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The man who made Saif evil
Raja Sen

Deepak Dobriyal hovers over Saif Ali Khan as Vishal Bhardwaj looks on.
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August 21, 2006 14:20 IST

He doesn't look like Rajju.

Walking in to meet Deepak Dobriyal, the actor justifiably creating a sensation with his role as Roderigo in Vishal Bhardwaj's Othello adaptation Omkara [Images], it takes a while before finally zeroing in on the skinny man with the grin. The man who drove Saif Ali Khan's [Images] Langda Tyagi to mayhem.

Dobriyal doesn't look anything like his popular and profane on-screen character. He has longish, straight hair, a scraggly beard, and very soft eyes -- more of a Jesus look than anything else. Over a couple of cappuccinos on a rainy day in a Mumbai caf�, he reveals that Omkara isn't really his debut; it's not even his first Vishal Bhardwaj film.

"I first worked in a (Ramanand Sagar) project called 1971 that hasn't yet released, but I think we can definitely call this my first major role, and my big break." And then, he nudges the memory, there was Maqbool. "I'd reached on the last day, and all the roles had already been cast. But there was a character, Maqbool's right hand man, and the actor hadn't showed up. So I was finalised for the part, but Vishalji told me there were no dialogues at all. And that I'd have to work for two months straight."

A tough call for someone who'd spent seven years in Delhi doing theatre -- six years with Arvind Gaur and one with M K Sharma. "But I said chalega," he smiles. "I'm not from a big background that someone would launch me, and distributing photographs just means producers usually put them in the bin. So then I thought that if I work with a talented director like Vishalji, even if I'm in a bit role, it would be a very positive step."

"Maqbool happened, and Vishalji enjoyed the fact that off-screen, during free time on the sets, I used to make him laugh and we used to joke a lot. So he must have observed something, because when he started work on his next film, a children's film called The Blue Umbrella, he offered me a small role. He said, 'It's only a couple of lines in a small scene, but you should work in it as a shagun (for good luck), like everyone else is.' So he must have liked what I did, and promised me a plum role next time."

Dobriyal's had to struggle considerably over the years, so his scepticism towards Bollywood assurances is understandable. In Delhi he worked his way slowly up from a stand-in ("I became a Stepney actor, but that meant I had the whole script memorised") to developing his own acting methods, and the film and television world had a physical issue with him. "I was often rejected because people said I'm too thin. Often I'd read for a part in an audition but they'd pick me in another role."

"Now, I don't take promises too seriously, especially in this industry. Lots of people claim lots of things," he trails off. "I was definitely not expecting Vishalji to remember me two years later, and the fact that he did was a huge deal. The way he honoured his commitment really made me respect him as a person."

The result is a visible reverence for the director, and Dobriyal is committed to working with Bhardwaj forever. "Any film of his will automatically be special for me. I had made him promise that I'll be in his every film, whether it is a passing shot, or I'm carrying a tray of chai. I just have to be a part of it, like (legendary Japanese director) Akira Kurosawa had an actor (Takashi Shimura) in (almost) all his films. No matter what he wants, I'll be there. That's for sure. After the faith he showed in me and such a big opportunity, I can definitely do anything for him."

Hailing from Delhi, the dialect wasn't as big an issue for him. "In Delhi, even if this isn't the way you talk, you hear enough of it around you. You're in touch with this way of speech and have a feel for it. So it was actually easier for me. The best dialect spoken in the film is by Manav Kaushikji, who plays the Kaptaan (Captain) who fights with Omkara. That is lethal work, that's the exact real accent."

And about the more prominent players? "Personally, I was completely overwhelmed by Konkona (Sensharma) because the way she handled the character and the dialogue was fantastic," Dobriyal marvels. "The way she says 'khaain' is so real that it just tells you everything, that one word. And she has great lines and a wonderful acting style. And it's unbelievable considering, she's from Bengal, from far, far away."

"I spent the maximum time with Saif bhai. It was great, great fun. I was apprehensive at first, since big stars have airs, but I decided to befriend him before judging him. And then I realised that he's extremely down to earth. He's an actor I could open up to, and he supported me completely. If for instance I didn't get a line right, he'd make sure we'd do it again -- he could have concentrated only on his own performance but he kept a close eye on my work too."

He smiles when talking about Khan, noticeably proud of the actor's effort. "It was a very different role for him, and that's why people are so shocked. 'How did Saif do this?' is the buzz in the theatres. People can't believe he's gone from Salaam Namaste [Images] to Being Cyrus [Images] to this! The whole northern belt is shaken up by seeing this performance. He had a few hiccups with the accent at first, but no serious problems. He worked really hard on the film. His makeup took ages, the yellow teeth and everything. He would sit in the baking sun for an hour and a half everyday to get his tan right."

And Dobriyal was by his side. "I'd be hanging around at this time, the two of us constantly laughing and joking along. Because we wanted to establish a fine chemistry between us before we even got to the camera; we needed to get the rapport crackling. So our shot would actually 'start' at the make-up stage. So a lot of our action on screen was almost improvised, it just flowed without feeling practiced -- even though Vishalji managed to tailor it exactly as he wanted. He'd make us keep doing takes, and we'd keep doing our own thing."

