Over an hour-long conversation, ahead of his upcoming film Kick, he talks to a leading mag about his life as a farmer, his struggling years in Mumbai and why he always gets solace going back to his village.
What made you come to Mumbai?
I am from a family of farmers from Budhana near Muzaffarnagar. I studied till Class XII in my village only and did farming all throughout, along with my father. We are eight siblings and I am the oldest. I went to Hardwar to do my B.Sc, but realised that since I had not specialised in any course, I could only manage a job as the chief chemist in a petrochemical factory in Baroda. I then came to Delhi, where someone showed me a play on stage. Before that, I had no interest in acting, but seeing the play, I realised that this is what I wanted to do, as I got fascinated by the chemistry between the actor and the audience. I joined theatre and after doing it for over a year, I joined full- time NSD. I started doing street plays and did that for four years. We used to do four shows on a day. On days when we got shows, we had money, but if we didn’t have a show, we did not have money that particular day. So, I thought that agar bhooka hi marna hai, toh kyun na Bombay jaake maraa jaye? And I shifted to Mumbai in 2001.
We really got to know you from Gangs Of Wasseypur in 2012. What did you do for so many years after coming to Mumbai?
I came here to work in TV, but at that time, things were changing on TV and everything was becoming glossy. So if a dark person like me was taken, they would have had to put a baby light and that would delay production and so, I did not get success even on TV. I then did a few small roles in C-grade films. For the sake of just earning money, I also did a lot of crowd shots in films, but when the camera came to me, I would hide my face so that no one saw me. People would think that he calls himself from NSD and look what he is doing. Even to be a junior artiste, you needed a card, which I didn’t have. One time, I got caught as I didn’t have the card and had to bribe `1,000 to the junior artist coordinator. I did that for three years. I then started doing one-scene roles and hoped that I would get at least two, given that people would say that I did the first one well.
My mother mortgaged her jewellery to educate me
But my struggle continued and for five years, I got only one scene, till in 2009, when I got a role in Peepli Live and then Kahaani. Anurag Kashyap had met me in 2003 when he too was struggling. He had told me then, ‘If I become anything, I will give you a film.’ Post Kahaani, I was in my village when he called and said, ‘I have a role for you that you always wanted to do.’ I heard the narration and he signed me for Gangs Of Wasseypur.
Did you lose hope at any time?
Despite being from NSD, I was not getting work for so many years and I had started feeling irritated with that. Financially, I would survive borrowing money from other theatre actors, even though they too did not have money to lend. If I asked them for `100, they would probably have only `50 to spare and that too, I could not guarantee as to when I could return it. I was a mahir (an expert) at borrowing money. I would return the money, but to do that I would again borrow money from someone else. I always travelled without ticket in trains. I never travelled in buses, as we would need to buy a ticket. So I would walk to the nearest station and then go wherever I wanted to, without a train ticket. We were 4-5 actors sharing a room just 15 feet by 12 feet, which also included a small bathroom and place to cook.
The biggest problem was that if I went to any film office, they would look at me and ask rudely, ‘Haan, kya hai?’ I would say, ‘Actor hoon.’ They would say, ‘Dekhne se toh nahi lagta.’ And that was the biggest problem. And that problem was not just in Mumbai. It had been my problem in the village, where, when I told them that I was going to Mumbai to become an actor they would say, ‘Dikhta toh hai nahi tu actor jaisa yaar.’ So that would always frustrate me and I really felt bad. I would feel angry, but when I looked at myself in the mirror, I would realise that haan yaar, baat toh sahi hai. Despite being insulted so much, I would not have returned to either Delhi or my village, as I had solace that at least in Mumbai, there was anonymity.
When I had no money, I would find out which friend had work and money at that point in time and would go and stay with him for a week. All of us theatre guys did that. I had come to terms with the fact that nothing would happen in my life. Marriage was a distinct thought. Girls would not even befriend me, forget about marriage. And why would they? I had neither money, nor looks and nor was I successful. One thing I had decided was that come what may whether I make it or not, even if I have to continue doing small roles, I will, for the sake of my self-respect, not go back. Even though I never expressed my feelings to anybody, my mother was always confident about me, in fact over-confident. I used to find myself very unlucky in life. But today I feel ki sab der se hua par achcha hua. I don’t believe in destiny. I believe in hard work.
What does working with Salman Khan in Kick mean to you?
I was very excited to work with Salman to the extent in the beginning, I would feel scared that it should not get cancelled. He is such a big star with such a vast reach. Due to working in Kick, my smaller films will be benefited.
Who do you love the most in the world?
My mother. Even though she was uneducated, she always felt that she must educate us. She never interfered and wanted me to do whatever I wanted to. Even when I was leaving the village, she never held me back. She also disciplined us a lot. I have seen her sacrificing a lot for me. She even mortgaged her jewellery for my education. In our side, people are quite aggressive and the attitude there is quite goonda type, so you feel it’s good for your child to get out and she always wanted that for us, even though my parents still live in the village. What she likes the most about me is that I have always been responsible. If she gave me work to do for the cows at 5am, no matter what, be it winters or summers, I would be awake doing that. I was very obedient, responsible and hard-working.
Even though I hated doing farming and wanted to just get out of the village, I would work from 5 in the morning till 5 in the evening. We would go to sleep latest by 8pm. There was electricity in our village only for 2-3 hours a day so all my life, I studied under a lamp. Till today, wherever I am, I get up at 5 in the morning. Whenever I get a gap, I go to my village and spend 10-12 days there. Nothing has changed there. Electricity still comes only for 2-3 hours and I feel angry seeing that but I get a lot of sukoon (solace) there. Everything seems to be at a standstill there just the way you left it, your friends are the same and you just somehow feel that life is okay.