The multi-faceted actor, who will also be seen in Akarsh Khurana’s High Jack, spoke with us about his upcoming comedy, his challenging role as the Genie in the popular Disney musical and why he will always love radio.
Mantra: Aladdin’s Genie is the role of my career
Mumbai - 18 Apr 2018 9:00 IST
The versatile actor, Mantra, has been quite the multi-tasker for the past few years. He has been seen across all platforms, be it films, theatres, television, radio or web series. This week, the busy actor will be seen in what he called his “toughest role” after months of preparation as the inimitable Genie in the ambitious stage version of the Disney musical, Aladdin.
Furthermore, he will also star in Akarsh Khurana’s directorial debut, High Jack (2018), as a first-time hijacker aboard an airplane of nervous and slightly crazy passengers. His character is the lone straight man amidst the whole bunch.
Mantra spoke with Cinestaan.com in a telephonic conversation about his collaboration with Khurana and the large ensemble cast of High Jack, stepping into big shoes as the Genie and what he really thinks of the popular Netflix docuseries, Wild Wild Country. Excerpts below:
You've acted previously in Tum Mile (2009), Hum Tum Shabana (2011) and London Paris New York (2012), how did the opportunity to act in High Jack (2018) come about?
I did a web series with my director, Akarsh Khurana. We did a web series [in 2017] called Boygiri and that’s when I got connected with him. Everything about High Jack for me is Akarsh. He gave me a call and said that I’m making my first film. He’s a brilliant theatre director, I’ve seen his work. For the last 18 years, he’s been directing theatre with Akvarious and when he was making his first debut film, it was just an honour to be a part of it.
I asked him what film he was making, he said, ‘Hain toh comedy film, lekin tera character bikul comedy nahin hain [It’s a comedy film, but your character isn’t comic].’ Maine bola kamal hain [I said, that’s just great]. All throughout my career, people have been looking at me like a comic caper because I have done Comedy Circus on television. But you know how fast people stereotype you.
I always believed that you need a daring director to change an actor’s perception. Bahut kam aise directors aate hain jo himmat kar pate hain ke aisa actor ko aisa character mein daale, jisme usko dekha nahin gaya hai [There are few directors who take risks and say let’s take this actor for this character, which he has never done before]. Akarsh was one of those directors. He said, this will change the way people see you, because this is not a comic caper. This is a rough and tough guy.
He has an action sequence. In the beginning of the film, he’s a villain and then he’s a hero. That’s exactly the way Vinit Rawat, my character will play out in High Jack. He starts out as the hijacker, as the bad guy and it’s only at the end of the film you realize what his intentions were.
There are many crazy incidents that take place on the airplane with many characters. Can you tell me a little bit about your character and why he decides to hijack a plane?
It’s a group of four first-time hijackers. They have never done anything like this before. Vinit Rawat is the only guy who is a security expert. Why he and his friends decide to [hijack the plane], I can’t tell you the whole reason. They decide to take over a plane and then naturally since they are doing it for the first-time, they don’t have the experience of doing it. On the plane, there are some characters who are more mischievous. [It’s like] ragging karne ke liye char students aate hain, unki ragging ho jati hain [Four students come to bully others and end up being the bullied instead].
Sonnalli Seygall is playing the pilot and there’s a little bit of a likeability zone between our characters. Of course, Sumeet Vyas' character is a DJ in the film. Sumeet and I are old friends. In a way, it was a lot of good friends working together. That’s the reason why everything turned out to be so much fun.
How was it like working on an airplane set (an enclosed space) with a large ensemble cast on High Jack?
That’s exactly what Akarsh used to say, ‘Agar yeh itna bada ensemble saath mein ek doosre ke dost nahin hote, koi na koi kisko maar deta [If this whole ensemble cast weren’t friends with each other, somebody would have killed somebody]’. We were shooting in the Delhi heat, on top of that, we were shooting in a closed airplane, jaan nikal rahi thi hamari [we were almost dying]. We are all such good friends and it was such a good environment created by Akarsh, it just went through. We completed the film in one month and very smoothly. We shot during the day and partied at night. The film is actually our life.
You are also playing the role of the Genie in the upcoming theatrical adaptation of Aladdin. James Monroe Iglehart won a Tony award for his performance on Broadway. Were you nervous stepping in and playing such an iconic character?
Yes, of course. It is an iconic character and the theatrical adaptation of Disney’s Aladdin has been happening all over the world — Australia, America, New Zealand. James Iglehart played Genie and I’ve seen a lot of his work. Of course, every Genie in different countries have had their sort of success. I can guarantee you one thing, with Disney India’s adaptation of this play, it’ll be another milestone, because I’m nothing like them.
Generally, the Genie characters are supposed to be massive and they don’t have hair. But we changed that. We have a good-looking, sexy Genie on the stage who is fit and fine and a lot of his lines which define him. But there’s a lot of mischief to him, just as Genie should be.
I’ve really worked hard on this production. In fact, I can say that in my 15-20 years of my career — theatre and acting — this is the toughest role. This is the role of my career. I don’t think it gets larger than this. I’ve done a lot work but nothing like being Genie for Aladdin.
