'Most of the time I did not have anything to do in a film, even though I was in it throughout.'
Saurabh Shukla, one of our finest character actors, shines yet again in his new film Jolly LLB 2.
Did you know that after playing the memorable Kalu Mama in Satya, Saurabh Shukla had a lull in his career for six years?
Did you know he almost gave up acting for direction?
Did you know that Barfi! is one of his dearest films?
The hugely talented Saurabh Shukla speaks to Rediff.com's Patcy N about his life and 30-year career in cinema.
'After spending many years in theatre, I still did not have enough money'
My parents are musicians. My father was the head of department of music and fine arts at Delhi University. My mother was the first lady tabla player.
I have an elder brother, who lives in Botswana, southern Africa. He is a commerce teacher but he's also into music.
Maybe because there was an overdose of music, I wanted to do something different from a young age. That's why I became an actor.
We used to watch a lot of movies and I was very inspired by them.
I think I got the germ of filmmaking when I was in Standard 6 or 7. I didn't even know what direction was, but I wanted to make films.
My parents wanted me to find my own path, but at the same time, complete my basic education.
I didn't tell them I wanted to do films, but I started writing because to make a film, you needed a story.
For many years I couldn't write beyond 6 to 8 lines, but they would read and appreciate whatever I wrote.
They thought that if you want to become someone, you should try out everything.
When I was in Standard 9 and 10, I was inclined towards sports. They encouraged me for that too.
Then I started playing table tennis, which I do even today.
When I went to college and started doing theatre, I told them for the first time seriously that I wanted to do theatre.
In 1984, I started doing plays professionally. I went to Mandi House and joined a group called Sakshi. I was with them till 1991.
We used to do classics then like Arthur Miller's A View From The Bridge, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger, Vijay Tendulkar's Ghashiram Kotwal and Girish Karnad's Hayvadan.
I used to do these plays in Hindi. Later, I started dong plays like 2 To Tango 3 To Jive in Hindi and English.
After spending many years in theatre, I still did not have enough money.
I was 28 then and had to settle down.
The year I joined the Repertory Company, a professional wing of NSD (the National School of Drama) was an important one because (the legendary stage director) Ebrahim Alkazi was coming back after 14 years.
Everybody, including me, was very excited. I worked there as an artiste for two years.
'Bandit Queen was a dream project'
Seema Biswas was my colleague at the Repertory Company. She got selected for Shekhar Kapur's Bandit Queen.
Shekhar saw me and liked me.
During that time, I got selected for a BBC project for which I had to go to London. I had also got an offer for Bernardo Bertolucci's The Little Buddha.
Shekhar wanted to cast me in Bandit Queen, but since I was going to London, it ended there.
Somehow, the BBC project got shelved and I wasn't selected for the film either.
Suddenly, I was out of work. I felt sad because all my friends were doing Bandit Queen.
Before Shekhar left to shoot Bandit Queen, he came to watch a play, Khabsoorat Bahu in which Seema was the main actor.
I used to open that play and had a couple of parts too. He called me backstage and kept looking at me and shaking his head. Then he left.
I didn't understand what was going on. Shekhar must have realised that my BBC project had not worked out.
The next thing I realised was that Tigmanshu Dhulia, who was his assistant at that time, gave me a ticket saying Shekhar wanted me to go to Dholpur (in Rajasthan).
I reached there and there was still one month to go before the shoot started.
I asked Kannan Iyer, who was the chief assistant director, what my role was. He said only five of those who were called were actors, so I very happy.
Bandit Queen was a dream project. I learnt a lot from Shekhar Kapur.
He was my first film director and a very good one.
My only regret is that I just got to do one film with him because after that he went abroad to make films.
Shekhar has a very good vision when he incorporates a scene.
There was a scene in the climax where Phoolan Devi (played by Seema Biswas) is running away from the police.
She is my cousin and I have always been in love with her even though she is my sister and even though I'm married with a kid.
So in the climax, she is running through the desert and is thirsty.
She lies down and I get water for her./p>
Phoolan asks me: 'Bandook laya? (Have you brought the gun).'
I say: 'Main paani leke aaya (I have brought water).'
Phoolan: 'Mera gang kahan hai? (Where is my gang?)."
Me: 'Sab mar gaye. Tu bhi marjayegi, jaa surrender kar le (Everyone is dead. They will kill you too. Go, surrender).'
