Learning all along
Hans Raj College, New Delhi.
Graduation in Economic Honors
After getting so many awards in school I believed that I would get admission in the best college of Delhi. I did not want to continue with science and instead wanted to switch over to economics. That entailed a cut in my percentage and strangely, I hadn’t scored well in my favorite subject, English. This is one of my life’s greatest mysteries because I thought my English paper had been the best. In fact, boys who borrowed my notes on Shakespeare and studied Thomas Hardy from me got higher marks than I did. It was also the first lesson in life I learnt that one cannot be sure or confident about one’s best efforts either. As sometimes your best is just not good enough. And that is one truth I live by even today. One should not get disappointed but try harder next time.
Anyway, I did not get admitted to the so-called best institute and the principal was rather rude to me when I showed him my awards and certificates. It was my first brush with the realities of the world. You are nobody in the larger scheme of things. The best student of the top school in Delhi was not good enough to be a part of the best college in Delhi.
I decided that if I was not going to get the best I would try and make best of what was being offered. I took admission in the first college that accepted me, and it happened to be Hans Raj College, Delhi University. I also shifted from science to economics. The logic being I wanted my education to be such that I could understand every page of the newspaper. I really enjoyed the supply and demand theory and national income accounting. Also I made sure that the marks I got in my exams were comparable to the highest marks in the so-called best college of Delhi.
I continued playing football hockey and cricket in college. Though I wanted to pursue my interest in sports my back injury and an arthritis-ruptured right knee would not allow me to. This was the time when I also did my first T.V. series Fauji and Dil Dariya.
I went on to do my Masters from the mass communication research center, Jamia Millia Islamia. This course claims to train you in filmmaking and journalism. I did my first year and was doing very well because I always wanted to make advertising films. Short films till date hold a strange fascination for me. So much to be said and such little time. Somewhat like life itself. Again the vice principal did not like the fact that I was dabbling with theater, television and production work for short films outside the college in my free time. He told me one day that since my attendance was not upto the mark he would prefer me not taking the final exams. Attendance was not the issue as I had done an extra project so I felt very disturbed. His logic was inexplicable. He felt everything was going rather smooth for me and I should get to face a few hardships. Being requested off the college was his way of preparing me for the real world. I packed my bags and decided I would learn how to make films and only go back to that institute when they called me to give a guest lecture on filmmaking. I am still working towards that.
So much for my education. All in all I did learn to read the newspaper from cover to cover. I also learned that if you want to learn about anything, find books on the subject and try and understand them yourself. Do not ask others to teach you. If after trying sincerely, you still don’t, then ask for help. Also read books on all subjects, even the ones you are not interested in. Education to me means being aware of everything that happens around us. That’s all.
I started showing my inclination towards anything remotely connected with acting at a very early age. I remember we had an old radio, I think it was called a radiogram in those days. It weighed kilos and I still wonder why the modest ‘gram’ is attached to its name. Television wasn’t a way of life then. I am talking about the early seventies, when the refrigerator was not kept in the kitchen but instead held center stage in the living room. Our main source of entertainment used to be this boxy and knobby radio. My parents would put on Vividh Bharti and sit around it in the evenings to listen to songs and the news. Once the news was over I usually took over. I loved to dance to the music. My parents would turn up the volume and I would do some really frantic dances. My dance was a cross between the twist, the tango and an acute epileptic fit. Lately I have seen this kind of dance in discos and Ricky Martin videos. Sometimes, when I am alone I take pride in the fact that I was the inventor of this completely inexplicable set of movements. I used to dance best to any song that I was told was picturised on Mumtaz.
Circus was a great experience. I had never travelled so much in my life. We went all over Maharashtra and areas in Goa over a three-month period. I got to see life in the circus at close quarters. Here was an art form quite akin to mine and the performers showed the kind of dedication and hard work which one seldom sees in any other workplace. It involved an element of sports, which made me really identify with the whole set up. We would shoot at all odd hours in between the show timings. We would start when the circus packed up at about ten at night. We would continue shooting throughout the night till nine in the morning, when the shows would start again.
Life is a circus was gruelling. It was a common sight to see an eight-year-old kid holding his broken arm and being taken away from practice. Girls would stay separately and boys would be in a different corner of the dera, as the quarters were called. Girls were allowed to leave the premises only once a week and three girls went at a time with a headmistress to buy vegetables. Love stories or love between the performers was a strict no-no but they still found very interesting ways of having affairs and romances. An item where a girl would balance a little boy and girl in a barrel, on her feet, was their love letters postal service. The little boy and girl would exchange love notes while inside the drum and carry it back to their quarters at the end of the show.
Also, the bathrooms had a common wall. So a method was devised vis-a-vis the matching couples would end up at the same time on the either side of the wall and whisper sweet nothings to each other. All these wonderful moments under the same roof where the same people enacted death defying stunts every day. Their main aim in life was to become trapeze artists, that’s all. Many died or got maimed in this quest. It was a common sight to see armless janitors working around. They were one-time lion tamers who got their arms bitten off. Now they knew nothing else apart from performing so they stuck on, doing odd jobs here. Their training started early in life, and by time they grew up the only thing they knew were scary stunts. It is a lot like an actor, once an actor always an actor. I think this is where it set in my heart that I would also pursue my career in the same vein. Not to think of an alternative, just work towards being an actor. I wanted to fly, free as a bird, not bound by any consideration, but the independence of expression – I wanted to be a trapeze artist also. I learnt the maxim of acting from my time spent in the circus: “Ho gaya to kartab, gir gaye, mar gaye toh haadsa” – If you can pull it off, it’s a performance, if not it was just an accident, try and do it again and again till one day you die.
