Q. In your almost two decades in the industry, you have donned many roles. How different was your character in your recently released film, Panchlait, from the ones you have played in the past?
A. While I was doing this film, I really missed Lagaan (2001). Panchlait is a story of the era when there was no electricity, there was no manchinery, social media or telephone; nothing is there. To feature those people or to be portraying a character from that age is a challenge in itself. I have only done a few films from this genre. The characters in this movie are also very innocent, there are no villains… The plot of this movie is also different because it is a cult story. The story has been inspired by one of Hindi literature’s prominent writers, Phanishwar Nath “Renu”’s famous short story “Panchlight”. One of his stories has earlier been adapted into movies like Raj Kapoor’s Teesri Kasam (inspired by Renu’s “Mare Gaye Gulfam”). It is after 51 years that someone has dared to bring a story by the writer to the world. The story belongs to a world which we have completely forgotten owing to our busy schedule. This is why I did this film. It was a very different character. I have played the role of the village sarpanch.
Q. Adapting a book for the screen comes with great responsibilities. So when you first watched the movie post-production, were you thoroughly convinced that the essence of the original had been retained?
A. The original story consists only of three pages, and it had to be converted to 120 pages for the film. For that we also wanted to ensure that the essence and the soul of the film were intact. Rakesh Kumar Tripathi, the writer of the film, has done a wonderful job on it and for an entire year he has written just this story. This sort of hard work was important as well and of whatever I have seen [of the film] I believe that we have been able to retain the soul of the original story. We have achieved a sort of that innocence in the film as is reflected in the original work. The extra effort that has been put in dialogues, characters, costumes and shooting at a location where there is no electricity will definitely appeal to the audiences.
Q. Being a National School of Drama graduate (1994), and having done theatre extensively, you first got noticed in Govind Nihlani’s film, Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (1998). How do you look back at those years when you were struggling to find your place in the industry?
A. I don’t see Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa as a big break. I didn’t play a major role in the film. My big break came with Lagaan. It was in 1996 that I moved to Mumbai. I have a struggled a lot during the period. I didn’t even have enough to eat then. It was quite frustrating and I always used to think about leaving the industry. If you don’t have anyone from your family and friends in the industry, it of course becomes a challenge to sustain. However, if you get work on merit it boosts your confidence. I haven’t got anything easy I have struggled a lot for it.
Q. Coming from a non-film background and having grown up in Hisar, was it difficult for you to adjust to the ways of the industry in Mumbai?
A. It was and it still is difficult. I am not filmy yet and neither do I consider myself a part of the industry. I prefer staying aloof. I don’t like being part of Bollywood parties and award nights. I never attend any of it. And in case I have to attend any social event, I try leaving the place at the earliest. That’s because I still haven’t been able to involve myself. I work on a project and once I am done with it, I don’t believe in maintaining relations with the people I had worked with. I believe in moving ahead. An actor should treat every project like his or her first project…
Q. After Rowdy Rathore (2012), you took a break from Hindi cinema until Tubelight (2017). But you continued with acting in several regional films like Ajoba (2013), Geetiyan (2013), and Jatt James Bond (2014) among others. So, why that break particularly from Hindi movies?
A. It was a conscious choice. For the last one-and-a-half years I have been working in Haryanvi cinema and have been researching about a project. I will be directing a biopic on a Haryanvi folk artist. It will be an international project. Budget is low but our vision is quite wide and I am busy with it. So, I will dedicate another year to Haryana. Rest, I only work to have enough funds to sustain my family.
Q. Your work in Haryanvi cinema has also got you many accolades. Films like Pagdi: The Honour and Satrangi have won National Awards. What are your thoughts on the rising potential of regional cinema?
A. The films I have done in Haryanvi cinema are milestones in the industry and are also a turning point in the Haryanvi film industry. Haryanvi cinema is now encouraging better content. And now I have also took it upon myself that I want to raise the standards of Haryanvi cinema and want to put it at par with Punjabi and Marathi cinema. I want to develop cinema which is both entertaining and also promotes good content. And the regional cinema has finally caught the attention of the world. Hindi movies are also taking inspiration from region specific films these days be it the accent, storyline or characters. Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), Dangal (2016), Sultan (2016), Tanu Weds Manu (2011) and others are some prominent examples of the change that is coming about. I believe if you want to make good cinema, you need to take the support of regional cinema.
Q. While your acting has been appreciated in negative roles, you have also played many positive characters and the audiences have loved those as well. Did you ever fear being typecast?
A. I was scared after Gangaajal (2003) that people will limit me and will typecast me. But I feel very happy when I think that to break an image, you first have to make an image. So, first I made my image and then I broke it. Rowdy Rathore, Welcome to Sajjanpur (2008) and others had positive and comic roles and I am happy that I am known for those roles as well. And it definitely was a conscious decision. I want challenges. There are so many films that I have done which haven’t reached to the masses and are screened at several festivals. I have at least seven films as a lead. Another film of mine is also coming up and it will be released in I 12 different languages. It is ready and is titled Muhammad.
Q. You have also been a part of a few short films, like Moksha, Sanyog, Carbon and Kaagpanth. What are your thoughts on the format?
A. Short films today have become the soul of cinema. When you don’t have much finances, a short movie is the best way to convey your ideas. Kaagpanth (2017) is a 35-minute Haryanvi short film and it is a brilliant movie. Another short film of mine —Mukti (2017)—is currently running on YouTube. It is of 17 minutes. Another film Carbon (2017) which also stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui is a great film, too. Lakhs and lakhs of people are watching these films and the response is visible too.