Now this was a serious scene.
When Shekhar asked us to rehearse, we did it many times, but he was not satisfied.
Then he asked us to say our dialogues with a smile. Seema and I were shocked.
He explained that our relationship is different even though I am her cousin.
I was in love with her, and she knew it.
In love, the only thing you remember is smiles.
Phoolan is trying to remind you that she is the same girl that you are in love with and I am smiling because I am trying to tell her I remember everything and it will not change anything.
So we did the scene with a smile and that created another layer in the film.
After Bandit Queen, Shekhar asked me if I preferred films or theatre.
I said I preferred films, but that I wanted to direct.
'I had become a household name with Tehkikat'
Shekhar called me again during the Repertory Company's 15-day annual festival.
He told me he had work for me, but asked me to leave the next day.
I could not leave immediately, as all the plays would collapse without me.
I was heartbroken after the festival because I was jobless.
Suddenly, my telephone rang and it was Shekhar, asking me to come to Mumbai for the shooting that had gotten delayed.
I came to the city to do a serial called Tehkikat for Doordarshan. It was a crime drama, along with Goldie saab (Vijay Anand, the legendary director and Shekhar Kapur's maternal uncle).
The first two episodes were directed by Shekhar Kapur and was produced by Karan Razdan.
After Shekhar left, Karan directed the other episodes. Four episodes were directed by Goldie saab.
I did two seasons, both of 50 and 75 episodes.
I was a huge fan of Goldie saab; I got to spend so much time with him. He would tell me stories and anecdotes. I learnt a lot from him.
Towards the end, he was not happy with the industry because it did not support him.
He was finding it difficult to make films.
After Tehkikat, I returned to films. I had become a household name; that is what television does to you.
After doing 125 episodes, people have seen you inside out.
Sudhir (Mishra) had told me then that he found it difficult to cast me in a film.
Tehkikat was getting over, but I was doing another series produced by Karan Razdan and one called 9 Malabar Hill, written by me.
Nowadays, one episode is shot in a day, but those days, the same thing took three days.
So where would you find time to work in films?
Luckily, all my series got over at the same time and I was free.
That's when Sudhir fulfilled his promise and gave me Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahin.
That was my first nomination for the Screen Awards.
'When people ask me if I struggled, I say yes. After every night, we struggled to get up in the morning!'
After that, I played Bobby Deol's father in Kareeb.
The late editor Renu Saluja (Kareeb director Vidhu Vinod Chopra's former wife) suggested my name for Kareeb.
Vidhu looked at me and was not sure that I would be able to pull it off.
Physically, Bobby and I do not share the same frame. He is a tall Punjabi lad and I am short.
So he kept checking the screen tests for almost a year.
That did not frustrate me because it is a great idea to understand that you are nothing.
The day you start thinking you have done so much, it becomes a complex and nobody can help you in such a situation.
I never felt I was 'somebody'.
But yes, I agree I was excited to make a mark.
So what if I didn't make a mark in cinema, I did it in theatre!
Finance was not much of a problem those days because little jobs would come my way, like an ad or some episodes on television.
Life was always a hand-to-mouth existence.
We were 5, 6 friends living together -- people like (Dhoom 3 director) Vijay Krishna Acharya, Tigmanshu Dhulia and Manoj Bapayee.
The rent would get divided. Somebody would buy the booze and somebody would cook.
We always had a party.
When people ask me if I struggled, I say yes.
After every night, we struggled to get up in the morning!
'I have a bad memory about bad things; I forget these things'
Anurag Kashyap, who was assisting Ramu (Ram Gopal Varma), called me.
We didn't know each other much, but both of us were from Delhi and he knew me for my work.
Though Anurag was already writing for him, Ramu felt a need for another writer.
I am not a writer by heart and went to his office to refuse the job. But Ramu started the conversation saying he wanted to cast me as a particular character in the film and then he made listen to the story.
I was jacked because I had to either give up both, writing and acting, or keep both.
So I agreed to write.
That's how I wrote the film with Anurag. Manoj Bajpayee was a friend, so it was life-changing.
When you are writing for your own character, people think you will write it better. But that's not true.
I blame my parents for raising me in a certain way.
I come from a middle class family of a time when the values were slightly different from what they are today.
I was taught not to talk too much about yourself or praise yourself and show off money.
