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Interview Hindi

We are the most colour-conscious country in the world, says strongman Sharat Saxena

The veteran actor, who was born on 17 August 1950, opens up on the latent racism in the film industry, the hypocrisy in Indian society, and his continuing struggle to break down barriers.

Photo: Shutterbugs Images

Mayur Lookhar

A good interview does not only hinge on the homework a journalist does. The subject's mood is just as important, which is why a journalist always longs for the interviewee to be in great spirits; that eases his/her nerves as well.

When Cinestaan.com called on veteran actor Sharat Saxena a few days ago at his apartment in quaint Mudh Island in Mumbai's extended suburbs, the man himself answered the doorbell, welcoming us with "Aaiye saheb [Please come in, sir]."

It was an awkward moment indeed to be addressed thus by a veteran of the film industry and we quickly requested him not to call us 'saheb' again.

At 67, Saxena looks fitter than ever. He was dressed in a cool blue T, biceps bulging. Pleasantries were exchanged. Then, before we could begin the interview, out of the blue he asked, “So, aren’t you fed up with this film industry?"

It was a strange question, coming from a man who has spent over four decades in that very industry. One might have thought he would be content. Sadly, Saxena isn’t. And with good reason.

Sharat Saxena recalls how none except Aamir Khan wanted him in Ghulam – Birthday special

Saxena did not hesitate to speak about the bias he has faced, mostly on account of the colour of his skin. Through the course of the next 90 minutes, he spoke of his journey, his eternal struggle, how the failure of Mithun Chakraborty's Boxer (1984) was pinned on him, why he was scared to strike up a conversation with his colleagues on the sets, and more. Excerpts:

Most people think that once one has crossed 60 years of age, it is difficult to do weight training. But looking at you, I guess you prove that wrong.

It’s a myth that as you grow older you become weak. That is the typical myth created by intellectual people who fundamentally look down upon those who are physically fit, hardworking, muscular and tough. They have this tremendous feeling of superiority that we don’t have muscles, we have brains. This is their foolish and vain attitude towards people who are muscular, athletes, or of the labour class. They categorize everybody as labour class, uneducated and uncouth.

So, automatically, these intellectuals, once they become feeble, or once they cross 35-40, they start feeling the effects of age. Now, the effects of age can be curtailed, eliminated, or taken care of by working out. The greatest thing about the human body is that the more you push it, the stronger it gets.

Age is no bar. I’m 67 today and I work out for two hours every alternate day. I lift heavy weights. I am only getting stronger. I never had this kind of stamina when I was 18. Back then, if I worked out for 15-20 minutes, I would feel like puking. At 67, I have enough stamina to outlast anybody in the gym.

Even if I don’t prolong my life, at least my life will not be spent on a bed. My greatest fear is that something bad will happen and I will not be able to walk. I had this problem once. I went through a spinal surgery, [but] my legs came back to life. I work out fundamentally to keep myself out of hospital.

It’s not often that we see a David versus Goliath battle in Indian cinema, but you have figured in quite a few such. While it is mandatory for David to win, I reckon in your case Goliath has earned more respect in these battles. Your thoughts.

Every hero wants to beat a well-fed bull, not just in Hindi cinema, but also in American, Telugu, Tamil, any kind of cinema. The hero doesn’t want to go and beat up a thin-looking villain. They want to beat up somebody who is worth their pay packet.

Most men come to the industry to become actors. If he is muscular, he is made into a fighter. It has not happened just to me but to every muscular artiste who joined the film industry then.

Dharmendra was perhaps an exception. But in your case, was it passion for bodybuilding that drove you, or was it something you had to do to stand out?

No, it is not that. My father was a good athlete in Allahabad university. He used to participate in Olympic sports — running, hurdles, 200m, 400m, javelin, marathon, discus throw, shot put. He was there first of all in my life.

Then we used to watch movies of Steve Reeves [Mr Universe, 1950], Reg Park [Mr Universe, 1951, 1958, 1965], these old-time bodybuilders. Films like Hercules (1958), Hercules Conquers Atlantis (1961), Romulus And Remus (1961) reached small towns like Jabalpur and Bhopal. We got inspired by these guys.

