"OUR CINEMA IS NOT ABOUT PERFECT STORIES"
An underrated ‘actor’s actor’, Gulshan Devaiah talks to Ahad Sanwari about his web-series debut with Smoke, playing grey characters and being a part of the digital movement. Read on…
As a South Indian, it mustn’t have been easy playing a Bihari gangster for Smoke. Were there any particular challenges you faced? I just needed to know how much time I had to prepare. Of course, getting the language right was a challenge. The thing to crack is that every dialect and language has a rhythm, a manner of speaking, it’s not exactly the accent per se. One of my co-actors, Amit Sial gave me a recording of my monologue in his voice. So I would listen to that as my primary reference material. I don’t even know how many times I must’ve listened to it! Even when I was in Greece on holiday, every now and then I would get the earphones out and plug them in and listen to what he was saying. Maybe I would’ve liked a couple of more weeks, but I knew I was going in the right direction. But I loved the challenge of the role. And I loved the faith that the makers put in me to pull off a Bihari guy.
You often say that your roles, including the one in Smoke, are more grey than black or white. Do you deliberately choose such parts or do you just end up with them? Nobody’s perfect. The stories and the characters you play should be reflective of the times. And we don’t live in a time where everything is black and white. Human beings aren’t white and black, they all have imperfections. When I say ‘grey’, it doesn’t mean villainous. There are different shades
of grey. You’re grey, I’m grey, we all have our imperfections. Whether I play a likeable guy or a despicable one, I just try to play the imperfections as honestly as possible. That’s how we relate to people. That’s the kind of cinema we’re showing. Our cinema is not about perfect stories.
What is it like working with a diverse ensemble - which you’ve done quite a few times? Do you at any point feel overshadowed or insecure about someone else’s role? Not at all! I’m not in that game altogether. I don’t want to shine brighter than anybody else. One person doesn’t make a team or a scene. There are many other characters and you have to work with people. And sometimes, there are actors who probably don’t play at the same level, don’t have a similar craft or work ethic. Or if you’re with an inexperienced actor. You have to work with it or your team will fall flat. You can’t just do your own shit while the rest of the team was f***all. I don’t feel insecure, I am very confident about the kind of work I do and my abilities. For example, I did a film called A Death in the Gunj. There was nothing significant in my role and I was completely overshadowed to take the story forward. Did I feel insecure? No! Because it was one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had on a film. I didn’t have much to do, I’ve done far more involved films but no other film has given me this much satisfaction from watching it. I was working with a great cast for Smoke. I worked
with Tom Alter for the first time. He was a little difficult to work with. He was very moody. But at that time, we weren’t aware that he was suffering from cancer and he was probably in a lot of pain. I realised that his behaviour was a manifestation of all the pain that he was going through. It was my first time with Amit, such a superb talent. Kalki (Koechlin) and Neal (Bhoopalam) are friends so it was very easy because we already had the chemistry. Jim (Sarbh) is someone who I have great admiration for, he’s one of the most talented actors on screen and stage. There’s Mandira (Bedi), someone with such a long and illustrious career. It’s nice working with actors like these.
Digital content is slowly on the rise in India. Would you prefer doing work for a digital platform over Bollywood? I would still consider this to be Bollywood, it’s just a different medium. The entity ‘Bollywood’ has changed. A film like Andhadhun is also Bollywood, a film like Ready is also Bollywood. It is a representation of a panIndian sensibility which is diverse. We’re the most diverse and multi-cultural country in the entire world and Bollywood is kind of like the unofficial flag-bearer of that diversity. I am a cinema lover. There is no experience greater than going to the cinema and watching a film on the big screen. But yes, there are certain stories that cannot be told in 2.5 or 3 hours, you need more time. OTT platforms and web series give you that kind of freedom. I don’t mind working on it, but it really depends on the project itself. But my first love is for films. I’ve grown up watching them, I’ve romanticised it, fantasised it. Perhaps a little too much! (laughs)
What future projects do you have lined up, especially in terms of films? I may be doing another web series. There is a really interesting one I can’t talk about because I don’t have the permission. But it is kind of a big deal and it’s a big platform. I also have Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota, which had a wonderful showing at MAMI and Toronto. And I’m currently in between scenes for Commando 3, the third part of the Commando franchise. I’m trying to keep my work as diverse as possible.
My first love is for films. I’ve romanticised it, fantasised it.”
If You’re Meant To Be A Star And You’re Meant To Stay, “It’ll Happen For You.
