Why an OTT platform dedicated to theatres?
I have been involved with theatre for 16-18 years. We, as actors, keep talking about how theatre gave us the confidence to be who we are, and express the desire to give back to it in some manner. At the most, we produce some plays, act in others. But when you face a situation like the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown, and you get a call asking for your support to theatres, you take it head-on. It was as if there was an external force that was making me do these things. And there’s a sense of achievement because we could successfully launch the OTT platform within a year. It gives one immense confidence to know that there is so much that you can do if you just apply yourself. Don’t know why we keep limiting ourselves and our potential. I don’t want to take all the credit; there’s an entire team behind it, especially my wife, who, just because I was invested in the project, stood by me without knowing what would happen.
Why do you feel so passionately about theatre?
I’m not some authority on theatre; there are far bigger theatre personalities who have dedicated their entire lives to it. I am just trying to save a medium that has been entertaining generations. I also want to clarify that just because we are an OTT platform, doesn’t mean we are competing with Amazon Prime, and Netflix-like platforms. They have deep pockets whereas we are a self-funded venture. Technically, I have a pie chart of my own simply because I’m the only one highlighting performing arts. Technically their viewers are also my potential audience.
Do you remember the first play you performed in?
Theatre has always been part of Marathi culture but, to me, it seemed like one of the most boring activities till one day, my mother dragged me to a play. And suddenly, I found my calling. That same year, our school was staging a play called ‘Modern Ramayana’ and in my newfound enthusiasm, I volunteered to handle backstage. Because I was an enthu-cutlet, I used to rehearse everyone’s part and had it by heart. At the last minute, our Sita backed out, and everyone looked at me to take up the role because I was quite petite back then and knew all the lines. I wasn’t comfortable playing a girl till a classmate invoked my male ego, saying ‘Class ke izzat ka sawaal hai (It is a matter of the class’s reputation)’. I got a lot of applause for my performance and suddenly everyone in school started recognising this good-for-nothing guy. I felt very important. And next year, played Draupadi in school’s ‘Modern Maharbharat’.
What about academics or sports?
I was a very, very average guy, who was not good at studies or sports. While my brother and cousins made the school cricket team every year, I was the last option, called only after even the 12th man was indisposed. My elder brother was so ashamed of me that right the day after my 10th standard board exams were done with, he, along with my friend’s elder brother, dragged the two of us to Shivaji Park at 5 in the morning. Channeling the spirit of Ajit Tendulkar with the vision of turning the two of us into Sachin Tendulkar, these two elder brothers enrolled us for net practice in the under-14 category with Achrekar sir and his daughter Kalpana ma’am. But maybe because I was practicing in the same nets as Sachin must have, my game actually improved. A whole new world was opening up to me.
When did you know you wanted to become an actor?
By the time I reached college, I was a very confident guy, with cricket practice going well and my comfort with acting on stage. I made some new friends and went to a dramatics audition just to be with them. And when we got selected, we thought we would have to be part of mob scenes in exchange for the privilege of bunking classes and canteen coupons which students of drama society got. But I landed the lead role in the college play. Then my name started appearing on the college board and I felt more and more confident of it as a career.
After a while, I stopped with cricket practice which was tiring me out and dedicated myself to theatre completely. Till then it was fun and games but the minute I decided to make a career in it, I started participating in all performing arts. We represented the Mumbai University at the West Zone Youth Festival and ran for nationals, where we were the winners for two years in a row. By the time college was ending, I started getting offers for commercial Marathi plays. But my mom was hell-bent on me graduating with a good score, so I used to do those plays and stop a month before exams.
Was it smooth sailing after that?
