Thursday, September 10, 2015

Tahir Raj Bhasin

“The era of over-the-top acting and characterisation has gone”

By Ankita R. Kanabar

(From the September 5, 2015 issue of Super Cinema)

The first thing that Tahir Raj Bhasin did after entering the atrium at Yash Raj Films was asking for coffee, only to realise that the coffee machine wasn’t working. Donning a light blue shirt teamed with denims and a pair of shades – he was well in sync with the sunny day. He’s probably the new ‘bad boy’ on the block, or just another fresh face, but the possibility is that he could be much more in time to come. Because well, he did make people notice him in a big way. Soon our coffee arrived as we settled, and what followed was a long, unplanned conversation about life after ‘Mardaani’ and lots more. Excerpts:

Photo credit: Paul David Martin
Let’s talk about the ‘before-Mardaani’ and ‘after-Mardaani’ phase.

There’s this classic dialogue, ‘Life changes on a Friday’ which has been so true in my case. I spent four years here struggling to be an actor, before ‘Mardaani’. When the film happened, because of the nature of my part, they had purposely not publicised the character or the fact that I was making a debut. So, when the film released, people were taken aback by the character. There were these good reviews flowing in and it was very overwhelming. It was a great feeling because you’ve worked so hard for that very moment and people thought it was overnight success.

But success never happens overnight, does it?

No, I’m the four-year-in-the-making overnight success! In fact, those were the four years I struggled here, but I started acting at the age of 13, so it’s been going on since then. I started with an acting course and then I followed it up with theatre. But life changed drastically post ‘Mardaani’. The way you’re treated as an aspiring actor in Mumbai vs once you’ve done a film –there’s a big difference. The film earned me a lot of respect, that’s what I cherish the most. There’s a change in how people look at you. The biggest thing to come out of that was being signed on by YRF talent, which wasn’t the case before the film. To realise that they would be looking for me, and I would be getting advice from people who have so much experience was a big thing. The icing on the cake was being nominated and winning an award for the performance, months after the film released.

What have those four years of struggle taught you?

During those years, what I learnt is to overcome the fear of rejection. A lot of people take rejection personally, but there can be so many other factors – the age of the character changed or maybe the part has been removed all together. As an actor you’re never really told why something hasn’t worked out. The biggest learning was to not take it personally and know that better things will happen.

Now has that hunger or drive for work gone up or have you calmed down a little?

I’m an impatient, emotional idiot but at the same time what grounds you is – people at YRF talent and otherwise who say that it’s important to take quality decisions rather than just sign three films in two months because there are offers. I am very driven, I know how hard I had to work, in order to get here and I don’t want it to dip at any point but I realise that to keep that going, it’s also what you’re doing in-between those films which is important. Every time I watch a great actor perform, I always feel that there is something more to learn. There’s something new to try and that’s what keeps me interested. I think as a part of being an explorer or an emotional person is that you’re looking for new experiences, all the time. Acting gives you that.

Coming back to ‘Mardaani’. When some people actually hated you after the film, did you take it as a compliment for your performance? 

Yes completely! There were two reactions we got from women– one was we hate you and one was we’re not sure whether to love you or hate you, which for me was a bigger compliment. As far as the character in the film was concerned, I was fortunate that despite being an antagonist, he was styled a certain way. If you watched a lot of scenes on mute, you would feel he’s this cool, suave, boy-next-door. So, it was meant to have a dual impact.

So, there hasn’t really been a major change, except more attention from women?

(Laughs) I would be lying if I said I am not enjoying it. That is fifty per cent of your audience. I was overwhelmed initially, and it took me a while to get used to it. When you get tweets from people all over, it’s great feeling to know you can have that kind of impact on the opposite sex. I guess, the only change has been that I realised all of a sudden that there’s an interest in what I do. Earlier you could post anything on Facebook or Twitter, now you have to be a little careful about what you express.

How expressive are you otherwise?

I’m as expressive, even off-screen. But do I necessarily put it all out there or do I want to make a phone call to a friend and talk – that depends on the situation.

Photo credit : Paul David Martin
Would it be right to say that as an actor you belong to the category of those who underplay?

