Ecstatic with the response his recent release Ittefaq has received from critics and audiences alike, as well as the applause for his performance, leading man Sidharth Malhotra gets candid with Team Box Office India
How do you feel about the response the movie has received for its performance at the box office as well as the praise for your performance?
I got a very positive response from Vajir (Singh) here himself. Oddly, the last time he messaged me and spoke at length like this was during Ek Villain. He was very sweet and gracious when he saw the film, so was everyone else. It always feels good when an actor gets messages and has encouraging things written for their performance. It means even more for this film because it is not a mainstream movie. It doesn’t have any songs, any of the trappings of a commercial film; we didn’t even promote it. We were all hoping that the film speaks for itself. I think we could afford to do that because the budget was very low and we had no pressure to recover the money at the box office.
We didn’t have to open at humungous numbers and recover the money. There was no question of producers not making money from the movie, which makes it easier for the actors. I am pretty happy with the response in terms of performance because I have no crutches in this film. There is only one costume that I wear throughout the movie; and there are barely any shots with make-up, except for the bruises which were necessary to make my face look battered. Most of my shots were indoors. So, if one enjoys the film, one can’t enjoy it for anything but the performances. I think it was a good change for me to do a film like this and get the response I have received.
Before Ittefaq, you did A Gentleman, which didn’t do well at the box office. Did that put additional pressure on you before this movie released?
Yes, it did. In my head, I had thought that A Gentleman would be a bigger film, a bigger hit than it was, and I would do a character role in Ittefaq, something that was performance-based. But, sometimes, things don’t go according to plan. So there was slightly more pressure before Ittefaq released, I wouldn’t say in terms of the box office but in terms of a quality product, a quality film. One should enjoy the picture, woh acchi picture hai ki nahi. That was more pressure than the film opening at a certain number or thinking about the business aspect.
We knew it had restrictions with the kind of film it was and also it was a smaller release in terms of the number of screens across India. My stress was more about the character I was playing. It is not a typical hero film. You only understand it once you watch the climax. It’s not the easiest character to play because you cannot really improvise in these roles. You can only do as much as the writing helps you. I think the pressure was to convince people that there was this grey character which keeps switching between positive and negative, without giving away any spoilers. If they find that convincing, if they like that as a film, then I think we got what we were hoping for. We are all very happy that people have given it such a positive review.
Sidharth, the interesting thing about your filmography so far is that all your films have been very different from each other, in terms of genre and the characters you’ve played. Is that deliberate?
Absolutely. Right from the beginning, I have tried to do that. My first three films were of different genres. My first film was Student Of The Year, and obviously you don’t choose your first film. After that, I did Hasee Toh Phasee, a quirky, offbeat love story. Then Ek Villain happened, which was totally different from the previous two films. And when something like Ek Villain happens, it gives you a lot of hope and confidence to keep changing genres because you don’t know what works, what clicks with the audience. They might accept you in a certain kind of movie, they might accept you more in a certain kind of role, get excited etc. After that, I just kept reacting instinctively, trying more zones.
In my head, I still don’t think I am in any particular zone. When Ek Villain happened, I wanted to try out a more intense, action zone, and it just happened, yaar. All the films I have picked were an attempt to try new things because I am not a trained actor, I have not done theatre. Also, this is my way of pushing my limits because I still don’t know what I am capable of or what zone I can do best.
Sometimes, I get very excited and I think that’s what you need for a scene or a situation you have never been in. For example, as opposed to this film, I have never been in jail. But I was playing somebody who is being interrogated for murder, for lying or maybe not lying, that was very challenging and exciting. That is what I am pouncing on. Whenever I see something challenging or exciting in a script, I pick it up. And I have been lucky to have different kinds of movies come to me. So I am hoping that, years later, when I come to this office and it is bigger and cooler, my filmography will look pretty cool and I will have great variation as opposed to one kind of movie.
You are much more knowledgeable about cinemas, number of screens, the box office etc than when you came into the industry.
