Sahil Salathia is a supermodel turned actor who has made his Bollywood debut with Ashutosh Gowariker’s Panipat. Salathia spoke to Guardian 20 about Shamsher Bahadur, the character he plays in Gowariker’s film, his days of struggle as a young actor, and his expectations from the industry.
Q. How did your acting journey begin?
A. I never wanted to be an actor. I was happily doing my B.Tech in Chandigarh from the Panjab University. B.Tech tends to get a little boring because you have so much work and you have to study a lot too. However, I decided to try my hand at professional modelling and it started going very well in Delhi. I started modelling in Mumbai as well and excelled in it. My college professors were pretty impressed with me and they used to get very happy to see my face on different billboards here and there. My parents were supportive as well. But the idea was to just do something as a hobby, something that is entertaining and interesting. Then I started doing TV commercials and one day I got a call from the casting director Nalini Rathnam for a show called Everest. The show was being made by Ashutosh Gowariker Sir. We did a few screen tests as I was playing the protagonist in it. It was about this character’s journey who is a world-class mountaineer and again, it was a challenging role. He had already climbed many high peaks including Kanchenjunga and it was time for him to summit Mount Everest along with two other characters in the show. I got the role after some rounds and it is with this show that my acting journey began and with the feedback that I was getting, I realised that I was really into the craft and it is very close to my heart. I enjoyed the experience of living somebody else on screen. After this, I learnt acting from Barry John Sir. That’s how my journey started. Post which I didPOW: Bandi Yuddh Ke for Nikkhil Advani Sir, where I played the antagonist and here I am now talking to you about Panipat. So the journey is not without a few bumps, but has been beautiful nonetheless.
Q. Did having a successful career as a model prepare you for professional acting?
A. My career as a model was super successful. I shot for almost every brand which really made me feel that I was a part of the entertainment industry in a certain capacity because it [modelling] is still about the lights and camera and probably not a lot about action. But there is glamour in it to a certain extent. I personally like acting more because I think it requires a lot of homework. Modelling is also creative but there are limitations to it. Your looks take precedence over everything and I thought to myself that it should not be about that. The charm of the business is getting an opportunity to be someone else, play someone else.
But yes, to a certain extent I would say having a career as a model did prepare me for professional acting but that’s just the base of it. After that, I had to do a lot of work to be a convincing and good actor. So that when the audience watches me they don’t see Sahil, they see the character I am playing. It started with Arjun from Everest, then it went to Yussuf who was the antagonist in POW and now Shamsher Bahadur in Panipat.
Q. Is it difficult to find a footing in the industry if you don’t come from a film family background? If yes, in what ways?
A. Oh yes, I definitely think it’s very difficult to find a footing in the Hindi film industry if you are not from a film family… You could be in love with a filmmaker’s work and you could be sure in your heart of your talent that you can pull off a character well. But to get access to the filmmaker, in a professional manner, is very difficult. That’s the biggest problem when you are not from a film family. When you are an outsider, sometimes it takes years and years to just get that meeting or that screen test. That’s the difficult part. And another thing is that you don’t get a lot of chances. You get that one chance on the big screen and then you have to prove it then and there. Nobody is going to give you 20 chances. It’s just one chance and that’s it. It ends there. I think it’s very difficult but then that’s how the business is working right now. I hope it becomes more professional. If I talk about myself, I am from Jammu and I got to work with Ashutosh Gowariker Sir without any film contacts or film background. Magic happens, but you just have to work hard and be focused. It sounds clichéd but it’s true. If you work hard and stay focused then the dreams definitely come true.
Q. What challenges do you face as a newcomer?
A. The biggest challenge that a newcomer generally faces is that you have to be the best version of yourself. You have to be fully prepared and you cannot do things half-way through. It is difficult to be successful, especially in today’s time with such amazing talent around us. We all have to be exceptional. Your craft has to be A-plus. And it is not a challenge. In fact, it is something that should inspire everybody to work harder.
