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“Being an actor is not my only role in life”

From being the ‘bold’ actor to becoming a producer on his own film, Why Cheat India, Emraan Hashmi has come a long way. He talks to Team Box Office India about what attracts him to grey characters, the importance of a message in films and what made him don the producer’s hat

You have given some memorable performances, especially with grey characters.

(Cuts In) I hope so.

Of course. But what is it about these grey characters that fascinates you?

I find them very real. I don’t think anyone is ever completely good or bad. Very early on in my career, I started to have an aversion to typical, righteous heroes. I didn’t feel that they had a character arc. In the beginning of your career, you don’t choose scripts, scripts choose you. I kind of, by design, fit into this mould that worked for me. And I enjoyed it because I felt there was more to do in these kinds of characters.

I would, of course, vary the character in different stories and bring them out with a certain freshness as anti-heroes. In 2003, I came out with films that showcased the anti-hero whom you hated but at the same time rooted for.

Why Cheat India is a simple example of this. My character Rakesh is a hero but you are seeing from a very different perspective, as a villain.

I think that was my calling very early on. I think it has something to do with my face too (Laughs). I don’t think I look like a very righteous person!

That’s not true.

I don’t know if I have soft features, but my writers and directors certainly don’t think so (Laughs). They obviously think I can pull off a vicious con man or an anti-hero better. Not that I have not been offered traditional hero roles but I didn’t fancy them too much.

You said you got roles like these early in your career. Weren’t you afraid of being typecast?

You know, early in your career, all you want to do is work. You want to do the best you can and you are grateful that you’ve got your next film. It is a struggle. You get the film, you do your best and you hope it does well at the box office. You hope that widens your prospects and you get your next film. One doesn’t think about things like being typecast. Although, yes, that was the kind of image I acquired. I found it amusing and didn’t think it would stick for long. It was an extension of the films that I did in the beginning of my career.

But it did become a bit of an albatross in the sense that whenever I tried something new, people would wonder why. They would say, ‘Whatever you are doing is working. That’s the label we have given you and we associate with you.’ It happens everywhere, including in the West and many actors go through this. When you do something very early on, it becomes symbolic of you and it is difficult to get out of it. But you live in hope.

There is a departure from that sort of image in Why Cheat India. Not that there is no kissing in the film (Laughs).

Speaking about your character of Rakesh aka Rocky, his personality seems interesting on paper. What did you do to make it your own?

He originates from Jhansi and he moves to Lucknow. The language is pretty universal, it is Hindustani. Everyone can understand it. There are just a few mannerisms and words which are very true to the place that he comes from. He is an ‘honest cheater’. He does everything for the love of money, for his profession. He looks like a professor or someone who works in IT or is a bank executive. He looks very innocent but is extremely devious. 

But, through the film, you will realise and – he will prove to you – that it is not him, it is the system. If you point a finger at him, see what the system has laid out for you. There are always two sides to a coin. It is not like he is justifying it but he has a very interesting take on why he does it. That’s the fascinating part about the film. He is the anti-hero, he is unapologetic. He wants to make money. In Hindi films, we love justifying people’s actions. There is nothing justifiable about Rakesh.

Through your character and the storyline, this film sends out a certain message. Do you think it is important for films to do that?

Not really. Sometimes, a silly comedy or an action film that has no message but is a popcorn flick will connect with people. It will not stay in your subconscious and be remembered 10 years later. That is one kind of cinema and there is nothing wrong with that. I think there is a place for different kinds of films. But a thought-provoking film would have to have a message, without it being preachy. It would have to mirror society.

At the same time, it has to be entertaining otherwise we would have rather made a documentary on the education system. We chose to make a Hindi film because we wanted to entertain you, we wanted to thrill you. With all this, it has very smartly shone the spotlight on our very fractured education system that has not changed for 100 years and is not showing any signs of changing. I am inclined towards films you can take back home and are thought-provoking, that start a conversation. I don’t believe cinema really changes things overnight but if it sparks a conversation, I think it is mission accomplished for all of us. That’s what Why Cheat India does.

Were you aware of the loopholes in our education system prior to this film?

