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VK: Strikes Again

URI: The Surgical Strike is going strong at the box office, and celebrating the success of his film, actor Vicky Kaushal talks to Team Box Office India about the challenges he faced while playing an army officer, the emotional toll it took on him and his journey in the film industry till now

At this time last year, you had visited our office before the release of Love Per Square Foot. From then to now, your journey has been one heck of a ride. How do you look back at the last one year?

Sometimes, I need to pinch myself. As an actor, I was always excited. I knew that these many releases would happen in a year. But there was this nervous energy inside as I wondered what kind of response my films and I would get, how it would change my personal and professional life and whether the graph would rise or fall. That exciting time bomb is always ticking within me, especially when I am shooting for something right now or when I have releases ahead.

Last year was full of that. I knew that a certain film would be releasing and I would be promoting it, but at the same time, I would think of the fate of some other release. It was nice to know that yet another film was about to release and I would about promoting it and hoping it went well. It was a magical year for me to know that all my releases and performances were received well. I was very charged. That is validation that every actor is dying for. When that happens, you feel like giving 100 per cent to the film you are shooting for. Once it releases, we forget the process. URI is one of the toughest shoots I have ever done.

It seems so!

It was. We were shooting deep inside the jungles and we did not even have chairs to sit on. We used to sleep in the jungle and use helmets as pillows. It was very, very tough. Sometimes, we got injured in the process. We used to take care of each other. We had extensive action shoots. With the response we are getting for URI and everything that is happening around the film, we have forgotten how difficult it was. I feel like we can go through the drill once again if this is how wonderful the outcome is. The process becomes temporary, the outcome permanent. So, I would say it has been a dream year for me.

When I started in 2015 with Masaan, I had never imagined that three years down the line, I would have a year when I would work with the best directors in the country, get such good responses with every film and life would gift me such a beautiful year. I am full of gratitude. It is surreal sometimes. Those amazing moments come in spurts. For instance, one day, you are in your car and you suddenly feel like something has changed. Or, one day, you are at home with your family and there is this moment where you suddenly feel that kuch badal gaya. Sometimes, in the weirdest ways, you get to know that something different is happening.

It must be so overwhelming. We see you posting audience reactions on URI on your social media sites.

It is the first time audiences are hooting and clapping for a movie I am attached to. Obviously, the numbers are a great validation for all of us. But getting to see people taking the Indian flag to cinemas and clapping and shouting, ‘How’s the josh?’ is very rewarding because you feel like the film is resonating with the audience. It is amazing to know that; it is an altogether different feeling. All this means the world to me. I just want to say thank you. That is why I keep posting everything (Chuckles).

With all this going on, how do you stay grounded? Your brother had once said to us that mummy ke haath ka paranthe aur chappal keeps both of you sane...

(Laughs). He said that in jest. Mummy ke chappal nahi padhte. I am lucky that I have a family and friends who help me stay grounded. My family, obviously, knows me inside-out. I have a group of friends who know me since college. They are my jigri, langotiya dost who are distanced from the film world. Mom keeps me on the straight and narrow too. Whenever she notices a swagger in my walk, she says to me while reading the newspaper, ‘Star bann gaya tu!’ When someone shoots you point blank, you instantly come down a peg or two and say ‘sorry’ (Laughs).

This also comes with not getting success overnight. When you have knocked on doors and have taken each step of the ladder, you don’t take success for granted. It does not go to your head because you are really scared to go down that road again. Right now, it is still sinking in. I am very happy to be in a phase where I am wondering whether this is actually happening to me. It is a good place to be in.

We talked about the numbers and the audience. Tell us about the kind of response you have been getting from the film industry that makes you believe that URI is indeed working wonders?

Some wonderful ones! Karan (Johar) went for the first day first show of the film at 10 o’clock in the morning. He could not attend the screening. He called me after the show was over and said he loved the film. He was full of nice words for the film and my work. The industry is being super supportive about the film. I have been getting messages every day.

People from the industry who haven’t seen the film due to their own commitments are just so happy that all this is happening with URI. They have been sending such nice messages. It shows a great change in the industry, that a film like this with such a cast can achieve this. It is great that the audience is supportive of great content. It proves that is not necessary to package a film in a huge way to clock huge numbers. We saw this happening last year. It is so good to see that this year is also starting on a great note. I have been getting some beautiful messages. One of them happens to be from Mr (Amitabh) Bachchan. It is huge.

