Being happy where he is doesn’t necessarily mean he is not hungry, Saqib Saleem tells Pratishtha Malhotra. His journey from the fluff of Yash Raj to the realism of Amole Gupte, bears out his claim.
He grabbed eyeballs in the Karan Johar-directed intense segment that was part of BOMBAY TALKIES, which came on the heels of the frothy MUJHSE FRAANDSHIP KAROGE and MERE DAD KI MARUTI. With Amole Gupte’s HAWAA HAWAAI, Saqib Saleem proves he is not afraid of attempting anything that the world of cinema has to offer. More importantly, he has his head on his shoulders and wants to keep his ‘Delhi-ness’, as he likes to call it, intact!
After your first film released, a prominent journalist stated that your American Pie college boy style is expected to take you places, provided you make the right choices. Does such praise feel surreal, when you look back at your Delhi days?
I come from a middleclass family in Delhi. For me, coming to Mumbai itself was a very big thing, leave aside becoming an actor and doing films. In fact, it is very funny; I was talking to someone the other day and saying things like, ‘I am a Delhi boy, I have come here, have done three-four films, everyone in my colony knows me, kya tension hai life mein? How does it matter how many more films I do?’ But now when I think about it, I am very happy being where I am but that doesn’t necessarily mean that I am not hungry. When such good people say such good things, it feels really nice but then there is a little pressure also in the sense that it’s important to back it up with your talent and work. It’s not about doing 20,000 films but about doing a few select films which you truly believe in.
Have you ever experienced moments when you’ve been like, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing here?’
I came to Mumbai because I was seeing somebody and she wanted me to come here. I came here, broke up with the girl and then realised, what am I going to do now? Life shattered in front of my eyes. Then I was like okay, I have come here for a year, at least let me explore all my options. I have no formal training in acting so I didn’t know if I was good enough to act even in an ad, leave alone a film. I think what has helped me is my ‘Delhi-ness’. I have no inhibitions, mujhe darr hi nahi lagta yaar, kuch karte hue. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing, sometimes it backfires but I like to back myself. That’s worked with me till now. Do your work and chill, aur kya!
Talking about pre-conceived notions about different genres of Hindi cinema, did you ever have any hang ups in your own head?
I started with MUJHSE FRAANDSHIP KAROGAY, then I went on to do a BOMBAY TALKIES and now I am doing HAWAA HAWAAI, so I just go by my instinct. I said yes to HAWAA HAWAAI five minutes into reading the script. I didn’t think about things like, ‘This is a little on the serious side’ or ‘It doesn’t have the kind of humour that MERE DAD KI MARUTI had’. I have never thought like that. It’s totally your gut that guides you and my gut has, only four times in my life, told me that it was the right thing to do. When a good script comes along, it automatically comes from within that yes, this is it, and this is what you should be doing for the next six months. That is what happened with HAWAA HAWAAI also.
You do not have professional training in acting. How has the evolution been for you as an actor?
In my first film I played who I am; that is all I knew. The best part about all my four films has been that I have worked with great minds. If you give me a bad director, I’ll be pathetic. I am a director’s actor. Be it Nupur (Asthana), Aashima (Chibber), Karan (Johar), Amole (Gupte) Sir, I have been directed very well. There are a lot of limitations in me but thankfully they have not emerged till now and that’s a good thing. My whole trip in life is to learn. If I know that I am working with a certain director and I know that I can fool this guy, then I don’t want to work with him. If I know that I can’t fool this guy, and that he will make me work hard, I want to work with him. In the four-five years that I have been an actor, I have never thought about wanting to do a certain type of role. I never thought I would do a film like BOMBAY TALKIES. I never thought that I could pull that off, in all honesty. When the film came to me, I was very apprehensive. Then I went to meet Karan and he narrated the film to me in 25 minutes and it was the best film narration I had ever had! I could hear background music, I knew what would happen when and when there was a kiss angle… it just didn’t feel wrong. As an actor you do ten thousand different things; why limit yourself? I like experimenting and having fun doing different things. I think somewhere I have become an actor so I can be ten thousand different people in my lifetime. I know there is a certain part of me in Avinash in BOMBAY TALKIES and a little part of me in Lucky Sir, in HAWA HAWAAI as well. You do take inspiration from your own life but you try and become different characters and that is what makes your journey enjoyable. Do good interesting work, and limited films. You are working for yourself, you enjoy doing this, so whom do you want to prove a point to? Just be selective and very sure of the kind of films that you want to do because they will be with you for the rest of your life. Am I doing this to make money? No, I am not. So I am okay doing one or two films a year, that’s totally good with me.
