A. Vinay has not only been a great friend to me for almost two decades now, but he has also been a kind of inspiration and guiding figure for me. I don’t think he will like it too much and would say, “Meri umar kyu badha di [Why did you make me seem so old]?” But I still want to say that he is like an elder brother to me. And we have a fabulous relationship off camera. On camera, we have been liked by the audiences. We have more fun working than what you see on the screen. It is a riot to be working with him and I have been fortunate enough to be able to work with him for so long, and I hope I continue it till my last breath. It is the kind of friendship one feels lucky to have, and cherishes.
Q. You are one of the most prominent actors who have switched seamlessly between independent and mainstream cinema. Are there any major differences between these two spheres, except for the budget and distribution part?
A. Honestly, there are a lot of differences. My venturing into mainstream cinema was very experimental. A lot of big mainstream films that I have done were not strictly mainstream movies in terms of the theme. There was an alternative theme to them. May be a couple of them were all out mainstream, but most of the mainstream films that I did I felt had a kind of middle ground. Even the alternative films that I have been a part of are very accessible in terms of their story and theme. So I have always aspired for that middle ground. I don’t want to be a part of only arty or experimental films. Nor do I want to do only mainstream projects. Between these two is my playground. And I am fortunate that I have managed to carve out a small corner on this playground for myself. I hope this continues.
Q. You’re now a well-known name in the industry. Do you think that when you’re doing independent movies, there’s sometimes too much responsibility on your shoulders when it comes to promoting the film, and driving the audiences to theatres?
A. Once you commit to a film, you have to give your hundred percent. Your faith, your belief, your commitment has to be unquestionable. So, all these decisions one can only take before signing any project. Once you have signed it, come what may, you have to stand by it. I have been a part of many films that were terrible, but I have stood there and said the best things that I feel about them. They might not have done well but I had great faith in them. A film has its own fate… I have never seen films as mainstream or parallel cinema, big budget or small budget. For me what matters is the script, the role and the director. The scale of that can vary. If it is a small-scale film, it becomes an alternative small budget film; if the scale of the film is bigger, it becomes a mainstream film. But my values remain the same—if it is a great story, if I have a good part and if I have a relationship of trust with the director…
Q. What are your thoughts on independent cinema in India?
A. Independent cinema has been around ever since it became a business. It is a cycle. One independent film will do well and then finances move in to start more independent films. Then 3-4 films will flop and the money will go back to the mainstream. And it is the same with the mainstream. Money is the ultimately survivor: it has only one motive, which is to multiply. About the growth of independent cinema, I am really skeptical. I think the same thing is happening again and again. But one good thing is independent cinema works as a creative engine for mainstream films. It works as an R&D department of the film industry. When I started doing films, I saw a distinct change in the way the mainstream was making films. You could see that these are not traditional films they would have made, but that the success of independent films has influenced them to take this route.
Q. Your upcoming movie, Kadvi Hawa, touted as the only full-length feature on the issue of climate change, was filmed in the scorching heat of Bundelkhand. So how big a challenge was it to shoot it in such extreme conditions?
A. Well, to be honest it was quite difficult because Bundelkhand is one of the hottest places in the country. We were shooting in 48 or 50 degrees Celsius, so it was hard. Though we consider ourselves tough because we have worked in extreme conditions—I have shot in lots of extreme conditions—I remember that while shooting for Kadvi Hawa we would camp at any place we could find under a shade, so that we don’t die of the heat. But there were little kids who would still be playing around. It is amazing, the settings in which human beings can survive and even thrive! And, as far as shooting in such conditions is concerned, when you think about these characters and empathise with them, it helps to know the environment and the harsh conditions in which they also live. So one can’t really complain, even if we were shooting at the peak of summer.
