You’ve completed 20 years in the industry now. How would you describe your journey?
Well, it feels great. Though, I did not know that it will carry on for so long. Since I was a child, I wanted to be an actor, and I got ‘Monsoon Wedding’ through an audition, standing in a line. However, when I watched the film in Venice, where it won an award, I thought that I did not do very well. So I didn’t take up any other movie projects and Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah) sir was very kind enough to let me be a part of his troupe and workshops. And then from there, making Rs 250 per show to subsequently doing movies has been quite a journey of lots of ups and downs, lots of hits, and lots of misses. But you know what, I’ve enjoyed every role, script, and director that I worked with. I have worked with more than 21 debutant directors, and it’s been a very explorative journey. I’ve taken many breaks in between, I have been out of the public eye for long periods of time, and then when I came back, people and filmmakers have shown interest in me and cast me. So, all these things put together, I think I’m in a good place now. Twenty years later, I am getting an action-star image, which is like an overhaul. So it’s great; life couldn’t be better.
Did you always want to be an actor?
I always wanted to be an actor. In our school, they used to show us only English movies every Saturday. And after watching it on the Saturday evening before going to dinner, I would sneak off and try to play out those characters. I would walk and talk like them, and imagine them while sitting in class. I did a lot of dramatics in acting and direction on stage in school. But then I lost touch with it for many years. And then, while driving cabs I used to imagine that one day I’ll be an actor, standing in front of some movie hall. So, I always had that thing about me and the performing arts.
Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
I’m a mixture of both. At times, I’m very extroverted and then I can also be very introverted. But I’m an observer, who is always trying to learn something or the other.
What do you think of the current generation of actors?
Well, they’re all good at what they do, and one is not really looking for inspiration. I’m looking more for inspiration in real life. But they have admirable careers, and I’m very happy for them. I wish them all the best. But I’m more interested in what I’m doing. As an actor, I have blinkers on because the journey is within. The competition or journey or comparison is to what you were yesterday and what you are today. So, it’s more to do with one’s own journey as an artist. But you’re in a part of a business so everybody makes the best of the opportunities they get.
Do you believe in competition?
I like competition in sports. I do showjumping and I have been fortunate enough to win a few national medals. Movies are more opinion-based. It can be manipulated into something which is not and bigger than what it is, or smaller than what it is. So there cannot be any sense of competition. Neither two actors playing the same part were within a movie or in different movies. So there is no real competition in movies, but in sports, there is. In sports, you got the same course with every horse and you jump the same course. And you come out without dropping any balls or in the least amount of time. That’s a competition. So yeah, I prefer competition in sports more than movies.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the world is rearranging its priorities. Your sister is a doctor, and even you have been a part of humanitarian service…
Some years ago, I was frustrated by seeing bad news on television, and there seems to be no goodness in the world. I was sitting, very frustrated on an aeroplane reading through the newspapers, and an elderly gentleman was standing next to him, and he said, ‘Why are you feeling like nothing gonna get done? Then he said, ‘You know, we can do something, you can’t change the world. But you can change one thing at a time.’ So I went on this quest for looking for heroes without makeup. And I found all these people, wonderful people like Khalsa Aid, and from then I’ve been working with them for many years now, they have been all across the world, they have been helping people in all kinds of catastrophes, and bad situations, droughts, floods, earthquakes, war, displacement. So, I put my head together with them. Last year, it was more about food and shelter, this year it is more about oxygen. So oxygen concentrators were decided upon which can lessen the burden on the medical system. If you’re just lacking oxygen, you don’t have to get admitted, you can get a concentrator, we will provide it for you free of charge, use it, and once you are better, they take it away from you and give it to the next needy person. So I thought that was one way of helping it, changing one thing at a time.
Of course, many other people are doing it and are very grateful, we should all be grateful. This thing of wanting to do something well is in all of us. If you’re feeling low in your house, the best thing to do is to help someone, whether it’s in your community, in your building, or your neighbourhood. So if you do your bit, it just makes you feel better, I feel better, because I was very frustrated, I can’t go on the ground and do all these things… as you will be adding to the problem. So, people who are already on the ground volunteering, are brave. I’m very grateful for one thing positive that’s come out of this pandemic is that the fellow human, fellow citizen, helping a federal citizen. This shows that humanity is there.
The pandemic brought on a lot of suffering but there were some positives too…
Yeah that’s true, because last year, we saw a complete lockdown and nature was healing. I said once that this is one lesson to take from this pandemic is over. I still wanted the world should go into a two-week lockdown. So that the environment can heal every year, it is should be a compulsory norm. All this is happening because we conflict with the environment. So I think from this, we should learn that we are not fighting for houses, apartments, air tickets, automobiles, we were fighting for air. Where does it come from in its natural capacity? So we should all fight for nature and preserving it. Whatever gone is gone, we should try and regenerate it. Put an absolute objection with your government and representatives that you cannot destroy, exploit nature anymore.
How has the lockdown been for you?
