Satish Kaushik has given some memorable performances as a comic sidekick in commercial Bollywood films. But he can’t be pigeonholed as a comedian, given his diverse filmography and his highly successful run as a director. He speaks to Bulbul Sharma about growing old and staying relevant in the Hindi film industry.
Q. You have completed 40 years in the film industry and continue to be associated with critically acclaimed films, like, to name a couple of recent ones, Judgementall Hai Kya and Udta Punjab. What, according to you, is the key to staying relevant in Bollywood?
A. A passionate actor is always able to reinvent himself or herself. I have received professional training from the National School of Drama (NSD), and I didn’t become an actor or a filmmaker by default or by chance. I have always been passionate about acting. That is why I am here. To be able to act in films of today’s era—films like Judgementall Hai Kya, Bharat, Soorma, Udta Punjabamong many others—is a great opportunity for me.
I have adapted myself to the current times and to today’s cinema. Even as a director, I look for fresh ideas and scripts. Now I work with young people and I am introducing several new actors…
I believe I have the power and capability to adapt to a particular time and situation. This is why I am still working. And I will continue working because I am extremely committed to my profession.
Q. You were trained as an actor, but when you were starting out on your journey in the industry, were there any social and financial hurdles you had to overcome? Acting obviously was never a viable profession for a youngster to choose.
A. I come from a very humble family and I had no idea that I was going to make it as a mainstream actor. It was one of my teachers at the Kirori Mal College in Delhi University, who really pushed me to pursue a career in acting. My family didn’t think I could become an actor. Even I didn’t take myself very seriously until I joined the NSD. But I am glad that unlike so many others, I was able to fulfil my dream of becoming an actor. I even had a breakup at the time because I didn’t want to marry at that point and wanted to try my hand at professional acting.
But now everyone is very proud of me and my work. My journey has been amazing, I have learned so many things and acting has given me so much. It has given me so many life lessons, new perspectives. It even taught me to converse in English. Before starting my acting career, I couldn’t utter a single word in English.
Q. Alongside your acting career, you have also directed commercially successful films, such as Hum Aapke Dil Mai Rehte Hain(1999), Humara Dil Aapke Paas Hai(2000) and Tere Naam (2003) among many others. Did acting help you understand filmmaking better?
A. I am basically an actor. But when I am directing, I only focus on direction. It also needs to be understood that a director takes care of every department of filmmaking—from cinematography and dialogue-writing to music and acting. So here my experience as an actor always comes in handy, because it has given me an in-depth understanding of all of these departments.
Q. Your approach to comedy has changed over the years. It has become more subtle. How did you achieve this transition?
A. I was recently shooting with Rajkummar Rao in Haryana. It is a film where I play the role of his father. So for a particular scene, he gave such a brilliant and subdued performance that it inspired me to work harder on a sequence that was to be shot a couple of days later.
I think the present generation of actors also inspires me to change myself with time. Observing them has helped me to reinvent my acting skills. In Brick Lane [in 2007] I have given the most subdued performance of my career and still managed to touch the audiences’ hearts. I believe I can adapt myself and act according to the type of cinema I am making and the kind of platform I am on.
I am a trained actor. I have done films, TV, theatre. I have been a part of international cinema and this is what makes me different from other actors. My hunger for good roles and opportunities is not yet satisfied. I am always on the lookout for a good project and a challenging opportunity. I have been very lucky that my career graph has been completely unexpected and unique. No comedian has been able to get the kinds of roles I have got and am still getting. Most comic actors have played only one kind of role, but I have done varied roles. Maybe this is why people remember those roles even today.
Q. But there was a phase in your career when you were doing films of a similar genre and kind. Didn’t that exhaust and bore you?
A. Consider it as my problem or something to do with my passion for acting, but I have never been bored. I enjoyed every role and character that I did. If you look at my smallest roles, I have enjoyed those too. I never get bored of work. Whatever role I get, I try to do it with perfection… I believe in living with honesty and being thoroughly committed to my work.
Q. What are your views on how the Hindi film industry treats its older actors? Is there ageism in Bollywood?
A. To say that older actors can’t be a part of films is completely wrong. Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen are still making films in Hollywood. It is important to understand that older actors come with a lot of experience and expertise. They have so much to offer to a film and their understanding of a character is deep too. Their sensibilities can add so much to any project…
Even at my age, I have directed Kaagaz, and it is going to be one of my best works. That is because I have put in so much effort and utilised a lot of my experience in making it. Also, I have cast Pankaj Tripathi in the lead, who is also not a young actor. This will be his first film as the lead.
Age is just not a problem if you have the talent and are hungry for good work… Young actors these days are very concerned with the success of their films. What they don’t understand is that if one film fails, it is not the end of the world. Because with age and experience you learn so much more.
Q. You’ve also made Marathi and Haryanvi films. Do you see any potential in regional cinema? Can these films appeal to a global audience?
A. I have always believed that regional cinema has huge potential and we need to push stories that originate from the heart of India. In addition to this, the audience for regional cinema is getting bigger too. People living in other countries can also watch our films now, through the digital medium, with the help of subtitles.
Q. Character actors are getting impactful roles these days. How do you think that has changed the dynamics of India cinema?
A. Look at Badhaai Ho, the roles played by Neena Gupta and Gajraj Rao are amazing. Hats off to Ayushmann Khurrana to have selected a subject like that. It is really good for our cinema that the limelight is now being shared between lead actors and these character actors equally… But even in the ’90s I never faced issues like these. In most of my films with Govinda, I received equal prominence and was equally important to the script.
Q. The industry has also moved away from the trend of fixed casting. We don’t see actors playing similar roles these days. Do you think that has pushed actors to perform better and offer something new to the audiences with each of their projects?
A. Of course, this has become challenging. But it is because of this challenge that Hindi cinema is now in its best phase. The industry has become very professional and sensible decisions are being made by both actors and directors. Directors wouldn’t want to do similar kinds of projects and actors, too, believe in proving themselves to be versatile. I don’t think Shahid Kapoor will be playing an aggressive character right after the success of Kabir Singh.He would like to do something different. And I think this is adding to the diversity of our cinema and our films. Actors are working so hard these days, and they don’t mind undergoing extreme transformations to look different in each of their films. Times have changed for the better. Earlier, lead actors would do 15 films with a similar kind of role and look. But now it is completely different. That is why the audience is getting to see a lot of variety in our content. All this adds to the success of our films, not just in India but globally as well.