Interview Hindi

English language connects us, says Deepak Dobriyal of Hindi Medium

Deepak Dobriyal says those who discourage the learning of English should be ignored, urges non-English-speakers to do away with their insecurities.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Mayur Lookhar

Poor in the wallet but rich at heart. That’s how Hindi cinema often depicts the downtrodden. Blessed with the 'poor' look and rich in talent, Deepak Dobriyal played a down-on-his-luck Shyam Prakash immaculately in Saket Chaudhary’s acclaimed hit Hindi Medium (2017).

Counted among the finest character artistes in Hindi cinema today, Dobriyal shot to fame with his portrayal of Raju Tiwari in Omkara (2006), Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaption of Shakespeare’s Othello. Thereafter, the actor struggled to make a similar impact before unveiling his goofy side in Aanand L Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu franchise. It is with Hindi Medium, however, that Dobriyal has enjoyed his finest hour so far.

In an exclusive conversation with, Dobriyal admits the response to Shyam Prakash has been phenomenal but stops short of calling the role his best. He reveals that he rejected Tanu Weds Manu (2011) five times and was surprised by the popularity of his Hindi Medium co-star Saba Qamar. Surprise of surprises, he says English is a language that brings Indians together and slams those who discourage its study. Excerpts:

One of the most hilarious scenes in Hindi Medium is the one in which you swat dengue mosquitoes. I was wondering how on earth poor Shyam knew the mosquito he was killing spreads dengue.

The scene in Hindi Medium where Dobriyal's
character goes after a mosquito

(Laughs.) Well, if I knew this particular mosquito doesn’t spread dengue then I wouldn’t be swatting it. Dengue has become a menace in this country. The disease is so feared that the mere sight of any mosquito will make one go for the kill. The government has done its bit to stop its breeding with sanitation drives. But each year hospitals in Mumbai and Delhi are filled with dengue/malaria patients. We wanted to bring this fear factor out on screen. We wanted to highlight a serious subject in a subtle way.

Another hilarious scene is where Shyam tells the school inspector that the family of Raj Batra (Irrfan Khan) abhi abhi garib hue hain [have been newly impoverished]. We don’t know about Shyam, but after Hindi Medium, has Deepak Dobriyal emerged as a rich actor?

(Laughs.) I believe you are enriched with every film you do. Irrespective of a film's success or failure, you grow as an actor with each film. I enjoy the process of acting more. Some of my roles have appealed to people, some haven't. I'm happy, though, that people are appreciating my work.

After the success of Hindi Medium, do you command better fees?

Well, I will look into that aspect. I guess people will be smart enough to get that. I have been part of three back-to-back hits, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015), Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015) and Hindi Medium (2017). Your success provides an assurance to producers/directors who want to cast you. Yes, things are happening for the better. I'm reading four or five scripts everyday.

Would you call Shyam the defining role of your career?

Maybe. Some liked my character in Omkara, some liked Rajendra Bhati from Gulaal (2009), some appreciated Captain Javed Khan from Shaurya (2008) and some like Pappi from Tanu Weds Manu (2011).

But not since Omkara have you got such acclaim.

I remember how after Tanu Weds Manu, when I bumped into people, they would call me Pappi. An image is created based on the characters you play. I’m just happy to play these versatile roles. I agree, though, that the reaction to Shyam Prakash has been phenomenal, especially on Twitter.

Before I saw the film I hoped it wouldn't demonize English. After all, it is the language of livelihood for millions across India. Thankfully, the film harped more on the corruption in our education system and the elitist mindset of some. When we talk of the class divide between English and Hindi/Urdu, how much of it is a reality? Does this divide also arise out of an inferiority complex in the non-English-speaking population?

We live in a republic where we speak various languages. Hindi is prominent in the North but not in the South. Then we have the Northeast, they have different languages. English is a common language that connects our people. It is a language used in administration, there are no two ways about it.  People should be free to learn any language. Earlier, an English-speaking person would perhaps be mocked by his own. These are people who do nothing in life. They discourage others from acquiring new skills, languages. These voices need to be ignored.

When it comes to the poor, however, most can’t afford an English education There are very few like Shyam who want their child to be admitted to a top English school. Perhaps, when such children are exposed to an English-speaking environment, it is a new world for them. However, the standard of education in government schools is improving by the day. I don’t think there should be any insecurity on their part. And if there is insecurity, it needs to be thrown out from one’s mindset. It is paramount to learn English. Besides, when an English-speaking person speaks Hindi, the respect for Hindi only grows.

Poverty makes people helpless. There is no limit to creativity, but is it possible to find poor men like Shyam who would risk their lives for others? 

Yes, there are many like Shyam. I was like Shyam Prakash. Probably the business class would think of their own interests before helping anyone out. But common people come face to face with each other everyday. They are socially connected. If anyone has a problem, the whole mohalla [locality] gathers to help.

