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Interview Gujarati Hindi

Darshan Jariwala: Much of my childhood was spent backstage and in rehearsal rooms

On his 60th birthday, the actor speaks of how he revived his career after a 15-year break, shares insights on how he gets real-life characters right, and expresses his frank views on new-age Gujarati cinema.

Keyur Seta

Veteran actor Darshan Jariwala has carved a niche for himself as a solid character artiste over the past 20 years in Hindi cinema.

By playing positive, negative and funny characters, Jariwala has ensured that he is not stereotyped in any one role. Thus, while he has got into the skin of Mahatma Gandhi in Gandhi My Father (2007), he has also played a ruthless villain in Halla Bol (2008) and surprised audiences with a comic guest appearance in Entertainment (2014).

Jariwala's roots in theatre, especially because of his mother Leela Jariwala, seem to be the obvious reason for his versatility. On the eve of the actor's 60th birthday (Jariwala was born on 29 September 1958), he spoke exclusively to Cinestaan.com about how he revived his career after a 15-year break and shared insights on how he gets real-life characters right. Jariwala also discussed new-age Gujarati cinema and expressed his views on it in a forthright manner. Excerpts:

When did your acting journey commence?

I started my professional Gujarati theatre career when I was 17-18 years old. I turned acting into a full-time profession 20 years ago in 1998 when I was 40.

Your mother Leela Jariwala was a well-known actress. Was acting a natural choice for you?

Yes, it was always very exciting for me. It would be right to say I was raised backstage. A lot of my childhood was spent on the beach, in rehearsal rooms and backstage. So, I never had any stage fright. I had to learn the craft and that took some doing. From 1976 to 1984 I was learning my craft. I did Khelaiya in 1981, which was the first modern Gujarati musical. Along with me, it had Paresh Rawal, Feroz Khan and others. I was part of 150-160 shows. It was the first superhit musical at Prithvi theatre.

You said you started acting full-time only 20 years ago. Why such a late decision?

I was unfortunately very good at studies also. Without knowing whether I wanted to become a chartered accountant, I became one. Before that I got married, so I had responsibilities. Then there was a turbulent period in my life. I engaged in some business which didn’t work out very well. All this lasted till I was 40. When I hit 40 I realized this was going nowhere. I had debts to repay. The only way to come out of it was to become a full-time professional actor and pursue films and television. 

As Gandhi in Gandhi My Father

From 1983 to 1998, I took a wrong turn on the highway. By the time I returned to the highway, 15 years had passed. What should have happened at 25, happened at 40.

Did you face any struggle to get roles in films after such a huge gap?

No. What happened was that I continuously kept doing Gujarati theatre. I also did Gujarati television in between. In 1996 I did English plays and Hindi television serials. Because of god’s grace I never had to search for work. Whatever work I did, I was offered.

My stint with auditions started in 2011 when I did an Australian film. For the last two years or so, I am only doing international projects. Audition is a must in the West. And I have no problems with that. So far, barring one or two instances, it has never happened that I have not got a role after giving an audition. 

Your Hindi film roles are a mix of comic characters, villains and fathers. Has there been a conscious effort to not get stereotyped in any one kind of role?

I have not taken care of this. People who offer me work trust me on this. For example, if Rajkumar Santoshi offers me a negative character in one film [Halla Bol (2008)], he also offers me a comedy character in the next [Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani (2009)]. I never told him I am good in both. Also, when Prakash Jha felt that a character is right for me, he called me for Raajneeti (2010) and Aarakshan (2013); both were serious roles. 

I feel versatility is a curse in the Hindi film world. Directors and casting directors who are bereft of imagination cannot think of you playing different characters. Then there are others who, after seeing you play a comical character, can’t think of you playing another character.

I will always be happy that my close friend Feroz Abbas Khan selected me for playing Gandhi in Gandhi My Father (2007), for which I received the National award. When he wanted to do the play Gandhi versus Mahatma, I was his first choice for Gandhi. And when he did a film on it, I was his last choice for Gandhi. This is very paradoxical.

When Ketan Mehta signed me for Rang Rasiya (2014), he said this character is very arrogant and arrogance looks so good on my face (laughs). At the same time, I played the saint Narsi Mehta in a Gujarati TV serial. Till date, people from one age group remember me for that role.

