was a role that I wanted to do. And today, we have completed the film, and the rushes that I saw, I’m glad Doctor Sahab (the director) chose me for this.
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Why do you think controversies happen around historical films, and how do you take it?
Some people relate to historical figures, whereas some people just want to pick up a flag and cause a ruckus. As I said, it’s extremely difficult to make historical films in today’s times. This is also a reason why filmmakers want to stay away from making historical films because they think they will attract unnecessary controversies. I think we need to create a world where more and more filmmakers and actors would come forward to make historical films. As far as controversies and the people who create them are concerned, they will always be there.
So, when such things do happen, do you think the filmmakers take the steps to appease the audience? And is it even healthy for filmmaking?
Filmmakers don’t take those chances of just taking creative liberty of making a film that’s going to be challenged by a community. You have to maintain authenticity. The filmmakers and actors are intelligent. They don’t say dialogues that could be challenged.
When you play a historical character as opposed to a fictional character, is the challenge bigger? Do you have to stick to the books or is there a scope to bring in your individuality?
The parameters are set. You don’t have the liberty to use your body language or diction or whatever else you want to do. You know that you have to be in a certain space and be right. So, I think that’s more challenging for an actor. And when you do 20-30 movies in your career, and then you get to do a historical film, it’s quite challenging to prepare for that role.
How long did you take to prepare for the role?
Being a son of a history professor, there were some lessons that were taught to me unknowingly. I’ve grown up in that space. And as I said, it was a blessing to have a director like Dr. Chandrapakash Dwivedi. On the sets, you just have to be around him and half of your job is done.
At this stage in your career, how important or not important is it for you to play a mainstream Bollywood hero?
I have started a film called Fateh. It’s an action film based on technology and in today’s time when a lot of frauds happen, it’s a film based on that topic. The prep has already started. The film will start in another one and a half months. For the past 11 eleven months, we were writing the script. I have closely worked on that script and did a lot of research on it. There are a lot of movie offers.
At this point in life and career, what school of thought brings you to decide on a film where you want to be the main lead and not a supporting character?
When I came to Mumbai, I only wanted to play positive roles. I used to get upset all the time because I only got offered negative roles. But then I realized that you’re an actor and you have to entertain whether you play a positive or negative character. Sometimes, people love you more than the hero of the film. That also has happened.
But then there’s always a certain part of you that is still unexplored. Now, the kind of roles that I’m getting, the kind of filmmakers that have approached me, that part of my life I want to give to such roles and explore myself. There are some really interesting scripts. This is a cut-throat industry that salutes success.
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Do you think people will accept you in a negative role after your philanthropy work during the pandemic?
Not a single negative role has been offered to me post the pandemic. There was a film that I was shooting for, they made some changes to the script and reshoot some portions. They said, “Public maaregi humein.” Earlier there was a phase where I was doing negative roles and the makers would suspect whether people would accept me in a positive role. This is strange, isn’t it? Naye costumes mein thoda sa aur enjoy kar lenge.
How did you manage to stay immune to such opinions or judgments of the audience as well as the industry?
It’s about survival. If you’re not immune, you won’t survive. The sad part about most of the industry is that, whether they know you or not, they don’t want you to become successful. Yeh sachchayi hai. If you are able to handle that and survive, one day you will definitely achieve what you wanted to. I always say that success is for how long you can hold your breath underwater.
Would you like to carry forward the goodwill of people that you have generated during the pandemic into films?
I shot for Prithviraj during two phases, pre-covid and post-covid. Post-covid when I went to the sets for the filming of the climax, everyone stood up and started clapping. I felt really humbled. People came to me saying that I had helped their mother’s cancer treatment or someone’s brain tumor treatment, I didn’t know them personally, but I had touched their lives in some way or the other. That was the best experience of my life. That was the best day of my life that I have spent in the industry. I had never met those people and might never meet them again, but when you live in their thoughts, that is the real success.
