How it Happened
I was not interested in becoming a film actor. I left my home in Jabalpur when I was 15 to join Parsi Theatre Company. In my third year at NSD, Ibrahim Alkazi sahib sent ten students to FTTI to understand film acting. I was one of them. While the rest moved to Mumbai, I returned to Delhi to join NSD repertory. I was enjoying my life when one day director Pradip Krishen’s wife, who was active on theatre circuit, recommended my name for the title role of “Massey Sahib”. I later learnt that Siddharth Basu was the first choice but before the shoot could start Basu got a job with the Taj group. I was apprehensive but then Barry John, with whom I did some plays and who was playing a character in the film, assured me that I should do this. I can’t play a character without visualising it in my mind for I love to live characters rather than enacting them. Somehow I was not getting the persona of Francis Massey in my mind. For two-and-a half months, we worked on the script. I wrote my Hindi dialogues myself. I used to go to Pradip’s house for rehearsals. He was a great help. He helped me in getting over the camera consciousness and to my relief told me —‘you don’t need to act or dramatise the situations.’ This is what I wanted.
Till we reached Pachmarhi for the shoot, I was not clear how I would play this complex character. One week before the shooting I saw an old man on the road in an outfit similar to what Massey was expected to wear. He seemed to belong to that era. I followed his mannerisms. Interestingly, I never saw that man again. I feel it was an apparition, which came to my rescue.
How if felt
The shooting was good fun. I used to roam around with Arundhati (Roy) on the cycle even after the shoot. The locals used to come to ask who the hero is and the crew used to indicate towards the clap boy who looked like the conventional ‘smart’ hero. After a few days they came to complain – your hero is no good. He is repeating the same line and action for days and is still not getting it right! Then somebody indicated towards me. They were shocked and left saying – Aise hero to hamare yahan char aane mein milte hain. I got a whiff of the ground reality, where big budget dreams were being sold to a poor public.
The film got me international acclaim – the critics’ award at the Venice Film Festival gave me immense relief – but I was ignored for the National Award.
How life changed
When you become a known face in the industry you are expected to behave in a certain way and to maintain that you need to do more and more films.
I didn’t fall for it so life didn’t change much. Films like “Massey Sahib” are not made every day and I am still looking for such a challenge again.
Now I have begun to believe that in this lifetime the actor in me won’t be tested again. Except for “Salaam Bombay” and to an extent “Mullah Nasiruddin”, there has hardly been any role which has given me satisfaction.
I was offered roles which are not even worth sharing. I did some but people, who were close to me advised it is better not to act in such films than accept such roles.
Most people in the industry don’t want you to perform to the best of your ability because they are themselves not clear about the characters they have written.