Q. You started your career late in films. What are the challenges an actor who starts late in Bollywood faces?
A. My first film actually was in 1982 in Assam and I had acted in several films, television, telefilms, serials and all that before I joined National School of Drama. And after I joined NSD, I was away from films as I fell in love with theatre. I was happy being on stage because the possibility of an actor to express oneself is much more on stage than in films. So, it is entirely incorrect to say that I started my career in films late. I started acting in films when I was 17 years old. But yes, I started earning from films much later in life. I started working in Bollywood much later and it did not happen in Bombay but in Delhi. I am very grateful to director Abhishek Choubey who met me in Delhi for my role in Ishqiya which got me immense recognition.
The only challenge I faced because of my absence in films for so many years is having to get used to the camera once more and to act in a story which is very haphazardly shot — quite often the first scene is shot on the last day and the last scene on the first day.
Q. You come from a very small town in Assam and have acted in many Assamese films. How difficult was it to make a mark in Bollywood from the Assamese film industry?
A. I had to fight against the perception that I was from a small town and necessarily, not talented or capable enough like struggling actors from Bombay or Delhi. And not to be arrogant and to stay grounded is a tricky tight-rope walk for any actor who comes from small towns. But if you are in love with the craft of acting, it teaches you a lot in terms of just focusing on your acting and not on whether you are becoming successful. So what comes after acting is actually a bonus. The important thing for any actor is to continue his acting no matter what comes in his way.
Q. You have worked for both commercial and art-house films. Which do you find more satisfying?
A. Well, in terms of being able to pay your bills, of course commercial films [laughs]. But it is actually well-written, well-directed and well-acted independent films that satisfy my heart. Both commercial and art films have their own place in society and both have to be looked upon with respect. The trouble is when bigger films try to dominate the exhibition hall — that’s where the problem lies. Low-budget films need to be given the visibility they deserve. A good film is a good film and it could be either mainstream or art house.
Q. How would you like to define stardom in Bollywood?
A. I don’t know how to define it. Stardom quite often depends on how well you are marketing yourself. Like, for example, there are a lot of actors who are doing small films but they market themselves well enough to be in the news quite often through PR agencies. And then there are fascinating actors like Vinay Pathak, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Rajat Kapoor, Sanjay Mishra — those who are doing amazing films and have been respected and talked about by international media, but they are not much known in India.
So, stardom is marketing and branding which makes anyone a star and for some actors. But those who do not have enough money to market themselves, will not become stars in spite of having the qualities of a star. Stardom is a manufactured and fabricated thing more than it is about talent and calibre. The film should become the star rather than the individual.
Q. Are you happy with current trends in Bollywood?
A. I am happy that there are lot of young actors and directors, writers and also production houses looking at films like Sairat, a Marathi movie which was made with Rs 3 crore, but has made more than Rs 100 crore. There are films like Titli, Margarita with a Straw and one of my films, called Sunrise, which is going to get released in the US, Germany, France. And people are watching these films. So I am very happy that there are people in the film fraternity whose films are earning recognition and money without them having spent much on production. Sairat is a great example of it. Also, a lot more can be done by making more content-based, meaningful movies.
Q. You have acted in English, Hindi, Assamese, Bengali, Tamil, Marathi, Malayalam and French films. Which industry, do you think, has the best work culture?
A. I would say that work culture-wise I prefer European cinema. They are extremely sincere and time-bound. Their attitude is much more excellence-driven and I think we have a lot more to learn from them. Not to generalise, it also depends on the director and production house and the entire team when it comes to the work culture. Speaking very generally, European and independent movies actually have professionalism not in terms of money but ethics. They are punctual and honest with the work they do.
Q. You started acting in college plays and performing as a stand-up comedian. What is your view of the state of comedy in India?
A. For me, comedy happens when you are not necessarily trying to put down somebody else. You can, and it is not forbidden to do so, but it depends on how you are doing it. The theory of comedy says that there has to be the fall of a status, otherwise nobody laughs. I do not entirely agree with this theory because there are also other ways to make people smile and that is a very difficult thing to do. In India, comedy is more about pulling down someone else and poking fun. One needs heart and love, more than cynicism, to be able to perform good comedy.
Q. You are getting much praise for your recent film Sunrise. After such fame, have you become slightly choosy about the kind of films you want to work in?
A. There are two things that I look for: it has to be a decent mainstream film and has to pay me well. But if it is a good, low-budget film, money does not matter as much. I try to look for roles which have not been done before and are quite challenging. Even better, if the story has complexity. Sunrise is one such film which fulfilled all these pre-requisites.