So whenever I have done films that I have written, I have kept my character right at the back.
So if you see Satya, my character Kallu Mama's entry happens just before the interval.
So the actor, who is writing the film, hasn't written a scene for his character at the beginning of the film.
That's what Ramu loved when he read the script for the first time. He had full faith in me.
It does help me as an actor when I write the film because then I understand the whole thing.
Of all the films I have done till date, even if I haven't written them, most of the directors have been kind enough to share the whole film with me.
So first, I understand the whole story and then my part comes organically.
That is why I am able to act the way I do.
After Satya released, there were problems between Ramu and Anurag. It was a bad phase, but I don't remember any of it.
I have a bad memory about bad things; I forget these things.
'I was not happy with some of my work; it was boring'
After Satya, I was hit by reality because you don't make Satya everyday.
I got fame, people started recognising me, and I started thinking every film would be like Satya. But that's not reality.
After that I entered the field of commercial films.
There was hierarchy and there were roles and scripts which I did not like.
But still I did them.
I was not happy with some of my work; it was boring.
Creatively, I was very low.
Commercial films have their own system, where you get more facilities, respect and money. That created a lot of confusion in me.
Like, when I would get called for a big film, I would think I was getting a meaty role. But it was always the role of an uncle or a friend, which was not an important part of the story but a filler.
Most of the time I did not have anything to do in a film, even though I was in it throughout.
But I thank God I did those small roles!
Had I refused everything after Satya, I wouldn't have been be here.
I wouldn't be able to do a Jolly LLB or Barfi!.
During that period, I did get disinterested in acting.
I decided to direct films and was absent as an actor for some time.
People thought I was not actingm so they stopped giving me roles.
I started getting only cameos.
I started directing and writing films like I am 24, Raat Gayi Baat Gayi and Pappu Can't Dance Saala..
I was not able to make my mark as a director.
'I had stopped expecting awards a long time ago'
One day, Anurag Basu contacted me and said he wanted to cast me in Barfi!.
I was not sure about my role because it was a big film and Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra were in it.
I told Anurag to call me only if I had something substantial to do in it. He said he did.
It was a meaty role and a wonderful film.
Suddenly, I got interested in acting again.
I shot that film for a year and had great fun doing it.
While I was doing Barfi!, Subhash Kapoor told me about Judge Tripathi's role in Jolly LLB.
On paper, it was a small role, but Subhash was very clear that it was the anchor of the film.
I got really inspired and did it. I got a National Award for it.
I had stopped expecting awards a long time ago.
We normally see a judge only in court. But in this film, you get to know about his life too and you think that you know the judge very well.
He is not just someone who says, 'Order, order,' but he is a complete human being.
He needs a flat to live in. He has some physical illness. He gets headaches. He gets tired. He loves his tea.
All these nuances were captured during the shoot and Subhash participated a lot in it.
Akshay Kumar has done films like Housefull and Rowdy Rathore, at the same time, he has also done Special 26, Baby, Airlift and Rustom.
In these films, the story is more important than anything else.
The other characters also have a good role.
Jolly LLB 2 is that kind of film. The experience was similar to the first film's.
Akshay never behaved like a star on the sets. I don't think he behaves like that in real life either.
We were all co-actors and weren't made to feel separate.
'If you get de-motivated, it means you are losing it'
My films like Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyu Aata Hain, Aur Devdas and Peter Gaya Kaam Se are ready, but have not released yet.
It obviously breaks your heart, but then, that's how life is.
If you get de-motivated, it means you are losing it. It means you are bigger now.
Khosla Ka Ghosla was released after three-and-a-half years, but it made its mark. Paan Singh Tomar was released after four years.
Aur Devdas is ready and delayed, but the day it comes out, it would prove its worth.
My forthcoming films are Laali Ki Shaadi Mein Laddoo Deewana and Shabhash Kundu with Kamal Haasan.
I have started doing theatre again.
When I started doing films, I got busy in that, but then I reached a point where I realised that if I take a break from films, people will not forget me.
So after almost 18 years, I have decided to do theatre again, just for the love of it.
After the play 2 To Tango 3 To Jive, my second is Barf.
It is a thriller based in Kashmir.
I had written this as a film script, not for a play.
But then Bharat Rang Natya Mahotsav wanted me to do a play for them and that's when I thought that this script can be adapted for a play.
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