The day we met him, Randeep Hooda had woken up with what he admitted was "a nasty hangover" from partying too hard the previous night. But he didn't seem to mind.
He said he deserved it.
For an actor who was on the verge of giving up on Bollywood because "no one wanted to work with me", the success of his recent film Highway is bittersweet.
"Suddenly everyone wants to party with me. People who had not taken my calls in years are calling me back. Suddenly I am not sliding past people, unrecognised," Hooda says, as he takes a long drag of a cigarette and lets the smoke linger in his mouth. "I don't know if they genuinely like me or just want to ride the high wave with me."
Hooda has every reason to play the jilted man enjoying a reversal of fortune. He had a debut most newcomers only dream of: Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding (2001). "After that, I assumed that I had to only stand in front of the camera and people would flock to the theatres to watch me," he says. That didn't happen. Instead, Hooda spent the next four years jobless. "And I was too full of myself to approach people for work." Of course, no opportunities came knocking.
Slowly, his funds started drying up and his frustration grew. Hooda finally started approaching people. "But no director was willing to invest in me," he admits. In his desperation, he then did what most Bollywood actors call suicide - theatre.
Hooda started acting in plays by Naseeruddin Shah's Motley troupe. "But initially, no one took me seriously because of my looks," he says. "Naseer bhai believed in me. Without Motley, I would've been a less assured actor. No actually, I would've been a bum."
Theatre brought out the actor in him. "No one treats you like a star there. You either perform or get laughed at," he says. His hard work paid off, earning him applause for roles in Waiting for Godot and Arms and the Man. And with that, he grew in confidence, far better prepared for Bollywood.
The other thing Hooda realised was that to succeed in Bollywood without a filmi background, he needed to knock on doors himself. "You don't get into the big league without appeasing that league first," he says casually. Most knocks went answered, but door opened.
"Ram Gopal Varma offered me D ," he says. The movie tanked but Hooda got great reviews. "Suddenly people saw an actor in me."
But after D, Hooda had seven flops in a row. "He was a bit too experimental," says Bollywood trade analyst Komal Nahta. Hooda agrees. "I played an honest cop in Risk (2007), Rang Rasiya (2008) was about the life of painter Ravi Varma. Nothing commercial." He was spiralling downwards again. This time it was different. "This time I had no epiphanies. I was lost," he says.
A Curtain Call
Then one afternoon in 2009, he met director Milan Luthria, who offered him Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai. "I tried to back out thrice because I was surprised that someone was offering me a film," Hooda says. But Luthria stuck it out. "He had that unique quality that I was looking for," the director says. The gamble worked for both men. Critics started to take notice.
Of all the films Hooda did next - hits, misses, plum roles, ensemble casts - one thing became clear: Randeep Hooda can act. "People liked me in Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster  because I got under the skin of the character," he explains, with honesty uncharacteristic of a film actor. "I was bad in Murder 3  because I was working in double shifts and had no time to analyse the character."
Even for Highway, his solo hit in many years, he prepared by living with young Gujjar boys to understand their body language. "I didn't find Mahabir Bhati (his character in Highway) there but I found what he could be like." He grew a beard and exposed his face in the sun till it started to look cracked and weather-beaten.
For today, life seems good. Hooda has a solo hit under his belt; people are seeing him as an actor, not just a piece of meat (though he's still an undeniable sex symbol). Sure there's the hangover, but it's not something to worry about. Up and downs are just part of life.
His first seven films tanked. No one had any hope from the too-tall man whose voice was not fit for films. Look at how wrong they were!
Remember Khan from the '90s? You probably don't because no one really does. But Dil Chahta Hai changed his fate.
He struggled for 12 years doing small roles before he made it big with Gangs of Wasseypur (2012).
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From HT Brunch, March 23
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