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I used to fear whether I would get films or not, whether those films would be successful or not, and whether co-actors would want to work with me or not. But in the life that I have lived in these two and a half years, I have crossed that line. I’m not bothered whether somebody would cast me in their films or not, whether a co-actor would feel secure or insecure around me. I spend my life with common people. It’s my comfortable space and I enjoy it every single day. Now also when I go out of the house, there would be 200-300 people standing outside my house. I have found people I don’t know but they are part of my family.
You did Manikarnika before Prithviraj and it was not a pleasant experience. Didn’t it bother you?
I never spoke ill about someone. Mujhe laga ke who duniya theke nahin hai, toh main wahaan se chala gaya. I never commented about that. I’m one of those who maintain silence. The process of the shoot was good but it didn’t progress like that. So, I quit. Experiences like these come and go. You shouldn’t let them bother you. When you find greater joy in something else, you don’t think about such things.
Hailed by people as their Messiah, are you now worried about some of your actions going wrong?
I always say that two words are important; ummeed (hope) and koshish (effort). People come to you with a lot of hope from all corners of the country. You try to resolve their problems, but sometimes you might not be successful. But the person should know that you gave your best effort for them. Someone may not like something you do or say, but you shouldn’t stop doing what you were doing because of that.
Now that the pandemic is over, how will the work of your charities change?
The amount of work that we do is much more than what used to happen. You got to hear about that because you were at home. Now you’re also occupied with your work so you don’t get to follow the work. Whether it’s people’s jobs, education, or treatments, all the work is continuing. We have taken care of about 4500 life-saving surgeries. Desh ka koi aisa hospital nahin hai jis mein hum kaam nahin karte.
The results of covid are now being noticed. So many people have lost jobs. Poor people can ask for help but there are middle-class families that are not able to seek help. I know that I can’t solve everyone’s problems but I give my best effort.
You have shown that one doesn’t have to wear white clothes and a white ‘topi’ to help people. Do you think others can come forward in some way or other?
Everyone wants to help but that phase of helping others is always short-lived. When you get occupied with other things in life, you forget about them. It’s important how long you can sustain that. Sometimes, you help people who turn out to be thankless. So, then you don’t feel like helping anymore. Some say that one needs to have a name, fame and money to help. Main jab bada ho jaaunga tab logon ki madad karunga. I don’t agree with that. Most of the people who have joined my cause are very poor. But they are happy to have become a medium of help. If you can become a medium to help someone, you can be a philanthropist.
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There were people who tried to pull you down. How did you remain grounded?
My mother used to always tell me that if you’re walking a path where there are a lot of hurdles and difficulties, know that you’re walking the right path. I face difficulties but I keep marching on. Gradually, everything gets sorted. It’s a part of life.
At what point did you feel that your vision had broadened than just being part of films?
There was a phase when I used to wait for that call from a big director. And then there was a phase when big directors were trying to approach me but I was busy. That time I realized that the phone calls that I waited for all my life, those calls don’t excite me now. The common man I am spending half an hour with is exciting me more. The happiness that I have experienced in the last couple of years, I never experienced that kind of happiness while doing 90-100 films in my 18 years in the industry.
Will acting take a back step now?
No. I am doing more films than ever. It’s like a parallel world where I have to manage both things.
You have done more films in the south than in Hindi lately, why so?
The South has helped me survive, not doing bad films. Otherwise, sometimes you do a film just for the sake of doing a film. South helped me stay away from the films I didn’t want to do.
What is your take on the blame game going on between the south and Hindi industries?
I have rejected big Hindi films and done south films. People would ask me why I rejected a big Hindi film. I think it’s the experience that matters. When you go to a set, how much are you able to enjoy and how satisfied will you feel after watching the film. The film’s language doesn’t matter. What matters is that the film is entertaining and it brings a smile to people’s faces. The audience must feel like buying a ticket to watch the film in the theatre. No matter how big a star or successful an actor you are, don’t take people for granted that they will buy your film’s ticket.