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I am riding the high of just being accepted as an actor

Basking in the success of Kapoor & SonsSidharth Malhotra reflects on taking risks, not being typecast and on lessons learnt

Box Office India (BOI): The first time you visited our office was during Student Of The Year. Today, almost four years later, you look much more confident. Can we attribute that to success and being wholeheartedly accepted by the industry?

Sidharth Malhotra (SM): All the factors, lots of factors… I think I am still a work in progress but when you get acceptance, success and box-office acceptance… In fact, it’s something I had to learn. Now I am more aware that numbers don’t lie, which means so many people have watched the film. Obviously, all this adds to my confidence and, yes, I have definitely grown up in the last few years as a person, learning, meeting a lot of people, understanding whatever I can about how the industry works. In the beginning, I had no pamphlet with a list of dos and don’ts of Bollywood. I had Karan (Johar) guiding me but he never imposed ki yeh mat kar yaar, woh kar.

It was about just letting myself out there in the field and learning from my mistakes. I think I have learnt where it is important to invest your energy; it is equally important to do something’s off-camera. Sometimes, being on-camera is not the need of the hour. Many actors devote a lot of their energy to various things other than just doing movies. There are a lot of expectations from us. For instance, with social media, we are responsible for certain things, like, people get excited if you say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ certain things. As an actor, there is a sense of responsibility that comes in. It also gives you confidence.

There is a lot I am excited about right now. In Kapoor & Sons, I was coming out of a film like Brothers, which was my first experience of not being accepted, regardless of what happens at the box office like, say, even breaking even. The acceptance was lacking. That made me really hungry in a film like, say, Kapoor & Sons, where I had a part with a lot of other actors. I hope they recognise that I have tried doing something hatke. The acting style required was different from what I have done before. So, for instance, we were not screaming our lines and every emotion was not out there.

This is what I call ‘experience’ because only when you experience the lows can you enjoy the highs. So my experience of lows was from Brothers, in which I invested so much physically, and even time-wise, as I didn’t have a release for a year. So I didn’t get back what I had given. So even though Kapoor & Sons had an ensemble cast, I am riding the high of just being accepted as an actor. Life is full of ups and downs; you simply have to know where to invest your energy. You have to try and balance everything.

BOI: After SOTY, the trade expected you to play safe but you did the opposite and did films likeHasee Toh Phasee and Ek Villain, especially Ek Villain

SM: Yes, in fact you (Vajir Singh) messaged me after watching the trailer and said you didn’t expect me to excel so much.

I chose to not play safe because people kept saying things to me like, ‘tu aisa hi kar sakta hai, issey zyada nahin kar sakta.’ It made me feel rebellious, in that I wanted to tell people to stop telling me what I could and could not do. I mean, even I was not aware of what I could and could not do.

I like to find a method in everything, understand everything, and, at that point, I wanted to do interesting stories, present myself differently, even though it was my second or third film. I think that’s how the West does it. I saw a lot of actors in the West who start with small roles, and then they become huge stars and people appreciate that.

So I realised I needed to choose stories that were interesting. Hasee Toh Phasee is a totally different world, my character was very unique. Ek Villain was an altogether different story and so was Brothers, which had a different narrative. Ditto Kapoor & Sons, which became a different world. So I thought that if I could keep changing the world, the audience would accept that, as an actor, I could adapt to any character. Today, cinema is more about telling stories rather than selling actors. Obviously, if we get ‘sold’, then the stories will connect even more.

BOI: It was a big gamble as you aren’t an industry kid.

SM: I guess that’s why I am not attached to things. Industry kid nahi hone ka fayda yeh hai ki koi naam nahin hai, koi family naam nahin hai, papa ka naam kharab hoga ya kisi aur ka naam kharab hoga. There are no attachments when you are an outsider, I have come on my own steam, I have come all the way from Delhi to Mumbai, then from Malad to Bandra. So I have no sense of ownership. I still feel like the same bachelor who came to Mumbai eight to nine years ago.