It’s been more of an internal journey, one has gone back to the basics, go back to the place one started with, back to the feelings why I wanted to be an actor in the first place. Read some books; saw a lot of movies, which inspired you at that time. I was watching a lot of new content on the idiot box. So yeah, it has been a more inward journey because there was more time to do so. But one has to work, I work mostly through the pandemic. I’ve done a whole movie and a half of a series. In fact, even completed Radhe, and my parents were worried as didn’t want me to go out. But I said, ‘Okay, if I say yes to a project, 500 other people come on board and get a livelihood, and come out of the depression that has engulfed us.’ So we are braver and more together as a person. I think that’s what is changing.
Your maiden international project ‘Extraction’ completed a year of release recently…
I am very grateful that I was a part of it. In the last lockdown, there were several interviews for it, and for an artist biggest desire is to get across to as many people as possible. That movie gave me an audience or reached out to people across the globe, whether it’s South America, China, Japan, wherever it was everywhere, and so many people got to see my work, and I got a lot of appreciation for it. I’m very grateful that I got to work with such an amazing cast and crew. I was preparing for something else. For three years, I had not done any work, I grow a beard and my hair and I promised at the Golden Temple that I will not cut my Kesh till I complete the movie (the shelved Battle Of Saragarhi). Then I tried to refuse that movie. But then I literally looked open my eyes a bit wider and looked at the situation, that movie was not going anywhere. So I went to the Gurdwara, apologised, cut my kesh, and went on to this movie, and I didn’t realise it’s going to be be such a big action film. When I read the script, there was a description of the action, but I didn’t know it was gonna be like that. So going there and starting from scratch was amazing. On the first day when they showed me the sequence, I quizzed the director about my job, But he said, ‘No, no, we really like your work. We’ve seen a lot of your work and you’ve been the perfect cast for this. So let’s get down to it’. So we rehearsed for three, four weeks before we shot it. Even Chris (Hemsworth) was there. So this was an eye-opener experience for me. It’s also, of course, opened a lot of avenues for me over there to work which I’m very grateful for.
‘Radhe: Your Most Wanted Bhai’ marked your third collaboration with Salman Khan. Tell us something about your character…
It was the darkest, broadest black stroke that I’ve ever played, but it was fun. It was a very simple way of working. But we never had a chat, and this has been gone step by step, scene by scene. In this also, I got to work with some Korean fight directors and some South Indian fighter, directors which has opposite styles. But again, it was a new learning experience for me. Last year it was Extraction, this year it’s Radhe, I have become a pandemic action star (laughs). So it was a good experience for me.
Don’t you think ‘Radhe’ was meant only for cinemas?
Movies, when watched in cinema halls, takes your mind off the gloomy situation around us. But again, one can only be grateful that we can provide this entertainment and takes people’s minds off for a couple of hours. It was made for theatre release. Salman Khan Films are a certain kind of movie they are meant to celebrate, especially on Eid. So that did not happen but, it releases on some big screen, people have liked it, and I’m very glad about that. I knew very clearly what I was getting into, and over the years, what has held me in good stead is my ability to adapt to the script, the genre, whether it’s a big commercial film, indie film, action film, so for me to adapt that, has helped to create all these varied characters and Rana in Radhe is one of them. I enjoyed my knife work. In fact, I read one of the memes where it says that Randeep Hooda is going to win a medal with his knife skills in the vegetable cutting Olympics (laughs).
Do you personally enjoy memes?
Memes are a way of lightening the situation. They are jokes with pictures, so yeah, jokes are good always, and one should have the ability to laugh at oneself. I think as with my 20-year journey, over the year, that’s one thing that I have learned to laugh at myself more and more, because it is what it is.
Do you think trolling affects the movie business?
I don’t think so. We take social media too, too seriously. It’s very easy to write a comment and do something opposite in real life. Do you know what I mean? So no, you cannot take it to heart and then move on. Everybody worked hard on the movie, and everybody has an opinion about it. So one just looks at it and moves on and does nothing. So, as far as business is concerned? I don’t know. I mean, the movie seems to be doing well.
What genre attracts you?
Character studies are my favourites, but no genre specifically. I’ve just done a comedy in ‘Unfair and Lovely,’ because I wanted to just break this thing. If something I’ve not done comes to me, and if I like it, I’ll do it. That’s why I have done ‘Bombay Talkies,’ ‘Extraction’ or rather something, I’ve not done it. If I’ve got to put a meaty part in it, I’ll attempt it, because that varied. I personally don’t believe in looking the same way, saying the same lines, and I think that’s why there are very few parodies of me out there. It’s hard to pin me down, and I take that as a compliment. So I’ll do something which I’ve never done.
What is your family’s reaction towards your work?
You don’t have to listen to everybody’s opinion, but some opinions do matter, and my family’s is one of them. They’re very sincere and truthful. So keeping that in mind, they are very appreciative of my work. My father watches my film, I can discuss the work with him, and yeah… it’s great to have your parents talking about your work and how you try to make a difference. It’s amazing.
