After international acclaim in Asif Kapadia's "The Warrior" it's more of the same in Vishal Bhardwaj's "Maqbool".
Yes, "Maqbool" has satisfied the actor in me. What surprised me most after "The Warrior" was that people were talking about my looks and body language! I was even called a sex god when I was in London! This kind of critical pampering was new to me. I began looking at myself with new eyes. I'm indebted to Asif Kapadia for seeing a hero in me.
The character allowed me to convey everything from compassion to sensuality. People loved my big eyes, which were initially seen by some as a handicap. That used to hurt.
I'm glad that I waited for "Maqbool" and "The Warrior" instead of succumbing to the temptation of doing too many crass films. If I had my way I'd only do such multi-layered films. These films allowed me to be minimalist.
After the international acclaim for "The Warrior", are you getting offers from Hollywood?
Yes, quite a few, including one from Ridley Scott about the fight between Jews and Palestinians. I was offered the role of a Muslim leader. I can't understand when and how I became suited for dark roles. When I passed out of the National School of Drama I was offered roles of noble, sensitive, gentle souls. I was soon bored with them.
After I played a negative role in the TV soap "Banegi Apni Baat", I was given the job of scaring audiences relentlessly. My first film role was in "Ghaat". Since I didn't get any really good offers, I succumbed to doing roles I wasn't very happy with. I was surprised to know that the makers of "The Warrior" wanted specifically me. "Maqbool" came to me by chance.
Were you aware of the impact "The Warrior" and "Maqbool" would make?
Not really. When I got "The Warrior" I thought it was designed as a thriller. Later the director explained why the writing had to be market-friendly. Now when critics find so many nuances in my performance I wonder how I managed to convey so much.
Now I find the same kind of response to "Maqbool". Surprisingly, women audiences have warmed up to "Maqbool". The love story between me and Tabu, which wasn't there in the original play, has really moved the audience. I never got to do a love story before. The experience changed me.
How was your interaction with Tabu?
You know when we met for the workshop before shooting I was really apprehensive. Even on the sets we met almost as strangers. When we finally started shooting I wanted to sit with her for 10 minutes holding her hand just to establish a comfort level. That never happened. First we shot the poignant climactic sequence. The way she reacted to me in those scenes convinced me that we were like a nut and bolt on screen. She became a part of me and I a part of her. My love for her character possessed me. During her death scene I achieved a mental state that had prompted me to become an actor in the first place.
What's that mental state?
As an actor I could watch my character going through all the pain and suffering. Still I'd say "The Warrior" was more emotionally taxing. We shot it at a stretch and had to move through several gruelling locations. Moreover, my character in "Maqbool" had the luxury of purging his emotions. "The Warrior" offered no quick catharsis. When I did Tabu's death scene in "Maqbool" I was close to a breakdown. I cried for hours after the scene. But strangely I wasn't disturbed. I look forward to such pain in my acting.
You've won Screen's best villain's award for "Haasil".
I don't think I'd have got "Maqbool" without "Haasil". Vishal Bhardwaj and my child study in the same school. That's how we met. I showed him "Haasil". I feel it has given me a new lease in Bollywood. Director Tigmanshu Dhulia really helped me grow as an actor.
Now I'm doing Dhulia's "Charas" where again I play an interesting character.
You started pretty young, didn't you?
Yeah, I was lucky to have Dimple Kapadia as my co-star in my first film "Drishti". Technically she was far ahead of me. Her performance was fine-tuned while I was still groping in the dark.
I want to do the roles that require only me. If I find myself to be replaceable in the projects I don't think I want to do them. Earlier, I was called media shy and arrogant. My silence in public places was misconstrued. But I kept quiet because I had nothing to say about myself. Now with some substantial work behind me I can also speak authoritatively.
I've lots more to give. I won't compromise beyond a point. I'll say no to roles that I don't believe in. Right now, I have an off-beat comedy, "Dubai Returned", directed by Aditya Bhattacharya. I play a don who is out of touch with the times.
How will you fight the Bollywood star system?
I've fought so far. I'm not here to prove I'm a maestro. Nor do I want to be a big star. Now that I've carried two films on my shoulder I hunger for more challenges. I want to do films where less is more. And if I can't I'll watch films instead of doing them. I don't expect Bollywood to change for me. I'll have to fit in.
I've to find the right set-ups for myself. I've given up TV for now. Cinema is changing. Ram Gopal Varma has established his own unique empire. People like Mani Ratnam, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Farhan Akhtar, Sriram Raghavan and Santosh Sivan make a difference.