Amole Gupte has a sensitive style of making films that revolves around children. Were there moments on the set when you just wanted to sit back and observe?
All the time! I come from Yash Raj and have done two films with them, and then I worked with Karan. So I am used to film sets and everything you want being there. Now I walk onto a set that’s very intimate. There is no vanity van, no make-up, no hair stylist. I would wear my own clothes, do my hair and walk onto the set. So I was like, am I doing the right thing? But then I thought that I have seen the other side of filmmaking and this is another type which is very interesting. I used to see Amole Sir talking to kids and wonder how he got such real performances out of them. Then I realised that it was because he becomes a kid with them. He is brilliant with kids. There were times when we used to shoot for two-three hours - we have never shot for more than four-five hours in a day because kids don’t like to shoot beyond that and Sir doesn’t like to pressurise them. He is a very liberal person and he treats his son Partho (Gupte), the same way he treats every other child. I found it interesting that you are making a film with children but you are not making them do extra work, no child labour. You allow them to do how much they want to do from their hearts, and you are still extracting such brilliant performances!
How difficult was it working with Partho, a child actor, vis-à-vis a co-star your age?
Let me tell you, Partho is very mature for his age. He is 13, I think but he is a damn smart kid. He knows about everything that is happening in the world. Having a conversation with Partho is not difficult at all - you can talk about anything, from music to sports to films, just anything. He has seen all kinds of films. He has grown up in a home where his father is Amole Gupte and his mother is Deepa Bhatia, who is also the producer and a very well-known editor. He has grown up on world cinema, besides watching all kinds of films from regional stuff to international. He is an evolved kid and a fantastic actor. That kid is special; there is definitely a lot of talent in there. The good part is that he doesn’t know it and just enjoys himself. The more he enjoys himself, the better it is for him, because he is too young to understand that he is truly gifted.
Amole comes with the baggage of TAARE ZAMEEN PAR and STANLEY KA DABBA, and you come as the Yash Raj-Dharma boy… Did this create pressure?
I don’t take pressure at all. The only time I was probably nervous was when my first film was releasing because it was for the first time ever that something really big was happening in my life. But now I don’t feel nervous or pressurised while shooting, or during promotions. Probably I have become too comfortable with myself and now I understand how everything works. I didn’t have any baggage and neither did he (Amole). He made a beautiful film called STANLEY KA DABBA before this. We never pressurised ourselves with the thought that we had to make a better film than STANLEY… or TAARE… We just said that we want to make a good film. This is a very different film from whatever Amole Sir has done. You will see a very different side of his as a director. If STANLEY… moved you, then this will move you to another level.
All your films so far have been hits. Have there been moments when you have been seduced by stardom or do you think that it is a misconception that people have?
Actors are the most normal people in the world. It’s the people around us that make us think that we have become something else. Sometimes you are successful, you do well, people say a lot of good things about you, and you start to fly high. That’s very dangerous but with me thankfully, I have been surrounded with great friends, who keep me grounded. Whenever I try to fly even a little, they are like, ‘Oh hello!!’ It’s just the media; you guys glamorise us to another level! The perception of being a celebrity is that you’re brash, you are rude, you are a smoker, you are drinker… I mean, it’s just you guys, man, I blame you (laughs). I want to do good work. Yes, I want to be famous, probably that is why I am an actor. I probably want to be the biggest superstar of the country; that’s my dream but that doesn’t mean that I am going to plan and plot my every move. I haven’t reached here by planning or plotting but only by doing what I have believed in and I want to take that forward. If a film becomes a project, then I think there is something wrong. A film should always remain a film. I was a cricketer before this and I loved cricket. The day I stopped enjoying playing it, I stopped it. I never want that to happen with acting. I never want to hang up my boots. I want to work till my last breath. I would be very happy if I died on a film set.
This article first appeared in May 2014 issue of Cine Blitz magazine