A written note?

No, a message.

But you did receive a written note.

Yes, for Manmarziyaan (Smiles). Him taking the time to watch this film within the first couple of days of its release and sending this message means the world to me. The industry has been super supportive and very, very sweet.

URI, your solo hero film, clocked about Rs 35 crore in its first weekend. You signed it in 2017. At that time, did you have any inkling that it would do so well?

No, it does not happen like that. Even now when I sign a film, I never think about the outcome. I only ask myself whether the script is resonating with me. Do I feel like giving my heart and soul to it? I have to believe in it. When I read the script of URI: The Surgical Strike, I was blown away. It looked like a well-researched film. As a citizen of the country, I wanted some answers, and this film gave me those answers. I thought that if I am feeling the curiosity, the world would feel it too.

Also, the fact that it was an action film interested me. I was craving to do an action genre film. On top of that, it is a film with gravitas. It is a true story and the fact that it revolves around the army adds a lot of value to it. I was happy that I was not doing an action movie that was frivolous. URI is not a Bollywood entertainer, it is more than that, and we are giving the audience much more than an action film.

I was happy this film came to me and I was really thankful to Ronnie Screwvala. I feel like he took a risk in casting an upcoming actor to lead a film like URI. I am also thankful to Aditya Dhar for making me his first choice for his debut film. That meant a lot to me. Once I read the script, I knew that no actor could turn down a script like this.

Will the success of URI dictate your subsequent film and role choices?

No!

So, what are your criteria for a signing a film?

The story! It was a priority before URI and it will always remain a priority. When I read a script or hear a narration, I do not read it from the point of view of an actor, that they have approached me for a particular part in a particular film. I read it or listen to the narration from the point of view of the audience, who has paid 300-350 bucks to watch the film.

If a reading or a narration moves me in some way, it hits home and I feel excited to discuss it with my family and friends, that is the box I want to tick. The rest follows… whether or not it is something I have done before, the director, the writers and the producers. The first thing is that the story must hit the bull’s eye.

When you were prepping for URI, you had said you had to undergo intense workout sessions for the film. Tell us, how did you internalize the character of Vihaan Singh Shergill?

As a performer, the same thing happened to me during Masaan. I somehow reached Vihaan Shergill subconsciously. While playing Deepak in Masaan and Vihaan in URI, I did not realize that I would become somebody else and it was not like I felt some kind of connection with them. I shot for these films like any other film. I was just performing to the best of my abilities and I was trying to be honest to my characters.

I definitely worked on the body language and the voice of a military person. You create a basic structure of the character that you are playing. For URI, I had gone through a very different kind of workshop, where meditation became a big tool to play Vihaan Shergill. Atul Mongia took our workshops. He used to make me meditate because he felt like my energy was all over the place. To play him, I had to get my energy right first, so that it gave me a rhythm. I had never meditated before and for the first two days, I would meditate, do some scenes and improvise them. On the third day, I felt different, I felt a connection with Vihaan. It brought me some peace and thehraav.

I realized this when we were improvising the scenes after it. The rhythm was different this time. Mera sur hi alag tha bolne ka. My body language automatically became what we had planned for Vihaan. That is the first time I realized I had connected with the rhythm of my character. When you get that right, you don’t have to worry about how you walk, talk and your pitch because you start breathing like another person. I did not realize it during the shoot, but much later, subconsciously.

When the process was over and the film wrapped, I returned to my normal life. After a month or two, when they called me to dub for the film, I could not get the sur of the first couple of scenes because my rhythm was different and I was speaking differently. I felt like it was not me. That is when I realized that I had subconsciously reached somewhere I was not. The last film that made me feel this was Masaan. But you don’t realize it while shooting and you go into auto-pilot mode.

Two important aspects of the film are the physicality and the emotions. Which was your toughest, most physically taxing and emotionally unnerving scene? 

When I interacted with ex-Special Forces commandos, who have been on various missions and have since hung up their boots, I did not ask them about their missions. I was trying to grasp their weaknesses. I really wanted to make Vihaan real. The only way you can make a person appear real is by showing his weaknesses to the audience.

