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Interview Hindi

21 Sarfarosh created the impression that Gul Badshah was the main villain, says Kesari’s Gul Badshah

Ashwath Bhatt, who played Gul Badshah in the Akshay Kumar-starrer Kesari, says an actor only portrays a character as per the director's vision.

Ashwath Bhatt

Mayur Lookhar

In a film where 21 men stand up to 10,000, paeans can only be sung to the former. Havildar Ishar Singh and his 20 brave soldiers of the 36 Sikh Regiment are rightly revered for their heroics in the Battle of Saragarhi in 1897. Yet, if there had been no Gul Badshah, no Mullah Sayeed and no Khan Masud Afridi, Ishar Singh and his gallant men would not have made history either.

The Battle of Saragarhi was brought to life recently in director Anurag Singh’s Holi release Kesari (2019). While Akshay Kumar played Havildar Ishar Singh, Gul Badshah was played by the largely unheralded Kashmiri actor Ashwath Bhatt.

Bhatt was earlier seen in Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi (2018), where he played the older brother of Vicky Kaushal's character.

Born in Jammu & Kashmir, Bhatt has had a remarkable journey that has seen him graduate from the National School to Drama and go on to do theatre across Europe.

In an e-mail interview with Cinestaan.com, Bhatt spoke of his Kesari journey, praised director Anurag Singh for lending an ear to his cast, and explained why we don't see him too often on the big screen. Excerpts: 

In the film, there was no reward for your character, but there was a fantastic response to Kesari at the box office. How satisfying is it for you?

Whenever any film does well, one that you are part of, it makes you very happy and satisfied. Secondly, as an actor, I would say the response has been quite decent. The kind of feedback I have been getting, it’s very encouraging.

If you talk about screen time, every actor wants more. It is important that you might have certain scenes and if those scenes help you in finding something new about your own acting process, or yourself, that’s satisfying. I’ll be honest, but of course who doesn’t want to be in the lead? But you also have to go by the script and the director's vision. I believe if my director is satisfied, then it is very satisfying for me.

You were part of Raazi (2018), another Dharma Productions film. Did that help you bag Kesari? How did you get on board this film?

Well, no one takes you for a film just because you were part of a production house. I have worked with directors and they have made many films but I wasn’t part of them.

Basically, casting director Jogi asked me to audition and the rest is history, as they say. They liked my audition from the first go, so I didn’t have to come again. Then it became a matter of the look, which part. I was offered Khan Masud's role, then they said let’s try Orakzai.

I think somewhere it was more to do with Anurag Singh’s vision about these three characters — the mullah, the Afridi chief Khan Masud and Gul Badshah, the Orakzai chief. That way it was like a thoroughly normal process, no special treatment. Once you know the production house while filming they understand you, they know you, but apart from that, it was a normal process of casting.

You have been around for a few years, been part of some marquee films. In terms of your career, what does Kesari bring?

Kesari brings more to me as an actor since I had not played a character like this before. Whenever I get a film, the first thing I try to find out is, am I doing something new? Am I getting a chance to play something which I have not played earlier? That is the first thing that excites me.

That way Kesari brought me lot of stuff. I had to go for horse-riding, Pushto classes, I read up on the history. So, in a way, I quite understand the politics of the place. The canvas of the film was huge. I have not done a film of this scale before.

In terms of my career, what films will be offered to me, I don’t think I can comment on it now.

History can be subjective. The mullah of Hadda instigated the Afridi tribe [in the film], but from what I’ve read online and seen in the TV series 21 Sarfarosh, it was Gul Badshah who led the army of the Orakzai and Afridi tribes against 36 Sikh in the Battle of Saragarhi. 

Ashwath Bhatt as Gul Badshah in Kesari (2019)

I would say Gul Badshah in Kesari is Anurag Singh’s vision. Gul Badshah was a person who is less on ethics and more on winning the war. So that’s the vision that Anurag had as a writer and director. Actors are there to deliver the vision of the writer and director. 

I was given clear-cut instructions what we wanted from Gul Badshah and then, of course, every director wants to exploit your positives and your strengths. He wanted to exploit my eyes, use them in a way that can be impactful.

A successful war or action film would be incomplete with a formidable foe. From the way Gul Badshah, Mullah Sayeed or Khan Masood have been projected in the film, can we really call them formidable characters?

We have seen these huge generals, the Khiljis, where the main hero is leading and charging and shouting. But the director didn’t want that. He wanted it to be real. Wars are not fought in a filmi way. Wars are fought in the real sense. They [leaders] would plan, strategize, have people who would execute that strategy. That way, the josh [adrenalin], as we say now, was quite high. I won’t say it was less. There were 10,000 people against 21. So, what kind of josh or shouting could we have done? If there is a huge army [facing us], then, of course, we will be charging more. I think they are intimidating characters. Of course, the mullah blabs a lot. Khan Masud, I find him quite balanced.

Was Gul Badshah overshadowed by the mullah and Khan Masud? 

Film is a director’s medium, so I have no control over it. People can only talk about performance. Now, if based on performance, you say somebody has overshadowed Gul Badshah, I have to accept it. [Alternatively,] somebody would say you did very well in the limited space you had.

This TV series [21 Sarfarosh] had Gul Badshah as the main antagonist. That also created an impression in people’s minds that Gul Badshah was the main villain. We didn’t see that in the film. I can see that comparison being made, but I am okay with it. Again that [TV series] was the director’s vision of how he wanted to portray Gul Badshah.

How would you summarize your Kesari journey? Any memorable anecdotes?

