Did you always know you wanted to be an actor?
A. No, I never really wanted to be an actor but I liked acting. I used to do theatre. I remember there is a tradition in my village where folk plays are staged right after the Chhat Puja festival. So I used to watch these plays as a child. I also started acting in such plays when I was in class 7th or 8th. Those plays were really immature. Eventually, though, I started enjoying doing those plays. Then I was sent to Patna for further studies by my father. My father always wanted me to be a doctor. In Patna, I started watching more serious plays and joined the students association of the college. I did many street plays and watched a performance at the Proscenium Theatre. It was a play called Andha Kuan by Lakshmi Narayan Lal. I was really inspired by it and even cried after watching it. I was really astounded to see it, to realise that we really had such great plays written. Then I started watching plays continuously in Patna and started making friends with actors, and since I was a good orator was very active in sports, it helped me in my acting skills. As an aspiring actor, you need to be a good orator and physically active. Then, finally, I came to Mumbai in 2004 and my film career started the same year.
Q. You come from Gopalganj, Bihar. What are your memories of your village?
A. I was born in the village of Belsand, in Gopalganj, Bihar. I belonged to a lower middle-class family. My father is a farmer. We still do farming at my village. As I said earlier, I wanted to be an actor, and my love for acting took me to the National School of Drama in Delhi. I came to Mumbai then to earn my living, to survive, and not for making it big as an actor. Ever since, I have been trying to survive. It’s been more than 12 years in this city now. And the recognition I have got now for my recent movies, I am really overwhelmed by that.
Q. Which movies inspired you to become an actor? Did you get time to watch films when you were growing up?
A. No, I did not get any time. I remember I had only watched one film, the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Andha Kanoon, till my matriculation exam. And I was surprised to see song sequences in a film. Also, the glamour of the star-studded Bollywood potboiler never attracted me much. Which may be why you don’t see any other superstar’s reflection in my acting. Some are inspired from Shashi Kapoor, some from Amitabh Bachchan, some from Salman Khan. Every newcomer who wants to crack Bollywood is inspired from Shahrukh Khan’s acting and copies him. But I was not inspired from all that, and that is why I guess I have a unique way of acting. Since I had never seen many films, there was no scope of getting inspired.
“There is a great struggle for recognition in this industry. But if you are passionate, sincere and focussed enough, you will be noticed by some good directors through auditions. It took me 12 years to get noticed, and when you take 12 years to do what you want to do, you realise how tough it is to make your name here.”
Q. As you said, Bollywood is a glamour-driven industry, where stardom is the yardstick with which you measure talent. In such a scenario, actors like you, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Manoj Bajpai and many such have yet made a name. How difficult is it for real talent to get recognised in Bollywood?
A. There are many difficulties. And when you do not have a background in cinema or if you are not from Mumbai, there are other, greater difficulties to be faced. Yahan bheed bahut hai [It is very crowded industry]. It is not written on your face that you have talent, so initially you have to be a part of this crowd even as you try to stand out of it. I know it’s not just me. Actors like Manoj Bajpai and Irrfan Khan must have experienced the same thing. When you go for an audition, you are not the only one but thirty more people are waiting to bag the same role. I remember how gatekeepers used to keep all the photographs with our names and phone numbers written at the back of a big carton. There is a big fight for recognition in this industry. But if you are passionate, sincere and focussed enough, you will be noticed by some good directors through auditions. It took me 12 years to get noticed, and when you take 12 years to do what you want to do, you realise how tough it is to make your name here.
Q. You got your big break with Gangs of Wasseypur. How did you land the role?
A. I got this role through many rounds of auditions. I was called by the casting director and Anurag Kashyap liked my acting.
Q. What are the aspects you look for in a film script before choosing to do a movie?
A. First of all, I see who the director or the filmmaker is. Also, the producers, as you have to see whether they are established names or not. The banner is also important, because if it’s a big banner film, it would likely be well promoted. Then, the story is an important factor to consider. The content is really important as you have to see how realistic it is and how fictional it is. Also, I see the writing and creativity of the story. And when an offer meets all these criteria you get an idea whether you want to be a part of this film or not. You should justify the character you’re offered, and the character should justify you.
Q. What appeals to you more, theatre or films?
A. I like both. You get creative satisfaction from doing theatre. But people hardly get to know you as a theatre actor. You only perform on a still single stage in front of maximum 200 people, whereas in a film you are widely noticed. For instance, Nil Battey Sannata is widely released, which means my work is being noticed by thousands. But there is more scope for creativity in theatre, and I like the fact that you can experiment more on the stage than on a film set.
Q. We recently saw you on the small screen. Why did you choose to do the TV series Sarojini?
A. I came here for the money and the wider reach that TV facilitates. Whenever we do any film, we promote our films on the small screen only. It’s like when you get a good distributer for the film, it is well promoted. And it benefited me as I became a household name of sorts. But TV is a very tiring and monotonous job to do. You have to do the same kind of acting every day. I left it because of this reason.
Q. Will you work in regional cinema if you get the chance?
A. I would love to work in it. My language is Bhojpuri, but I am ashamed to see the kind of movies being made in that language.
Q. So what kind of change would you want to see in Bhojpuri cinema?
A. I can only say that there are not many sensible people working on good Bhojpuri films. And the mainstream actors there are not close to the Bhojpuri cultural tradition. They only want to make big money. If you are culturally aware of your mother-tongue, then you make good movies. This is not the case here. I will do films here which will make my language proud. I don’t want to insult or degrade the language by doing any senseless films here.
Q. What’s your take on doing documentary films?
A. I love documentaries and I want to bring a certain kind of perspective here. Like for example, if you want to make a documentary on an animal, what do you do? You go and capture its moments in a camera. This is what I exactly want to do in acting, where the intent is to capture a slice of someone’s life. I like that approach where the camera records realistic moments authentically. I want to bring to our cinema an aesthetic that allows us to record real lives without any creative distortions, without any “acting”. It is a very tough thing to do in reality.
Q. What do you have to say movies made on political themes?
A. The work of art, of culture, of music or of cinema is to inform people about the society as it exists. So it is very important to make movies on political themes. It is our responsibility, and of all artists’, to make people more aware through our work.
Q. Are you happy with the kind of films being made in Bollywood these days?
A. I am no one to comment on that. Any industry works on a capitalist logic. Producers tend to invest only in those films which have big casts, as that proves to be a profitable venture for them. But I also think this is a good phase for Indian cinema, where films like Masaan and Ankhon Dekhi are being made. Films like Khosla Ka Ghosla and Nil Battey Sannata are now accepted by the audiences. There is an audience now which is ready to watch these kinds of films. With the advent of the internet, our world has become really small and interconnected, and that has changed Indian cinema too. When an off-beat movie is made and released on YouTube, it is watched by many people. And this new space for experimentation is creating more variety.
Q. Do you have any “dream roles” in your mind?
A. Every role is my dream role. I want to do something different in each of my roles. That is my dream.