Tell us what went into the making of your character in Mission Majnu.
When the casting company called me for the role, I said, ‘No, I don’t want to do it’, because I’m trying to avoid doing same kind of things, you know, typecasting and stereotyping of the person. It was a very tight call, then I thought I have never played a real life character (played on stage a couple of times) on screen. So that became quite interesting and a kind of challenge. And the way they convinced me, I said, ‘Okay, I will do the part.’ And it’s not about the screen time, it’s about the importance of the character in the story. And then, of course, I should compliment the makeup team, many trials and tweaks happened, and finally we got different looks since there’s a particular period in the film. Before every take many times I used to keep on repeating his speech lines. That really helped me to get into what I had to speak on camera.
Since you were apprehensive about doing the role, were you able to enjoy the process?
Yeah, very much. Because once I say yes to something, then I find ways to enjoy it, because otherwise I will not do it. That’s my inherent nature. Because I say no to a lot of stuff. And I’m very finicky about what I do. So if I’m saying yes, then I’m totally involved in it. I will also see other people’s performances and whatever I can learn from it. I would watch monitors or even other people and just to see learn the craft of filmmaking, understanding of camera sound, talking to sound guys. So that’s really what I love to do and it was very nice to work with director Shantanu Bagchi for the first time.
How was your rapport with Sidharth Malhotra and Rashmika Mandanna on the sets?
Well, I didn’t have any scenes with them. I had a parallel track with them at different levels. So I had no kind of interactions with them. For this film, at least, there’s nothing to do with them.
You made your South debut with Sita Ramam. How different was it to work in south cinema compared to Hindi cinema?
It’s mota-moti the same, times have changed now. Everybody is a professional, everybody knows the filmmaking process. What I see different sometimes is the approach of directors. People from South have some kind of a calmness in them compared to the North guys. That’s my experience. For Sita Ramam, I really enjoyed the process of finding the look for Ansari. This is something which I always tell the directors in the beginning that ‘I will be part of the process of evolving this look and not just do what I will be told to do on camera. I’m not arrogant about it but I would like to be part of the process, collaborate on different things and try new bring the newness to every character I play. Otherwise, it’s a very boring process. People who are doing it, I have nothing against them, but I don’t know how they manage this, how they survive it. I will survive.
Has working in Sita Ramam opened doors for you in South?
I have been getting some offers but, you know, it’s the same thing, one good part on your plate and they try to give you the same part. So I had to say no to a couple of them. I’m not in a rush. I think I have a lot of patience.
Do you think you are being typecast in certain roles?
See, I have been saying a lot about this. Even earlier I’ve been talking about it openly because I speak without fear. Many times people don’t like to speak in press or public because somebody might get offended and will not get work. But I speak my mind. Somebody will tell me that you play all Muslim parts, so I don’t have control over everything. But then nobody talks to other actors and tells them that you’re playing all Hindu parts. My parts in Haider, Kesari or Raazi are from different eras, different nationalities and different backgrounds. But when they see you as being a Muslim, then they think like, ‘Okay, he plays all Muslim characters.’ Have they seen me playing different characters in Cartel, or Aghori? So that’s not the right way to do it.
Has it been tough for you in the film industry because you speak your mind?
I would still say, considering what I see my peers who have studied with me at National School of Drama in New Delhi, I still feel much very much blessed and lucky to get what I have been getting. I’ve not been based in Bombay for a long time earlier. And I was also traveling a lot around the world doing other things. So even then, being a part of Mira Nair’s films, Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s cinema or for that matter, Vishal Bhardwaj and Danis Tanovic. You can only be grateful nothing else. It’s also very inspiring to see my juniors for NSD, some of my co-actors or directors doing some wonderful work. It’s just that people tend to get a little insecure and I have not been insecure all my life. I have never kept all eggs in one basket, because I teach as well, I do theater. I also teach outside India. It keeps me away from boredom.
But yes, I would be happy if somebody had given me a comedy, some dark and different shades kind of roles, different genres to play. And they will happen. I’m kind of manifesting it. I am saying this from the artistic satisfaction point of view. And I’m saying this very honestly, I don’t mind if you get an award and stuff like that. Every artist needs that recognition and appreciation. And if I don’t get appreciated, of course, it affects me. But then I don’t let it take over me and make me pessimistic or make me very jealous of somebody or be hateful to anybody. I say, ‘Okay, keep working. When it comes, it comes.’ With a lot of great actors, their performances have never gotten any award. But they still kept working all their lives. But then when people tell you that, you should have been given an award for that performance, that itself is an award. I often say that it’s better to be underrated than an overrated actor. There’s enough space for everybody.
