Ranveer Singh is a bundle of energy and it shines through as he paces in and out of shooting at Mehboob Studio for a marathon interview session with Giridhar Jha. Excerpts…
Even after three blockbusters, you seem to have managed to keep your feet firmly on the ground. How come superstardom sits pretty on your head?
Even I think a lot about it. Fortunately, I have good people around me who keep me grounded. Without their support, I would not be able to do it. The fact that I became an actor is such a blessing that I keep saying it is a miracle. I don’t know if at some point of my career I will be able to give an in-depth breakdown of how it happened for me. I got very lucky, no doubt, but I also made my own luck. After three-and-a-half-years of struggle, I finally got a break with Yash Raj Films.
My family was going through a financially difficult phase in that period. My parents had to sell off our bigger house and move into a smaller one. In my tiny room, there was a big poster of Rocky (Sylvester Stallone’s 1976 Hollywood film) with a tagline which read, ‘His whole life was a million-to-one shot’. Every morning I would see that poster and read the tagline, which pretty much sums up my journey of getting my first break, in a sense that I too had a million-to-one shot. Even now, every morning when I wake up and get ready to leave for work, I think about my day and I pray. My prayers consist of nothing but gratitude for the opportunity given to me to perform, entertain and spread joy.
Did you expect that less than a decade after your debut, you would be counted among the top stars of Bollywood?
I had always imagined myself to be an actor but to be in the position where I am in today is beyond my wildest dreams. Thankfully, with success, I think I have matured in the past two years very rapidly in my outlook, value system and beliefs. I believe that when something like this happens, two things can happen to you. It can either go to your head or it can make you humbler and grateful, if you realise what a gift, a blessing and a miracle it is.
But your current phase was preceded by a time when some of your movies did not do well? Did you learn anything from your failures?
To be true, failure made me resentful initially. When Ladies versus Ricky Bahl did not fare well or when people criticised me for my offscreen persona and my dress sense it filled me with bitterness. But when I started getting success with films like Lootera and Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela followed by a unanimous echo of validation of my work as an actor, I began to feel more at ease with myself. I understand that for the success of a film, the credit is not solely mine, just the way the blame for failure is not entirely mine either. Hence, when a film clicks, I am very happy momentarily but that feeling passes off fast. At the same time, I feel bad momentarily when a movie flops but it passes off very fast too.
From Lootera to Gully Boy, there are many stories about how you prepare for each role. Do you consider yourself to be a method actor?
I don’t think the term ‘method actor’ is used or understood properly by the majority of people. I have studied method acting, which is deeper and much more layered than how it is colloquially referred to. I don’t call it ‘method’; I say this is my process. As an actor, I have to have conviction inside me about a particular character. I need to go on a quest within me to find a part of myself and bring it to the fore to create this character. For example, if there is a quiet, sensitive person inside me, I have to tap that aspect for parts like Lootera, Dil Dhadakne Do or Gully Boy. I believe everybody has a dark side and I have to tap into that side in me for roles such as Alauddin Khilji’s in Padmaavat. All these aspects are part of your personality. I just have to find a particular aspect and bring it out in keeping with the requirements for a specific role.
But have you gone too far to get into your processes as an actor?
Of course, there was a time when I felt like having overdone things. Looking back, perhaps in Lootera, for instance, there could have been a better way of evoking feelings of pain within me for my role of a wounded man. Basically, the character gets shot at intervals and in the rest of the movie he walks around with a bullet injury. I used to put very tight clips around the area where I was supposed to have been shot; at as a result of which it used to go numb. It used to be immensely painful during the shooting. I would put it on in the morning and just before the camera would roll, I would whack it hard there to let the pain spread across the rest of my body. I would then walk through in palpable pain. So any shot you see in Lootera where the character is supposed to be in pain, I was in a real physical pain while shooting. I admit that it was an extreme way of doing things and I resorted to that because I wanted to do it in the most authentic way possible. Looking back, I would not have done it.
What about Alauddin Khilji’s role in Padmaavat? We have heard that you took extreme measures to get into the skin of that character?
For Khilji’s role, I locked myself up in an apartment for three weeks before shooting started and I would engage with all kinds of sounds and imagery that were in the realm of darkness. All the walls of my house were covered with imagery of maiming, dismemberment, pictures of mass killings, genocide and other gory things. I would only read about tyrants, torture techniques, about the life and times of people like Hitler and Ivan the Terrible. I would listen to the soundtrack of horror films and watch dark-themed cinema of Lars von Trier. When you do such things from morning to night for a long time, you don’t know that at some point it starts consuming you unconsciously. It works like a marination and I had marinated myself totally in darkness. Finally, when I came out after three weeks, it had taken over me like a ghost. I was so consumed by my own darkness that I did not realise when the lines between real and reel began to blur. I remember vividly when somebody made a mistake on the sets one day, I felt like choking him on the sets. That is when I realised and told myself, “Hello, you are messing it up, bro. This is just a character, not you. Get a grip.”
Didn’t you do similar things earlier for Bajirao Mastani?