I think the era of over-the-top acting and characterisation is gone. I feel pretty fortunate to be a part of Hindi cinema at a time when this kind of acting is appreciated and people don’t think you’re not acting – which is the worse reaction you can get. What I would like to do is study the character and be honest to what the material is, but it should look believable. It’s just called reacting. For instance, if I was shooting a film, and it had a scene where I was having a conversation with a girl sitting in a café, this is exactly how I would not. You just have to react to a circumstance rather than imagine a circumstance in your head.

And because your acting was appreciated right in your debut film, has that given you further confidence to stick by what you believe?

Confidence was never a weak point for me, to begin with. I was always confident in life. The only thing that can keep an aspiring actor going, in a city like this, is self-confidence and conviction. But when you do a film like this, I think it gives you certification. More than how you look at yourself, it changes how people look at you and for an actor, both those things are really important. In my mind, I have always been a particular kind of actor, but now that people understand that, it is the most empowering experience for me. Now I can go to director and suggest, ‘Sir this is how you want to do it, but is it okay if I try it like this?’, and they will be okay with that, because you come with a certain accreditation.

You mentioned that as an actor it matters what people think of you. In that sense, are you happy that today’s audience knows to differentiate between characters and the actor especially if you’re doing grey roles?

It’s a great time to be a part of an era in Bollywood where the audience is evolved, in terms of how much they’re exposed to the internet and international films. They’re very in-tuned today. There’s also so much exposure because of social media. If I put up pictures of me playing basketball or dancing, there’s a direct reach. So, it’s easy to change what that perception is. There’s a need for the audience to know that the real person is different from his characters and is capable of doing a variety of other things.

Interestingly though, in case of senior actors, the scenario still looks the same. For instance, Raj and Rahul are synonymous with Shah Rukh Khan…

No matter what the written material is or how you’re styled, 10-15 per cent of your personality will always leak into the character, and that becomes the style. That’s what it is in case of Shah Rukh Khan is, or Irrfan Khan or even international actors. The audiences go in to see that style as well as that character. Style is something you develop after a bunch of films and I hope that the audience sees that in my work. I hope the audience sees that there’s a personal style which comes into every film but also believability in the character you’re doing because if they’re not seeing the character and only seeing the person then you’re not doing the job well.

What is that one lesson you stand by?

My acting coaches have a huge influence in the way I think. Barry John was the first acting teacher I went to, when I was 13, in Delhi. I went to another acting coach, whose name is Dr. Das, and then there was Naseeruddin Shah. The biggest lesson I’ve learnt is to never judge your character and that really helps. As people, all of us have our moral judgments. We think X is wrong or Y is wrong, but when you get a script and you are that character, you cannot judge it as per your morals. Tomorrow if I’m playing a smitten lover boy who stands outside the window and with a guitar, as a person I would think that is the behavior of an idiot but as a character if I have to do it, I have to be convinced about it. Acting for me is a very philosophical art, and until you get into that zone, it’s difficult to perform.

So are you also philosophical as a person? 

Yes, but it’s different. For instance, I would enjoy a book by Murakami, a lot of his books are based on philosophy. I believe in optimism, energy and things like what you give is what you get.

A profession like this could also limit you in certain world. Do you think it’s important to widen your horizon sometimes just so you can be good at your job?

I completely get what you’re saying. Yes, the idea is to not get boxed into this world. This industry can do that to you. So, once in a while, I like to travel, even if it’s somewhere and I like to travel on my own because it opens you up to new experiences. I have friends within the fraternity, but it’s also good to have friends who have nothing to do with films because that keeps you open to what’s going on outside. It also keeps you grounded – it’s nice to have people who will call a spade a spade and tell you if you’re doing something wrong. 

Lastly, tell me about ‘Force 2’. How did that happen?

I think, the decision of a second film is really important, probably as important as the first one. We were reading a lot of scripts coming in from independent film-makers as well as studios. I think ‘Force 2’ was the perfect balance of being very different from ‘Mardaani’ and yet in the grey zone which is what I was looking for. I would call ‘Mardaani’ much darker than what ‘Force 2’ is. And it’s going to be directed by Abhinay Deo whose aesthetics I have liked, whether it was ‘24’ or ‘Delhi Belly’. Vipul Shah is a great producer. It was a complete package which attracted me. I think the era of black and white of Gabbar and Mogambo is slowly fading out. What I like to look for is a human element in the characters I’m playing. It’s the human quality in a character that transcends in an antagonist or hero and that’s what the audience also relates to.

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