If people remember characters more than my name, it’s my success: Pavan Malhotra

Effortless performer Pavan Malhotra on playing Tiger Memon and doing the tiger dance for Bagh Bahadur.
Photo: Dinesh Krishnan; Location courtesy: SodaBottleOpenerWala, Khan Market.
Photo: Dinesh Krishnan; Location courtesy: SodaBottleOpenerWala, Khan Market.
Updated on Jan 17, 2016 01:59 PM IST
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You may have met some of these characters over the last 25 years. The simpleton cycle repair guy of Nukkad; a seething Tiger Memon in Black Friday; a tragic foot soldier caught at the wrong end of the mafia in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, an exploited dancer in rural Bengal in Bagh Bahadur, Farhan Akhtar’s coach in Bhag Milkha Bhaag, a rapist Pakistani officer in Children of War and Kareena’s over-the-top Punjabi uncle in Jab Me Met.

With Delhi’s India International Centre hosting a retrospective of actor Pavan Malhotra’s films till January 21, we discussed theatre, acting, the perfect film and his philosophy in life with the 57-year-old actor at Khan Market’s SodaBottleOpenerWala over Berry Pulao, Vada Pao and Parsi-style chai. Excerpts from an interview:

Tell us a bit about growing up in Delhi…

I grew up in central Delhi’s New Rajendra Nagar where incidentally, Shah Rukh Khan also spent his childhood. I didn’t know that before we did Circus together on television and later Pardes and Don. My parents migrated to Delhi from Lahore at Partition. My family was one of the first to set up an indigenous machine tools business in independent India. All the boys in the family were expected to join the family business.

Food consisted of butter-laden parathas and gur. I still have that rural taste for gur but I have to control myself, since as an actor I have to be in shape. As a child growing up in the 1970s, I wanted to join the military. We never used to say ‘the army’ somehow.

How did you catch the theatre bug?

I studied at Manav Sthali School and Hansraj College. Towards the end of school, a friend helped me land a role in a crowd scene for an adaptation of Tughlaq being staged at the Shriram Centre by the Ruchika Theatre Group. I learnt what a curtain call was and for the first time, someone came backstage and told me they liked my work.

I discovered this fantastic place called Mandi House which had a thriving theatre scene. Then I did another play called Father and for the first time a newspaper mentioned me saying: ‘Pavan Malhotra was impressive as the orderly.’

By the time I joined college, I’d begun participating in theatre festivals and winning prizes. My friends and I, along with seniors such as Vinod Dua, helped revive Hansraj’s theatre society. I began doing street theatre. A whole new and world opened up. We began discussing Communism with friends and although I never met him, my friends talked about a certain playwright called Safdar Hashmi who was becoming popular in Delhi’s theatre circles.

What did doing theatre in Delhi teach you?

It was a great training ground. It was in theatre that I learnt about storylines and developing characters. In the ’70s in Delhi, there were such superlative plays being staged such as Begum Ka Takia, Saiyan Bhaye Kotwal and Mukhya Mantri. I learnt how you could narrate stories which talked about human emotions and how three people could narrate the same story in entirely different styles. These are fundamentals which work in cinema as well.

How did you end up as Saeed Mirza’s production assistant?

A friend put my name to work as a production assistant for Gandhi which was being shot at Delhi’s Ashok Hotel. I persuaded my father to let me do it one last time before I joined business. And like Amrish Puri of DDLJ, he let me jee my zindagi one last time and I never went back. Then the unit shifted to Bombay and Nick, the wardrobe in-charge, told me that they wanted me to join them. We went with Gandhi to Bombay, Pune and Patna. That is how I landed in Bombay. Then I was offered the job of production assistant for Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron and meet Saeed.

And your debut, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro won a National Award…

I was Saeed’s production manager in Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho. While he was writing Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, he used to spend time studying the workings of Bombay’s underworld. One evening I tagged along with him for a recce. He began the film with Naseer in mind and the character was originally called Karim. Later I came to know that dialogue writer Hriday Lani and Saeed had begun looking for a younger actor. One day, Saeed called me and said I was doing Salim’s role with Ashutosh Gowariker and Makrand Deshpande in the other lead roles.

The real deal: Pavan Malhotra as Salim Pasha in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, his debut film (above).
The real deal: Pavan Malhotra as Salim Pasha in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, his debut film (above).

