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Answering A Call

As they make their debut in the digital world with ZEE5 series, The Final Call, actors Arjun Rampal and Jaaved Jaaferi talk to Bhakti Mehta and Titas Chowdhury on exploring this new zone

Bhakti Mehta (BM): A lot of actors have entered the digital space in the last couple of years. Was it an organic process or a deliberate decision for you?

Arjun Rampal (AR): It happened organically, but yes, I was very interested in this space. I just feel that there are a lot of stories that you can tell here that you cannot make films out of. It might be because they are lengthy or there is too much to say or you don’t have that kind of freedom. Here, in the digital world, you do have that, so it is a very exciting path to walk on.

As actors, we keep saying that we want to reinvent ourselves, we want to do something new, but we end up going and doing the same thing in every film. We fool ourselves that we are growing. Sometimes you feel that you are. But when you can actually push the envelope, which this platform allows you to do, it is very cool. It teaches you a lot and you can take a lot away from it.

Jaaved Jaaferi (JJ): Like a spider’s web attracts all the flies, anything that attracts actors in terms of perspective, performance and pushing the envelope will be good. I think it is a zone that gives you the potential and the range to be able to go into subjects and material that otherwise would not have been accepted in films, or on television for that matter. It is an exciting zone.

I come from a time when it was said that if you stepped into television, you would be branded a flop actor who had nothing else to do. But when I joined in 1994, I didn’t think of it like that. I did my own thing, drew on my creativity and helped bring about a change in certain areas. The web expands and gives opportunities to so many more talented people in the fields of writing, directing and acting. The world is content-hungry and the digital domain is limitless.

BM: A lot of actors say they don’t see any difference between working on a film and on a long-format show. What are your thoughts?

AR: Yes, the biggest difference is the format because the craft is the same. Your process and approach are the same. But you get more time with the character, because there is lot more material to work with. You get more time to work on it and you shoot a lot more in the web space, in the same amount of time you would take to shoot a film. It is very hectic and tiring. Your prep has to be very solid before you get to the set to shoot. You have to go there really well-prepared.

BM: What was the prep that you had to do for this role?

AR: The first thing you need to do is experience what it is to fly. I did a lot of simulation where I went to classes, flew the simulator aircraft, took off, landed, turned planes around, learnt which buttons were for what, how to move the throttle, learnt about radar, altitude, the different codes that you can use and much more.

BM: And Jaaved? We don’t get much information about your character in the trailer.

JJ: My character is a billionaire and he has kind of been there, done that, seen everything. He is fed up of everything around him. His family life isn’t exactly going right either, so he has nothing much to look forward to. He has all the money in the world but his relationships are not working and there is an emptiness in him that he wants to fill. He is looking for something but he doesn’t know what it is. And in that journey, there was something that happened with him when he was a child. He has only one kind of connection with a spiritual entity which is probably based on luck or something. And he keeps this connect until destiny takes him on this particular flight where there are things happening with the other characters.

How the lives of the people on that plane intertwine in that moment and how he in the last few hours of his life understands so much more and achieves what he was looking for, through another person who is there with him, shows how destiny brings people together to make sure that things happen as they are supposed to.

Titas Chowdhury (TC): In this series, you give us a character with a dark side. You have played grey roles and negative characters in Hindi cinema too. Do they attract you more?

AR: I think I attract them. (Laughs)

TC: Why do you think so?

AR: I don’t know. I must look evil to people. (Smiles) Do I look that bad?

TC: Absolutely not!

AR: Then you should ask them. (Laughs) But jokes apart, I think these are not grey roles but more layered ones, which is what I like about this part as well. You don’t know what he is doing or why he is there. Sometimes you will root for him, sometimes you will hate him, and sometimes you will be confused as to what to feel for him. To evoke those levels of emotion in your viewer is the challenge.

BM: Arjun, from what we saw in the trailer, your character is suffering from a trauma which makes him a little dark, a little flawed. How did you mentally prepare for the part?

AR: There is a process that you have to use when you play disturbed characters. It’s not like you can just walk on to the set and say, let’s do this. (Laughs) You think like them and that comes from discussing a lot with your director, which Vijay (Lalwani) and I did. It also came from reading about depressed people. I read a lot about what causes depression, why it happens, how it is sometimes a chemical imbalance, a void that one feels. More and more people these days are facing depression as a result of social media. You think you are with the world, you think you are around other people, but you are isolated.

Within the youth, depression and suicide numbers have gone up instead of down. Why is that happening? It is happening because we are isolating ourselves. We are a social species. We need to be with other people; we need to be part of a pack. It’s not just social, it’s your family, your religion, these are all groups where you can go and interact on a human level, in a way you cannot through a mobile phone. You see all of that and you decide how much to draw from what and put inside you and go forward.

TC: Jaaved, you are known for your talent in the comedy genre. But with the horror film Lupt last year and now this mysterious character in The Final Call, you seem to be venturing into a lot of new spaces.