Also, that helps when choosing stories … okay, this is the story; okay, someone else has been cast; okay, fine; okay, this sounds different, I will do it. There’s a risk in everything. Even things you assume are safe could go wrong. I don’t live with my parents and therefore don’t have them telling me which films to pick and which not to. I make my own decisions and am enjoying that.

BOI: After so many different roles and so many different stories, have you found your own zone? Is there something you prefer to do and something you don’t?

SM: I have found my zone, which is that I have to keep reinventing myself every two films. Like, right now, I finished Baar Baar Dekho,which is a softer role, not so intense, but my next film, which I recently started, is an action film which is quirky. I have not found a genre and that may seem confusing. For instance, Ek Villainhad good box-office collections whereas Kapoor & Sonsis more loved. I belong to today’s generation and I know what today’s generation wants to watch.

Things are becoming more story-driven. We might be the first ones to experience this but it is also the future, where stories will sell, not actors and stars, or larger-than-life characters.  That zamana is different. Although we would like to have that kind of mad fan following, the fact is that stories are being given more importance.

BOI: Is that why you have steered clear of typical Bollywood masala films?

SM: I like those films but, as an actor, as part of a film, I have a point of view about the film, what are we doing, where is it going? What’s the conflict, what would you think of the film as a member of the audience? Are we selling something new? I guess it has more to do with me wanting to do something more than what’s been done before. Kapoor & Sons was a lot of fun and it had interesting messages in the family, his world, and how he handles every relationship.

Even in Hasee Toh Phasee, we tried to give it that look where the boy is very different, largely silent, very different and within that, how he fell in love. It was a very new kind of character. I don’t know if mainstream Bollywood has such characters. Even Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge released was a new concept when it released… We thought it was a great concept… going to London and later coming back all the way to get married to the girl you love, convincing her family… that was a new concept and after it was loved by everyone, it became a commercial concept and everyone made their own concept out of it. I hope that one of the films becomes iconic and people will follow the concept. I guess people have loved the sur of Kapoor & Sons, and they have liked the concept.

I was talking to some ad directors recently and they told me that the audience today doesn’t need to have everything spelt out for them. So, for example, my older brother’s character in the film (Fawad Khan) is gay but that has not been mentioned in the film and has been conveyed with extreme subtlety.

We have stopped spoon-feeding our audience. We can use subtlety to tell a story, and that takes the pressure off the director. If it has been portrayed well, all you need to include is a line or two, or a nuance for the audience to get it. Today, you don’t have to point a gun and say, ‘Main goli maar dunga.’

BOI: Also, it helps when you do one film at a time. It shows on the screen.

SM: Totally. This time too, I learnt that it is very important to hang out with the entire team beforehand, especially when working with an ensemble cast. It is also something I learnt from Akshay (Kumar). He is very warm. They are huge actors but they are very large-hearted and warm, even Jackie da (Shroff). They have a great knack of bringing everybody together.

Akshay sir used to be like sab saath mein khaana khayenge, dabba share karenge, lunch saath mein karti thi puri unit. I learnt that from him. He is a senior guy, he wants to bring everyone together, he shares his meals. I learnt things like this over the years. So this time, when I was shooting for Kapoor & Sons, I took the initiative to get everyone together and we used to dine together. And because I have worked with Dharma Productions, Shakun (Batra) and I already knew each other. All of us used to spend time together, which truly helped. The relationship between me and Fawad in the film got better with every passing day as we spent more and more time together. It looked more real.

And, yes, doing one film at a time helps you focus. You can also try different looks, body language. My look inBrothers and body language was very different than in Kapoor & Sons. I have been quite lucky to be able to space it out. It is also about telling the audience that I am not here to copy what other people are doing. I try and give something new and exciting with every second film. I will give them a new story every time and try out new characters, and choose different genres.