No one would have thought a Pakistani actress could play the character of Mita so wonderfully. Before filming began, what impression did you have of Saba Qamar? 

Honestly, I didn’t know much about her, but when we were shooting at a Delhi hotel she was surrounded by Indian fans who had watched her TV shows. I went up to her and said I didn’t know you were that famous. She requested me to watch her TV shows. I said I don't watch TV, but she asked me to watch it for her sake. The family audience [TV viewers] was privy to her talent.

Bollywood is an industry where artistes often get typecast. How difficult is it for actors like you to perform varied roles?

I am infamous for rejecting roles. I guess no one has rejected as many films as I have. Many producers/directors get upset with me. They reckon I am acting in a haughty manner. What they don’t understand is that if I do 5-6 comedies at one go, then I’ll be tagged a comedian. I have to refuse them, they get upset, and word spreads to people close to them who, too, then become apprehensive to sign me on. It hurts their ego [that I reject their offers], but they don't understand that I'll be finished in a year if I keep doing the same thing.

Have you lost out on big projects then?

Yes, I have. I have refused big-banner films. It is either the role or we haven't been able to agree on a fee. The big-banner producers would offer little money and say we are offering you mileage, footage, and that working with them will elevate my career. My answer to them is, 'I have to run my house as well. You are not the only one with that responsibility.' At times, I have told them that my work is my banner. I even offer to help them find a replacement, but they take offence to it. Another big banner, close to this production house, refused to take me.

However, once you give a powerful performance, then the same people come running for you, and this time they agree to your demands, in fact they pay you 10 times more. More than the money, though, I value my art. If I compromise on my art, I would end up doing what other artistes do — business. I don’t indulge in PR, I don’t have a secretary, My work has to speak for me. My own relatives weren’t aware that I was doing Hindi Medium. Artistes like me bank on word-of-mouth.

You shot to fame with Omkara (2007), but thereafter you failed to recreate the magic with your subsequent films till Tanu Weds Manu came along, where you emerged as a comic actor too. How important was Tanu Weds Manu for you?

With R Madhavan in Tanu Weds Manu (2011)

It was a big role, a big film that changed my career. Pappi was a comic character, but I wanted more from it. I had refused Tanu Weds Manu five times. I wasn’t keen on doing a wedding drama. What touched me, though, was the persuasion skills of Aanand Rai. I rejected him many times, and yet this man kept coming to me. He showed great respect for me. I hadn’t seen such a passionate director before. Once the film became a hit, an emotional Rai reminded me how I had refused to do the film initially and it had turned out to be hit.

Many a times, you may not be able decide what’s best for your career. That’s when you need to go with the conviction of others. Overthinking can complicate matters. You may only realize that after wasting 4-5 years of your life.

For character artistes like you, how difficult is it to achieve consistency in one's career? Or is consistency only relevant for big stars and actors like you take up whatever good offer comes your way?

Yes, consistency is for the stars to ponder. Actors like me don’t get affected by success or failure. In fact, we tend to learn more during the tough phase. For us, acting is a process. Our efforts are more concentrated on learning, upgrading our skills as actors. Sometimes, we may not wait for a role, yet spend hours improving our skills.

If you taste success, then there are times when your ego takes precedence over your judgment. I, too, have been guilty of that. At times, I have signed a film without reading the script. While the script is important, if the director and other cast are good, then I like to take up such work.

You played a poor man in Hindi Medium. One of your upcoming films is Kuldip Patwal: I Didn’t Do It. There, too, you are playing a poor man. 

(Interrupting) Kuldip Patwal is not illiterate. He is a graduate. He is left depressed as he does not get a good job.

The trailer suggests this could be a political crime thriller. How was the experience of working in such a film?

It has been a great experience working with other fine actors. I can’t be disclosing much about the film though.

Kuldip Patwal is jailed for the alleged murder of the chief minister.  In Lucknow Central [another upcoming film], you are one of the inmates who form a music band. Are you fond of getting jailed? God forbid, but have you ever been to jail in real life?

(Laughs.) Lucknow Central is a special film. There is also Kaalakaandi. I have never been to jail, but I have taken part in morchas [agitations] in my college days and while doing theatre. We friends would say: if big political leaders have gone to jail, why not us?

So, did you participate in these morchas to raise your voice?

No. It was the cause that was more important. During former Delhi chief minister Shiela Dikshit’s rule, many workers lost their jobs after struggling factories were shut down by the government. I did street plays to support the cause of the workers.

Coming back to Lucknow Central, the film is about inmates forming a band. What instrument do you play?

I can’t reveal much about the film now. It is a new experience for me. In my personal capacity, I’m learning to play the piano. It’s not possible to rehearse during the day, So I rehearse late at night when no one is around.

Piano! Did your wife ever complain why you didn’t play the piano before your wedding? 

(Laughs.) Well, let me learn first. Thereafter, not just my wife, but I will play for everyone.