Being the son of Bollywood veteran the late Vinod Mehra didn’t necessarily merit the easy route for RohaN mEhRa, who decided to go for the struggle and rise on his own calibre. In a crowded café chat with Ahad Sanwari, Rohan spills the beans about his acting beginning, his tinsel town dreams and those pesky Tara Sutaria rumours. You were all set to become an investment banker with a degree in mathematics and econometrics. So what changed? Why films and acting? It’s an interesting question because I grew up in a very small town. I couldn’t even dream of being an actor in the film industry. It was such a small town and even the mentality of the people around me was the same. You go to school, you work, you go to university. That’s the kind of life everyone lived and everyone’s dreams and ambitions were just that. Somehow, you become a product of your environment. I was one of those people who really wanted to grow up and be successful, be rich, get a good job. When I was in university, I realised that the people around me were very passionate about economics and math, and I couldn’t match that passion. So I asked myself ‘What am I really passionate about?’ I’ve always loved story-telling, music and films. It didn’t happen over one night, it happened over a period of time.
Did you have much exposure to Bollywood while you were in Mombasa? It was a small town but we had one cinema with a single screen. There
are so many Indians in Mombasa. So they showed every single blockbuster every week, so that’s how I got to watch every big film.
How did you bag Baazaar? It’s so crazy. A few years ago, I uploaded my photo on Instagram and the casting team of Emmay Entertainment, Nikhil Advani’s production house called me for an audition. But that was for a completely different film. I did get the film but it didn’t end up happening. So I went back to auditioning, not getting films, the struggle. I eventually read about Baazaar in the paper and that Nikhil was making that film. And I found it interesting and really wanted to test for it. But Nikhil told me that this film was not for a newcomer. Eventually over a few months I kept on auditioning. I also conspired with his sister, Manisha, who’d take a few scenes out and I’d send them to him and it worked out like that.
How was working with Saif Ali Khan? Amazing! He’s so gracious, he’s so funny and he’s such a good actor. I learnt so much from him, how not to take yourself too seriously in life despite being a big star. You learn how to be a better actor by just watching him. I had an amazing experience and I’m completely thankful to him for that experience.
What about your relationship with your other co-stars, Radhika Apte and Chitrangada Singh? Radhika’s such a great actress. We became friends over the film. She’s so effortless. When you call ‘action!’ and she does a scene, you can’t really tell if it’s real or if she’s acting. The biggest compliment I could give her is that just by working with her, you pick up so much. Chitrangada, unfortunately, I didn’t spend much time with. We only had 2-3 shooting days together. But with her, the way she carries herself on set, she’s so congenial and so polite.
You say that you never use the ‘Vinod Mehra’ name to get ahead. Could you tell us about any particular incident or story where you had to unwittingly use your name or celebrity status? I’ve never, ever used the ‘Vinod Mehra’ name. I can say that with full and complete confidence. Maybe I should’ve done it but I never actually did. (laughs)
How did you keep your dreams of acting and films alive throughout school and college? We didn’t have the opportunity. My dream of being an actor or even playing the guitar was hard to keep up because I never really had the avenue. I relied on that once a year holiday to Bombay to pick up some lessons and go back. That was something that I had deep down inside but I never really had the opportunity to bring it out there.
You did say that you play the guitar and you often keep creating tunes. Do you think you could’ve made a successful debut as a musician instead of as an actor? And did you bring any of that music to Baazaar? I don’t know. I’ve never given it any thought. I play it for enjoyment
I couldn’t even dream of being an actor in the film industry.”
obviously, but I do take it really seriously and I would one day make something out of it. But I brought no music to Baazaar, honestly. I don’t think my character’s ever even looked at a musical instrument in his life. Couple of times I’d bring my guitar to my vanity to play a bit during some down time. To be honest, with Baazaar, the shoot was so hectic that I didn’t have time to do anything but shoot. I’d come on set and for 12 hours, I’d be on my feet shooting for the film.
If you go through my social media, you’ll see that I’m open about Tara and my other friends.”
What kind of films are you looking forward to now that Baazaar is finally done? I try and live by this rule where I don’t want to limit myself. I want to work in all kinds of films, all kinds of genres, all kinds of filmmakers. I like Sriram Raghavan, but I also like Karan Johar. There’s no limitation. They have such a love for storytelling and I love those stories.
What would be your dream film to work on in terms of an ideal story or genre? Anything. You could tell an interesting story about a guy who’s stuck in a room. So for me, more than the kind of story, it’s about working with directors who really know what they’re doing and who really want to tell their stories.
The #MeToo movement is still gaining huge traction. As someone who had to go through their own struggle to get into the industry, did you have to face the dreaded ‘casting couch’? I’m very lucky that I didn’t have to face any of that. I feel like this is such a serious movement and now it’s exploded, which it needed to do. It’s unfortunate that we’ve come to this stage where we have to name and shame people. These issues should’ve been dealt with at the time. People knew about these things happening so they should’ve handled it. That said, if this is the way it’s going to stop, by going public and speaking about it, then I fully support it. The stories here are disgusting. You feel kind of ashamed when you hear of a human who had to go through this. And I salute the brave women who’ve come out and spoken because it can’t be easy.