Bajirao Mastani was particularly interesting because I had never done a period film before. For that movie, I had booked a room at a Juhu hotel for three months. I did not meet anybody, including my family members, while I was trying to get into the skin of the Maratha warrior. Funnily enough, Bhansali sir did not know about my preparation until I came on the sets on the first day of its shooting. It was only after I started speaking dialogues that he discovered it. To give credit to him, when he realised that I had done the preparation for the character beyond the written pages of the script, he gave me a free hand to do the role my way.
With Sanjay Leela Bhansali, you have formed one of the best actor-director collaborations in recent years.
In Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, we had a completely different dynamic. In the three films we have done together, I seemed to have worked with three different directors. That is the beauty of working with him and that is why he is such a genius. However, we still feel that we have not even scratched the surface of our collaboration. I keep joking to him that I am Bobby (Robert De Niro) to your Marty (Martin Scorsese). I believe every director finds that in an actor and vice versa. It is like for all the crazy ideas in Bhansali sir’s head, he needs a crazy person to execute them. This is what he tells me. He says he knows that I will be game for executing whatever paagal ideas he has or at least would try. I share a beautiful working relationship with him. My understanding of this craft has largely been moulded by him. I had fixed ideas about acting but he came and shattered every myth. He really broke the shackles, all the barriers, boundaries or the limiting parameters that I had created for myself. He unleashed me and that is why I say that he is my guru.
What about other directors such as Zoya Akhtar and Rohit Shetty who are known for making movies with different sensibilities?
Zoya and I have very different dynamics. It is beautiful in its own way because she is a friend and a confidante and we are on the same wavelength. Our beliefs and value system are very much alike. When I am working with Bhansali sir, I am working with a father figure, a guru or a mentor but with Zoya, I am with a friend, a buddy, a jigri dost. I have different dynamics with different directors. When I am working with Rohit Shetty, it is like working with a big brother. He treats me like his younger brother and I feel protected. He is a guide, an inspiration who leads by example.
Did you expect such an overwhelming response to Gully Boy, both critically and commercially?
Gully Boy is a film that strikes a fine balance between the credible and the commercial. I was thrilled to bits when it did a business of Rs 135 crore. I thought it had punched above its weight with an opening day collection of around Rs 20 crore. For me, there is a lot of credibility attached to Gully Boy because I was closely associated with the project. I can truly appreciate the work of its director, cinematographer and editor. Also, Ankit Tiwari curated the kind of world class music you had not heard of in Hindi cinema. Sure, the theme of the film of an underdog’s fight is very traditional but its treatment was completely fresh and novel. It was completely Zoya’s baby and she fully deserved all the accolades because it takes courage to take a completely fresh idea and see it to fruition.
Now you are playing Kapil Dev in your next film, ’83, which is based on India’s 1983 World Cup triumph over West Indies. Isn’t it more challenging to do a biopic on a living person?
It is a first for me. It is even trickier than it sounds because it is about a living person who has a context, a reference, which means when you are becoming that character you have set parameters for him. Everybody knows how he looks and talks; there is already a page and you have to get on that page. I think, on a blank canvas, you can make any portrait you want to but if there is a canvas with a picture on it, the challenge to match it becomes very different. Unfortunately in 1983, photography or videos were not very advanced. Therefore, there are insufficient materials on that World Cup. There is not even any recording of the historic innings of 175 not out that Kapil Dev played against Zimbabwe. When you play such a characater, you need more than what is available in the public domain but here the material was not enough.
How did you go about it?
You can only go and spend time with the actual person and try to connect the dots as to what he or his world was like 30 years ago. You keep talking about the time and try to extract whatever was going on in his mind at that time. I stayed at Kapil paaji’s house as a guest for weeks and interacted with him every morning and evening. I had shot hours of videos of him just speaking at his Delhi house. I made that my primary source. Also, his daughter is one of the assistant directors in the film, which fortunately helped me a great deal.
In promotional posters, you bear an uncanny resemblance to Kapil Dev of 1983. It must have been very tough to bring your looks close to the real person?
I am very proud of the work that the make-up team has done. I spent close to 40-50 hours in the make-up chair trying to get the looks right. You would not believe it but the prosthetic technology is so advanced now that they can make me a splitting image of Kapil Dev but Kabir Khan sir (the director) felt that people should feel that Ranveer is playing the role of Kapil Dev. And it was only when I finally started feeling like him that we commenced the shooting. I would work on the field for six months, the maximum amount of homework I have done for any character so far. I could speak, bowl, bat or even dance like Kapil. At times, it used to turn so spooky that his daughter used to get shocked at the similarities. We had pacer Balwinder Singh Sandhu, who was part of the 1983 team, as our coach and consultant and he used to watch every ball on the monitor. There were INStances when even he would turn teary-eyed because it was too overwhelming for him to relive those days.
What was it like shooting for such an epoch-making sporting event in the annals of Indian sports, especially at Lord’s where the final was played?
