Veteran Bollywood actor Dalip Tahil, who made his debut with Ankur in 1974, has since worked in major blockbusters like Qayamat se Qayamat Tak (1988), Ishq (1997), Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar ke (1993), and Bhag Milkha Bhag (2013) among others. He speaks to Guardian 20 about his recent film, Daas Dev, and about his upcoming ventures.
Q. You started as a theatre artiste. Tell us more about your journey from the stage to the screen.
A. Well, actually I began theatre with Alyque and Pearl Padamsee. I did several plays with them. We did a play called Godspell with Pearl Padamsee, which was the first English musical theatre on stage and during that performance, Shyam Benegal, who was in the audience, came up to me and said, “Hey, get a haircut”. He said he had a role for me in his first feature film, which was Ankur (1974). And that’s how I got into the film industry. That’s how I came from theatre to films quite by providence, and also thanks to Shyam Benegal.
Q. You have played many negative roles in Bollywood. In fact, just in your second film, Shaan(1980), you played a villain. What intrigues you about negative characters?
A. Well at that time I just took what was offered to me. I had the pleasure of meeting Javed Akhtar, who recommended me to Ramesh Sippy, and Sippy offered me that role. In those days it wasn’t too much about planning. I didn’t plan, because I was new in films. Obviously, I was getting an opportunity to work with such a good director, whom I admired. Actually, I accepted whatever he offered me without thinking about it too much.
But at the end of the day, it was really worth it that I had the privilege of working early on in my career with such a wonderful director as Ramesh Sippy.
It was Aaj Ki Awaaz (1984), which I later did with Ravi Chopra, that put me into the negative mode. The film was with Raj Babbar and Smita Patil. I tried a negative character in that and that picture became a big success. That is where my journey in negative roles, roles of the “bad guy”, began.
Q. Now that you have seen both sides of the coin, what attracts you more—negative roles or heroic ones?
A. Well, at the beginning for a leading man the best role were the negative ones because they were the most powerful roles. They were very influential and instrumental in the narrative of the picture and so I did the role. I was attracted to them, they were strong roles. Also, that was offered to me because I had been successful in Aaj Ki Awaaz. All that changed when I did Buniyaad (1987)— the whole perception about Dalip Tahil changed. After Buniyaad I got Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988), and then Baazigar happened, after which I became more of an emotional father figure rather than the outright baddy. So that sort of changed the complexion of my image of a bad guy.
Q. You have done more than 100 films in Bollywood. Have you witnessed much change in Indian cinema over the years?
A. It has been a huge change from the time I began. The way we see and the way we view our material, our entertainment and content quality has changed dramatically in the last 40 years that I have been in films. When I started there was only the single-screen format.
Q. Tell us about your upcoming film Daas Dev?
A. Daas Dev is a modern-day political thriller adapted from the timeless classic Devdas. It is a story of a young man who is born in a very powerful and a privileged family. Unfortunately, he falls prey to the wrong habits and shies away from his responsibilities.
It’s about how he transformed with the help of these people in his life to take on the responsibility. In the background, there is the milieu of Uttar Pradesh politics weaved into a love story. So there are very interesting characters here, and I am one of them. I play the role of Sahay in Daas Dev. He is like the Narad Muni, a manipulator. But a modern-day Narad Muni.
Q. Do you ever relate to the characters that you portray in your films?
A. No way. I am just playing a character. I am the least manipulative human being. I have tried to keep my life as simple as possible. I am an actor, I can imagine the character, and I can feel this character. I am certainly not that in real life—I can switch on and off. When I am playing a character I can understand what goes into the mind of the character.
Definitely, the base of manipulation is the desire for power and lust for money. People who manipulate are extremely insecure people. But no, in real life I am nothing like Narad Muni [laughs].
Q. You worked in a Hollywood film as well, Basmati Blues, which was your last project that released in February 2018. Tell us about it?
A. I had a very good experience working with director Dan Baron and his wife Monika in Basmati Blues and of course we had the wonderful star cast. We shot in Kerala, in and around Alleppey. I had a very good time. It was a very positive film. Everybody was out there to make a good movie, and I think to a very large extent we succeeded.
Q. You also featured in India’s first 3D Film, Hello My Dear Kuttichathan (Malayalam) in 1984. What actually went into the making of this film?
A. That was one of the most difficult films I ever made because it was India›s first film in 3D. 3D is a very tricky process. Those days there were two horizontal lenses to converge at a single point of focus. So, it is extremely difficult work. It requires efficiency so we had to take lots and lots of retakes. It was an extremely labour-intensive movie while we were shooting. When the movie released it was absolutely a phenomenal success. It was dubbed in every single Indian language. And in every single language it was a super success. So the rewards were fantastic. It was an honour to be the principal part of India’s first 3D film and, it was India’s most successful 3D film ever made.
Q. How was your experience with the small screen? You portrayed the character of Dashrath in Siya Ke Ram?
A. It was a fantastic experience for me! I had never done a costume drama before, I was a little apprehensive when I first started playing Dashrath, but once I wore the costume and met people like Nikhil Sinha, who had just done Devo Ke Dev Mahadev, I knew I could do it. It was a pleasure working with Nikhil Sinha. The best part is the way he interpreted Dashrath or Kekai or any other character. The story of Dashrath was very well handled. Almost 70 episodes were about Dashrath alone. People loved it, and even I wanted his story to come out. Generally, people know a great deal about his relationship with his son Ram, but no one actually knew about Dashrath as a person, or his relationship with his wives or the dilemma he went through during the decision of exile for Ram. It is basically a detailed account of Dashrath and I am really pleased that I was selected to portray it. I don’t think anyone has made such a detailed story on Dashrath on the silver screen or even in cinema.
Q. You have worked in theatre, television, Bollywood, Hollywood and the music industry as well. What next?
A. Now, I am planning a musical play in Hindi. I am collaborating with Makram Deshpandey, who is an absolute genius I feel, and a wonderful playwright, a wonderful actor. We hope to open very soon. Also, I will be doing a radio play on the Mahabharat for Radio Nasha. Then there are web series I am doing. Watch out for that.