Despite the Delhi police's tarnished reputation in recent months, viewers find themselves rooting for Inspector Hathiram Chaudhary because he displays both vulnerability and remorse, observes Ranjita Ganesan.
Jaideep Ahlawat does not believe in picking up the script on set.
"That is supposed to be homework," says the actor.
He reads the text over and over again beforehand, sometimes from night to morning, until it becomes familiar, word for word.
This preparatory labour is imperative because "if you are not relaxed on the day of the shoot, you will go wrong".
It took 10 years but the meticulous actor who had so far made an impression in smaller roles -- for instance, as the dacoit Shahid Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur, or as Khalid Mir in Raazi -- has been awarded a breakout role.
He is the lead, Inspector Hathiram Chaudhary of the Outer Jamuna Paar police station, in Paatal Lok, a pitch-dark crime series created by the Anushka Sharma-backed Clean Slate Filmz for Amazon Prime Video.
The full range of the actor's skills come through in his embodiment of this disillusioned cop seeking personal redemption, of his bitter to-and-fro between "down" and "not out".
He does this with a combination of angry outbursts, tired shoulders, blank stares, and heavy sighs.
"This is a man who, for all intents and purposes, has fallen behind," he observes.
"What we also needed to show was the spark that was left inside him."
Ahlawat was the first choice for the role.
One line in particular helped him settle into the skin of the character.
After editing for expletives, it loosely translates to: "Half my life I saw my father write off his son as worthless. For the rest of my life, I don't want to see my son writing his father off as worthless."
To prepare physically, the six-foot-tall, 40-something actor gained 15 kilos.
He poured in his own experiences too, having noted how policemen behaved and spoke in Rohtak, where he grew up, and in nearby New Delhi.
He borrowed some mannerisms from his father, some from himself.
The languages, Hindi with occasional lapses into Haryanvi, were also familiar to him.
Perhaps the most difficult scene was filmed on the first day of shooting -- a moment from the fifth episode when Chaudhary returns home on being suspended, the worse for wear, and struggles to break the news to his wife.
"He wants to tell her that everything is going haywire. But as an actor I hadn't experienced the graph and journey of the character until that point."
It took a lot of effort and some help from the directors (Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy) for Ahlawat to put himself in that place. Things got simpler after that.
He directs all credit for the well-roundedness of Hathiram's traits and his inner turmoil to creator Sudip Sharma and his team of writers, who worked on the story for two years.
Every devilish detail -- his views on the profession, his childhood, his dynamics with colleagues, his relationship with his wife and son -- was committed to the page.
Despite the tarnished reputation of the Delhi police in recent months, viewers find themselves rooting for Hathiram because together with the propensity for violence, he displays a capacity for vulnerability and remorse.
The show's release and congratulatory reviews have both come during the pandemic-driven shutdown.
The past few weeks indoors have been busy, says Ahlawat.
"Last month was all about telling people to watch the show. This month is about people telling me they watched the show."
He wishes it was possible for the crew to meet and celebrate, instead of greeting each other through boxes on a screen.
In describing the newfound, delayed, recognition, Ahlawat uses aphorisms like "der aaye durust aaye (better late than never)", or "yeh toh bas shuruwat hai (this is just the beginning)."
Catchy, but not too revealing.
He keeps answers brief, playing his cards close to his chest, at least for the duration of a publicist-appointed 30-minute phone interview.
This is somewhat reminiscent of his Khalid Mir from Raazi.
Director Meghna Gulzar had explained the secretive R&AW agent to him, saying, "I never want to know what he thinks. That is who Mir is. Nobody ever knows."
The interest in acting began rather late for Ahlawat, after sampling the stage arts during his graduation.
Even so, in those years, his focus had been more on preparing for the Services Selection Board exams, which he failed to clear.
Office jobs bored him.
So he chose instead to study acting at the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune.
His family, involved in farming, were "concerned but supportive".
If things did not work out, they told him he could always return to kheti baadi.
There were times in his stint at the film institute, which exposed him to cinema across languages and countries, when he felt overwhelmed but never enough to consider leaving.
When he graduated from film school, there were no clues on where to go or whom to meet.
The actor says he was reserved about chasing after parts, and most auditions came his way through word of mouth, and with help from fellow graduates from the Institute.
A literature enthusiast, his love for texts extends beyond reading to also performing them.
In addition to scripts for his films and shows, he collects and refers to related books too.
It lets him come up with questions to ask of writers and directors, to further inform his acting.
So far, he has worked with highly-regarded names in Indian film-making.
Among them, Anurag Kashyap, Kamal Haasan, Priyadarshan and Dibakar Banerjee.
Most of them cast him in supporting cameos or negative roles.
His fervid appreciation of Paatal Lok's solid script suggests he might have grappled with less competent scripts in the past.
In his filmography are a few potboilers that do not necessarily speak to the actor's calibre -- Baaghi 3 recently, or the 2013 Commando.
His next projects include Khaali Peeli billed as a "romantic action film", and a short film directed by Shashank Khaitan and backed by Dharma Productions.
Are there particular types of roles that he wishes would come to him? "That is a question for many years down the line," he laughs.
"The list is too long. There is a lot I still haven't tried."
Production: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com