That is one other kind of education. Itni padhai school-college mein nahi kari jitne numbers yahan log aapko batate hain. I think that happens organically, epecially in the last year or so when I realised that films don’t go the way you want them to. Then you start questioning things, you start wanting to know what is happening, why is it happening, etc. I didn’t understand the numbers game even when Ek Villain happened. I didn’t understand the magnitude even when some people were excitedly calling me after looking at the numbers. I just didn’t get it as it was only my third film. I didn’t know what it meant to have it open with double figures on a Friday and make so much on a weekend. I said ki taarif kar rahen hai log, kaam pasand aa raha hai, I was happy with that.
Now I understand it better because when you realise it’s not easy to get that number, your other films have not done as well, you start comparing and you want to know. I think there is a lot of hearsay. Meeting new people, maintaining and building relationships with producers, distributors… all of that helps. It keeps you very grounded and you understand what is working and what is not working, and what genre people are keen to watch. Do people really want to see song-and-dance on the big screen? Sometimes, the look doesn’t work; sometimes the production values don’t work. I think it only helps for an actor to understand what exactly is working or not working, and the numbers really help with that. But, yes, it depends on every film. In this film, I was not obsessing about the numbers at all. I was just worried about the performance, about whether or not it had the required quality.
When you are looking at scripts, do you research whether that particular genre is working or not?
No, I don’t. If I were to do that, I wouldn’t have ended up doing a thriller-murder mystery without any trappings or sex or song-and-dance. The first thing I look for is whether or not I have done something like that in the past. I ask myself whether it would give me something new to do. I am aiming to improve myself, so I need to see if there is something interesting to do. That is the first reaction apart from the genre or what is working or what is not.
Interestingly, Abhay Chopra said in an interview to BOI that he had approached you for the same film a few years ago but it had not worked out then.
Yes, it was actually very funny. He had seen Hasee Toh Phasee and he really liked it. He had a script ready even then. I listened to the narration and I understood the film. Some changes were to be made at that time but I had already signed Ek Villain, which was again a greyish character. It was far more heroic and there was a love story involved. I didn’t feel right to sign two films in a similar greyish kind of zone. Maybe, back then, I felt that thoda song-and-dance routine is important and that I should do a film that was a little happier. Back then, that was commercial but today the definition of that is also changing.
We don’t know what is commercial and what is not. So I think more than commercial, I found the character very grey, very quiet and very intense. I didn’t think it made sense to do it at that point. Also, at that point, only Abhay was involved. Red Chillies and Dharma Productions came on board later and, three years later, he called me up again and told me it was the same film, same script.
I had the narration once again and reacted the same way. I liked the punch. It was meant to be and it happened at the correct time. I think if it had happened then, my performance, how it has worked out today, the impact wouldn’t have been the same. I am able to do scenes better today than when I was doing my third or fourth film.
Speaking about performances… you said you haven’t watched the original Ittefaq. How did you prep for the intense, grey character that you play?
That’s the only ittefaq between the whole cast… that Akshaye, Sonakshi and I have not seen the original Ittefaq (Laughs). We approached it like an original story. In this movie, I have put in the greatest number of hours, by far. Also, we were all conscious of the fact that this was Abhay’s first film, so we had to be on top of our game to help him as opposed to stressing him. There were a lot of readings and, oddly, that sometimes irritated him. Perhaps he has observed his father, who has worked with so many senior actors and big stars who don’t like to sit and read on the set. So, yes, I visited BR house many times for the readings and ate a lot of their lunches and dinners. I pretty much performed every scene before the actual take.
Also, it helped to sit with him on the other scenes and observe how he was looking at the film, to understand the zone. That helped a lot. We had demarcated certain ways, emotional points, high and low points, everything. A lot of prep went into it, emotionally speaking. Considering the result, I now think I should do this for every film, especially when the character has to play so many shades in one role.
The interrogation scenes in the movie look quite intense.