At that time, there were hardly any gyms in India. In Jabalpur, there was one gym. Then, finally, we bought ourselves some rods and weights and we, my brother and I, started working out at home.

The working out stopped when I did my engineering. So, basically, I worked out up till school [11th class]. Then for five years, there was no working out.

I did my studies and came to Bombay. The standards of bodybuilders in Bombay were so low then. Though I weighed 69 kilos and looked thin, I was still called a bodybuilder because I had a few muscles to show! The guys who had muscles were nowhere around the scene [in the film industry]. They had been shunned and booed so much that they went back home. The result was that I had to do action work.

In the film industry, you have to look like a freak. If you look ordinary, there is no place for you. Either you look very muscular, or you look like a very thin, weak person and then somebody will make you play a poet in a film. I did not want to look like a poet. So, I used to work out in my room. I had no competition. I was the only guy most heroes would like to beat up.

You did engineering and took up a job, then quit for the film industry. Was there any family pressure? Didn’t they ask what you were doing when you quit your job?

My father was a very nice man. He never put us under any pressure. I wanted to join the film institute, but he told me, first get a professional degree and then you can do whatever you want. I did my engineering and asked my father, can I try my hand at the film industry? He said go ahead.

Nothing happened for about six months. He sent me a letter saying go and find yourself a job and stop wasting time. The first office I went to, they gave me a job. Two months later, I got a role. That film never got released, but because I had that film, and because I wasn’t happy working, I resigned.

Can you recall that film?

That movie was started by a gentleman called Hariprasad Reddy. His father was a famous cameraman [VN Reddy]. He did Manoj Kumar’s films. The father was directing, the son was producing and also acting in it. The heroine of the film was Neetu Singh. It also had Amjad Khan’s older brother Imtiaz, Jalal Agha, Bindu, Ranjeet and myself. I was cast as one of five villains. The story was that the five villains go and kill this man who has just been married to Neetu Singh’s character. She then takes revenge.

The movie was inspired by a [French] film called The Bride Wore Black (1968). Our film was called Zahreelee (1977). After some time, Hariprasad decided that he would rather give the role of the hero to [singer] Shailendra Singh, who had done Bobby (1973). Shailendra became the hero, Neetu the heroine, we were the villains.

The film was completed in six years. It got a censor certificate but it never got released. These things happen.

I can't recollect the name, but I have done a film that took 13 years to make. During that period, Amjad Khan passed away, someone else passed away. We were all feeling thankful that we came out alive.

I reckon when you started out, the money wasn’t great, but was it enough to survive in a city like Mumbai?

For six years, my father supported me. In the first year, my income was about Rs250, second year maybe Rs400. My income kept increasing little by little. By the time I had worked for six years in the line, I was able to take care of my expenses. But to buy my first apartment, my father had to withdraw his pension fund. I used his money to buy my first apartment [on Mahakali Caves road, a suburb of Mumbai].

The 1970s and 1980s were a period when the likes of Prem Chopra, Jeevan, Premnath and Ranjeet were the popular villains. You must have worked with all of them. Any anecdotes to share?

Madan Puri

I didn’t work with Jeevan saheb. I worked with Pran saheb, Prem Chopra, Premnath, Ranjeet. I used to be the chamcha [lackey] to all of them. There are no anecdotes with these people.

Madan Puri, he was a great guy. I used to read books — I still do. One day, he called me and asked, 'Tum apne aap ko kya bahot intelligent aur educated samajhte ho [Do you think you are a highly educated, intelligent man]? I said no. ‘Then why don’t you mingle with us? Why do you spend time reading?' he said.

I told him, 'Sir, you are stars. If I sit amongst you, you may feel offended.' He said, 'We won’t get offended, just come and sit with us.' That was the kind of man he was.

Were you intimidated by the big-name villains then?

I used to be very scared to talk to people, because I felt someone will mind my presence. I used to stand in line during the lunch break. I didn’t have a make-up room. I was not a good-looking guy. I looked like a fighter. And I didn’t have money to buy good clothes. The result was that I had an inferior feeling about myself. When you are getting paid Rs1,000 a film, your role is nothing but ‘yes boss, no boss’, then how will you have the courage to go and sit with stars like Madan Puri, Prem Chopra, Amrish Puri?

