Padmaavat is your first film to enter the coveted 200-crore club. So what does it feel like?
A. Well, it feels incredible, I am very proud of the film and I am very happy that it is posting this kind of a number. My happiness is on behalf of my producers and mainly on behalf of my director. They took a big risk by mounting such a big film, so I am really happy that it is earning all this money. But for me personally, the fulfillment is in other things—mainly the love from the audience, the validation of my family, friends, fans and my seniors. It’s been pouring in from everywhere. It’ like an avalanche and it’s very overwhelming. And it is very clear to me now that Padmavat will be a really special film for me in my filmography. It is one of those rare successes that encompasses critical acclaim and commercial success, and the most important, the love of the audience. It seems to me that people have gone to watch film multiple times during its theatrical run. It is breaking box-office records internationally. It feels like it is one of those films which will be remembered and that’s the kind of cinema I always aspired to be a part of.
Q. As I said earlier, you have been getting so much praise for this movie. Can I ask you to pinpoint what’s the best compliment you have received for the portrayal of Alauddin Khilji in this film?
A. I really cannot pinpoint. The praise that’s coming in, the kind of things people are saying, is really overwhelming for me. I am coming from a place where I was unsure how this performance will be received at all. I was playing an antagonist for the first time—a really dark and evil character. That was a huge risk at this stage of my career. I was being advised against it, I was anxious, I was nervous. But ever since the film’s release and up until now I have been flooded with messages on my phone, on my social media accounts, and the kind of things people are saying are beyond my wildest imagination. They are saying, it’s a film for the ages, it’s a career-defining performance, and it’s the performance of a lifetime. This is a bit overwhelming for me, and my only thought when I read these sorts of things is that I should continue to grow and develop. And I hope what I believe stands true, which is that the best is yet to come from me.
Q. Would you say that this is possibly the toughest role you have done till date? Tell us what really went into the making of this extremely dark character?
A. Yes, it was an extremely difficult process. It definitely took its toll on me. I would say playing Peshwa Bajirao was not easy at all. It was another layered character that was going through a vast array of emotions and a lot of turmoil. He goes crazy in the third act and flies off the handle—that was not easy to play. That role really affected me. But I look back on it fondly. I grew as a performer; I came out of it and evolved as a person and artist. I learned so much about myself and I would say the same thing about this character, Alauddin Khilji.
The difference between then and now is that playing Alauddin Khilji really took its toll on me. Of course, physically, any costume drama mounted in this way with the kind of canvas that it has will take its toll on you. But I already knew that playing a warrior king in my last costume drama. What I was not prepared for at all was the emotional and the mental toll it would take on me. When I read the script [of Padmaavat] for the first time, I knew that playing this part would require me to go into some really deep and dark places in my own consciousness. I had to visit some not so fond life experiences.
I also shot most of my stuff in the last leg, which means I essentially shot under lot of pressure. I was shooting continuously. I was kind of staying in character for 12-14 hours a day and not doing much else with my life. I was losing myself at one point to the character, the lines were blurring and the character really started seeping into my consciousness. I was lucky and blessed enough to have realised it quickly. I started doing things, which helped me to ground myself, to center myself. I started spending more time with my family and friends to really bring myself back to neutral, otherwise I went pretty far and deep into the rabbit hole this time.
Q. The director of Padmavat, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, is someone with whom you share a special rapport. Tell us about your extremely successful actor-director relationship.
A. It’s an incredibly special director-actor relationship. It is widely recognised as a very special combination. Even my mentor Aditya Chopra, the renowned producer and director, himself came out of the film, and told me, “I don’t know what it is between the two of you guys. You guys do magic together.” And I believe that myself, I think Mr Bhansali and me have a great synergy. We are both attracted to large canvases, hidden emotions, larger-than-life characters, we are both risk-takers, we are both operatic and flamboyant, theatrical. We connect on so many levels. Our communication is near telepathic now.
Q. Your co-star Deepika Padukone praised you for your dark portrayal of Alauddin Khilji. Now you two don’t share any scenes in the film. But what did you make of Deepika’s performance in this movie? And did you give any feedback to each other while filming? What were the conversations like at that time?
A. I think the conversations about our respective performances are ongoing. I’m very grateful to Deepika for all the kind things she said about me as a performer. I respect her a lot as a performer, I admire her craft. She is world-class. She is the best we have. And I’m really always curious to know what she thinks. I think if you ask her, she prefers subtle shades in my repertoire, perhaps the type of roles I played in Lootera or in Dil Dhadakne Do. But yeah, she was splendid. I don’t think anybody else could have played Rani Padmavati because Deepika has the depth, her screen presence, her strength… it all shines in the film. And I’m very proud of the work that she has done in Padmaavat.
Q. On a more serious note, there were pan-India protests against this movie. A lot of objections which came from several quarters to your film Padmaavat. It had to be delayed as well. There were threats issued to Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Deepika Padukone. Did that directly affect you? At that point what was going through your mind? And how did you really deal with all this?
A. It made me very angry, I would say. Maybe angry would be an understatement. It was a fury, I was enraged. So much so that I had to be calmed down by my team, by my family, by my friends, by my well-wishers. I got a strict diktat at the time from my producers to not say anything, to not act out because it would complicate matters for them further in this battle that they were fighting to get the film made, to get the film released. And as the leading man of the film, it was my responsibility to abide by and adhere to what my producers were categorically asking me to do. So I had no other release or vent for it. The only thing I could do was not act out in a destructive manner, so I chose to channel all of that, I just collected all of it and channeled it into my performance.
Q. Again, there are protests over another historical film, Manikarnika, starring Kangana Ranaut. Do you believe generally people should at least watch films before raising objections?
A. I think it’s a matter of common sense. How can anybody go to these lengths to protest over something they know very little about or they don’t have the entire picture of? I think it’s much ado about nothing at the end of it. So I hope that people learn from everything that’s happened with Padmaavat, and I hope that in the future common sense prevails and other films don’t have to go through this; that their teams don’t have to go through what the team of our film had to go through. It was a very difficult experience for everybody and I do not wish that upon any team that works very hard to make films.