For a while now, has been one of the busiest actors in the Hindi film industry. Besides acting in films such as Bareilly Ki Barfi, Newton and Stree, he pivoted early to the streaming space, first playing Guruji in Sacred Games and later creating the iconic gangster Kaleen Bhaiya in Mirzapur and lawyer Madhav Mishra in Criminal Justice.
At the time of this interview, he is juggling shooting for Fukrey 3 and promoting his new film, the Srijit Mukherji-directed satirical drama Sherdil: The Pilibhit Saga (released in cinemas on 24 June), and Laali (streaming on Disney+ Hotstar since 17 June), a high-on-atmosphere short film about loneliness directed by Abhiroop Basu. Edited excerpts from the conversation:
Also read: 4 contemporary plays about cultural memory and identity
‘Laali’ opens with a nine-and-a-half minute one-shot. How did that come about?
That shot was meant to be much shorter. Abhiroop is a film school guy and he did a master shot where you can see the entire ironing shop. My character is going along with his routine. I am a trained actor who does not stop until the director calls “cut”. And as I am a trained actor it is also not possible for me to go blank.
The scene has no dialogue. His life is going on, so I am performing his routine in silence. It was night. We were shooting in Kolkata at a shop on the street corner. Finally, I was done and I downed the shop’s shutter. I hadn’t even realised that it was an almost 10-minute-long take. When the director finally called cut, I was inside the shop with the shutter down but I could hear loud applause, which surprised me because it was a very tight crew. When I went out and looked, I saw that even passers-by were watching and they were all applauding.
How did you internalise the man’s loneliness, which manifests in his interaction with a red dress?
That man’s loneliness, his solitude and his profession as an iron man reminded me of an ironing man I saw during the shooting of Bareilly Ki Barfi. We had a set in Lucknow and in this adjacent shop I noticed an older man ironing all day. He had been ironing for so many years, with his head bent down, that he had begun to stoop a little. That became his posture. When I heard this story, I remembered this visual and decided to experiment. There is a lot of improvisation and a great deal of imagination, especially in terms of the symbolism of the red dress coming into a lonely man’s life. I believe two different viewers might interpret the story and the symbolism differently.
The film ‘Sherdil’ is based on a true story, but uses satire to touch on important themes.
There are many themes, including nature, the jungle, man-animal conflict, greed, poverty, systemic problems, etc. The topics are serious but the take is a little satirical. Srijit took this route—of taking a serious subject, which should have a serious impact, but making the screenplay and treatment engaging and satirical. My character, Gangaram, going into the jungle to give his life to a tiger is based on true incidents, but thereafter there are many cinematic liberties.
Bringing humour and mischief has become a trademark of yours.
My purpose is to make every scene engaging and I think that if I bring a smile to your face, you will listen to my words carefully. Keeping the backstory of the character in mind, I build on that, keeping his innocence intact, his reaction must look natural. I like to retain and keep alive the innocence of characters. In life, I try to keep my own innocence alive as well.
Do you enjoy recurring roles such as Madhav Mishra and Kaleen Bhaiya or do you prefer a one-time movie role?
When it comes to series, I have to be the same person in season 3 that I was in season 1. Sometimes the directing team will show me old scenes as a reference to remind me how I was doing something. After playing some parts repeatedly, I do start getting bored, but as long as there are new incidents, new characters in the season, new character traits for me to explore, then the interest increases.
What else is on your slate?
After Laali and Sherdil, there will be OMG 2—Oh My God! 2, which was a lot of fun. It’s a very well-written script by Amit Rai, who is also the director. Then will come the web series Gulkanda Tales and the next seasons of Mirzapur and Criminal Justice. I am currently shooting for Fukrey 3.
Is there any kind of role you wish you were being offered?
I do wish to do an intense drama. I have done quite a few lighter roles, so it would be exciting to play an urban, intense character in a drama or thriller. I am seeking an intense drama so that I can reduce my stamp of humour.
Udita Jhunjhunwala is a writer, film critic and festival programmer. She tweets @UditaJ.
Also read: Austin Butler puts on his blue suede shoes