It was with this training from greats, these lessons in acting and performing from some wonderful co-actors and friends and a lot of energy and hope that I armed my self with, that I decided to work in films.
This serial was based in Punjab. It was a story of a Sikh and Hindu family who are neighbours and best of friends. The strife in relationships occur within this loving atmosphere because of the prevailing tensions in Punjab. The serial was directed by perhaps one of the best directors in our film industry, Mr. Lekh Tandon.
It was a major learning experience for me. The serial was highly emotional and required a lot of crying and heartfelt emotional acting. It became quite an exercise for me to relate to absolutely basic Indian emotions coming from a rather westernized school of acting. Mr. Tandon, or Lekhji, as I call him, really helped me a lot to just get over the inhibitions and relate to a louder set of emotions and overall acting style which was required for the role.
Fauji was based on a set of young jawans and their personal relationships and problems in the army. Its main thrust was youth. The Colonel himself was a very jovial and fun loving person. He did not believe that army should be shown as a serious outfit of angry soldiers fighting. He wanted everyone to identify with the characters and feel that anyone could be a part of the army. He wanted to portray a side which would inspire people to join the army and think of fighting for the country a matter of honour, without getting alienated from reality. He was quite a visionary, I think. He managed to create a young, upbeat atmosphere around the entire army backdrop. Nobody since then has been able capture that kind of mix between youth and the army. I think that in essence this was also the reason for my rise to popularity, I was amazed at the way people started recognizing me on the streets. At that time I had just joined college and honestly it was quite a thrill to have become a sort of a celebrity. I think lots of people in Bombay also noticed me on this serial and I started to get offers for movies. This was when I first saw the smiles that I could bring to the faces of people when they saw me on the roads.
An interesting aspect of working in Fauji was the physical training we got from the police and the army. The best part was when we were made to train for the parachute jumps. The training entailed practicing swinging, taking on positions while descending in the air, etc. The training culminated in a free fall of about 80 feet, with only a small wire attached to a pulley. This contraption, I think, is called the fan descender. When my turn came to jump the instructor told me to land with my body facing the crew standing below. He felt I would be so scared by the time I landed that I would pee in my pants. Well I did the jump… and ended facing the camera crew. No Problem. Later on, I went on to do jumps from fifteen-twenty storeys in my films with the same kind of contraption, the most recent one being for Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani. This is a case in point that no experience that you have in life can ever be wasted.
Both Fauji and Dil Dariya were made in Delhi. They got a very high rating and I was being recognized as a well-known TV star. Around the same time there were some other very nice serials like Nukkad, Tamas, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi and Buniyaad being made. All these were made in Bombay and obviously had bigger production values than the ones made in Delhi. I had been offered a few films from Bombay, but my mind was not set at that time. I just wanted to act and I was very happy with my theatre and serials. At this time I got an offer to work with a Bombay based serial production house. The production was called Iskra Rogopag and had its helm Saeed Mirza, Kundan Shah and Aziz Mirza. They were big names on television and also in films. Kundan Shah had already made one of my favorite films, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. I was offered a two-episode part in their serial, to be directed by Vikas, another very famous director, and was quite delighted. I was on the next flight to Bombay, hoping to learn in the great city of Bombay. The serial was also coincidentally called Ummeed.
My first day’s experience was quite interesting. Before this, all the work I had done was with a group of youngsters in Delhi. There used to be a camera and a recorder and it was shot in available light outdoors. Suddenly, I was exposed to huge lights with strange names like HMI and Baby. It was quite a shock to hear a lightman yell out “Baby ki mundi kaat ke laa”, which meant bring the light, which was called the Baby, without its stand.
There was online editing and playback songs, all new to me. Everything was very professional and large. And yes, there were retakes. Normally in Delhi one retook a shot only when one messed up the lines, but here, just to get the performance right, Vikas would have fifteen retakes. I remember the first day after pack up I had a long chat with myself. It seemed to me that I was the worst actor on earth because I had to do one shot so many times. It seemed like a great let down from my starry Fauji days. I felt I was not cut out to be an actor. Vikas sat with me and convinced me that this whole exercise is not only because of me but he also needed it sometimes to get his shot and conception right. He was really sweet about the whole thing.
I write about this because sometimes actors do begin to feel that they know everything, and suddenly you realize that acting is something that keeps on growing as much as you want it to. If I had stopped believing in myself then, I would have never grown. You have to believe that every time you express yourself, something new is to be learn’t… the process never stops till you stop acting.
Actually most of the early TV I did was by default. Lekh Tandon had originally cast an actor by the name of Raja Bundela to play the part which I finally did in Dil Dariya. The serials of Iskra Rogopak had an in-house hero in Pawan Malhotra. Normally he would be cast for the roles in Ummeed and later on Circus, but he was very busy with Saeed Mirza’s film Bagh Bahadur, so the roles came to me. Somewhere down the line, like I said, what you are meant to be happens to you somehow or the other. Most of the film offers I got were because people were beginning to see me on the TV playing roles which could fit in the mould of a Hindi film hero. Actually the serial that made me popular as a hero was Circus.
While working on Ummeed I got very close to Kundan’s and Aziz’s family. I started staying with them in their house. His wife and children became like a family to me. They were really nice to me and I started to feel like I have someone of my own in the big bad Bombay. Aziz is like a father to me. And while working on Ummeed he asked me if I would like to work on a 19-part serial based on the life in a Circus. By now I had been exposed to the high standards of work that Iskra Rogopak followed. I am not saying that Delhi serials were not good but it was a different ball game in Bombay. Everything was bigger and better… it was more like making films. I said yes to the offer and was soon travelling all over India with Apollo Circus to shoot the serial.