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"I don’t put cinema on a pedestal"

Having worked in some critically acclaimed films, Shashank Arora has proved his mettle. His last project, Made In Heaven, has made him a name to reckon with. He talks to Titas Chowdhury about working with Salman Khan in Bharat, the importance of creative freedom and turning music composer with Moothon

You have quite an impressive filmography which includes Titli, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Manto and now Bharat. Which one out of these films would you call a turning point?

My first film, Titli, started off everything for me. But there has been no turning point yet. I am still waiting for one. You don’t just get it; you have to work towards it and build it, step-by-step. 

But life must have changed after Titli.

Yeah, it did, in the sense that I got to do what I loved. Apart from that, I realised I had to work harder. I felt happy that I got a job.

Coming to Made In Heaven, which received rave reviews from the critics and the audience alike. What kind of response have you been receiving?

There have been some good ones and some bad ones too. Some told me that every time they listen to the voice-over, they fall asleep (Laughs). It has been a blessing. Most people have liked it; they have connected to the show. They have really enjoyed watching this chaos. So it has been amazing for me. I can’t complain at all. I received a lot of love.

As an actor, what is the biggest advantage of the web space, which is booming?

The advantage of the web space is that you get another platform. Much like a street corner or a radio station, it is a platform where an artiste gets to perform and show his talent. It is a platform that can yield talent. The web adds another avenue and that helps. It increases the quantity of work that you can do. It is more accessible. It is available on your phones. You don’t have to go to a cinema hall and a buy a ticket worth `300. You can watch something on the web, sitting at home or inside your car.

And it reaches multiple countries.

Yeah. That is worrisome also. Take Game Of Thrones, for example. The makers who have created content for the bigger screens are finding it scary that viewers are watching it on their mobile screens. But then, at least, people are watching those shows. In a country like ours, not everyone can afford to go to the theatre to watch a film.

A fresh notice has been sent to the Centre by the Supreme Court to regulate the content of OTT platforms. What importance does the freedom of artistic expression hold for you?

You can regulate content to an extent, if a hate speech is being spread against a culture. But to regulate things and to censor them unnecessarily like we do with our theatrical films is something I don’t agree with. One day, they might have a ‘literature censor board’ through which you have to run your books!

It’s scary. Freedom of speech is a fundamental thing. To be able to listen to another person irrespective of how dissimilar their views are is important. You might not like someone’s way of making films, but you should watch their films and know their viewpoint. So regulation needs to be tempered so that we can prevent hate from spreading. Apart from that, there should no regulation.

Moving on to the bigger picture, we will soon see you in a Malayalam film called Moothon. Tell us about it.

It was amazing shooting for it. Anurag Kashyap wrote the dialogue, and Geetu Mohandas, who had earlier directed Liar’s Dice, directed it. It has Nivin Pauly and Sobhita Dhulipala in it. I play the antagonist. This is the first time I am playing a villain. He is a terrible person. It was both a terrible and a fun experience playing such a character. It scared me a little because I came to terms with certain things that I had within me. I am waiting for it. So let’s see what happens.

What drew you to a grey character?

I am grey. I don’t see anyone in black and white. I am sure you have your virtues and dark sides as well, right? Black and white is so boring. No one is completely black or completely white. If they say that, they are, they are lying. If you are playing a grey character, you will be able to see both the blacks and the whites. 

Not many people know that you have also composed music for the film. How did that happen?

I don’t think anyone knows that. But they will, once you say things like this (Laughs). Yes, Moothon is the first film I ever composed music for. I composed a song and it is going to be playing while I’m acting. I am very excited about that. This is my dream. Things will change after this. This will be my turning point (Laughs). On a serious note, I am just happy that I could compose music for the film.

I was in my vanity van, sitting and playing the song on my ukulele. Actually, I hate the word ‘vanity’, so I will call it a ‘trailer’ so that things change in this country (Laughs).  That is what I do in my free time, either play my ukulele or read a book. Nivin Pauly just walked in and said to me, ‘Wow, what is this?’ My director also walked in and asked me about the song. She said she wanted to use it in the film. I said, ‘Cool, it is my dream to put it into a movie.’

Let’s talk about Bharat, which is the most mainstream film you have worked on. Did that happen by design or in an organic way?

It just happened. Mukesh Chhabra called me up one day and said they were looking to cast someone as Salman Khan’s brother. He said it is not the biggest part but it is there in the whole film and is nicely woven into the story. Bharat is a beautiful story. I don’t think there is any actor who would not want to play Salman Khan’s brother.

Was he intimidating?

He is a force of nature. He is not intimidating as an actor but as a person, perhaps. As actors, we were all on a level playing field. It was intimidating to be around someone who takes up so much space. You cannot deny the fact that you are working with Salman Khan and then there are 700 people ten feet away who are chanting his name. I have been watching his films since I was born.

To be able to work with him must have been quite something.

Well, it’s a crazy life. This life is a blessing. I didn’t know it was going to go into this direction.

In an interview, you had said that you wanted to depict reality through your acting. How do you do that?

I do that by staying true to the story and what the character wants. Every character ultimately wants something. They either want love, family, money, power or something else. When you are trying to understand what that character wants, you draw parallels with yourself. You look for those things within yourself. 

This is not an easy question to answer. I had learnt acting for ten years to find an answer to this question. Now that you have asked it, I don’t know where to start. It is a long process. Research is important. You’ve to break your character down into various parts such as his body movements, the way he sits, talks and thinks, his emotional needs and his intellectual and psychological experiences. It is a science.

In an interview, you had said that stardom is like ‘chasing gold at the end of the rainbow and sometimes the rainbow disappears’. After being critically acclaimed for your performances, how do you manage to maintain your sanity?

Constant humility. I know of people who’ve done greater things and have retained their sanity. Acting is not a great thing. Marlon Brando used to say that acting is a very ridiculous profession. I look up to people like Stephen Hawking and doctors and scientists way more than I look up to a sportsman or an actor. Sportsmen or actors work for themselves; they have selfish motives. We find entertainment, joy and comfort when we watch them. But to say, ‘I’ve done great things because I’m an actor’ is not true. I feel Leonardo Di Caprio is doing something great because he in the United Nations. He won’t wonder how he will retain his humility after working in Gangs Of New York.

Movies are being made every day. So acting in a few of them is not a big deal. As a human being, you have to realise that the things that are important to you are family, love, your relationships, the effect you have on people, what you give them and what they remember about you; and not films. If you achieve these things, then you can feel ki haan maine kuch kiya. If someone comes crying to you and says they have watched Titli and they could resonate with my character, then that feels good. To achieve greatness, you have to keep working because abhi tak toh nahi aayi woh (Laughs). I am not taking anything for granted. I have miles to go and continue acting. But I don’t put cinema on a pedestal.

What is next on the cards?

There is Bharat, which is releasing on Eid. Then there is Gangster Newton, which is a show about a physics student who joins the mafia. It is very interesting. I am also directing something. Zoya (Akhtar) and Reema (Kagti) are busy writing the second season of Made In Heaven. I know it will be exciting. I cannot wait to act in it and for you guys to watch it. Hopefully, they will not kill me. Oh my God, I don’t know (Laughs).

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