So when there is a question on challenges, access to the kind of people you want to work with is the biggest problem.
Q. What are your expectations from your acting career?
A. My expectation from my acting career is to do some fantastic work and to be known for the characters I play, to bring those characters to life. I have always believed in quality work. It’s funny that my Instagram bio also says that my business plan is quality. I am very open about it. I like to do a certain kind of work which comes with some homework. I want to do very difficult parts, parts that would challenge me. I want to live the lives of the characters and do it very seriously. I want to be always known as an actor who is respected for his craft. I would like to go down in history as an actor who is a star because of his craft. And we have now reached the time where this is what is happening. Being a good actor leads you to be a star. I hope to be in that league of actors who are movie stars because they are such fantastic actors and people are obsessed with their craft. That’s what my aim is.
You are fortunate to have worked with Ashutosh Gowariker and Nikkhil Advani in the very beginning of your career. How have these opportunities benefited you as a young actor?
A. I have been extremely fortunate and privileged to have worked with filmmakers like Ashutosh Sir and Nikkhil Sir at the beginning of my career. I made my debut with Ashutosh Gowariker. If I could say so, I think I have already been spoilt because these are such phenomenal directors with such a fantastic vision. I genuinely believe that an actor is only as good as his filmmaker or the team he works with. When you have such masterminds presenting you on screen, the actor’s job becomes much easier because they [filmmakers] are so passionate and they automatically instill the same passion in you because ultimately they are the captains of the ship. When you have somebody like them guiding you to perform, making you a part of their vision, everything becomes magical. I feel immensely honoured that I got to work with them. But as an actor who is hungry for beautiful parts and beautiful visions, I have a long list of people I want to work with, collaborate with and I hope that I get the opportunities to tick off other such names from my wishlist.
Q. Tell us about your character in Panipat.
A. My character inPanipat is extremely significant in the third battle of Panipat. My name in the film is Shamsher Bahadur and I play the son of Bajirao and Mastani… You will see my contribution in the battle and you will see the real Maratha valour that has been represented on screen. You will also see a lot of drama and a lot of bone-chilling action. It will be an emotional ride for the audience as they will get to watch the whole graph of Shamsher Bahadur, from Shaniwar Wada to the battle of Panipat. Other than that, you will see my equation with Sadashiv Rao Bhau, which is played by Arjun Kapoor and my equation with the rest of the family members. I am a warrior who is in command of the Maratha army. You will see my interaction with the other warriors. It’s a fantastic role and I feel really privileged that I got to play this role because Shamsher is such an iconic character from the Maratha history who really fought for his motherland with all that he had back in the 18th century, in 1761. In this film, you will see him come alive on screen.
Q. What kind of preparation did you do to fit the role of Shamsher Bahadur?
A. There was a lot of preparation that went into become Shamsher Bahadur. Ashutosh Sir is very particular even about the minutest details. He made sure that I was a pro at horse-riding even before we started filming. I learnt it for a month with professionals and the other team members. So now, thanks to the film, I can literally fly a horse. Other than that, I am quite good at sword-fighting as well. I play a Maratha warrior and so it was necessary for me to be natural at that because someone who is playing a warrior of that stature has to look extremely convincing on screen. He has to be perfect at it and that’s what I try to work on and master. Then, there was the diction that I worked on. I wanted to get the right tonality for Shamsher Bahadur in terms of how he would speak, his body language, his physicality, etc. One has to change their voice tone as per the character and that’s the kind of actor I am. I like to give a certain kind of voice, a unique one to every character I play. In the film, you will not see an iota of Sahil Salathia. That has been my goal and I think that’s an achievement for every actor. When you see that person on screen, it’s not the actor, it’s the character. That’s the case with Shamsher Bahadur. A lot of effort has gone into it. We shot for a year for this. I have literally lived this character for that time and now it’s been put down in history with this movie and it will always remain there. This is humbling and overwhelming at the same time.