In his acting career of more than 20 years, Aftab Shivdasani has been a part of over 50 feature films. Having started out as a child artiste with films like Shahenshah (1988), ChaalBaaz (1989) and Insaniyat (1994) among others, he made his debut as a male lead with Mast in 1999. Now a big name in the south film industry, he continues to be a part of Hindi cinema, and was last seen in Setters, a crime thriller directed by Ashwini Chaudhary.
Shivdasani speaks to Guardian 20 about his early days in the Hindi film industry and his acting journey in South Indian films.
Q. You made your acting debut as a child artiste with Mr. India in 1987. How did that very early exposure to acting shape you as an actor that you are now?
A. It was a very intriguing experience to be in front of the camera from a very early age. I did my first commercial for Farex cerelac when I was just 14 months old. I did six feature films including Mr. India and Chaalbaaz and also close to 300 TV commercials while growing up. I felt natural and comfortable being in front of the camera. I took an instant liking to the camera and somewhere deep down I knew that I wanted to make a career out of it. All the experience that I had in front of the camera helped as I had absolutely no inhibitions by the time I got my first break at 20 when I did Mast.
Q. You were only 20 when you made your debut as the male lead in Mast. How did that happen?
A. Since I was doing commercials all through while growing up, one of the commercials I did was for Coke and it was through that commercial that I got noticed by Ram Gopal Varma, who was at that time looking for the lead of his next film, Mast. He saw the commercial and called me directly and asked me to meet him, which was a dream come true for me since I wasn’t from a film family. After a brief meeting and interaction, he told me about the film and came over to narrate the film to me. For me, I couldn’t have asked for a better launch and thus my career as a lead actor commenced.
Q. Do you think that when you started your acting journey, you were as prepared as young actors today are when it comes to being a part of showbiz?
A. The only thing I was sure of was my talent at the time. I was confident in front of the camera and gave it my best whenever the camera was switched on. I did not know anything about the film industry or anything to do with the way this place functions. I learnt about the ways only through trial and error as I had no one to guide me through it.
Q. Was it relatively easy for you to enter Bollywood as a male lead, considering the fact that you worked as a child actor for a long time?
A. No. If it had not been for the Coke commercial, I think I would still be giving auditions daily and trying to get a break in films. I was very fortunate to get noticed and then without an audition, got my first break. I do think luck and destiny play a big role in this field.
Q. You played a negative role during your early days, in the film Kasoor (2001). Were you not apprehensive about doing it?
A. When I was called to Mahesh Bhatt’s office for the film, I didn’t have a clue what the story or the character was. After they narrated the story to me, I was very surprised that they would offer such a character to me which was downright negative, especially after the character I had played in Mast. The fact that they had such confidence and conviction that I would be able to pull it off gave me the confidence to do it and I am ever so grateful to them for showing that confidence in me. I went on to win awards for that film for best actor in a negative role and it remains a milestone in my career till today.
Q. The audience is more receptive to new ideas now and the scripts written have great content too. Have you ever thought about making a fresh start as an actor, especially in the Hindi film industry?
A. Every film, every project for me is a fresh start. I have always viewed it like that. I have always believed that every opportunity is a new one and a way to try and get better than what I was yesterday. Yes, I do agree that the kind of content being made today is far more radical and unique as the audiences are much more accepting and open to new concepts and content. So, it’s a great time to be working on new concepts and trying different stuff out.
Q. Do you feel that you have been an underrated actor?
A. I don’t really understand the term underrated as I don’t really count the praises I get. For me, people accepting and appreciating my work is gratifying enough for me. I feel that I have survived for 20 years here only because of my fans and well-wishers, and I’m so grateful for that.
Q. How is the film industry down south treating you?
A. It’s interesting to work in the south and that happened for me purely by chance. I have friends down south, like Kichcha Sudeep, who have always encouraged me to work in south films and I never seriously gave it a thought until I got an offer in a film that he was also a part of coincidentally. It’s a great experience working with actors and technicians who are so talented and hard-working. The only difference is the language barrier but everything is usually translated and given to me, so that doesn’t really come in the way.
Q. Setters was your last Hindi film and you got a great response for your acting in that. What are the kinds of films you want to do at this point in your career?
A. I’m grateful for the appreciation I got for Setters as it was the first time I played a cop in a realistic kind of a film with such an accomplished director, Ashwini Chaudhary. At this point, I’m looking at doing all kinds of scripts, right from comedy to serious roles including action films as well as negative roles. Anything that I can sink my teeth into and entertain my audiences with—is all I’m looking forward to. It’s an exciting time for actors and lots of different concepts are floating around to choose from.
Q. Tell us about your upcoming projects?
A. Apart from Kotigobba 3 (the Kannada film), I haven’t signed anything on the dotted line but I’ve liked two or three really interesting scripts that I have expressed a desire to do. So, just waiting for them to materialise.