I was aware of how ineffective, how bad the education system is because I have studied here. You don’t realize it back when you are studying. It is only after you graduate from school or college that you realise how little you have learnt, how little real-world application that material has when you look for a career or a job and start to address your ambition. It is very limited. It has a lot to do with rote learning, which implies that you are not fundamentally understanding what you are learning. Later, you realize that you should have learnt other things in school which our system doesn’t provide.

The system is also plagued by things I didn’t know about, like the ‘cheating mafia’. For money, they get undeserving students a seat in college or admission to courses by sending impersonators instead of the real candidates. It is as simple as changing or morphing a photograph. These guys are doctors and engineers who take exams for these other kids who get the marks. Then, these kids get admission to universities or land jobs which could have gone to meritorious students.

In a country that is so populated, 20 to 30 per cent of jobs are reserved by the Government in quotas, then you have these people who come and plague it. So where is the place for meritorious students? According to a report in a leading newspaper, more than 50 per cent of IIT students have admitted to cheating, and this is the top engineering university in our country, and in the top 200 in the world. This data is out there and people don’t know about it.

The other fundamental problem with our system is that it is stuck in the industrial age, the factory system. Most students, myself included, graduate from college not knowing what to do in life because there was no vocational training in school. There is no one to prepare you, to help you understand what you could take up as a job. It is very scary. Acting just happened to me. I graduated with Commerce. I shouldn’t have been doing that. If someone had guided me through properly and made me realize that my calling was maybe in the Arts, I wouldn’t have wasted five years pursuing a Commerce degree. But my school system didn’t help me. All I did was sit like a zombie for eight hours every day and study things that, according to me, were a waste of time.

But what a beautiful accident that you ended up in the world of cinema.

Well, that’s how life is.

What kind of homework did your character, Rocky demand?

I admitted my son to school two years ago. The conversations about the education system had already started, before I got this script. I had a head start and was halfway into it as far as the research went. I had probably also subconsciously done research through all my school years and realised just how screwed up it all is. The preparation was just readings, understanding what kind of person Rakesh would be, how his body language would be, how sincere he would be about cheating. He might be doing something unethical but he is doing it with sincerity. That honesty had to come out in the two hours of the film.

At the end of the day, it is about learning your lines and showing up on the set. Then there are discussions about how you are performing the character. The first few days are unnerving because you are struggling to get hold of what and who Rakesh is. But during those three days, you finally understand him, what he stands for, and then when time flies, it becomes easy. You have done most of your homework, it is a bit of a struggle on the set to understand whether it is working or not.

This is your first production venture. Did you always want to produce?

For the last five years. It just seemed like the obvious next step. There were a couple of films I wasn’t very happy with how they turned out. I worked in those films only in the capacity of an actor, which means my role was limited. You are powerless when it comes to the decision-making process in the larger scheme of things. Not that the makers don’t listen to actors but, as a producer, you have added value. So, whether or not it turns out to be a good film, I take complete responsibility and am willing to learn from my mistakes, if I have to. If it does well, I will know I did something right.

Five years ago, by the time I leaned towards becoming a producer while I was also getting done with my acting commitments, I took three years’ time. The script came to me a year back and then I went along with it. I am proud to not just be an actor but also a producer on this film. It is larger and bigger than just a film. It addresses a core problem in our society which no one has touched upon.

Everyone tells these very nice stories – study, work hard and you will a good job. News says that 20 per cent of students who work hard do not even get these jobs. So we thought let’s hold up a mirror and show the world the problems that the education system faces. What is being dished out to kids? It is not about likho, padho aur aapko rozi-roti mil jaayegi or you will get a job; there are bigger problems that need to be addressed. Unfortunately, the government has not addressed them.

As a producer, were you creatively involved in the process of filmmaking?

Sure, right from the discussions at the script stage. We had many discussions. As a producer, I would sit across and offer my point of view through the entire process including shooting.

Why Cheat India is also produced by Ellipsis Entertainment and T-Series. What was your learning from the collaboration?

T-Series is a production company that really backs things if they love the script. If Bhushan (Kumar) loves the script, he backs you from start to finish, which is fantastic. Ellipsis is a company that I have always admired. They have done some amazing stuff in the last two years. The kind of films they have done are risky and out-of-the-box but very successful. That is why, when I heard the script, I felt the first company I would take it to would be Ellipsis as they would understand the subject matter. After they came on board, we got T-Series on board, and the rest is history. I don’t think I could have got better producers for this film.