After we graduated in 1995, I kept doing plays and small roles on TV but my mother’s friends’ kids were making progress by leaps and bounds. Someone was getting a high-paying IT job, someone else was flying off to the US. She kept sending me for bank exams which I failed miserably at. By 1999, she gave me an ultimatum to make something of my acting career or else get a job. Of course, nothing happened, and I started looking for jobs that would allow me some time to pursue my passion too. Such was my desperation, I fell prey to a prank my friend pulled on me. I actually believed him when he told me that Bank of Tokyo was hiring theatre actors and landed up with my portfolio at the branch, asking to see the manager.
What did you do then?
I’d had a gap of one-and-a-half years in my acting career when I got a call for a Marathi TV show which was undergoing a generation leap. Another actor had backed out and I bagged the role. Luckily, my character clicked and what followed was three-four years of television shows. I was doing three daily soaps, two weekly shows, some episodics, and Hindi serials too. I bought myself a bike; life was good. However, just when I thought I had made it, I was told I was over-exposed and that people now wanted to see new faces. But this was the way TV worked and the sooner I accepted it, the better. The only options in front of me were Hindi TV or films. I chose the latter.
My wife Deepti and I had been dating for a while and her family wanted us to get married, which I was ready for but I didn’t know how I would support her. She assured me that we will work things out. So, we got engaged and a date for the wedding was set. I was on the verge of quitting acting because I needed stability in life. I decided to wrap up the show I was doing and call it quits when ‘Iqbal’ happened.
How exactly did you land the film?
I was told that Nagesh Kukunoor was looking for a fast bowler for a small role in a film. I was a fan of his work and landed up at the audition despite only being a medium-pacer. I was rushing from Kandivali, where I was shooting for the show, to Bandra to meet Nagesh. Once there, he told me, he was looking for a 17-18 year pace bowler and not a 29-year-old actor. I auditioned knowing fully well that I wasn’t landing the role. Imagine my surprise when I was called to meet the director and later told I made the cut on his vote of confidence in me.
Then I was told to keep myself free for three months. When I asked why would a small role require that long, I was told I was the lead. I couldn’t believe my ears and wanted to audition again (chuckles). I was very happy till, on December 28, Nagesh told me we would be shooting in Hyderabad from the day after. I was shocked and asked if I could get a day off on December 31. Nagesh was very disappointed, thinking I was asking for leave to party the night away till I told him I was getting married. He was livid and asked me to cancel the wedding, saying his Iqbal couldn’t be married. Here I was, a middle-class guy whose wedding cards had gone out, being told to cancel it; I didn’t know what to do. It was after a lot of convincing, and assuring him that I would keep the wedding under wraps, that he let me have a day off.
On January 1, my newly-married wife and I reached Hyderabad at 7 am. At the airport, there was a crew-member waiting to take us to the hotel and from there, me to the sets. Before I could get into the car, he asked me to remove my shoes as Iqbal doesn’t wear any. Over the next three months, I was bare feet. After a day of practice sessions, on our first wedding night, I was running a fever!
Did you manage to keep your wedding a secret?
Yes, I didn’t admit to it in any of the press interviews that I gave out. But when it came to premieres, and there were many private screenings arranged by our producer Subhash Ghai, Deepti wanted to attend. By then she and Nagesh were well-acquainted with each other; he is her rakhi brother, in fact. So, he told her to attend the premiere as his sister. On the first day, Deepti fainted outside the theatre because she was so overwhelmed with emotion to see me on the big screen. When Subhash ji saw her one too many times at screenings and enquired, Nagesh told him who I really was. He refused to believe I was married. To him, I was an 18-year-old boy who had had a child marriage and was not even feeding his wife, making her faint (laughs).
Have there ever been roles that you didn’t take up and regretted later?
It has happened to me but in such a funny way! So, after watching ‘Jolly LLB’, I messaged Subhash Kapoor sir, telling him what a brilliant watch it was and he told me it was the same script he had approached me with. I had absolutely no recollection of this; I don’t know how I could say no to such a film! Also, Kapil Sharma’s first film ‘Kis Kis Ko Pyaar Karu’ had come to me first, when Abbas-Mustan sir and Johny Lever sir were producing it. I had raised concerns about the script’s similarities to a Marathi play, but then they didn’t come back to me.
