“I’m a TV slave trying to break the shackles on the digital front,” jokes actor Nakuul Mehta (33) while scheduling this interview with us. Currently, his days are even more chaotic. While he has women swooning over Shivaay, the character he plays in Star Plus’s hugely popular show, Ishqbaaaz, the show recently introduced Shivaay’s doppelganger, a tapori called Mahi. When we finally meet Mehta one evening at his Andheri home, he’s back from a shoot that began at 7am.
Right before our photographer starts clicking his pictures, he says, “I’m bad at this. I hate shooting in studios and closed spaces.” But once the shoot begins, he poses with the ease of an actor who’s done the drill a million times before. His wife, singer Jankee Parekh Mehta, is around too, occasionally asking questions, and eager to help in any way she can.
Mehta started out as a model for ads during his college years. But once he dabbled in theatre, a couple of years later, he realised that ads are “bloody boring.” In 2013, he played a gay character in Manish Gandhi’s Cock, also starring actor Jim Sarbh. “Theatre was extreme hard work. It really set me up for what I’m doing right now,” he says.
Today, Mehta is happy that he gets to earn a living doing what he loves. “Sometimes when I see the outpouring of love from fans on social media, I wonder what they see [in me], because I’m doing what I’m doing selfishly. And I also get paid handsomely to do it,” he says.
Following his dream
Mehta’s living room, where we’re seated, also doubles up as the headquarters of Timbuktu Films, a digital production company. Timbuktu is an experiment by three long-time friends — Mehta, actor Alekh Sangal and writer-director Ajay Singh. Their first web series, I Don’t Watch TV (2016), was a satire on the TV industry — a world that Mehta knows all too well. He even convinced fellow actors like Karan Wahi and Drashti Dhami to make cameos.
In the series, he makes fun of everything — from a certain woman running a TV empire, to taking digs at absurd show titles, with a soap being called Tum Saap Mein Saperan, Kaise Hoga Yeh Milan. It could have been career hara-kiri but luckily, his industry colleagues thought the show was quirky. “The intention behind it really was to give television the respect and appreciation it deserves,” he says.
The experience of creating I Don’t Watch TV was liberating for Mehta and vastly different from shooting for television. While a daily soap has a large crew, on the set of I Don’t Watch TV, Mehta was the lead actor, as well as the spot boy and chaiwallah. “My respect for the production crew grew tremendously. I’ve probably become a far more accommodating actor now,” he says.
Timbuktu Films launched the teaser of their second show, Gangster Newton, last month. “It’s a science-meets-mathematics-meets-the-underworld kind of a story. We’re still writing it,” he says. In fact, the scripting process is making the trio feel like they’re back in school. “I memorised physics concepts from class eight to tenth,” Mehta admits, adding, “We want to make science fun.”
Mehta doesn’t feature in the upcoming series. Instead, Gangster Newton will feature Shashank Arora (Titli, Rock On 2) as the protagonist. “The idea is to tell stories, not to tailor-make content for myself,” Mehta says.
Making TV cool
In 2016, we saw a number of web shows with unique, bold themes come up. Mehta hopes to see the kind of content Timbuktu Films is creating air on TV screens as well. “I definitely see a lot of fellow actors wanting to try new things. [But] There are logistical challenges when you’re shooting daily. Also, a lot of TV actors get comfortable in their space because people love them for it and pay [good] money,” Mehta says.
Despite that, he is intent on being a harbinger of change. He also partly sees it as his responsibility, as part of a young brigade of TV actors. “I don’t just want to be remembered for the epic love stories I’ve done,” he says, before quickly adding that he’s proud of those love stories too.
Before Ishqbaaaz, he played the protagonist in Pyaar Ka Dard Hai Meetha Meetha Pyaara Pyaara (2012-2014). His character, Aditya, was the dutiful kind, that made mothers hope for a son-in-law like him. So, when journalists routinely ask him whether he wants to explore films, now that he’s a TV star, he gets a bit offended. He says, “It’s almost like you’re demeaning television. So many phenomenal actors such as Ronit Roy and Ram Kapoor, and directors such as Imtiaz Ali and Anurag Basu, have come from TV. [Yet] In India, we look down on TV,” he says.