Interview Hindi

Secret Superstar's Raj Arjun: Zaira Wasim’s father wanted to beat me up


The Secret Superstar actor said that Wasim’s father was upset by his performance on and off the screen.

Mayur Lookhar

As a child, once while talking about abusive husbands, I remember my mother saying: “Joh mard ghar main sher hotey hain, woh bahar chuhey hote hain” (Men who behave like lions at home, are actually meek mice outside).

This Diwali, actor Raj Arjun sent shivers down the spine with his portrayal of Farookh, a conservative, abusive husband in Secret Superstar, a film  that is produced by Aamir Khan. Before meeting him, we wondered whether he was anything like his character.

Early into the conversation, I realise that Arjun is not the ‘lion at home’ we saw in the film. Not for a moment am I suggesting that he’s the meek mouse, but he's so soft spoken, you have to listen carefully when he speaks. He appeared a little hesitant, too, after all it was the first time that he’s under the spotlight.

Arjun has a daughter and son, and we saw the loving father in him at a special screening of Secret Superstar. Arjun’s calm demeanour in real life is reflective of how good an actor he is in the film where he plays a brute father.

Speaking to Cinestaan.com, the actor shared his Secret Superstar journey, why he barely spoke to his co-actors on the sets, why Zaira Wasim’s father wanted to beat him up, recalled a time when he played a blink-and-miss role in Shah Rukh Khan’s Raees (2017) and more.

Excerpts:

It's a good thing that you married. If you weren't, after watching Secret Superstar, girls would have been afraid to come close to you...

(laughs). Yeah, that’s true. I’ll take that as a compliment. I’m married with two kids, so life is peaceful in a way.

On a serious note, watching you was so disturbing. How was it for you to play such a brutal character?

Yes, it is a brutal character. I wanted this feeling of itchiness, toughness to come to every person. When I started working on this character I started in a reverse process. First I challenged myself that I would do it in a different way. I had taken a huge risk of my life for this could have worked or not.

I’m not shouting at the top of my voice, I’m not making faces, I’ve just slapped Najma (Meher Vij) once, and threw away the thali (plate), there is no other violent act by me. I had decided to do it in a different way. I guess that method served the purpose.

I guess it is fair to say that this is the most defining role of your career...

This is perhaps the best thing to have happened in my life. The character has made a mark, it has created a line. I want to give respect, and pay off to Aamir Khan Productions and Advait Chandan. There’s now a responsibility on my shoulder to do something better than this.

As a father in real life, do you prevent your kids from watching you play an abusive father?

Raj Arjun with his family (Photo: Raj Arjun, Facebook)

I’m very protective as a father. I wouldn’t want my kids to watch any vulgar content. My daughter Sara is in her teens. She‘s an actress, too. So, she has started to understand cinema. I want her to see good world cinema. So, I now gradually have introduced her to such cinema. She enjoyed this film. I felt that she matured at an early age.

Aamir Khan is perceived as one who takes an active interest in all aspects of his film, sometimes that can be perceived as interference. Did you experience that?

No. There was no interference at all from him while he shot. It’s his production. He used to observe few rushes, but he would involve himself from the post production stage. He never dictated terms to us during the shoot. I think he’s like a saint.

I was born in the 1980s. The 1980s and 1990s was a period where family dramas were in vogue. We don’t get to see much of them today. It’s a pleasant surprise to see such a film today.

Very true. Javed [Akhtar] saab was telling me that this would go on to become a cult film. I think this is the best time for Indian cinema. Today, the audience demands good content. In the 1990s, we largely saw stories revolving around the hero, heroine and a villain. That was the time when I started my struggle.

What I meant was such a film doing well in today’s time is indeed commendable. 

It’s good time for Indian cinema. Today new talent is getting opportunities. Big production houses are investing into untapped talent. I don’t think you would have interviewed me if this film didn’t succeed and if it wasn’t backed by a big production house. I’m getting this recognition due to Aamir Khan Productions.

I guess you had to audition for this role. Is that how it panned out?