Raj N Sippy’s Boxer (1984) was perhaps the one film where you graduated to being the main antagonist. What memories do you have of that film? 

Mithun Chakraborty and I were travelling to Chennai. We did a lot of movies in the South. On the way, he said I am going to produce a film called Boxer, inspired by Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky (1976) and The Champ (1979). He told me he was going to give me the role of Apollo Creed [played by Carl Weathers in Rocky]. The fights were shot in the National stadium, Hyderabad. Veeru Devgan was the action director. Mithun and I were trained by a Maharashtra boxing champ.

Under production, that film was touted as the best Hindi film ever to be made. Everyone who saw the rushes, they used to come out floored. Everyone thought this will be a superhit film.

I once met Amrish Puri in Filmistan Studios. He asked, 'What are you doing, Sharat?' I told him I have shot for a film called Boxer and I have great hopes from it. If it clicks, I can grow in my career. He said, 'Sharat, don’t bank on one film. You never know, it could fail, and then it really hurts.'

Boxer was released and the next day it was declared a flop. It was a flop for a simple reason: how could you expect an Indian boy in those days to take his girlfriend to see a movie called Boxer? How could you expect a father to take his children to see such a film? 

Unfortunately, Boxer had nothing to do with boxing. Only the climax scenes, that, too, just two fight scenes. It was, fundamentally, an emotional story. It was more The Champ than Rocky. But because of that title, people didn’t even bother to go inside the theatres. But today many have seen it on television, on video in buses. Today, people call it a very good film.

But because of that film, I got relegated to the job of a fighter again. When a film flops, someone has to take the blame. They put it on my forehead that it flopped because of me.

 When I look back at you in Boxer, I feel that more than Mithun Chakraborty, you kind of looked like Stallone.

No. I am supposed to look more like Apollo Creed. He was a black man. I am also dark. I could never be the hero in India. As I tell everybody, this is the land of Ram. If you look like Ram, you can become a hero, but if you look like Ravan, you end up being the villain. Ram-like faces come from Punjab, Afghanistan, Kashmir. The Dravidians from Madhya Pradesh are villains. This is our country. We are the most colour-conscious country in the world.

Hindi films were a struggle, but you have also done films down South. Were you happy with the work you got there?

No, they wanted me because they wanted to beat up somebody. But I was getting better money.

The current generation has grown up watching a different side of you in films like Baadshah (1999), Phir Hera Pheri (2006), and Hasee Toh Phasee (2014). Your characters in these film were light-hearted ones. How do you look at this phase of your career?

Actually, it was a decision of mine and also the decision of the respective directors and producers. People stopped considering me for the villain’s role because they realized I could make people laugh with a straight face.

This actually started with Mr India (1987). Then came a film called Tridev (1989), followed by Vishwatma (1992). In each of these, I used to put in a little comic element if permitted by the director. I would always introduce a certain humour into my work, be it the tone or whatever.

A villain is very boring. He has absolutely nothing redeeming about him. He doesn’t even frighten the audience. In fact, he does nothing to the audience. He is only there to make faces, show his eyeballs, rape a girl or two and get beaten up in the end. So, there is nothing to love about a villain.

But why do you think Pran saheb was loved by everybody? He used to put in a slight amount of comedy in everything he did. I realized that it is easy to put a certain comedy in a serious role. When you do that, everybody starts loving you. The audience comes later, but on the sets, people start having fun. You start enjoying your role.

[Directors] Abbas-Mustan once told me that a good actor will eventually become a star, but to become a superstar, you need to do comedy. Amitabh Bachchan was a star, but he became a superstar after he started doing comedy. Same with Govinda. He used to be just an actor. The day he started doing comedy, he became a superstar. Even Dilip Kumar did that in the film Kohinoor (1960). He was even speaking English. I felt he was hilarious.

Comedy gets you acceptance. More importantly, children like you. I have more fans among children for the simple reason that I make them laugh.

Throughout your career, in all your battles against the hero, you have generally been the Goliath. The one time you were dwarfed was in your duel with Praveen Kumar in the television serial Mahabharat (1988).