At that time Dongri chawl, Do Tanki and Chor Bazaar were the hubs of mafia in the city. All these guys began keeping a droopy moustache like Dawood Ibrahim. The smaller you were, the cockier you acted. They were cocky because they wanted to be noticed by the bigger gangsters.

They stood outside restaurants looking at the biggies emerging from long cars with a heroine on their arm thinking: This is the life I want. It’s like young men in Bangalore or Hyderabad think about IT. The gang wars had begun and Amirzada was killed in a courtroom.

It was 1989 when I began shooting my debut film. Buddadeb Dasgupta saw me on the cover of a magazine and approached me to do Bag Bahadur. He said he liked my eyes. Even as he was narrating the script to me, I had decided to do the film. It was a role entirely different from Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro. Both the films were released in 1990 and fortunately, both won national awards. Plus, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro won the critics award at the Tokyo Film Festival

You played a labourer who enacts the Tiger Dance in rural Punjab for Bagh Bahadur. How tough was that?

I was given a tape where a Chhau dancer was fooling with the crowd. I watched it and said I would like to learn some pieces of Chhau. I realised they had already fixed a teacher. We were shooting in Bhubaneswar. Doing the tiger movement was initially tough. My lower back hurt. Then there was the matter of applying enamel paint which took three hours to apply. In the evening, when the shot was done, I would sit down with two people sitting with kerosene and rubbing it off me. It was a tough shoot but worth it. The story about how folk is dying and larger businesses taking over is still relevant.

Were you taking a risk playing a repulsive officer in Children of War?

I was told I was taking a risk even when I did Black Friday, that I might be bumped off. But as an actor I can’t say no to such powerful roles. If I am playing a Pakistani officer, I’ll do my job. Can you run away from the story: Imagine one lakh soldiers going berserk shooting people and raping all women! There’ll have to be blood. This is story which should have been told much earlier.

The real deal: Pavan Malhotra as Tiger Memon in Black Friday.
The real deal: Pavan Malhotra as Tiger Memon in Black Friday.

I had to make the role so realistic that people felt revulsion. My friend’s mother walked out of this show. At a museum in Delhi, a woman came to me and said she went home and told her daughter to watch the film just to see this evil man. It is a compliment, because that is my job.

Do you adhere to the ‘Method’ school of acting?

I don’t understand the term. If you are an actor, then you play a character. There are people who have just five or six mannerisms and they use them in every role they do. In my work the mannerisms stay in the background. In Bagh Bahadur the dancer has a slight lachak in his walk and in Road to Sangam you can recognise the shrill texture of the neta’s voice.

Dancing tiger, hidden actor: For his role in the award-winning Bagh Bahadur (1990), Malhotra wore enamel paint.
Dancing tiger, hidden actor: For his role in the award-winning Bagh Bahadur (1990), Malhotra wore enamel paint.

But that is for that film, for that character. I don’t carry it to the next role. In Black Friday there are about 60 people standing in front of Memon. And he tells them matter-of-factly, if word gets out on this, I won’t kill you first, I will get your family members first. I didn’t raise my voice. A good artiste has the right to fail. You can fail only if you try out something new!

If you see my work, I was never a masala name because my mannerisms are not mimicked. But if people remember my characters more than my name, it is my success as an actor. There is craft in cinema, but the craft shouldn’t show. That is what I’ve been trying for the last 25 years.

Which are the most convincing, realistic actors you’ve seen?

Balraj Sahni, Motilal, Amrish Puri and Amjad Khan. If you look at the body of work of Amrish Puri and Amjad Khan: jaisa mareez tha, vaisi pudiya thi. Puri has done such realistic work with Govind Nihalani and Shyam Benegal. At the same time, has done Mogambo khush hua.

Are there any actors in the current lot whom you enjoy watching?

Ranbir Kapoor malai ki tarah kaam karta hai. He can do a Barfi, a Rocket Singh and also do a funny five-minute dance sequence in Ajab Prem Ki Gajab Kahani with equal conviction. The manner in which he looks up at his colleagues in Rocket Singh or the manner in which he opens his teeth in the rear-view mirror in Barfi was fantastic. You get actors with such natural ease after years. As an actor, Manoj Bajpayee is a notch above most. I don’t think Bombay has been able to really tap his talent. I loved him in Aarakshan and Gangs of Wasseypur and am looking forward to watch him in Aligarh.

How do you silently convey menace in Black Friday and play the over-the-top sardarji in Jab We Met with similar conviction?