I did audition, but the casting director had invited my daughter for an audition for a different film. Now they were also auditioning for Secret Superstar. I was asked to audition, too. I did four lines. Then I auditioned in front of another casting director. I was destined to play this character. I was known to these casting directors before, but they had forgotten me. However, you can’t blame them. There are lakhs of actors in the country.  How many faces can one remember?

What do you think of the talent of Zaira Wasim? As a Haryanvi, I was left stunned that a Kashmiri girl could play a Haryanvi character in Dangal (2016) with such conviction.

With due respect to all other actors in Dangal, I was fascinated by her performance. I had goosebumps, especially in the scene where she overcomes the initial reservation and decides to take wrestling seriously. I have even had a discussion about Wasim with Aamir sir. He asked me what do you make of Wasim? I said God has blessed her with immense talent. She herself doesn’t realise it.

We get exhausted in pulling off one scene. She just does it like this [snaps fingers]. As an actor, she knows when to switch on and switch off. I don’t have that skill. I’m inspired by her. I need to be in the zone throughout, but this girl gives a scene and then she is playing around. Singing, mimicking Mickey Mouse (popular Disney character), from Aamir sir to Kiran Rao, from Meher Vij to me, she would mimic all.

Now you said you were totally in the zone playing the brutal character. How draining was it for you?

Yes, it did affect me. But that is what I chose. It gives me a satisfaction. Given a choice, I wouldn’t let go of the character for even few hours. Even if someone asks to take a break, sleep for few hours, I wouldn’t do that. My blood pressure would go up and down, but somewhere I derive a swantah sukhay (eternal happiness, sense of achievement).

So, with that being the case did you deliberately keep your distance from Meher Vij and Zaira Wasim?

To Farookh, Najma and Insiya were like stones. There was no point breaking heads on them. Each actor has a different approach. I felt if I spoke to them much, then I will not be able to perform. I made it a point that beyond a greeting, I wouldn’t talk to them. I deliberately want them to not get a good vibe. I created an aura of Farookh.

Zaira tried to pierce into it. On the first day we met, she was mimicking Mickey Mouse. Everyone around laughed, but I didn’t even smile. So, she started going away from me. She felt I was a rude man. It just wasn’t her, but even crew members kept their distance from me. Later on, I did worry that I my fellow actors, crew members would start hating me. Look, I even sent my family to Indore for two months to get into the soul of Farookh. My son Suhaan is very naughty. You need to keep a watch on him 24x7. In such an environment, how could a Farookh have operated?

Did your wife take the request seriously?

My wife is a very sensible person. It’s not the first time that I have done this. She’s aware that I work with complete dedication. I may be married but I’m still living like a bachelor. I work endlessly and only return home late. She’s the one who is managing the house.

So, are you are a method actor like Aamir Khan?

It’s not like I only follow Aamir Khan. Every actor needs to devise their own method. Had you asked me three years ago, I would have said, 'yeah I follow the Aamir Khans, the Stanislavskys', but after a while you realise that you need to create your own craft, you have to mould your psychology accordingly. Now I learn things, but then I unlearn them. How the characters comes out, you call it method acting, melodrama etc. I don’t bother about that. Be it imagination, observation, or create a false character, story, I’m prepared to do any anything that will help bring my character to life.

While Zaira was intimidated by you, what about Meher Vij?

I realised in a day, that there are three central characters in the film. Each character has a different story, and each actor had a different approach to their craft. I’m one who thinks a lot, I do loads of homework, that’s like a disease. I wouldn’t advise anyone to work like this. Meher is not like that, she comes to the sets with a clean slate. All she would do is ask, ‘kya karna hai’ [what is to be done?] She understands the scene there itself. Zaira would be aware of her scene, but where she scores is in her spontaneity.

I never bothered to know how they are feeling. I was firm that whether they like it or not, I will not talk to them. I never even thought of apologising to them. I just didn’t have time for it. Had I done so then I would have drifted apart from Farookh. I had this big opportunity after 18 years, why would I bother what my co-actors are feeling? The stakes were too high.

Then how did you unwind once the shoot was done? Did you reach out to Meher and Zaira?