So, I recently found a very interesting murder mystery with a credible cast and big production house. It’s the old Yash Chopra film, Ittefaq. It’s a great film but also a small one. The writing is outstanding and I don’t remember having watched a murder mystery like this in the last five years, where you think ‘murderer kaun hai?’ So, yes, stories should come first.

There’s another thing I have learnt about the industry. I was chatting with some EPs in Dharma Productions, and Apoorva (Mehta) and I were chatting. When I asked him how Kapoor & Sons was doing, he said, ‘For you, it’s very good.’ That made me realise that distributors and the trade look at it very differently. Ki agar paanchpicture ki hain, they calculate an average.

Apoorva told me, out of your five films, four films are 70-plus (`70 crore), right from your first film. Like Hasee Toh Phasee did not hit that number but it did make a profit for the people who were attached to it. That was a new insight. Now everybody is speaking that language and it is a language that is important to understand because it is a business, after all. If people don’t make a certain amount of profit, it doesn’t make sense. So, yes, I am lucky to have a consistent 70-plus. Again, this is new to me and I am learning and feeling happy about that.

BOI: With all this scoring of numbers, do you think the industry’s perception of you has changed?

SM: Of me, yes, of course. Although I was not aware of it, other people were aware that Ek Villain was a big and exciting movie. Someone from Balaji would message or Ekta (Kapoor) would tell me… In retrospect, I realise how much it takes to achieve a number like that, how much it takes to get that triple digit number or to do a Friday like that on a non-holiday. See, now I use all these technical terms!

I was very naïve. Salman Khan told me, don’t think that hum log kahin jaane wale hai, hum log yahin rahenge. He was pulling my leg, you know his sense of humour. Then he was like, no, ‘You guys are great, you are doing well. Congratulations!’

Now I understand what they were trying to say. For half their lives, dum nikal jaata haito reach that number or to get people excited on a Friday or to make them come in hordes on a non-holiday. So a lot has changed in terms of my impression and understanding of the industry.

BOI: There must have been some tough lessons you learnt along the way?

SM: I think just to realise how important it is to take care of things off camera as it is on camera. I used to think it was important to do a film and then it was the producer’s job to market it. Now I realise that an actor needs to feel a sense of ownership over their product. We need to be involved in different aspects without being overbearing.

We need to be aware of how they are marketing the film because if it is not successful, the first one to get hurt is the actor. The producer has a line-up but the actors go down first because we are the ones who are promoting it so much. I think I am beginning to understand what is necessary off camera.

BOI: Do you think you have it easier or tougher than the previous generation of stars? You can experiment more than they could; there is much less stereotyping…

SM: In a way, yes, definitely. I wouldn’t say ‘easy’ but I think we have more options of scripts, so we have a more options and hence a more varied body of work. It is very interesting. Earlier, you couldn’t do murder mystery ekdum se and then a love story. They would think this actor can only do romance or if he does action, he can do only action.

Most of our money comes from the young audience, which comes to watch us on Friday and Saturday. I think I am trying to tell them that I don’t want to get stuck in a mould. If I can entertain them in different moulds, then where’s the harm? It is exciting to watch an actor in different moulds every year. So, yes, we have more variety and more options.

BOI: On the flipside, you are competing against so much more now… there’s television, there’s YouTube, which didn’t exist 10 to 15 years ago.

SM: Yes, online is big and it has actually led to a decline in footfalls. And since television has become so big, they wait for a film to release on TV. Ratings have become very important. So, yes, the competition is there and that is also very new. I believe that our generation is obsessed with foreign TV shows. I personally watch many of them and they are very well made, they are actually like movies, they have ‘A’ star actors featuring in them.

I watched The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays OJ Simpson and it was produced by an actor, and A-list actors are doing it. So they are the future once our audience gets adapted to it but right now, in India, we are saved by the language. Here, there is a Hindi-speaking audience which will never change. I hope single screens always remain. In Delhi, I grew up when multiplexes were becoming popular. So we made that transition and now everybody watches movies in multiplexes, even in the interiors.