Kesari was a good experience. Of course, there were obstacles — the set got burnt, then we had trouble as we had to wait for the monsoon to go. The set had to be rebuilt. We shot a bit in Wai [in Maharashtra] and then in Film City, Mumbai. It was a big challenge. Credit goes to Anurag Singh. He remained calm throughout. 

Memorable anecdotes, I would say two. One was, of course, working with Akshay Kumar. That was fun. It was very easygoing. He is very disciplined. He would come up to me and ask what’s the cricket score. Later he came to me just to inform me that one more wicket is down. As a megastar, you wouldn’t expect him to do it. I find it very normal, humane.

The second is the chat I had with Anurag Singh regarding the closure of Gul Badshah. I felt certain things were missing. He asked for some time and then the next day he came with a scene, a new idea, which you have seen in the film. So it is nice when a director takes an actor’s suggestion and has an open mind about it. It makes you feel that you have contributed to the film as an actor.

In your dozen films so far, you have played nearly half-a-dozen Muslim characters. Does it come down to your Kashmiri roots, understanding of the culture and people?

Ashwath Bhatt in Raazi (2018)

More than my background, it has to do with the kind of opaque vision that casting directors in 'Bollywood' have. It is not just about me but any actor. When somebody does a good part, most of the roles they get are close to what they have already played. That’s the major problem. Actors who get to play different roles are very lucky.

That’s one of the reasons why I have refused more films than what I have done. At some point, I thought if I am doing such roles, then I need to find something different in these characters. Gul Badshah and Zahoor from Haider (2014) are totally different characters. In future films, you will see me play a Prabhakar, a Dixit.

I agree it [typecasting] has to do with you playing certain characters well. Some people feel that if it is a Kashmiri part, then they would consider Ashwath or one or two other actors. I have been fighting against this for so many years.

Every actor has the fear of being typecast. Some of the lead stars are doing the same genre again and again. I read an interview where Akshay Kumar said he was fed up doing just action, but then he got to do comedy. You have to wait for a role that breaks a particular notion. You can either turn down such [repetitive] roles or wait for the right one. 

Can you talk about your early life when you moved out of your state?

Yeah, it was 1990, Very difficult time when you lose your home and everything. You are filled with anger, hatred. You are young and don’t know why this has happened, but later, as time goes on, you understand the politics, you understand a lot of things. You may not agree with many things, but it is a big political game. You are just caught in the crossfire. Unfortunately, this time it happened to be us. I was quite lucky that theatre happened in my life. That was like a soothing balm. It gave me an outlet, that’s what helped me cope with the trauma in a big way.

Was it easy to pick acting as a career? How did you get your first break? 

Acting as a career was not a difficult choice as I always knew I wanted to act or be in the creative field. The difficulties were financial, of course. I started doing theatre in Delhi University, then I was at the National School of Drama. I knew that without proper training, you are nothing. You may have talent, but you need to polish your skills. I was lucky to get training at the NSD.

Acting as a career was not a difficult choice, but to sustain it was very difficult. There was not much money coming in. You have to spend money, find ways to do workshops. Your friends are doctors, engineers, your family has to sort of listen to a lot of music. Nobody tells their children that you should become an actor. The people from within the film industry are an exception.

My first break was Biju Vishwanath's Grand Festival (2006). It went to a lot of festivals around the world. I played the lead in it. After a couple of years, it was Rahul Dholakia who brought me to so-called Bollywood. He asked me to write Lamhaa (2010). I was not a writer, so it was quite a challenge for me. 

A scholarship from the NSD and then you did post-graduate studies in acting from the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. How was that experience?

One keeps learning till the end. NSD gave me questions and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art gave me answers. Of course, you get many answers at NSD as well. LAMDA happened just after NSD. So, a lot of things which were simmering inside me....

When I reached London, it was a big cultural shift. The training, the language, was far tougher. Your basic English wasn’t good enough, so you have to do something extra. To come up with expectations from your teachers. It was a lot of hard work. But I was working in various countries in different forms. That gave me quite a deep insight into acting.

Having said that, I am still surprised and amused by somebody performing a great scene or meeting a young talented actor. There is no major parameter for acting or measuring a talent. It’s an ongoing process, you understand your life also. Your art is not separated from life. I can’t separate it from personal experiences. You grow every day. You have a new experience.

I have been in Berlin for the last two weeks. [Note: The interview was conducted in the last week of March.] I am having an amazing new experience. That does contribute to who I am and what I play later on. It’s like a bank of images which goes into your head. From time to time you have to be alert enough to get something from there. You can never say I know everything. The day you say that is the death of an artiste.

You have worked with Red Rose Clown, a medical clown group. Can you tell us about this group?

Clowning came into my life at LAMDA. Suddenly, I saw the potential of clowning. I felt liberated. I would wait for these classes. In the second year, I had an associateship at LAMDA and was asked to choose what I would want to work on. Clowning was one of them. That year, I totally fell in love with clowning and, of course, I worked in Germany and all over Europe.

In 2011, I got the Arthink South Asia Fellowship from the Goethe Institut, which again gave me an opportunity to go to Germany. I got in this network of medical or therapeutic clowning, saw how the art of clowning can influence people in difficult situations like in hospitals. That was a revelation. I felt this is what I would like to have back home. In India, hospitals are like dark holes.

Then Theatre Garage started and a lot of things came together. We worked a lot with cancer kids. Sending clowns to these children and spreading joy and laughter, that is what we needed in India. Now few teachers have come back to India, learning clowning. I would like this movement to grow in India.

I was teaching in Germany recently. They also find it fascinating that somebody is coming from India and teaching clowning. Not many people in India do that. The few people I have trained in India are leading their own groups and doing their own clowning projects. That is very fulfilling.