How much is improvisation important to you?
As someone who has done theatre, improvisation is very important. I remember the first day of ‘Om Shanti Om’. I was reading the script and wanted to do certain things with it but wasn’t sure if I’d be allowed to. When I couldn’t take it anymore, I walked up to Shah Rukh and told him what I wanted to do. I knew if he didn’t agree, it would be one of the worst shoots ever but if he did, it would be the best. Fortunately, Shah was game to let me try whatever I wanted. In one scene, I wanted to hit him on the bum. When I asked him if it was fine, he told me I didn’t have to think of him as Shah and that when we were doing a scene, he was Om. By the end of the first day, Farah admonished us for improvising all day and asked us to stick to the script. We, of course, didn’t (chuckles).
It’s been a while since we have seen you in films. Would you say you’re choosy about scripts?
I am a little selective, of course. After ‘Iqbal’, there was a phase when I would compare every film offered to me to ‘Iqbal’. In fact, when Subhash Ghai ji offered me ‘Apna Sapna Money Money’ I was hesitant because it was a commercial film. He was stumped and couldn’t believe that I was not considering commercial films.
However, later around 2009, some of my films didn’t work at the box-office and people started thinking on my behalf. Even today, they are assuming things. I know I can add value to a particular script, but the scripts have to first come to me. That’s why I got into production with the Marathi film ‘Poshter Boyz’ and it became a big hit. Then I took up directing with the film’s Hindi version but my father passed away 10 days before the film went on floors, and just when we started shooting the demonetisation took place. I think I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew.
Some of your solo projects also didn’t work…
Unfortunately, yes. However, if one solo film doesn’t work, doesn’t mean none of the others will. Many of my solo films have worked too. I think the only thing I lacked was the ability to market myself. I belong to the school of thought that says your work should get you more work.
I found out that there are certain actors who are insecure about sharing screen space with me and don’t want me in a film. I have done certain films for friends only keeping their interests in mind but then I have been backstabbed by the same friends. Then there are friends who go ahead and make films without including me, which makes one question if they are even friends at all. Actually, in the industry, 90 per cent of the people are just acquaintances, there are only 10 per cent who actually feel happy when you do well. The egos are so fragile here!
Are you happy with where you are today?
I will persist. If you stay on the pitch and don’t lose your wicket, you will eventually get that one ball that you can hit out of the park. Even someone like Mr (Amitabh) Bachchan had to go through a bad patch, so who are we? He was down and out yet bounced back to reach even greater heights. This is happening with me too. Every time I feel depressed, I remind myself I was the guy who did ‘Iqbal’. I am happy with where I am today but I am not done; I am still hungry for good roles. It’s very important that every actor goes through this patch because it helps you mature over time and value things more. I want to die acting…on sets, or on stage while performing.
Does your daughter Aadya watch your films?
She will be turning three soon and maybe now start watching my films. So far, she only listens to my songs on TV. Till a few months ago, every actor in every song was dadda, now she recognises my face (smiles).
Will you want her to become a part of the industry and if she is so inclined, will you help her with her career?
My father never forced me to do anything but my mother would keep telling me to complete my education. I won’t force my daughter to do anything she doesn’t want to. Today, the kids are so smart, they are very clear on what they want. She will grow up seeing me and Deepti being a part of the entertainment industry and might obviously want to follow in our footsteps. If she does, I’d be happy to provide her with the means to do so but I’d rather she makes a name for herself. I have done that. From being a boy who once had to walk all the way from college to home hungry because he didn’t even have Rs 5 to buy a small chocolate bar to being a guy who has bought practically everything he dreamt of–I know the feeling of self-accomplishment and would want that for her. However, if tomorrow, she wants to be a NASA scientist, I’d support her in that too.