Apparently you’ve been seing Tara Sutaria. Any word on that? These rumours are completely false. (laughs) Tara Sutaria’s a really good friend of mine. She’s one of my first friends when I moved to Bombay. I have a very small group of good friends. And fortunately or unfortunately, I’m very open about which friends I care for. If you go through my social media, you’ll see that I’m open about Tara and my other friends. It’s a quality I’ve been raised with, if you feel something like love for someone you might as well just
say it. I think being an actor in Bollywood, this is an occupational hazard. People are always trying to pin you and put you with someone. But I will say we’re definitely friends, she’s doing a lovely film with Student of the Year 2 and I wish her the most success.
I try and live by this rule where I don’t want to limit myself.”
What makes you and Tara so close? We both like music, she and I are both musicians. Funnily enough, we’re both neighbours! In fact that’s one of the reasons why we became friends, because we live so close to each other. But I would say music and a love for film are what got us to connect.
Do you think it’s difficult to be in a relationship in Bollywood when you’re constantly under a scanner? I guess, I don’t know since I haven’t been in that position myself. Apart from these rumours, I haven’t been in a relationship yet where I know I’m in a relationship. Someone could say you’re in a relationship but when you know you’re not in one, it becomes much easier. When you’re actually in one and people are putting you under a microscope then it is difficult because your heartbreak and everything else becomes public information. But if you have two very strong people who love each other and know they want nothing else, then nothing is difficult.
Which of the new generation of star kids do you want to work with? I wouldn’t just limit myself to star kids, I want to work with a lot of people. One of my dreams was to work with Radhika Apte before I got Baazaar. When I did get it, I was like ‘Wow, how is this happening?’ and I was pinching myself. There are so many promising people. You have Janhavi (Kapoor) who’s great, she has incredible star quality to her. There’s Sara (Ali Khan) who I haven’t seen act yet but who I have a very good rapport with. All of these people would fit the bill but I don’t want to limit myself.
You used to come to the Baazaar set so prepared that co-stars like Chitrangada would talk about how freaked out they’d get because you not only knew your only lines but also theirs. What motivated you to be so prepared? (laughs) I don’t know. I think I have slight OCD, so I get obsessive about stuff. I’m passionate about acting, films and scripts. I want to do everything perfectly and I take care of it like my Bible, for lack of a better word. That wasn’t something that I did intentionally, where I was like let me learn everyone’s lines. I just thought that this is my one chance and I really have to give it my all.
Do you think your past as an economics major helped you make this performance stronger in any way due to the film’s stock-market setting? I don’t know about making it stronger but it did give me a better understanding of the world. So when we’re saying things like sell this share, sell that stock, stock is bearish, stock is falling, this could affect the stock market, this company is 20 years old and there’s an essence of brand loyalty, there’s
the prestige factor, it can’t fall so quickly over one rumour, it helped me understand these things and the emotional stakes based on this world. I don’t know if it helped my performance but it helped with my understanding.
You’re a shining example of a star kid who did not use his celebrity status at all to get a shot in the industry. Do you think that nepotism or influence is something that negatively affects the crop of talent coming into films? My journey gives me great faith in the system. Despite being a star kid, although I didn’t use my name, I went for a lot of auditions which I didn’t get. It took me a while to land this film. It gives me faith that there is some sense of fairness out there. There are a lot of ‘star kids’ or kids of actors who are in Bombay and are trying to get a film but don’t get it. We never speak about those people. There’s a pool of us. I think if you’re meant to be a star and you’re meant to stay, it’ll happen for you. We have shining examples of guys who aren’t star kids and making it big in the industry like Rajkummar Rao, Vicky Kaushal, Sushant Singh Rajput. A legend like Shah Rukh Khan, a great example. Ranveer Singh, Deepika (Padukone), Anushka (Sharma), I could go on over here. So I don’t think the system stops anyone from entering. Nepotism does exist but the system should be fair enough.
With your debut, do you feel any sort of pressure to live up to your dad’s legacy? I personally don’t put pressure on myself. There’s of course a lot of talk that ‘his dad was like this, how’s he going to be?’ and that’s fine. That’s going to come in what I’m doing and being who I am. I try as much as I can to take that out. We all have the ability to listen to what we want to and react how we want to. I try not to take the pressure. The pressure’s definitely there, but more than that I feel blessed to be able to take his name forward to the new generation who doesn’t really know him. So it’s really nice to just take the legacy forward.
What projects do you have lined up for the future? There are a couple of things. I honestly wish I could talk about them, but I can’t because of all the disclaimers that go like ‘Oh, he can’t do the film now that he spoke about it publicly’. But yeah, there are a couple of things and I’m excited about that. Anything that comes my way, I’m ready to do. I’m just really hungry to work.
I’ve never, ever used the ‘Vinod Mehra’ name.”