“For me what matters is the script, the role and the director. The scale of that can vary. If it is a small-scale film, it becomes an alternative small budget film; if the scale of the film is bigger, it becomes a mainstream film. But my values remain the same…”
Q. What was your first thought when Nila Madhab Panda [director of Kadvi Hawa] narrated the script to you?
A. Actually, I don’t take narrations. I read scripts and he approached me with the script, which just amazed me. I assure you that I am not doing the film only for its theme, but also for the characters, story and relationships between the characters. These things are also important to me as an actor. So, I was absolutely touched by the screenplay. It had some great moments in it, it had some truths to it, truths of the people whose story we are telling. There were a lot many elements in the movie that really touched me. The central part is played by Sanjay Mishra (a blind farmer who is suffering because of the draught), and I play more of an antagonist, a loan recovery agent but I jumped on it because I thought these would be great characters including mine. And I felt that their relationships were fabulous and the story we were telling is fabulous, and the theme is important.
Q. You have played some grey characters in films like Mithya (2008) and Titli (2015) in the past. How different was portraying the role of a loan recovery agent in Kadvi Hawa?
A. Every character has a different story. There is also a famous quote, “The world is not made of atoms; it is made of stories”. And as an actor it is very important to not just empathise with your character; you must also be able to make the viewers empathise with the character. And the approach remains universal. But what changes with each film and character is that every character is unique and every story is unique. So, one tries to know as much as possible and research about the character he or she is playing. I got a lot of help from Mr Panda himself, who gave me a lot of information and pushed me in the right direction. We did some workshops with Atul Mongia [casting director] and others, to try and get the final nuances, accent and body language, and, of course, I pay a lot of attention to the physicality of the character.
Q. The film has already won a Special Mention at the 64th National Film Awards. So what are your expectations from the film, which has a special theme, as far as commercial success is concerned?
A. My expectations are set only when I accept the part. Whatever expectations I have get set at that time. My expectations are based on the merit of the script, not the theme. So, my expectations when I decided to be a part of the film had to do with the fact that it’s a fabulous film. In Khosla Ka Ghosla, for example, there was a bigger theme of land mafia in northern India, and of family values. But in addition, the story was great, the characters were great. The story might be set in a small world, but it conveys much bigger themes. I found similar qualities in this [Kadvi Hawa’s] script, and a lot of films that I choose are on this basis. But it is good to hear that the film has got a lot of eyeballs at this stage because look at the timing of it. When we shot this film it was almost about a year ago or so. Donald Trump was not the President of the United States and they had not walked out of the Paris Agreement. But look at the turn the world has taken now. This film is the most well-timed movie. It is on the kind of theme people need to engage with right now.
Q. How positive are you that the film’s message will reach beyond those who are already aware of the issue of climate change, that it will percolate down to a mass viewership?
A. You are absolutely right, that the intelligensia, or the so-called elitists, are already aware. But the strata immediately above and below them are not. By below them I mean the masses; by above, I mean those who actually control world affairs. And frankly, the world today is not run by leaders, it is run by money. And the politicians or the leaders are the ones who are managing this money. They are money managers more than anything else. At this point, when for the past 2-3 decades we have been talking about climate change, there is a steady build-up. Leaders like Al Gore [environmentalist and Nobel laureate] are talking about it. There are champions from India as well who are talking about it. But now, when the time has come, and when it is imperative and paramount that we act now, we suddenly see that world politics is throwing these distractions under labels like economy… It is like throwing a cover on these more important issues. People need to see the irony behind this, and I hope that it trickles down to the masses. Because people at the top don’t want change. The old world order will not change, people who are in power will stay in power and we have seen that through centuries. For example, when the Internet came we thought it would be a great equaliser, but now it has become a medium controlled by the same people who have always been in power.
About this film, though: yes, we want the message to reach the masses. Also, we need to acknowledge that there is a limit to how much big institutions rooting for climate protection and sustenance can penetrate. But an artist and a storyteller can penetrate a lot more. Because an artist can reach the heart of the audience, and can convey the message emotionally.