At the script level, Vihaan was projected as this hero who could kill 10 people at a time. I wanted to show his vulnerabilities too, so that the audience could see his human side. And I found out more about this when I spoke to one of the ex-Special Forces commandos. I wanted to ask them what scares them. We all know how brave they are, how superhuman they are. They are like superheroes who can face any kind of situation or enemy. Special Forces operations generally take place at night. Nobody knows about them because they function in stealth mode. Would you feel like having dinner if you knew you had to cross a hostile border at 2 am for a secret, deadly mission?

That’s what I asked them about too. What is it like the evening before a mission? Do you feel hungry? Do you have dinner? Some of them might not return in the morning. That thought is always with them; it is a realistic thought. They have this habit of playing a sport every day with their teammates. I asked if they keep to that routine, or go through a special drill or regroup and chat. If they did feel scared, did they convey that to their teammates or hide it? If they did convey it, how would the others pump them up? What is the mood like?

They said they also get scared and said ki hamaari bhi ego hoti hai, hum nahin batate kisiko. They feel that if they say it, then the fear will spread to others. Their thought is that seeing them overcome their fear gives the other person strength. It’s like, even though you are scared, you are facing it and moving forward. When I learnt these things, I thought I should imbibe them in Vihaan too. The soft and the vulnerable side have to be there.

The scene where Mohit Raina’s character, Karan, is martyred and Vihaan is at the funeral, that scene was very tricky. And it was so because we are in attention mode and I have to convey my emotion without moving at all. I have to stand at attention during the war cry and the salute, but inside I have broken down. I didn’t know how I would show that and it’s not really something you can prep for. You cannot rehearse it at home. You have to really go through the emotions and you don’t really know what will emerge. It is a very unknown space. So, the day of the shoot, you’re like, pata nahi kya hone wala hai. You cannot visualise it like you can a normal scene, where you know, I will do this and then that, we can design the scene in this way.

Here you don’t have dialogue, you are just standing and you cannot move. You know you have to feel it and you’re thinking, if it happens great but what if it doesn’t? Luckily, what happened was that the little girl in the scene, her name is Reva, she is just so good. She is one of the best actors I have ever worked with. Before that day of the shoot, we had not heard her scream even once. She would call me Mamu because I play her uncle in the film. Another emotional thing was that she has actually lost her father in real life. So her real-life Mamu is like her father. When I was playing that role, she bonded with me and for her, it became a different thing altogether. It was hitting very close to home for her.

When it came time for that scene, this soft-spoken girl gave an amazing take. We’re not even looking at her in that scene; there’s a close-up sequence of her looking at the coffin. The way she screamed in that scene, I can’t even tell you! She gave a war cry and something happened, yaar. It just happened when I was standing there, hearing her scream like that with everything she has, all the emotions coming from inside her while she really cried in that shot.

The whole unit was clapping after that shot and they had tears in their eyes. I automatically had those tears and if it wasn’t for that kid, Reva, in that scene, I couldn’t have emoted the way I did. She really gave everything to the scene and it motivated all of us to do the same. The shot when I cannot finish my war cry, when I struggle through it, it automatically came that way. I really wanted to break down but I couldn’t. Abhi bolte bolte bhi kuch ho raha hai. (Smiles) Some moments just happen so realistically for you that you feel blessed about the fact that there was some vibe on that set, on that day, that let it come out like this.

That scene really looked very challenging.

It was difficult in the sense that we were getting into a very unknown space. We were worried about whether we would get that scene right. It had to touch an emotional chord and it’s a chord that is very difficult to touch. It’s not like you get up in the morning, wear the clothes and are ready to touch it. Aisa nahi hota. But that day, it happened. That is when you feel that there is some energy with the film that is making things happen.

And what about the most physically difficult scene?

Arre, all the action scenes were the most difficult. Dhuaan nikaal diya tha yaar, matlab main kya bataun aapko. For the action scenes, we actually went into the jungles to shoot. And when you’re filming there, you don’t have the luxury of time. There is a budget constraint to all the shoots. You go inside the jungles to shoot and if it has to be done again then you have to go all the way back there to redo it. And we had to make it look very real.

It became like choreography, because you had to rehearse the action sequences before. We had rehearsed the sequences day in and day out. The hand combat action scenes became like a dance. It was like there was a song with the beats of one, two, three, four. Because it had to be one take. We didn’t have many opportunities to shoot a second take. Then one day, it rained very heavily there. Ab kya karoge, yaar? You just wait for the rain to stop and that much time has been wasted.

