You’ve recently said that for you, getting the physical appearance of a character right is less important than tapping into his psyche. Could you elaborate on this?
A. If you remember my role in Munna Bhai  as Dr Asthana—I played an extremely strict doctor and dean. I was able to portray that on screen because I thought to myself, how it would be to actually be a person like that. For the role of Khurrana in Khosla ka Ghosla , I had to play a land shark—very shrewd, which is why it is important to get into the skin of a character.
Q. Do you judge the script on certain specific parameters before signing a film?
A. I see every role as a lead role. I won’t do an unimportant role. Like the characters Asthana and Khurana in Munna Bhai MBBS and Khosla Ka Ghosla respectively, were important. They are crucial to the film. Without them, there is no film. In Khosla Ka Ghosla, I had just seven scenes. So it becomes a challenge to make every scene count. It’s like I have to score 20 runs in six balls. At the same time, I would say that when I am playing a lead role, I get more breathing space. I can graph my journey well in that character. I have time to spread my wings as an actor. Otherwise, I don’t see myself as a hero.
“Back then, photography was a rich man’s hobby. Cameras were difficult to buy and processing pictures was expensive. Still, I persevered and became a sports photographer, mostly clicking school events.”
Q. You started your acting career at the age of 35, and your Bollywood debut happened after you’d crossed 40. Do you ever wonder would have happened if you were to begin your acting career at a younger age?
A. It was when I was about 35 that Shiamak Davar introduced me to theatre, and said, ‘You are meant to be on stage’. He took me to Alyque Padamsee [the theatre artiste and advertiser], who gave me my first role in a musical. It did great for me. And the next thing I know is that other directors had approached me, and wanted me to do a talking part. I did a few plays, like I’m Not Bajirao and Mahatma Vs Gandhi, where I played Gandhi and it did very well. I was offered my first film, Let’s Talk , by Ram Madhvani; from where Vidhu Vinod Chopra saw me and cast me for Munna Bhai MBBS. I was 44 and that’s when I made my debut in the Hindi film industry. I don’t have any regrets about starting late. I am happy where I am today, with my family around me.
Q. Some of your films, such as 3 Idiots (2009) and Well Done Abba (2009), have strong social themes. What are your thoughts on cinema that sends out a social message?
A. As long as you are doing it without it being preachy, it is the best way to educate people. The visual medium has immense power to influence people and their decisions.
Q. What about television? Mainstream actors are opening up to the idea of doing TV? Would you be willing to do a TV series in the future?
A. Probably someday. I haven’t thought about it.
Q. Your association with Rajkumar Hirani has resulted in some great films. What is it like working with him and what sort of bond do you two share? Also, which filmmakers have you enjoyed working with the most?
A. Raju will not have a single scene where his heart has not guided his pen. Even his humour is guided through his heart. Raju is a baba in his own world; he could well be on Mount Kailash and no one would know. Farah [Khan] has got her finger on the heart of entertainment. Her films have a lot of emotion in them. There is something about her eye—she knows how to fill up the frame. She knows her chops and I am not saying this out of my affection for her. [Shyam] Benegal does not like to be revered as much as he is, and he likes to be part of the conversation of youngsters. Many directors have not even made 18 films in their whole life, whereas he has that many National Awards to his name.
Q. Your passion for photography is known to all. How did your relationship with the camera begin? And amid your tight work schedule, how do you manage to make time for photography?
A. I wanted to do something creative and started writing short articles which I sent off to Busybee, aka Behram Contractor [renowned Indian journalist]. Later, I taught myself how to operate the camera by attending a few workshops. Back then, photography was a rich man’s hobby. Cameras were difficult to buy and processing pictures was expensive. Still, I persevered and became a sports photographer, mostly clicking school events. The Times of India bought some of my pictures and then I went on to do an ad campaign which required a sports action shot. A lot of photographers had tried but since they were fashion photographers, they couldn’t get it right. So I went to try my luck and was almost shown the door. But eventually I landed the campaign.
Q. What are your thoughts on initiatives like Signature Startup Masterclass, a platform for those who wish to seek inspiration from the success stories of renowned personalities in varied fields?
A. It is extremely encouraging to have a platform like this where you can come and get inspired. I would have been so lucky had I had something like this in my time. I hope people who came to meet me were inspired by my story.
Q. At this event in Gurugram, you spoke about your life’s journey, from working as a waiter, an insurance agent to becoming an established actor. How do you look back at that phase of your life? Was it a struggle?
A. It definitely was a struggle. Before I turned to photography, I was totally conflicted. I was married, was doing a great, honest job as a shopkeeper and was proud of myself, was content. But there was a roaring dragon waiting to explode in my stomach. It needed to explode. I would sit and write behind the cash counter and send my articles to the Times of India. I would write short stories, seeking my appreciation from Zenobia [his wife]. My kids were growing up and they must have been, like, about five. I needed a little more money to give them a better life and at the same time, I had this dragon roaring inside me. When photography happened, the dragon came out, but financially it was tough. But I know that I would have been a miserable man had I not made that change. You may feel surprised, but my mother always knew about my talent and encouraged me to watch movies. She would tell me, ‘Finish your homework and then go watch the movie again.’ There was great wisdom in that.