To tell you the truth, I experienced something unique during the shoot, which had never happened to me. We had to shoot the crucial trophy presentation scene at Lord’s. There is, of course, a video available of those moments and we had the challenge to make it as close to the real as possible. Lord’s management was thrilled with what we have done with the film. They opened their historic Long Room, which is meant only for its members. We were given unprecedented access. And there we were, standing on the real balcony in the heritage part of the building holding the orginal trophy, not a replica, for the shoot. The film has the sons of Clive Llyod, Malcolm Marshall and Sandeep Patil playing different roles. Lloyd was himself present there. Prior to the shoot of the presentation scene, we had gone through the rehearsals and were about to begin but moments before I had to disengage myself from the environment, I seemed to have an out-of-the-body experience. That moment seemed so real that it scared me. At that moment, I could even hear the cheers of the crowds. In the next few minutes, everything fell in place and the long shot of me walking and receiving turned out to be 98 per cent perfect. It was so overwhelming that some of my co-actors and even Kabir sir burst into tears. All of us cried. When Kapil was told about it on phone he also turned emotional.
You must have played cricket as a student. Did it come in hand for you?
I used to be an excellent middle-order batsman. I was never a bowler which, fortunately, came in handy because I did not have an existing bowling action which I had to unlearn. I started from scratch while preparing for the character. For six months I was trained by Sandhu sir and I saw endless amount of videotapes. I used to spend four hours on the ground and three hours in the gym during the day. Mornings were used for skills training and evenings for physical conditioning. We did non-stop work on cricket and cricket only. If you look at my phone you will find only cricket in my inbox.
A breathtaking catch of West Indian great Viv Richards was also taken by Kapil Dev in the final. Did you also prepare for that?
Yes, I did train for that, as also for his great knock of 175 not out. However, it was not all that easy in the beginning. I would go to the gym to build my body like Kapil Dev but I had to reduce my muscle mass which was not an easy task.
The film also stars Deepika Padukone playing a key role…
We are very blessed that Deepika gave her nod to the part. I had not discussed it with her but she was taken by the extraordinary nature of the story. That is why she agreed to the cameo. I can tell you for sure that she is not doing this role because it is her husband’s movie but because she was genuinely interested in the role when Kabir sir narrated the story. In fact, she got the narration of the final draft before I had.
What do you think is the biggest USP of this movie?
The story of ’83 is so spectacular about a team nobody believed in, which went on to earn the ultimate glory and change the face of the nation’s sporting history forever. That is a very special story, which today’s generation needs to know. Even I did not know much about it until Kabir sir narrated the story. I was in disbelief when he told me certain details of what had happened. Though I have been a cricket bhakt over the years, even I did not know the behind-the-scenes story. Kabir sir is a thorough film maker and he knows how to extract the best out of his team and how to tell an evocative and cinematic story.
After delivering three solo blockbusters you could easily have opted for another single-hero project. Why did you choose a story which has a minimum of 11 characters?
Many people had cautioned me against doing this after my recent hits. They told me to go for a solo-hero film where I would be seen alone on the posters but I did not have to prove anything. I thought that with whatever name and fame I have earned in the past nine years, such stories deserved to be told. It is one of the most proud chapters, a game-changer and a real turning point in our sporting history, which must be celebrated on celluloid. I feel this is the kind of a film that I want to back, empower and put my energies behind.
At a time when you are enjoying the fruits of success, how do you look back at your early days of struggle?
My struggle period coincided with the time of my family’s hardships. When you are born into a certain lifestyle it can be difficult when you have to take several steps down. From age 16 to 24, while we were trying to socially keep up a façade that everything is okay, we were actually going through a very lean phase financially. In spite of that, my dad would do whatever he could to reverse the fortunes, working from morning to night. But it lasted for good eight years. I have been trolled in the past for talking about the tough times my family faced. Normally, I don’t get affected by trolls but it hurt me because their understanding of my family’s struggle was wrong. I have seen a life of abundance and the dearth of materials also.
And then, there was a rumour about your father paying money to buy a role for you?
Yes, it was so hurtful at the time. I had toiled for three-and-a-half years and my parents were making so many sacrifices in order to be able to afford everything that I needed. I was doing an undergraduate course at the time and they did everything they could to send me to the US for higher education. I was a bright student and was doing a course in media studies, theatre and a lot of other things before I decided to be an actor at the age of 19. I did not have any immediate contacts or family that I could bank on for a break in films. I was an assistant director for a year-and-a-half and I also did theatre for a year-and-a-half. I got my portfolio clicked, would go from one production house to another. I would sit outside Prithvi Theatre for days, met casting directors of all hues and even faced casting couch. I was encouraged but at the same time also humiliated on many occasions…One irresponsible publication wrote that my father paid Rs 10 crore to get me a role. It was so absurd but I started getting messages on Facebook with people enquiring whom they should pay to get similar roles. It was all so hurtful. I could have been an example of merit-based selection for lead roles in Hindi cinema but somebody chose to fictionalise my story and put that thought into people’s head. It was so sad and absurd. Such things hurt but you have to learn how to deal with people who hurt you. At the end of the day, if you know who you are and where you come from, then it might upset you temporarily but never faze you.