All thanks to having an amazing actor oppposite to you like Akshaye Khanna. He is a pro at rendering lines in his different, amazing way. He had a lot of entertaining lines and I had to react where I couldn’t even give away so much at that time. The energy in that room was always very exciting because of Akshaye and me sparring with each other. We would rehearse on the set. We hadn’t really interacted very much before the film, so there was that awkwardness on the set during the first few days and, as you notice in the film, in the interrogation itself, we get closer and closer. We used that to our advantage.
During the first few days, we didn’t know each other, we were just going through lines, that helped the initial scenes. As we got into the interrogation, we got friendlier, we had had our share of lunches, it was about bonding with an actor off camera. Hats off to him for being so accommodating and inspiring and encouraging with a first-time director as well as me, whom he had never worked with before. I think that was very professional.
The energy became very clean as people were talking about nothing but the content, the film. One of the pluses of BR Productions is that they make the atmosphere very warm and homely. There weren’t too many people on the set, so you knew pretty much everyone. I think all these factors come into play to make a film the best version it can be because you are talking about it and putting your energy into it.
You will be sharing screen space with Manoj Bajpayee in Aiyaary, after working with Akshaye Khanna in Ittefaq. What does it feel like to work with experienced actors such as these? Does it enhance your performance as an actor?
Absolutely! In my past or when I was in college or even back in Delhi, I never had the opportunity to interact or get so up-close with someone about acting. There’s so much you learn from actors who have done great work, who have technique. They have their little things for prep in each scene. Also, you see how they render it from the paper to what they do on screen. I have learnt a lot.
I think these are my pluses, to do roles like this, and I do these films because I get to share scenes with such people. I do not look at it from the point of view of being a hero or not, nor do I feel insecure; they are just great actors. They are my seniors, who are good at their job and that will only help me shape my career. When I get out of the film, I grow and absorb whatever these actors have done.
It’s the same with Manoj Bajpayee. I think that since Manoj Bajpayee is from theatre he is more pure as an actor, and he was far more involved in helping me, and making the environment nice and comfortable for me in Aiyaary, even though we have very few scenes together in the film.
It is more of a cat-and-mouse game but after the shoot, we would always talk about the performance. He conducts workshops himself, he is an acting coach, in a way. I think with Manoj, I have had more of a mentor-student relationship and that is what the film is about. It’s been great and I have learnt a lot from him in Aiyaary. He would take the time to discuss certain scenes, the prep he had done, and how important it is for an actor to work on his craft. He would teach me little things about acting every day. He used to give me exercises to bring out the best in me as an actor. With him, it has been a great learning experience from just talking to him about acting, to exercises and preparation.
It’s been quite a bizarre year for the movies at the box office. We’ve had some massive, superstar films underperforming, and some small films becoming surprises. In your case, A Gentleman was supposed to do well but Ittefaq did better. What do you think the box office is telling us and does it make you apprehensive about your choices?
Most of the films that were expected to do well didn’t do well. And, yes, it is the unexpected, smaller film that has grown over the week. Maybe this reflects the change the country is going through, economically or financially, and that has made people more careful about how they want to spend their money.
Someone recently told me that they first look at the report of the film on Friday and then go to the theatre on Saturday. And this is for budgeted families because ticket prices are very high. It just tells us that content is king. You might excite them on the trailer level, with song-and-dance sequences in commercial films, or with comedy and action, but if the report on Friday is not good, they don’t really come in with much excitement, with 500 rupees for a ticket or whatever the price is.
A film might be propped up by commercial traffic, but if its content doesn’t work, the audience will not support it. Now people are far tougher on actors. Everyone is a critic and a reviewer, everybody receives everything on WhatsApp. YouTube is also filled with reviews even when the trailer is out for the first time. People talk about their likes and dislikes about the trailer and the film. There is so much content and there is so much scrutinizing, which is something actors didn’t have to face earlier.
Times are slightly more unforgiving for us because of social media. We have to deliver a quality product. Obviously, we cannot control how the film will be accepted by the audience, but what can assure sustainability at the box office is content. Stories should be new and very convincing. That’s what I look at when I am reading a script. That is how it helps me to shift genres. Doing too many intense films gets monotonous just as doing too many love stories can get monotonous.