Your films are remembered for their songs. Why do good songs come your way?

I don’t know (Chuckles). This has been asked loads of times. It is not like other actors don’t want good songs; it is just that my films probably lend themselves to good music. I have had the good fortune of working with some fantastic music directors, singers, lyricists and a bit of luck (Smiles). This comes with its share of fear of audience’s expectations, which means added work.

You had once talked about how, for some actors, the lines between real and reel life often get blurred. How have you managed to stay away from all the gloss and glam?

It is very simple. You just stay away from it (Smiles). There is nothing complicated about that. I did it by design. I think it also has to do with the kind of person I am. I never wanted to be an actor. I am always envious of actors for whom acting was their childhood dream. For them, ever since they started walking or were five or six years old, they wanted to be actors. That becomes their life.

I probably didn’t see it that way, and it just happened to me by accident. I became an actor and I realized that I like this. As long as it gives me longevity in any industry and I can survive, I can do my job which is maybe nine-to-nine or seven-to-five. I can do night shifts and day shifts as an actor and promote my films and be diligent as an actor, if that lets me survive in this industry. I don’t need to give in to every dimension of that if I can survive without them.

I have another life apart from being an actor. There are a lot of roles that we play in life. If you make your career your sole role, then other things will suffer.

I have a group of friends who are thankfully not filmy at all. That gives me a sense of sanity and they are the people who give me a sense of reality.

Last year, you ventured into the digital space with Tiger. This year, you have The Bard Of Blood coming up. How do you look at the web space?

I think it is fantastic. It is the easiest way to reach out to people as today people are tuning into many different OTT platforms. There has not been a better time for consumers than now. Viewers and consumers have a choice. On OTT platforms, you have everything out there and you can watch content as and when you please. You can even go out and have a community viewing. That is a great experience to have. So it is a great time for the consumer and it is here to stay.

How have you seen the marketing strategies of films changing over the years?

People have become choosier because right now you cannot do a film just for money any more. You have to really, really believe in it because you have to sell your film too. Everyone is screaming at the top of their voices, and if you don’t scream too, your film will get lost in the crowd. But what if we do not promote a film? Would it still do as much business? I don’t know. Maybe you guys can help me on this (Smiles). Producers are scared to not promote because everyone is doing it for the past 10-15 years. Would everyone be prepared to release their films with just regular promotions spanning across just five to six days? We don’t know. A producer should have the guts to try that.

Today, a lot depends on the trailer.

Everything depends on the trailer. Say too much and you might end up giving away too much. If you say too little, you might end up making a lukewarm trailer and people won’t take to your film. And, sometimes, you have awesome trailers and that is the only awesome part about the film.

There is no formula. At the end of the day, there are a lot of permutations and combinations. Six-seven years back, music was very important. It is still important. But here’s my interpretation of it. About 10   years back, when you didn’t have YouTube, people came to cinema halls to consume the song visuals on the big screen. It was a novelty then. Today you have already seen the music video several times on your mobile phone on YouTube. So that audience now yearns for something more. They primarily come to watch a good film. The music gives you recall value.

 

Now that you are a producer, do you look at films differently?

Now there is an added responsibility. First, you analyse films only as an actor where you want to perform in a certain way and do certain kinds of films. But now you see that a film belongs to a certain genre, releases on a certain date and it does a certain business. You get clarity about the film because you are not just doing it as a creative person, but also looking at the business side.

What are your expectations from Why Cheat India?

I am hoping it gets across to the people we want to reach out to, not just to students but also to parents. It is a very relevant film. There are a lot of films made on education, but this is a film that deals with the antithesis of education. We are telling you that some doctors and engineers who do surgeries and build bridges might have fake degrees. That is what is happening in the country. This is a prevalent problem.

And you know what? When you make a film like this, you got to be very smart with the economics. In this respect, we are safe because we have already made a profit even before the film release. It is a very cost-effective film and we have recovered everything from our digital and our music teams. Therefore, the money made from the film’s theatrical release will go to the producers. It is just not about the content but also the economics of the film.

You are already talking like a producer.

Have to. It comes with the role, (Smiles). 

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