How did you prepare for the role of the Genie?
It’s been three months of extensive work. We’re working 12 to 14 hours a day right now because the play is about to start soon. But the music is what we worked very hard on. I’m a singer, but this is singing on a different level altogether. These are all iconic songs — ‘Prince Ali’, ‘Arabian Nights’, ‘Friend Like Me’, ‘Somebody’s Got Your Back’ — sung by Robin Williams in the film. To be singing those songs is a huge pressure. I worked very, very hard. Suzane D’Mello who is our music coach and vocal trainer, worked on me and I’ve made a lot of sacrifices. I’ve quit smoking for almost a month now. I don’t think anyone else could have done it, but the Genie did it for me.
Since it is right around the corner, are you nervous at all or just excited to get going?
Nervous energy, but in a very positive way. I can’t wait for the 20th when the show opens because I feel ready. I feel on my toes. Our rehearsals, our runs are going well. I really can’t wait for the audience to come and react, so I’m ready, the Genie is ready.
A couple of years ago, you played character based on Osho Rajneesh in the film Rebellious Flowers (2016). Have you seen the recent Netflix series Wild Wild Country? What do you make of it?
Rebellious Flowers was a film based on the early life of Rajneesh. It’s amazingly funny. I had put up a quote [on social media] about how I feel. Netflix main koi hain jise Osho se bada pyaar hai [Somebody at Netflix really loves Osho]. First there was the documentary Guru which was based on Osho and now Wild Wild Country. I personally believe that documentary is very good. Since the last three years, I have been an Osho sanyasi myself. Mantra Mugdh is my sanyas name from the Osho ashram.
I knew everything what is shown in the documentary. I knew about it all. I had read about it and knew about it, because we are from the Osho commune. But for the first time we got to see it. It was great footage. But very frankly, those who know Osho, when they see Wild Wild Country, they look at it and say, oh, it’s the controversial guru.
I feel that’s awkward. I feel duniya jo hai, unko keval masala chahiye [the world wants masala]. Osho Rajneesh ne itna kuch kaha hai, itna kuch usne likha hai [Osho has said so much, written so much] and there is so much which he has given. He has changed my life when it comes to spiritualism, but people will still remember the four-five years [in Oregon] or the book, Sambhog Se Samadhi Ki Aur. They only remember that.
I said [on social media], ‘Gulab doge aap duniya ko, woh uski khushboo chhod ke, uske kaate dhondte behtenge [If you give someone a rose, they leave its fragrance and look for thorns instead]’. That is exactly what I felt about Wild Wild Country. And that meme that is going around, ‘If you didn’t love me at this, you don’t deserve me at...’ I have written, if you don’t love me at Wild Wild Country, you don’t love me at Rebellious Flower.
I personally believe it’s a great documentary. It is fantastically made. It’s made for the masses, with masala, but it has very little background of what Osho Rajneesh is or what his teachings were. Leaving that, they’ve talked about everything.
First THE GURU and now #WILDWILDCOUNTRY Someone at #Netflix surely loves #OSHO. I am glad he is being remembered, Unfortunately not the ONLY way he should be remembered. As i read somewhere, Wild Wild Country frustratingly offers no backstory on #Rajneesh and little insight into his teachings or the beliefs of his followers. Although i would proudly call myself his 'follower' or his 'disciple' but i would rather call myself an osho lover. Being an osho sanyasi for 20 years, I've known and read about everything this documentary has shown, and maybe thats why i loved watching this series. Unlike the rest of the world who saw juicy conspiracy, maligning intentions,dangerous cult, with background score ment for an evil thriller, i saw my people, happy, dancing and celebrating a man who gave them A reason to live beyond the regular. And judge me on this, but i felt proud of a man hailing from jabalpur India bringing an insecured America down to its knees. Thank you duplass brothers, chaplan and maclain way for making this series and bringing alive all the visuals that i had imagined till this day. I was born a little late else i would have been featured in this series too. Maybe standing next to sheela. Give the world a rose and instead of enjoying its beauty and taking in its fragrance, they will pick the thorns
In addition to television, films and theatre, you also host podcasts on various topics. How do you manage to balance it all?
It’s my love towards radio. I miss it a lot so that’s why I started my own podcast channel, MnM Talkies. That’s the reason why I’m doing some good stuff, I’ve been taking time out to do some stuff on the Indian Premier League (IPL). My own show, The Mantra Show, is going to start on MnM Talkies. I do a lot of radio dramas because I’m a theatre person and a radio lover so I combine the two.
How do you find the time?
You just need the passion towards it.
What other projects do you have lined up on the horizon?
Some great scripts are coming in. 2018 seems to be a good year where some directors are taking note of my work and trying to see beyond the RJ or comedian Mantra. I’m getting some good scripts for web series and films. I’m looking forward towards them. Apart from that, Aladdin is going to take up most of my year because the season will open with Mumbai. Then we’ll be going towards Delhi and Hyderabad also.