Was this during the Serbia shoot?

Yes, it was in Serbia. And it was very difficult because some action sequences were designed with the thought that the land is dry. But since it had rained, the land had become slippery. So, when you go to punch somebody, you slip and fall yourself. We already did not have the luxury for even a take two and now we had to manage it all with these challenges too.

When you see the movie, there is an action sequence in the beginning that is set in the jungles of Manipur, the one-on-one hand-combat scene that I have. It was not planned that way. We were actually falling down because of the slippery mud in Serbia. You have to incorporate all of that in the action sequences. In the climax too, when they are running back after the mission is complete, you’re actually running on that terrain, in the forest.

And that too in the dark, since it was a night shoot.

Yes! It was a night scene and it just exhausts you. Your feet ache and you’re in the middle of nowhere, so much so that even chairs couldn’t be brought there. If you wanted to rest, you had to lie down on the ground. The gear we wore was also so heavy. It would take us 15 to 20 minutes to just put that gear on. So whenever we would take a break, it wasn’t like we could take off the gear because then that much time would be wasted putting it on again. The most we could do was take off the gun and the helmet, that’s it.

It was physically very taxing. We had to run again and again, and the special effects were set up to show the bullet shots and all. So if there was another take, then it would be very time-consuming because those guys had to set the special effects again too. There was so much pressure to get it right on the first take. All these things were physically very taxing.

In those last scenes, where the surgical strike was actually being shown, it was interesting to see that even though there wasn’t any dialogue, the film didn’t drop its pace for even a second.

Yes, the last 30 or 40 minutes were just action. I think Aditya always planned it that way. He was like, I want to make a film that shows the military in a real and authentic way but at the same time it is catering to the masses too. But even though he had that in mind, he didn’t want to cater to an unreal action space. The action sequences were planned to be very messy. He didn’t want it neat. It had to look like a brawl. When people fight each other, they don’t how they are going to land the punch; he wanted that. Since it was the army fighting, it could look like they were trained to fight, but it had to look authentic, dirty and messy and grungy.

And also ruthless.

Of course! It had to be ruthless because Special Forces commandos, in action, are known to be very efficient. They won’t take half an hour to kill you. They are looking for ways to kill you in one minute. Their strategies are deigned that way. We also had to think along those lines. It couldn’t be an action sequence where it’s just going on and on just because it’s a Bollywood film. It had to look like I was punching to kill him. And Stefan Richter, the action director, was just so good with that.

When you listen to real-life stories, they are so engaging. We knew that if we could represent that reality on the big screen, then people wouldn’t miss the dialogue. They would just be so enthralled by what was going on. Also, you have to create a situation where the audience feels the men are actually at risk of losing their lives. We tried our level best to represent it all accurately and we feel so good that it has clicked with people. That the sense of adrenaline clicked with them.

Have you congratulated yourself yet, Vicky? What is the benchmark of success for you?

I have never felt that way after the success of a film. When scenes like the funeral scene and the action sequences take everything out of you, that is when you feel you have given everything as an actor. That is when you feel like patting yourself on the back.

When your film does well, the world pats your back. That’s when I don’t pat my own back as a film’s success is the result of team effort. If a single piece goes missing from that puzzle, it will not be the film that we see in theaters.

You feel like patting your back while shooting the film, when you have connected with the character, given a good take and your director gives you the validation that you did a good job in a particular scene. That is when you feel like you have given something back to your job.

Post Raazi, you had told us that you don’t mind being labelled.

To me, labelling is like a compliment. If I do a film and people say I am an ‘indie actor’, it means I have cracked that space. If someone tells me I am an ‘action hero’, I feel like I have justified my part. If they call me a ‘new-age actor’, I would feel like I have justified my character. These are labels.

Labelling is different from stereotyping. I would be the reason to get stereotyped, not the industry. If similar roles are offered to you, you should take it as a compliment. It means I did a role which was so convincing that people believe I can pull it off.

Stereotyping will happen if I say ‘yes’ to those projects. According to me, an actor stereotypes himself or herself. What the industry offers you depending on your last release is like a token of appreciation, that what you did was so believable that they really see you in that particular role. That, for me, is a compliment.

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