Amazon Prime’s gangster drama Mirzapur became the talk of the town even before its premiere on 16 November. Actors Ali Fazal and Rasika Dugal, who feature in the web series , speak to Guardian 20 about their roles in the show and how digital platforms are changing the entertainment space in India.
Q. What led to your interest in Mirzapur?
Ali: Not many people know that there are underground hand combat fight clubs in certain cities of Uttar Pradesh. I used to witness all this and took inspiration from there to play my part of Guddu Pandit [his character in Mirzapur]… It is amazing that the competition and comparisons between men and chicken would happen in the same place. In one corner they had men fighting and on the other side, there would be cockfights. I had recorded a lot of it and now I want to make a documentary. It is a very interesting underbelly of our country that not many know about. I used a lot of it in building my character for Mirzapur.
Rasika: Mirzapur was a very different experience. It was a very different genre and role for me. Usually, women are shown as victims of sexual violence or they are an object of titillation. There are very few shows and films where women are acknowledged as sexual beings. There is an acknowledgement of their desire, which is never found, and that was very refreshing. In fact, I asked them whether they were sure to cast me in this role, and I sincerely hoped that they wouldn’t change their mind.
Q. Talk about your characters in the show? Also, tell us about the training you went through to get under the skin of your respective roles.
Ali: My training was very raw. I was one of the last actors to get signed and I did not have any time to prepare. I was also busy promoting Victoria and Abdul those days. I was travelling to all the film festivals from Toronto to Venice… I landed on the Mirzapur set two days after the shoot had begun. I was very intimidated and I used my insecurities to help me get my posture and form.
In the beginning, my body was not fully ready. It was hard to get through the day. After the long hours of shoot, when other cast members were chilling, there was no rest for me, as I would be working out for three hours in the gym. I was eating a lot and I gained a few kilos for the role but I became very cranky and short-tempered, so much so that I apologised to the entire cast and crew after the shoot was over. Usually, I am not like that, I like joking around, but things had got too heavy for me. It was taking a toll on me.
Rasika: My character Beena, is shown as a sexually charged person who is willing to explore her desire. She’s mysterious because you don’t know which side she will be on. She will be on the side of the person who is convenient for her at a particular time. The director handled my character with extreme maturity and sensitivity. We discussed my character in details before the shoot, we didn’t want anyone to be uncomfortable, either me, the directors, or the men in the cast.
If I talk about the challenges, I was only concerned about the physicality of the character. When I read Bina in the script, I got to know that she is someone who desires attention, if she walks into the room and if somebody doesn’t turn around and look at her she probably feels offended. So, this character demands attention and is completely different from the kinds of roles I have done in the past.
Q. What kind of response have you been getting for your role in the show?
Rasika: People are very excited to see me in a different role… These kinds of responses are always encouraging for an actor. A lot of women have written to me saying that they are very happy to see that there is a character like this and I have played it. That is very encouraging to me. It’s a mark of changing times. People are relieved to see a character whose desires are acknowledged… It is a funny thing that any form of entertainment that we have, unabashedly talks about male desire and nobody talks about female desire. We should talk about this without any shyness and definitely without any shame.
Q. Rasika, you come across as an extremely choosy actor. Is that true?
Rasika: I don’t think I am choosy, I instinctively respond to things when they come to me. I have been very lucky because a variety of interesting roles have come my way. I am very fortunate to be able to do Satiya Manto [in Nandita Das’ Manto] and Bina Tripathi in a matter of months. I finished shooting for Manto,then two-three months later I started shooting for Mirzapur.
I have not been so choosy but I feel that as artistes we attract the kind of work that we really, truly want…
The only thing I am particular about is the people I work with. I will not take up the project even if it is an important role, if I feel that the people I am working with are not sensitive and respectful enough… I am very particular about the vibes of people I work with, but otherwise I am willing to experiment with roles.
Q. What is your take on the changing portrayal of Indian women in cinema?
Rasika: In this new wave of feminism, we are trying to move away from the stereotype but we might be falling into another kind of stereotype in which women characters almost start resembling men. There are hardly any characters which celebrate women as they are with all their femininity and give it the face that is needed… We should not just be projected as “the woman can also do it like the man”. Our uniqueness should be explored and celebrated properly in cinema and entertainment, and I am so glad that it’s happening now.
Q. Mirzapuris the first web series for both of you. What are your thoughts on the way digital platforms are changing the face of entertainment In India?
Rasika: The digital space gives a platform to actors, writers and directors to enter the industry and make their names… The kind of reach and response that online content is getting is great for those who are not part of the mainstream and commercial cinema, or whose films don’t get an international release.
Ali: I think it is definitely the future and we are trying to grab a piece of it. I think it’s a great time for actors and directors. I think the canvas has just got larger. But of course, we should not undermine the authenticity of theatre and film.
Q. Which characters are your favourites from the series?
Rasika: The one which comes out really well is Ali’s character, Guddu. I think he has done a fantastic job. And it’s is a very tough one to play. Guddu and Munna [played by Divyendu Sharma] are the characters that I like.
Ali: I like Rasika’s character very much.