From the promos and the way you are promoting Saala Khadoos, it seems it’s very close to your heart. You seem to have worked really hard and have put your heart and soul in it.
Yes, firstly because I have put in a lot of money as a producer (laughs) and secondly because I really believe in these kinds of films. I really believe in the stories of underdogs. I believe in taking cinema to another level. I believe in doing my kind of cinema where I would get to do these kinds of films and roles that make my day much better and after watching which I would like to come back teary-eyed, but happy and content. This film is absolutely like that and I hope I get few more scripts like this to be part of.
The film you did before Saala Khadoos, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, belonged to a different planet altogether. How difficult was it to become a boxing coach. Was the transition taxing and tiring?
I know everybody feels it must have been really tough to switch such drastic roles but I shot Tanu Weds Manu Returns in between shooting Saala Khadoos. Both the characters are integral part of my personality. So acting part was not difficult but getting in and out of that shape was quite tough. Also getting my hair cut because for a man who has good hair, to get it cut is like getting raped so I felt terrible about it. The character of boxing coach, Adi Tomar is a lot like me and so was Manu from TWMR. Even if I have to play superman, I can play it easily and give it my interpretation and nobody can point a finger at me because it will be my interpretation of a superhero.
But as an actor, you don’t have that kind of liberty when you are doing a biopic and playing a real life hero…
Correct. If I have to play Mahatma Gandhi or any other real life person, then I can’t suddenly put my two-bit in it. I need to have certain qualities of that person in me for it to come and look natural. But you need to have your soul’s interpretation of that character. So if I am playing Gandhi, I don’t know what his expressions and body language were when he went for the Dandi March. Nobody knows how and what exactly he did back then. So I have to put in my interpretation and give expressions accordingly. So to put that soul of yours is very important irrespective of whether you play real or a fictional character. For that your life experiences are very important. That way I am quite smart in choosing roles and characters where I can contribute a lot from my life experiences too.
Were you apprehensive that all your hard work and prep for the character would get overshadowed because Ritika is a real life boxer and an Olympic champion and your skills weren’t as polished as hers?
There is no doubt about it. I was pretty sure about it. I knew it. Being overshadowed in boxing was not a concern at all. Nobody was worried whether she will be able to box or not. In fact, initially, I was worried whether she would be able to act. Now I feel she might have overshadowed me because she is outstanding. I don’t know if you have noticed but most of my films have had strong female characters and many times, they have been stronger than me. I have grown up in a place where women have been very strong – my mother, my sister, my wife – they all are strong women and you can’t afford to take them lightly. So when you come from that kind of background, you understand what freedom you need to give them and when do you need to step back, when do you need to be authoritative and when you need to be supportive. With Ritika, it was no different at all. She was simply phenomenal. Experienced actors were amazed to see her perform and used to wonder which school of acting and which institute she has come from. I told them she hasn’t even seen a camera before and this is her first film and they all were astonished.
It takes to be a very secure actor to do three films with stronger women characters – TWM, TWMR and now Saala Khadoos. Where does this security as an actor come from?
See more than secure, you need to be a shaana (smart) actor. For me, the film has to work. 10 or 15 or 20 years down the line, when they see TWMR, they will talk about Kangana and Madhavan. Also I think nobody else in the industry could have done that role in the terms of how it was done because those were my life experiences which I had incorporated in that role. It was my film too in the sense that the title had the names of both the characters but there is no doubt that Kangana was exceptional as Tanu. But I wasn’t dominated by her character. It’s about these two people, Tanu and Manu.
During Ramji Londonwaale, the film rode on your shoulders and now, Saala Khadoos too has your name as the main protagonist, so is there a fear somewhere at the back of your mind?
No, because there is a much bigger name than me and that is Rajkumar Hirani who I didn’t had during Ramji Londonwaale. This is his film and I am a part of it. I am firing all my bullets from above his shoulders. But I think, because this script is worthy and this film is worthy, it attracts the right vibe from the audience. There is lovely positivity that comes with the films I do.
What is that one thing that prompted and induced you to do Saala Khadoos?
It’s realism! Also the fact that a lady director was directing it because nobody in the world can make an actor look more attractive than a lady director does. (Laughs) That’s the bottom line.
What is that one thing that generally compels you to do the film, the script or the director?
Without any doubt, it’s the script that comes first because that tells a lot about the director too. If I like the script, only then it interests me to meet the director. And then I meet them very often. I actually romance with them (laughs) in the sense that I go out on dinners with them, call them for dinners and interact with them a lot to see how they will perform under pressure, how they will react when they’re angry, whether they are open to suggestions or not or whether they agree to all the suggestions I have just because they want me in the film. All these actually help a lot in deciding whether you are getting into the right film and would be working with the right people or not. I am being brutal because I cannot afford to make a mistake. I even request them to screen-test me because I want to know whether I am the right person for them in terms of what they have in mind for the character. But actually, I screen-test them to see whether they know how to direct and when to say ‘cut’. I do one film in two-three years, so I need to know that whether the time I am going to spend them and invest in the film would be worth all the effort and rewarding or not.
What was the struggle you went through and challenges you faced as a co-producer of Saala Khadoos?
Well to put it categorically, Mr. Raju Hirani didn’t put a single pressure on me in terms of production. He didn’t put even the smallest pressure on me to produce the film. Only my name is there as a co-producer, but he took care of every single thing. So I am a very lucky producer because I didn’t have to go through any pain that a producer goes through while making a film. But having said that, I went through a lot of pain as a writer and an actor in writing the screenplay and dialogues and then enacting them in two different languages. But the director was phenomenal and that’s why we were able to manage it.
How instrumental has Raju Hirani been in bringing the Hindi version to the forefront. Did you want him on board because that would ensure the film reaching larger audience and bring in a lot of credibility too?
Yes, absolutely and you can see the commitment he has towards the film and the way he is promoting it. He is not a director or a direct benefactor of this film. But he is doing all that he thinks is required for a film like this. I think it’s his passion to do good cinema. When your work has a hallmark of his excellence, it takes it to another level. Raju Hirani is simply exceptional.