You recently shared a heartfelt post about losing your horse, Johnny Walker during the pandemic…
Well in school, I used to ride horses and act on stage. Even now, I am riding horses and acting on stage. I feel that I really chose something which I really love to do as a kid, and I was fortunate enough to have the means and the luck to get into it. Horses are one of those things. So it is part and parcel of my life, the horse does not give a shit about how, what reviews I got, or how much money my movie made, or what else is happening in my life, I go there, and it (the bond) is totally neutral and meditative. They react to me, as to who I am at that moment. So it’s very refreshing, it’s a very positive thing in my life to have horses. In fact, one of my competing horses, Dreamgirl, is expecting a baby in the first week of June. I’m really looking forward to this; I hope that the baby has the heart and kindness of Johnny Walker, who was with us for 16 years, thought so many people how to ride, and to ride better, who served us so generously. This generosity of these beings is something that touches me very deeply. So that’s why the horses are my love, but they are also sporting equipment as well.
‘Sarbjit’, which is a milestone film in your career, completes five years of release…
The movie was a very emotional and physically stressful experience for me. When I took it on, I did not know that such physicality will be required. But to touch upon that person’s life, whose kids, sister had to go through of 18-year struggle in two hours was a challenge itself. So, I thought I owed to that person and to me as an actor, to be able to touch upon it. So I did all kinds of things. I tried to lose weight, the more I lost, the better I looked (laughs). Sometimes it felt like that the body transformation was like that Brad Pitt, but I said, ‘No, I have to kill that.’ So, I completely stopped eating for about 25 days or more, to really kill those muscles. But that also gave me a lot of experience or I touched upon the experiences of what sort of Sarbjit must have gone through. I’m glad people got affected by it and felt the pain that he must have felt. I have done this before in many movies like even for ‘Highway,’ I used to lie in the sun to get sunburnt and make my facial skin look leathery. If I looked too fresh, I would drink a bottle of vodka just to look like s**t.
Similarly for ‘Battle of Saragarhi,’ I really wanted to push it by growing my hair and everything. But over the years, I found out that our film industry is not very conducive to that kind of work. Our work culture does not lend it to that and but I’m still going to try and push. I’m going to try and create those characters. ‘Sarbjit’ has affected people more also because of the drastic physical change. But every movie, I do try to make mental and emotional changes, which are sometimes harder to do than just physicality. But I love that work. It pays respect to my work.
Would you want a biopic on yourself?
I don’t think I have achieved much to have a biopic on me. I don’t think people know much about me really. I’ve been offered book deals and all that prepend my memoir. But no, I don’t embarrass myself and others. I think there are far more interesting people to make biopics on in our industry.
Five years from now, where do you see yourself?
I see myself straddling both worlds in Hollywood, as well as Bollywood, on a bigger scale, with few more action movies out. I didn’t know that 20 years down the line in my career, I’ll become a pandemic actor star. So you never know what’s going to happen. But yeah, I hope to push the gamut in characterization. And I hope to push the gamut in entertainment, which probably is going to be an active thing because I’m not that very fond of dancing.
Will you ever venture into producing films?
Of course, after being around for so long, the jobs do overlap. I do see that, and I would step into a different zone. There were things I wanted to make many years ago, which I would like to still attempt. So that’s always on the cards. But I don’t want to commit myself too much, as my acting might suffer. But if I can manage both in a way, and find partners to do it, I think I might do it.
Are you open to doing regional cinema?
I have worked with directors from all over India. Their stories have that human emotional touch. I would work with them, only if I can learn and speak the language. Otherwise, I don’t know how to express myself unless you give me a role of a mute, which I will do rather well. But I have been offered a lot of roles around the country, especially from the southern part of the country. But I always feel apprehensive about not knowing the language well enough to go work in it. If someday I’m able to have time, and something really comes along which for which I can spend time and learn all new language. Yes, I would love to as they make great movies here.
What’s your take on OTT mediums?
Well, a lot of a**es are being saved (laughs). See, OTT is a different medium; even I’m doing a series, and it’s a lengthier medium, in terms of the number of scenes involved, like I was shooting the series, and I’ve already done three films and there’s still three more to go. So that part is a bit hard for me. But otherwise, the theatre-going experience is unparalleled. When you go to the cinema and sit with other people in a dark hall and watch a film infected by everybody’s energy is a different feeling altogether. So, I don’t think that’s going to die down. But yes, OTT has provided a lot of employment to a lot of actors and technicians and I’m very glad for that. It’s like us having an IPL and then going on a world stage to play other countries. We’ve got such a big bank of things. So similarly, more and more people will get opportunities and more people will rise and the overall quality will get better. But for me, cinema is better, and I think with this hybrid relieves release of ‘Radhe’, a new thing has come about, this new system of releasing a movie which has been done in the West, but never in India. And it has been tested out with Radhe, and which better film to test it out the Salman Eid blockbuster. I think it has worked very well, and I’m hoping that more and more movies will come that way till our theatres reopened.