Sir, Praveen Kumar is not to be taken lightly! He represented India at the Olympics. He is 6'7" tall. He is a good friend of mine. I saw him for the first time at a sports meet in Jabalpur. One of his cousins, Ramesh Sobti, introduced me to him. This was perhaps in my fourth or final year in engineering. I have had the opportunity to work with him in numerous films. He is a hilarious character, [has] a great sense of humour, typical Punjabi sense of humour.

[Mahabharat director] Ravi Chopra wanted someone to play Keechak. They were struggling to find an actor. Someone referred me to him. Chopra was a good friend and that is why I did the role. I had refused Mahabharat earlier when they were casting for the serial. I had also refused [the Ramesh Sippy-directed TV serial] Buniyaad. I had decided that I am a man for films and not TV serials.

We don’t get too many revenge dramas today. I guess that is why we don’t have too many villains. Is there a fear that going ahead, the villain might become extinct?

Villains are few today for the simple reason that we have different kinds of stories. Ajay Devgn made a film called Drishyam (2015). The police officer [played by Tabu] was the villain. Villains exist, but who will play that villain is (pauses)... you don’t get standard villain material to play villains anymore. Ordinary people from all walks of life become the villain now.

I was doing a film called Parwana (2003). This was inspired by a George Clooney-Nicole Kidman starrer [perhaps referring to The Peacemaker (1997)]. The villain was one whose family was killed in an American bombing. In the Hindi film, I was doing that role.

So, he travels to New York with a backpack carrying a nuclear device. I was told why don’t you look like Osama bin Laden. I told director Deepak Bahry that those days are gone when villains used to wear outlandish clothes. Today, your villain is the man living next door, who may be a clerk in a bank, but who, in his spare time, is making improvised explosive devices. That is the kind of guy you would meet in a lift, but he turns out to be a terrorist. Bahry agreed.

So, today, a normal guy can be the villain, The heroes play villain today. Earlier, heroes weren’t allowed to play a villain. Amitabh Bachchan wanted to play a villain in a film, but the producer didn’t allow him fearing that the film would bomb.

I once shaved my head for a film called Shikari (1991). Director Umesh Mehra approved me for it. One day before the shoot, he told me that Amrish Puri is playing that role. He said the problem is that if I take you in the film, then I have to add two extra scenes to establish you as the villain, but with Amrish Puri, the moment the audience sees him, they know he is the villain.

That was the concept then. Villains could only be villains, heroes could only be heroes. Very few people crossed over. One was Shatrughan Sinha, the other was Vinod Khanna.

After more than four decades in the film industry, do you feel satisfied with what you have achieved?

No. There is no satisfaction. I will not get it because you have to realize that not everyone can finish first in a class, or a race. There is only one winner. Some people have to finish behind. I am among them.

So, have you made peace with that?

No, I can’t make peace with that. I will keep trying. Why do you think I work out? At my age, I’m still trying to compete with actors who are less than half my age. This desire to excel has still not left me.

Practically speaking, nothing will come out of it. Because we have very narrow-minded producers, directors, writers, who cannot imagine that a man like me can do an important role in their film.

I was trying to get a role in one of director Pranlal Mehta’s films starring Raaj Kumar. I wanted to play the villain, but he wanted me to play the henchman. Kabir Bedi was the villain. I asked him why can’t you give me that role. Why take Kabir Bedi? He said Sharat, our films are a package, and the package has to be good-looking. These are the heroes, these are the heroines, and this is the villain. If I take you, then the package will not be good-looking.

I said I understand. This is how it works. Recently, I got replaced in a film after wrapping up the shoot. I had done a minor role of a judge in the climax. The producer called to say that the entire team is of the view that we need to take someone else, so we are taking a retired hero for that role.

So these things happen. Even though I have reconciled to it, I still have to keep trying. You don’t give up.

I wish I were a better looking person, I were a fairer person. The Indian audience wants you to be fair, handsome, have blue eyes, and you need to be a little blondish. Only then are you considered human; otherwise, you are a haiwan [beast]. I was born a haiwan, I will die as one.