Randeep Hooda has taken a detour to come to the “Highway” and he tells now he hopes to stay on course

In the last few years, stories of mainstream cinema moved to the cow belt but the industry kept on using the Bandra boys to play the cow boys. This week Imtiaz Ali has dared to be realistic. Having learnt his lessons from Rockstar, he has cast Randeep Hooda as Mahavir Bhati, a Gurjar who kidnaps Veera (Alia Bhatt), as the catalyst for the new journey that the director of Jab We Met has taken. “These badly researched characters with limited body language used to disappoint me a lot. You can’t say the public likes generic characters. Give others a chance, go for a more rooted and honest characterisation, take some risk and then let the public choose. If you keep giving them the same stuff they have to survive on the same diet,” avers Randeep. He is at the race course in Mumbai, training with his horses. “There is a floodlight over me and I am feeling like a star,” exclaims Randeep over the phone.

Highlighting the difference in approach in Highway, Randeep says, “There are two dialects in the region — Gurjari and Jatu. And they overlap. Being a Jat from Rohtak I can speak the Jatu dialect but Gurjari is slightly different. I tried to improvise with the dialect coach but I don’t think I got it pitch perfect. I hope people won’t notice it.”

He recalls, “I felt hurt when the industry pushed me to a corner because somebody’s nephew or sons needed to be promoted. Now things are no longer the same but it is that sentiment that I dug into to bring out the feelings of Bhati. He has a chequered past, but somewhere inside he feels cheated by the society he lives in.” Jats and Gurjars are not considered to be on very good terms. “I agree, but then as an actor you have to inhabit the other side as well,” says Randeep adding he needed to create a pale, weathered face for the character. “My brief was to create a weather-beaten face for Bhati and I like roles where I have to work on my personality.”

The film hints at the growing divide between haves and have-nots in our cities. “People like Bhati have been reduced to gatekeepers on the land they once cultivated and, more than that, their culture is being scoffed at. The way they talk is considered rude and the way they treat their women is considered uncivilised. It is this conflict and overlap of two cultures that the film deals with between the lines. If Veera, a city girl who has lived a protected life, discovers herself during the journey, Bhati’s perceptions also get changed. However, till the end I could not figure out whether Bhati is a boy or a man. I still don’t know,” he says, breaking into laughter.

Except for Rockstar, Imtiaz loves to tell his tales through female characters. Is he concerned? “It is true and Alia is playing a special character. It is a case of clever casting on the part of Imtiaz. I am not an insecure actor and this reflects in the films I have done. Yes, there was a phase when I was adamant on solo hero roles but that is over now. Having learnt my basics in theatre, I always feel film is a collaborative effort. If you do your part well and help the person in front of you in realising his or her potential, the film invariably comes out good,” says Randeep.

The film is shot at offbeat locations like Tabo and Aru Valley and, contrary to perception, Randeep was at times found wanting in keeping pace with the crew. “Eager to prove my fitness, I didn’t take proper care to acclimatise myself to the high altitude and had fallen sick. I also ate a lot of chilgozas along the way and it affected my system. But a night before the shoot Imtiaz was with me in the middle of the night holding my hand. He is a director who goes through every emotion that his actor goes through during the shoot. All along he knew what I was going through while playing Mahavir Bhati. Even in the middle of the shoot when he finds that the actor is feeling the nerves he will wave to ensure that the actor knows that he is there for him. With such a director, even if you fall backwards, you are not going to hurt yourself.” In fact Randeep used to ask producer Sajid Nadiadwala how a person can be so good. “We used to joke that he will turn out to be a villain after half-time, but he proved us wrong.”

Randeep seems to be fond of playing characters which exude a degree of arrogance and irreverence. “This is a generalisation that I don’t like. Even if I have played a cop many times over, each one had a different ring to it,” signs off Randeep with the description of the variety he has in the kitty. He is cast opposite Salman Khan in Kick and is playing the notorious Charles Sobhraj in Main Aur Charles and in between will be seen in the art house effort The Coffinmaker with his guru Naseeruddin Shah.