Film-maker Hansal Mehta, and Bollywood actors Manoj Bajpayee and Raj Kummar Rao recently visited the HT Café office for a candid conversation on a rather sensitive topic— homosexuality. They discussed their upcoming film, Aligarh, (based on the life of professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, who was homosexual), the industry, their respective journeys, and more.
Manoj, ever since you started out, you were considered a serious actor. Don’t you think the characters you played could have had a broader range?
Manoj: No, this is what I wanted to do, and this is what I wanted to be known for. It was quite a struggle initially. Satya (1998) became a blockbuster and Bhiku Mhatre (his character in the movie) became a household name. After that, I wanted to use my new-found fame to do something I believed in. Zubeidaa (2001), Kaun (1999) or Aks (2001) were my choices. I used to wait for a great script to come my way, which was very rare. So, I spent all my bank balance. My name was very big but my bank balance was zero. It was a difficult time for me. Nobody knew that I was saying no to a lot of money every day. After Satya, every producer and director wanted to make me a villain. But I wanted to be known for something that you know me for now.
Hansal, don’t you think cinema viewing has changed today because people are more receptive?
Hansal: We made Shahid in 2011, and around that time, I felt the tipping point was when Gangs Of Wasseypur - Part 1(2012) released. Before that, directors like Dibakar Banerjee and Anurag Kashyap were seen as mavericks. They were pushed into a corner. But things changed after Gangs Of Wasseypur, The Lunchbox (2013) and Shahid (2012). I think today, everybody has an opinion. People talk and fight about films. Even if we disagree with a movie, we go and watch it. This is evolution.
Manoj, today, Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui are stars in their own rights. Do you feel that if you’d started out now, things would have been different for you?
Manoj: But I’m still working (laughs). None of us are as lucky as Raj Kummar. He is the luckiest. He came in at the right time and age. Nawaz has blossomed now. He began with all of us.
Raj Kummar, did you have the same apprehensions Manoj had when you started out?
Raj: No, I didn’t have any apprehension. I’m not an industry kid. I came here to work. I struggled for two years before I got Love Sex Aur Dhokha (LSD; 2010). It was not that I had options, and I had to choose from them. LSD was the only golden chance I had to showcase my talent.
Raj Kummar, after Kai Po Che (2013), Shahid, CityLights (2014) and your latest release, aren’t you afraid that the industry will start taking you too seriously?
Raj: No, on the contrary, I feel fortunate about getting the opportunity to work with fantastic film-makers. My upcoming movies are not as serious as these. So there’s no fear in my mind of being typecast.
You entered the industry at a time when many of your contemporaries also made their debuts. Are you competing with them?
Raj: I didn’t enter the film industry to compete with anyone. I came here to be an actor, and I am living that dream every day. My only competition is with my last performance. I want to create my own space. I think the young generation is very serious about their work. It is an exciting time to be in the industry.
Watch the Aligarh trailer here
You are a team of National Award winners. Was there pressure to deliver yet again in Aligarh?
Hansal: I don’t think we were under any pressure. What we do is supposed to set us free, and not keep us chained. The pressure was to ensure that we were honest to the script. The idea was to remain true to the character, Professor Siras’s journey, and his life.
Manoj: Acting itself is the most difficult job in the world, if you treat it seriously. When you essay a person who lived in this country for many years and fought a very brutal battle, it becomes a responsibility to do justice to his life. So, to get the [audience’s] empathy through your characterisation, then add your own interpretation to it, and trying to take the vision of the director to a new level… those are things that are more challenging than any other kind of pressure.
How true is the film to reality?
Hansal: You are condensing someone’s life into a two-hour film. Also, the person is not alive, so it is an imaginary recreation of his life. The film is a lot of the writer, Apurva Asrani’s imagination. If I’m able to get you engaged with a character, which makes you want to know more about the person on who it is based, then we have scored.
What kind of preparation went into this role?
Manoj: Dr Ramchandra Siras (the professor on whom Manoj’s character is based) was a fantastic poet. So, after I read about his character, I decided to focus on the poet part. I asked Hansal if he could get me in touch with someone who was familiar with Marathi literature. So, he lent me his first AD (assistant director), Asmit. He would talk about literature, and show me Marathi poetry recitations on YouTube. It was a process to get into the mind of Dr Siras.
Would you have played this character earlier in your career, or did you take it up now because homosexuality is more acceptable now?
Manoj: Homosexuality was never a taboo in my mind. I have always had respect for homosexuals. A few of my teachers, who have left a lasting impact on my mind, were homosexuals. Being heterosexual or homosexual has nothing to do with the making or breaking of a personality. For me, it is very discomforting to answer this because it feels like I am trying to clarify my position.
Raj Kummar, what was more difficult for you — to portray a journalist or acting alongside a stalwart like Manoj?
Raj Kummar: The most challenging thing for me was to not lose the honesty with which we have been making films. We found a voice together, and we don’t want to lose that voice. We don’t want to get corrupted by thinking about conventional elements that are used to make films. But apart from that, this film wasn’t that big a challenge. And working with Manoj is not a challenge; it’s actually very easy because he’s such an amazing actor. Whatever he does, the reaction of the other actor comes very naturally.
Manoj, there are some intimate scenes in the film. How difficult was it to shoot for them?
Manoj: It is difficult. See, Siras’s sexual preference is not similar to mine. It is discomforting because there are unit members standing all around you, looking right at you. It’s embarrassing. But the actors have to get it right. So we feel really pressurised while doing such scenes. In this film, I was trying to be intimate with a man. But the cameraman of our film is a magician. He told me a remarkable thing. He said, “Within an hour, you will be done with the intimate scenes. But think about all the people who have been living a lie all their lives.” That statement set my mood going.
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