Interestingly, Harsh Dedhia, director of the web-series Akuri I starred in, remembers me as Narsi Mehta. He was around three or four years old when he used to watch it with his father. He is 31 today. Its DVDs are still available in the US. 

How different is your preparation when you are playing real characters like Gandhi and Narsi Mehta?

The key is to have everything mentioned in the script by the writer and director. I only follow and trust the script. For Gandhi My Father, I had only read the letters between Gandhiji and Harilal. I found them because, fortunately, Gandhiji had this habit of keeping all letters that he received as well as sent with [his personal secretary] Mahadevbhai Desai. Apart from this, I didn’t read anything. In fact, I have not seen any film or documentary on Gandhi. 

With Ajay Devgn in Halla Bol

You haven’t seen Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) either?

No, nothing. I feel Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi was Hollywood’s Gandhi. It didn’t have any relation with the real Gandhi. Gandhi was never so strong and muscular. Although Sir Ben Kingsley poured his heart out playing the character for which he received an Oscar, I feel one should not study him to play Gandhi.

For Narsi Mehta, my fondness for the Gujarati language, literature and poetry turned out to be key in entering his heart. I worship Lord Krishna and every Indian Hindu will have some relation with him. I had the ability to always understand the depth of his verses. So, I didn’t do any preparation. Popularity-wise, my biggest role has been Gandhi. But personally I feel my three or four performances in plays and my act as Narsi Mehta are as big as Gandhi. 

Your character in Halla Bol was an out-and-out villain. But he had some comical undertones. 

I always enjoy complexity because we are complex people. Simple characters are very rare like Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump (1994) or Kamal Haasan in Swati Muthyam (1984). Mostly most of our characters have some mixture of sadness, laughter, seriousness, frivolousness, etc. It depends on what the writer and director demands from you and how you maintain a balance between all such aspects. When we eat a dish, we don’t experience all tastes differently; it has to blend. A good chef is someone who doesn’t let any one taste overtake the others. 

You had just one scene in the Akshay Kumar-starrer Entertainment (2014). But it remained memorable because of the way your character, who is on a hospital bed, suddenly jumps up and starts dancing.

It was Sajid-Farhad’s debut directorial. I had already done two films with producer Ramesh Taurani — Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani and Phata Poster Nikla Hero (2013). Sajid and Farhad wanted someone who can dance, do comedy and get serious while revealing his backstory, which would introduce the hero. They were convinced that I fit the bill but were hesitant to asking me to star in just one scene. Taurani told them I will surely do the film if he talks to me and that I would understand. So, he asked me to do it and I did. It was not like a professional assignment. I did it just like that. 

In a still from Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani

You acted in the Gujarati film Bey Yaar (2014), which is considered the start of a new era in Gujarati cinema. Don’t you think this turnaround should have happened much earlier?

Yes, it should have. But we didn’t have such eager, enthusiastic young hearts and minds before. We finally found such youngsters who are well versed with international and regional cinema and are ready to ask crucial questions of themselves as to where they stand. Even the audience felt that they are ready for experimentation. But even here there is a lot of hit and miss. When a tap closed for a long time is opened, it initially brings dirt with it. It takes time for fresh water to arrive.

This is the state of Gujarati cinema we are seeing these days. I feel we are in a self-congratulatory mode. I feel because of clever marketing and social-media hype films that are actually bad are considered good. The alternate truth phase is going around the world currently. These days there are different versions of truth. Personally, as far as Gujarati films are concerned, I am not like a father who frequently pats his kid’s back.

I feel we should stop this mutual admiration society, especially on social media, and think about the audience. People speak ill of others in private but praise them on social media. Looking at such praise on social media, the audience spends money on films. After realizing they are not good, they might not go for good films later. A lot of Gujarati films that I get offered don’t impress me so I politely decline them.

What are your forthcoming projects?

Currently, I am shooting for the TV series The Good Karma Hospital, which is being shown in the UK. We are shooting it currently in Sri Lanka. I will be shooting for the second season of my web-series Akuri. I am also currently in talks for a TV series in the US. I have also tied up as a creatively responsible person with a film production firm. So, I will most probably produce and direct films. If I am not getting the right kind of films, I should do something for the kind of films I like.