Now I have done this, like a thriller, but Aiyaary is a different kind of thriller. Then there is another, softer film which will come out. I think it keeps it exciting, all your trailers look different from each other and the audience gets to see something fresh every time.
While doing different films, and switching between genres, have you discovered things about yourself? Has it surprised you?
Yeah, absolutely, my family really reacts to that. They have reacted a lot to Ek Villain, and oddly to this one, to the intense roles and the angry ones. In certain scenes in Ittefaq, they reacted really well because they haven’t seen me doing this kind of stuff or under these conditions. My family has a different take on it, because I had a regular middle-class upbringing, I would say. So, I have not ventured into that intense zone, crime scenes, or an angry scene, or lying about a murder or conspiring to do something.
I am enjoying this so much at this point in time. I feel I am learning on the job, doing a scene that I have no idea about or haven’t done in the past. I have no idea how it is going to turn out. And if it does turn out well, you feel happy as an actor. I can take that energy and confidence to my next film now. That’s exactly what is happening, slowly and steadily, and eventually, there is a much better understanding of the craft, of my limits and how I can push them. I still feel it is the beginning even though it’s been five years already.
What genres are left for you to explore and characters that you want to play?
I was just thinking that we don’t do horror any more. We don’t do good horror movies, like, clean horror, psychological thrillers. That’s been on my mind, like, let’s see if there’s an interesting script… If someone can come up with a clean horror script, well written, I think I would be interested. But, sadly, most filmmakers use the sex angle in horror movies, which I feel is not good writing. Somebody has to make it and cast big names. In Hollywood, it is huge. Here, many Hollywood horror films do well, like Annabelle. I believe it did crazy business because people don’t get to watch that kind of stuff in our films any more. I feel it is a good genre.
You did not have any ties to Bollywood before entering the industry, and it’s been five years for you here. How has your perspective of the industry changed over the years?
Filmmaking is fuelled by pure passion, why else would one go through the same thing every Friday? There’s a lot of positivity and passion but when a film doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. People forget all the hard work you put in during the last year. They (the audience) get to decide if they don’t want to watch your film. So my impression has definitely changed for the better, and I now have huge respect for all the people who put in their money, blood, sweat and time into making movies, into making new stories, passionate stories.
It is certainly not an easy job. I mean, how much can a human being push himself just to acquire that amount of money or fame? It definitely doesn’t last. So one has to be very passionate about being on screen, enjoying the process of the sets, only then can one sustain or call oneself an actor.
The no-promotion strategy worked really well, to keep the suspense away from the audience. How challenging was it to rely on word-of-mouth?
I was getting withdrawal symptoms because I was not confident about not promoting a film. I kept checking and there were two weeks off but I was just chilling, I went to a friend’s wedding and a birthday party in Jaipur. I realised that nobody was calling me. It was quite a new experience for me, because I have never not promoted a film.
In hindsight, we can say that it was such a cool decision but, initially, it was a risk. Now it makes sense, because you cannot divulge a script beyond a point, about a murder mystery, and it doesn’t have anything else to sell on it. We couldn’t have spoken about anything else other than my character. So it would have made an incomplete interview, or an incomplete conversation. And the budget was on our side, so we were able to take this risk. I believe if we had promoted the film it would have come out with the same numbers. I don’t think promoting it would have made any difference. It would have been one trailer, one song and pretty much just this to promote the film. Hats off to KJ (Karan Johar), SRK and BR, for unanimously deciding not to promote the film.
After Aiyaary, what other projects are you looking forward to?
I am devoting all my energy to Aiyaary, which releases in January or February. We still have to fix a date. It is the first time I am playing an army officer, which my dad is excited about. I was showing him a picture of me in uniform, because my dad thinks he is from the army even though he is from the merchant navy!
It is an interesting film and a new zone. The trailer and mood are quite different from what I have done in the past. Neeraj Pandey is a fabulous director and I was excited to work with him. Then there is one more biopic in the army zone, which is a very nice story of Captain Vikram Batra but it is still being written. There is also a love story, which I cannot talk about just yet. I am looking forward to different genres that are coming up next year.