If you cannot do justice to both, then how can you call yourself an actor? If you are part of a larger storytelling machinery and you cannot tell a story in a different manner every time, you cannot call yourself an actor. It is the same with directors. What does the Vijay Anand of Teesri Manzil have in similar with the Vijay Anand of Guide? The Hrishikesh Mukherjee of Chupke, Chupke has nothing in common with Anand. There will be actors and directors who will come and go but 20 years later you will watch a Bimal Roy or a Mehboob Khan.

An artist has to be remembered for his body of work. Amjad Khan wasn’t a great actor just because he played Gabbar. He was great because he could do a Gabbar and then go on to sing a thumri in Shatranj Ke Khiladi. The same man, when he removed his crown, had the audience eating out of his hand. He also did a Rudaali and Chameli Ki Shaadi. What an under-used actor!

How have you maintained your quality over two and a half decades?

Actors are like hunters sitting on the machaan for good roles. It is a game of patience. You should learn to say no. If you have to do such good roles, learn patience from trees and perseverance from the grass. You have to withstand the wind and the storms and enjoy your work. You have to relish the work and leave the rest to destiny.

How involved do you get with the roles that you play?

I am neither like Bagh Bahadur, nor am I Salim langda, or Tiger Memon or Bhagat Puran Singh. People tell me if you did a role for three months you would have internalised it. That is all bullshit. If an actor becomes so involved in a role, then why does he get disturbed by little distractions like a mobile phone call? A movie star grows a moustache for a role and it becomes a headline. Come one, he is an actor! If he doesn’t want to look his part, who will?

To a certain extent you are convinced about the character you are playing at that time. But an actor has to think about camera angles, the position of his co-actors and his lines. There are a number of tracks running in his mind at the same time. It is a lie that he was so involved in the role that he didn’t bathe for two months so much so that the people around him fainted!

What are you working on next?

I am doing a film with Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan, the maker of Lahore, about the India-Pakistan relationship which will release in the next few months and then I am also doing Rustam on the lines of Baby and Holiday, produced by Neeraj Pandey and directed by Tinu Desai.

Any filmmakers you want to work with?

There are a few like Raju Hirani, and the director who did Queen. I would like to work with Neeraj Pandey as director. When he called me for Special 26, I was doing Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and had grown my hair. So, I could not work with him at that time. It need not be an established director. Sometimes a newcomer like Mrityunjay or Amit Rai who made Road to Sangam, very early in their career, can be good. According to me Anurag Kashyap’s best film was Black Friday.

In the Marathi film Court, the brilliance of the actors and director is such that you feel there is a hidden camera kept there. Every single actor is so realistic. You feel ashamed you haven’t done such good work in your career. If every person in a film acts well, the credit has to go to the director.

Are there perfect films like these in commercial cinema?

In the commercial genre it was Sholay. I think it is Hema Ji’s best performance. In every scene, there is justice done to every actor, including the man who comes to deliver a letter to the village after Sachin’s death: You don’t see him before or after that scene, but he was perfect in it. You come out of the cinema, remembering every actor vividly.

Do you think the industry hasn’t given you your due?

I would tend to agree. A lot of times my name doesn’t have a recall. When you tell people he was the actor in Nukkad or Salim Langde or Jab We Met and in Black Friday and they go “Oh, that guy! He is a good actor!”

Even Amitabh Bachchan was out of work for five years. If you see his initial films like Reshma Aur Shera, Saudagar and Zanzeer, he was performing his characters. But some of the films were flopping. Then he developed mannerisms such as Hain, hain! With his brains, Amitabh knows these mannerisms are not great. But if this is what sells, he has to earn a living. So he had to go to a Yash Chopra.

If I have survived for 25 years without doing masala films, it is karma. Acting is like a marathon. It is not a 100-metre sprint. You have to stay here. At times, you have to say no to certain roles, stay at home for a few months without a role and at other times take an audacious risk. At other times you slip. But at the end of the day, you have to pay your bills. Reliance won’t waive off my electricity bill just because I’ve done a good film. There were occasions when I was on the edge, and some work came my way.

My greatest success is that when I walk down Dongri in Mumbai, they address me as Tiger Bhai!

From HT Brunch, January 17, 2016

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    Aasheesh Sharma works with the opinion team at Hindustan Times. Over the last 20 years, he has worked with a wire service, newspapers, magazines and television. His story on the longest train journey in India was included in an anthology on train writings in 2014.

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