We finished the shoot and each one of us went to our respective homes. After the shoot, we had no interaction. In fact, it was only during the screenings, that I returned to being Raj Arjun. It was only then that we exchanged telephone numbers. The other members told me that they no longer get to see the vulture eyes of Farookh. Zaira’s mother told me that her father is looking for me as he wants to beat me up. He was so disturbed by the performance on and off the screen. Meher also blamed me for that.

Can you talk about your early days of struggle?

Scene from Shabri (2011)

I hail from Bhopal where I did theatre. I tried to get into National School of Drama, but I was rejected four times. I went back to Habib Tanvir (noted late theatre artiste). I’d worked for him for three years. The rejection and failure began to hurt me. He advised me to go to Mumbai as I didn’t need theatre. I told him 'no, I need training', but he sent me to Mumbai. I started with TV, didn’t really enjoy that. I got my first break in Shabri, it took 5-6 six years before it released in 2011. I was getting small roles, but there was no fun in it.

That must have been really frustrating period for you?

The frustration reached an extreme level. 

Were you married then?

I was married before I came to Mumbai. I came here in 2003. I was reluctant, but my parents got me married. That though turned out to be a good thing for I would have lost my way as a loner.

How did you manage to survive in a city like Mumbai?

We come from a well-to-do family. I wasn’t one of those who only believed in living on their own terms. I knew that the career that I chose, there is always fear of financial insecurity. I wanted to follow my heart. I sought financial assistance from my father. He’s no more, but then I reached out to my brother, and it hasn’t stopped. I have my own businesses in Bhopal — we own malls, I own some shops. God has been kind enough to bless us financially.

You are listed in the cast for Raees (2017). Pardon me, but could you help us recall your scenes?

Raees is just one of the many films where I got stuck. I was called for the audition, I auditioned for the role of a young Raees’s [Shah Rukh Khan] boss. I signed the contract. Few days before the shoot, I called one of the (third) casting assistants about the narration. He kept delaying it, and then one day he asked me why I wanted a narration as my character is silent.

I was stunned as I didn't recollect him telling me that before. The shoot was to begin four days later. Honey Trehan was the casting director here. I feared that if I rejected the role, Trehan would get offended. I wouldn’t know what story the third assistant told Trehan. Let’s assume that Trehan wouldn’t get offended, but would a Rahul Dholakia cast me ever again if I walked out of the film? I would have been blacklisted. Such is the predicament of actors like me.

I accepted my part, and then called them again, requesting the narration for the silent role. He said 'what narration do you need for a silent role?' I told him, 'brother, do I sell peanuts, bananas? Please tell me what my character does.' Which assistant would call the director to get a character narration for a small role? All I was told is that Ilyas is the boss of a young Raees, and he gets picked up by the police. I realised that there’s nothing in the role and God wanted me to bear some more humiliation.

I went for the shoot. I shot for a scene where I’m an owner of a hotel, with the young Raees supplying me liquor bottles. All I had to do was be seated at the cash counter, and once the police come, I merely ask them, 'What happened sir, what are you doing?'

Though a minor scene, Rahul Dholakia must have seen something in me, he liked my improvisation. He sent the chief AD (assistant director) telling him to let me speak whatever I want.

Few days later, I was told that they have developed a scene for me where I’m the owner of a daru ki bhatti (liqour den). That was the second scene added, otherwise, I was just amongst the crowd in the film.

I have had such experiences before, but I don’t blame Honey, Dholakia or even that third casting assistant. I’m just talking about my experience.  I want to be part of films where there is something concrete for me to do. My battle is with myself.

One of the things which stand out in the film is the realistic portrayal of a family, especially the middle class Muslim from metros.

Not just Muslims, it (broken homes) is synonymous with many communities, families. I’m a Sindhi, I have seen that in our community. I have Punjabi friends, some of whom have been separated from their spouses. This film is not particular to any community, This is a universal subject. Advait Chandan deserves credit for picking such a subject. I was a nobody, just wandering around, and it is Advait Chandan and Aamir Khan who picked me from nowhere.