JJ: My first film was Meri Jung, where I played a negative character. Then I played leads in films and did many roles in films like Jawani Zindabad and Oh Darling! Yeh Hai India, with stars like Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan. I danced too and you can say that the kind of dance we are seeing today in this industry, I was a contributor to it since my time. I did other films, like Jajantaram Mamantaram, a children’s film where I was the lead. Then went on to do characters in movies such as Salaam Namaste!, Besharam, Bang Bang! In some of these films I have played negative characters too. I had also done serious roles in films like Deepa Mehta’s Fire in 1996.

But now suddenly, for the past few years, you have a lot to play with. Even if you like biryani, you cannot eat it every day. So it is as an actor. You love something but you cannot do it every day. I love comedy and people in the country love comedy. The audience is dealing with so much every day, the reality, the in-your-face harshness, that they just want to come out and have a good laugh. And people are producing content accordingly.

I am trying to get into all genres. I had Lupt last year and this year, as a coincidence, Total Dhamaal and The Final Call are being released together. It is great for me that I have two such different characters coming out on the same day. Then I have an art-house film that will release soon and one with director Rahi Anil Barve, in both of which I play the central character. Then there is Jabariya Jodi with Sidharth Malhotra and Parineeti Chopra. Balaji Telefilms is producing it. So yes, good stuff is happening. Returning to your question, I love comedy and people identify me with it but my spectrum as an actor is much wider.

TC: The web space was considered liberating partly because of the absence of censorship. Now there is talk of censorship on the web. As an actor, what is your take?

JJ: In television, censorship works by saying that you cannot show certain things in certain time slots. But who controls how and when someone watches TV? There is a regulatory process when a film is in theatres because you can check ID. But in television there is no such thing. And if it is not there, the web is surely impossible. Can you stop a kid from just opening a phone and watching something on the internet? No. That is the nature of the web. Everything is available online; there is pornography, the dark web and unlimited access. The censor should be within you.

AR: I don’t think it will come to that because there is self-censorship. It’s not that there is no censorship. Basically, when you have an app, parental controls are in-built. You can put in a separate password for an app and lock it. You can create another account for the children and there, they can only watch what you want them to watch, suitable to that age group. You have to be aware about these things. Otherwise you cannot attempt to guide the terms of the web, because it affects the business and this industry as a whole.

When you talk of the digital space, you don’t know where it is beamed from; it could be beamed from international shores. And they are not bound by our censor board rules. You cannot say, stop this stream or that one, because that would really damage the business. It would disrupt a lot of things.

We beam overseas too; ZEE5, for example, goes to 190 countries. It is one universal platform for everybody, whether it is Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Jio Studios or Eros Now. All the platforms have the same set-up for all the countries they are going to, and it will be very difficult to say, for example, that in India we won’t allow a particular thing.

TC: With films, you have the pressure of a Friday. Is it easier to have a release on the web because that pressure is not there?

AR: I don’t think of it like that. There is pressure, but a different kind of pressure. You have so much content out there, so why will the audience sit through yours? Why will he binge-watch yours? Your sense of responsibility is no less. There is always pressure, and if it wasn’t there then it wouldn’t work because people work best when they are under pressure. That’s my belief.

Since the format is different, the pressures are different. The best example I can give is that in our Hindi movies, there is an interval. That scene has to be so good that the audience wants to grab their popcorn fast and rush back to their seats. There has to be a cliffhanger. These are cliffhangers you look for even in web series, but you have to have many more of them. You need some twist or the other every 10 or 15 minutes. The last scene of that episode has to make the audience say, ‘Oh damn! Let’s just watch one more!’ One has to structure it like that. You hope that people will see it in one go.

JJ: The pressure is not there for people like me. It is there for people like Ajay Devgn because they are the bigger, massy actors. In this business, everything is relying on them at times. A film is, of course, a team effort, but the business affects his image, or perhaps you can call it market value. Probably, performers like me are a bit nervous.

BM: With digital and film, there have been a lot of roles and premises that you have explored. Is there something still remaining on your bucket list?

JJ: For me, right now, I am looking more and more at just film characters. I want to explore cinema, in whatever roles or segments, whether an ensemble film, a film with a central character, whatever. Today, it’s not like you have to sing and dance to be a hero. The field is open to people who are not the ‘hero’ in the traditional sense. There are films that are story-driven, character-driven, and let you build on that. Sanjay Mishra could be a lead actor today; actors like Rajkummar Rao and Ayushmann Khurrana are leads today; there are actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Irrfan Khan doing amazing work.

They are great actors but not traditional heroes, and the world is accepting that now. Yes, there is a genre where you have Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan making up the `500-crore club. The wonderful part is that the other films also have the potential to make `100 crore now. It is a great time and space for talent in the industry today.

AR: This is the beauty of our jobs as actors, that no day is the same. Tomorrow something else can change, just like that, and then the day after that, something else will happen. Some days you are just twiddling your thumbs waiting for something to come your way and then there are days when there is so much on your plate that you have to decide what to do first and what to follow it up with.

There are lots of stories being told now, especially with OTT platforms like ZEE5 around. You have created an animal with this that you have to keep feeding. It is a hungry animal and it has a huge appetite because it has all these parasites like us around it, feeding off it. To feed that animal is going to be a huge task. That’s why you have to up your game and step up with great stories that will have people subscribing to your channel and watching it. It is a great space for any creative person creating content today.

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