He sips his coffee thoughtfully when trying to define his character. "Rajju, according to me, is of a transitional age. When a man leaves one age group and enters the other, his character undergoes several changes. Rajju is a single man moving into marriageable age, and he's also trying to enter politics. So there are a lot of changes and conflicts in his mind. He's young and very confused, and so follows any direction he finds. He's impressionable and Omi Shukla and Langda Tyagi are his greatest heroes. He follows them blindly and lives in his aura."

"And then, there is a generation of people who get power by proximity. For him, being able to say that Langda Tyagi is like a brother to him is power in itself. That Langda patted his shoulder is a big deal. The fact that Omi Shukla talked to him casually and asked him to dine at his house means the world to him. So he keeps trying to flatter and please them, trying to maintain a place in their reflected glory."

OmkaraRajju, with his incessant nagging, is the one who gets to Tyagi, inciting all the violence. But does even his character actually believe he still actually has a chance with (Kareena Kapoor's [Images] Desdemona) Dolly? "Honestly, man often lies to himself. When a very desired object slips from his grasp, so he keeps consoling himself that it will come back to him. In this case, it's futile but he keeps convincing himself that Omi isn't a very attractive man, at least in relation to Dolly. He's a killer, a hood, while she's an innocent, na�ve girl -- they are of a totally different nature. And then there's Langda, who Rajju believes can do anything. He thinks that if Langda becomes powerful, he can convince Omi..."

"Rajju is hopelessly optimistic and has firm faith in Langda. And Langda� right from the beginning of the film Langda is shown as excellent with the marble and with the gun. He is a man with perfect aim. Whatever he aims for is shot down. This man always hits his mark, and now he's telling me that I can get Dolly -- I don't know how he plans to do this, but this man's promise means something. And Rajju's love for Dolly is so desperate that he doesn't want to leave any stone unturned. The horse for the wedding arrives and Rajju's whining, 'What now?' Langda still tells him to wait and watch. And Rajju is confused but still hopeful."

He rates Omkara as a better film than Maqbool, but wishes people wouldn't compare the two. "I really love the scene where Dolly's father tells Omi about the betraying tendency of his daughter. That was a very terrifying moment and I was completely shaken by that scene. The hairs on my hand stood on end, seriously. It was a sinister and frightening moment. And then there was the first fight scene where Omi and the boys fight Kichlu and kill the Kaptaan. The use of the music in the film is great throughout."

In terms of his own scenes, the film opens with a great moment with Saif and then there's the much-discussed diving into the water scene, where Khan dares him to jump in. "I loved the water scene, it was a great one, no doubt. And it was great fun shooting it. Now they had a duplicate standing by to jump into the water, and I told Vishalbhai 'I can jump, why use a duplicate?' He asked me to think about it, because it was a little risky. The water was deep and the tricky part was jumping in with clothes on. He said that it would be better if I jumped because then he'd get an expression of me jumping, instead of having to cut away from the shot. So he agreed but he told me very clearly that if there was any problem at all, or any trouble in the water or whatever, I should let the shoot go to hell. I said, 'sir, if I'm sinking, I won't shout 'Langda bhaiyya, Langda bhaiyya' I'll shout 'Vishalji, Vishalji!''"

Dobriyal likes character-driven films. "A common man should be the hero. And there are films like that being made today. Lagaan [Images] has eleven characters, and they're all heroes. Ab Tak Chhappan was great. I really loved Rang De Basanti [Images]. As an actor, I really wished I was one of the characters, but they all did a terrific job."

Already having worked with actors from Ajay Devgan [Images] to Naseeruddin Shah [Images] to Pankaj Kapur, Dobriyal displays a disarming simplicity when naming his favourite actors. "I have three friends who are fabulous actors and just won't let you down," he grins before naming three men with the same first name: Pankaj Jha, Pankaj Tripathi and Pankaj Sharma. "They're all Pankaj-es, and they're all awesome."

Films like 1971 are around the corner for him. "It's set to release in September. It's a film on Prisoners Of War, shot in Manali. It's a great film, with Manoj Bajpai [Images]." After the six-hero film directed by Amrit Sagar, there is Anurag Kashyap's Gulal. "It has been shot so well and edited brilliantly, and it'll be a film to watch. I can't talk about it, of course," he laughs, gesturing that Kashyap would slay him. But Anurag's films -- Paanch, Black Friday -- are always mired in controversy, and haven't been released yet. "Gulal will get released, and shouldn't face such problems, but he's a socially-aware filmmaker and will always highlight relevant issues. He's got so much material and so much to say. Let me tell you, there's a young generation right now that is mad about working with Anurag."

For now, Deepak Dobriyal has work in hand, and is trying to get used to the applause. And to being called out by his name. "Earlier, people would mention a character, but now they actually come up to me saying 'Deepak Dobriyal.' It's amazing. I asked someone the other day if he was in production (and was that) how he knew my name. But he was an accountant, and said he'd stayed back to watch the credits, to see my name." His smile is as wide as can be, as he shakes his head from side to side. "I can't believe it."

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