How do you say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to a project?
Primarily, the first thing you would ask is, what’s the role? Second thing, I would ask myself, have I done this part earlier? No. Is it in my zone, this part? Does it bring something new to me? Who is directing it? What is the process and of course, how the people talk to you makes a hell lot of a difference. Sometimes a lot of people would approach you in a very strange way and then you feel like I don’t want to be part of something which has arrogance. So I would avoid those things and I said no, ‘Sorry, nahi ho sakta kisi aur ko le lijiye.’
Haa saying ‘no’ affected your relationship with industry people?
You can’t control people’s perceptions, right? People might not even know you and they will have a perception about you. And many times people have told me this that ‘you are so polite and very nice to talk to, you are so funny, hum to darr darr ke baat kar rahe the. Maine kaha, ‘Yaar aisa kya darne ki baat hai. Main konsa Khalifa hoon.’ Khalifa hota bhi to kya, you can still be descent. I have worked with superstars and they were very nice people, very accommodating, very humble people. I don’t know wo public me kya karte hai but while working they’re very nice and very, very cooperative.
Yes, people tell me that we have to think twice before calling you because aap bohot haazir jawab aadmi ho because we have to think before offering you something. Maine kaha, ‘haazir jawab nahi hai.’ Badi mushkil se agar koi phone kar raha ho, because they think ye nahi karega show, and of course, I didn’t do it, but atleast baat karke to dekhte hai. And I say it politely. Everybody is not in the position to say no because people have to run their homes, pay their bills, but somewhere you have to balance it. Even many established people have done projects for money, main bhi karta hoon, but agar wo cheez aapke integrity, aapke conscience ke against ho, to wo nahi karenge.
I will say it openly, I have worked in Hansal Mehta’s Scoop, the part was not that great but then I had discussion with my manager, I have seen Hansal Mehta’s work also, so I thought, ‘kar lete hai’ then see how it goes. But if there would have been some other director, I would have not done it, honestly.
Have you had any bad experiences in the industry?
It happens in every industry, you meet bad people. But what makes me upset, angry or disturbed is when somebody is not decent. And it really pisses me off because decency doesn’t cost you anything. Second thing is respect somebody else’s time and effort. The biggest problem is that we sign contracts in Bollywood, and they are heavily in the favour of producers, always. But even then, if something goes wrong, you cannot do anything about it, because it’s just sheer arrogance. They might be at fault, but then you have to bear the consequences.
I do put my mind across I do tell them that what you have done is wrong and this should not have happened. But thank you very much, it was not great working with you. You might be the biggest name in the industry but I may not work with you again. And couple of times, it has happened. If you ask Nawazuddin Siddiqui, he will tell you some 100 instances. You get kicked out from projects with no fault, your dues are not paid, you have to accommodate the star’s dates to yours and you have to suffer because of that. So it happens and you can’t help it. But things have improved in last 10 years, I should also say that things have become a bit more professional.
But then again everybody is so much in this bandwagon of producing content, because so many platforms have come and it has become so much commercial that again, we’re losing our way now. It’s really a numbers game, how many million views and hits, how much followers on Instagram. Because of this whole thing, people are putting together projects rather than films or web series. And that is not artistic pursuit, then it’s already something like a baniya project.
So what kind of reforms would you like to bring in the film industry?
Every production house, every artist has to bring that kind of professionalism. First of all, I would expect contracts to be honored. Second thing is, give respect to writers, give them ample time and give them money to develop scripts. Good stories are getting destroyed because the head of the production or creative heads have whimsical ideas. Somebody has lived with a story and a script for five years and you suddenly come five minutes an hour before and say, ‘Isko badal do, isko ye kar do, wo kar do, give more time to my star or actor, so suddenly script gets compromised.
Nobody is above the script. Some superstars understand this and some who are not understanding now they’re realizing it. This is not work. That films are actually not working because of this very reason when you are not being honest to the script. So everybody says script is the mother. But then why are you disrespecting the mother? Because your own interests come first, how much is my screen time? What kind of song I’m getting, what kind of angle I’m getting, you know. Give that space to the person, those other actors who are playing different characters and it will work wonders. Look at films like Raazi, Badhaai Ho, Drishyam 2, where characters have been given due importance. Log ye nahi kar rahe, ye dikkat hai.