BOI: How much has the perception of people around you changed? After you debuted with SOTY, there must be perception like you being a Dharma boy but then you started getting different roles from different production houses.

SM: At that time, I was restricted to one production house because I didn’t have any other connections. I was under the impression that now that I had worked, people would know me. And if they had liked my performance, they would offer me work. But it doesn’t always work like that. Often, people who are senior want you to take the first step. It is important to show a keen interest in wanting to work with certain people.

After I started doing that in the last few years, I think I changed the impression people had of me. I think because I don’t meet too many people in the industry, people have preconceived notions about me, ke aisa hai waisa hai and when they meet me, they see a different side of me.

So I began to meet a lot of producers and directors, including the ones I was keen to work with. I think their impression of me changed; their impression of actors changes after they see your film. Many of them who called after Kapoor & Sons, were, like, okay we had slotted you in an action zone but, with this film, you are more in the softer zone.

Anil Thadani too liked it and said it had done well and that people had connected with the film. Even he said, ‘Good, yaar, you got this zone.’ So I think it is important to meet more people and make more connections with producers and directors and be more accessible. Since I don’t have any previous relationships, it may take a little extra time and effort but we are all here to work and I think that is the need of the hour.

BOI: Can you tell us the highs and lows of your journey from Malad to Bandra?

SM: (Laughs) From Bandra, I am moving to Pali Hill, I want a home at the highest point of Pali Hill. Someone is developing a building there and they have offered me one, but bahut mehanga hai. As I said, I still feel like the same bachelor boy that I was as I live on my own. I have all the freedom I need, and I decide what to do with my time.

I have done enough rickshaw rides in the first five years that I lived in Mumbai. Oddly enough, I was less stressed then maybe because I had no work. I was giving auditions and also modelling. After I got into assisting, I still had to follow a timetable. I remember calculating how much time it took to commute from Andheri to Bandra in traffic, reaching early in the morning, etc. So I would take a rickshaw, make some phone calls and jump into another AD’s car and let him drop me.

I had much more freedom then because I had nothing to lose, nothing to hold on to, no image to maintain and no meetings to attend. I am the same boy but, now, I am always rushing around. Time management has changed. Apart from that, the boy in me is still desi and struggling in my head. I don’t feel that I have accomplished anything. I think he is on the tip of the iceberg. I don’t feel I have given myself totally to the camera as yet. I think there is a lot more that I can do.

I think for any young struggler, the best experience is looking for a place to stay. That way, you get the vibe of the city. How nice or how mean people can be, when they reject you for reasons like, non-veg khate ho toh nahin rakhengeybachelor ho toh nahin rakhengey, film mein kaam karne wale hain toh nahin rakhengeyDelhi se ho… When I arrived here, Delhi did not have a bad reputation in Mumbai but now people are scared of Delhi boys because of what has happened. Things are growing worse every day. It is a great experience for your ego to get kicked.

They don’t care if you are educated, they don’t care if you can afford it. They have certain rules and even though this is an amazing city with such a diverse culture, they still don’t want an outsider, ladka yeh woh.That experience taught me so much. It is amazing to see how people are so territorial. It gives you the vibe of how people are in the real world.

I think changing houses doubled my training as an actor. I learnt a lot in my five to six years in Mumbai and in last three to four years, I learnt a lot about the the industry. I still feel like a student.

BOI: Where do you see yourself a few years from now?

SM: I think I would like to be in a place where I can create projects, in the sense that I want to get more involved. I have been an AD and that intrigues me, like, how can we make things better? So becoming more evolved than just being an actor as I believe I can contribute. To be a game-changer, I think. In the next five years, I would have tried or at least attempted it. Whether people accept that or not is another thing.

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