Meet Jaideep Ahlawat, the actor India is raving about
When the plum case lands in his lap, Inspector Hathi Ram Chaudhary can hardly believe his luck. It could be his only opportunity to climb his way out of the critter-ridden Delhi backwater that is his jurisdiction. The lead character of Paatal Lok, the latest crime-thriller on Amazon Prime, is actually a vulnerable man.
“That’s because, if you don’t get opportunities to prove yourself or feel better about your life, then you feel like a failure. And this even impacts your personal and professional relationships,” explains actor Jaideep Ahlawat, who plays the ill-at-ease inspector. “But when he gets this case, he rises to the occasion as he knows he is capable of doing, even if others do not. He is determined to solve the case at any cost so as not to be dubbed a failure yet again and this is his driving force. The inner as well as outer journey of the character made it a very interesting role for me.”
Dad’s the word
Ahlawat is essaying a lead role for the first time in his life, despite the fact that his immense potential has not exactly been a secret for quite some time. The character’s inner journey is of prime importance to this actor.
“You go so close, you read so much about the character; the entire process is of attempting to understand his psyche. But at the end of the day, it’s always a reflection of the character through you. He comes from within you,” he says as he tries to explain how he gets into the skin of a character. “If you normally go quiet when you get angry, you may not relate to a character that reacts very differently. But if you see someone internalising the anger like you do, you will immediately identify with him or her. It’s these small things that penetrate your psyche and make you relate at a deeper level.”
An actor can do this well if the script is well-written. “The benefit of good writing is that the character is well-etched. So then it comes down to how the actor can make the character more interesting by incorporating small nuances,” explains Ahlawat.
A few aspects of Hathi Ram somehow reminded him of his father. “That’s why I used a few of his mannerisms… minute things like his relaxed walk, with one arm not moving much, staying close to the body. And the way he reacts in relationships. These are things only people who know him would recognise.”
There’s an element of poetic irony in the fact that the biggest role in his actor’s life has shades of his father. Because his dad, a teacher and disciplinarian, liked his children to be home on time every evening, which resulted in Ahlawat not being able to watch films late into the night like his friends did.
As it was, growing up in Kharkhara village in Haryana, he’d get to watch films only on the makeshift screens of a travelling theatre three or four times a year. Or if there was a wedding or someone had a child, the family would celebrate by bringing in a VCR to play films. In fact, his first memory of watching a film in a cinema hall was when he was in the sixth standard. He saw Mithun Chakraborty’s Pyar Ka Mandir (1988) with an older cousin.
“I didn’t have an understanding of cinema, but the impact of this experience was immense! The size of the screen, so many people watching, the sound… it was amazing. And as kids are very reflective of what they see, the characters stay with them. So for the next two days, I was Mithun, walking around my village. When I’d see a Dharmendra film, I was him, spouting his dialogues…” he laughs as he recalls those years.
It was only later, when he was in college at Rohtak, that Ahlawat had the freedom to watch films to his heart’s content. “I was a big fan of Akshay Kumar. After watching Khiladiyon Ka Khiladi (1996) where he runs to catch a bus, my friends and I wanted to recreate that excitement. When we’d take the state transport buses back to our village, we’d wait at the depot with our bags and watch our bus fill up. Then just as it had started and moved a certain distance, we’d run and catch it!” he recounts.
When Ahlawat finally met the hero of his teens on the sets of his own first film (Khatta Meetha in 2010) and shared this memory, Akshay Kumar laughed uproariously and wished that someday there’d be a new generation of boys missing their buses home because of him.
With both parents and both siblings being teachers, it’s not surprising that Ahlawat holds a teaching diploma as well. But as a young man his heart was set on joining the Army for the respect and lifestyle such a career offered. “When I failed even after three attempts, it was a Hathi Ram-like feeling of being no good,” he smiles ruefully. That’s when he turned to literature and theatre. “You get onto the stage; you can shout and express yourself. Your negative energy gets consumed,” he explains.
After two-and-a-half years, he enrolled in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. “It was exciting, but also quite scary. FTII had people from all over India and abroad and they had a different mindset. They would talk about world cinema and there I was – the only foreign films I had watched were probably Arnold Schwarzenegger’s and dubbed in Hindi at that!” he laughs.
From graduating FTII and moving to Mumbai in 2008 to doing the auditions, signing with Priyadarshan for Aakrosh and Khatta Meetha, to doing several other films, it’s been an eventful journey for Ahlawat. There’s been a lot of work for him recently. “After the web series Bard of Blood, I worked on Tryst with Destiny, which recently won best screenplay at the Tribeca Film Festival. I shot for Paatal Lok, then for Baaghi, and a short film with Shashank Khaitan. After that, I shot for Khaali Peeli, then Baaghi released. Right after that, the lockdown started. Now let’s see how it goes,” he muses.
Across all these roles, the common theme has been the inner journey of the character. To be able to interpret each character so deeply that the acting is more felt than seen. Ahlawat belongs to the breed of actors for whom a single, subtle action speaks a thousand words. Whether he’s playing the RAW handler Khalid Mir in Raazi or the patriarch Shahid Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur, his acting prowess shines through in a meaningful glance or the curl of a lip.
He observes, “I think that with the increase in our exposure as an audience, as filmmakers and as actors, our understanding of cinema has changed. It’s not necessary that everything needs to be spoon-fed to the viewer for every story. Actors today want characterisation to be believable. Even mainstream cinema is becoming content-based with strong story lines.”
This ‘go quiet, go deep’ mindset is also manifested in his personal pursuits. He accumulates experiences in layers of silence. He prefers to spend time in domestic bliss in his quietly- comfortable home or with a select set of friends. During this forced downtime, he admits that all he’s doing is devouring content with the true hunger of a man who loves (and lives) his art.
From HT Brunch, May 31, 2020
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