The multi-faceted artist looks back on his journey so far as he explains why he keeps choosing different paths and taking up newer challenges. Oh, and he also talks about the all-time classic Gol Maal (1979).
Amol Palekar: Fear of failure has never kept me from trying something new
Mumbai - 25 Dec 2019 16:09 IST
Hindi cinema, especially the mainstream, was very much 'hero-orientated' in the 1970s and 1980s. Along with their machismo, these heroes were known for their superhuman ability to bash up scores of bad guys and win the hearts of beautiful girls with song and dance at the drop of a hat.
However, it was in this era that one leading man dared to be different and was also successful. Amol Palekar created his own path and built his own cult following. In fact, he could hardly be related with the word ‘hero’. Titles like ‘boy next door’ or ‘common man’ were given to him then, and certainly suited him more. Despite that, the effect he caused on his fans was no less powerful than that caused by any regular 'hero'.
After having been a painter and a successful theatre artiste, Amol Palekar won many a heart with a different genre of 'middle-of-the-road' films like Rajnigandha (1974), Chhoti Si Baat (1976), Gharaonda (1977), Bhumika (1977), Baaton Baaton Mein (1979), Gol Maal (1979), Tarang (1984) and Ankahee (1985). Earlier this month, he made a comeback to theatre after a gap of more than 25 years through the Hindi play Kusur.
In an exclusive conversation with Cinestaan.com, Amol Palekar looked back at his journey so far and explained what drives him to choose different paths and take up newer challenges every time. Excerpts:
You have had a fascinating journey. You studied at the Sir JJ School of Arts and became a painter. You then excelled in theatre and went on to create your own space in cinema. How do you look at your journey so far?
I feel extremely happy and satisfied, particularly because I had the privilege to keep dabbling in three different spaces — visual arts, performing arts and moving image — and I kept dabbling into them simultaneously. I remember I was having my solo exhibition at the Taj Art Gallery. At the same time, I was shooting during the day and in the evening I was having theatre performances. So, it used to be that kind of multi-layered and multi-dimensional existence. I could live that on my terms.
What is most important and satisfying when I look back today is that I never went with the mainstream. Never ever with whatever people want and like. I have never bothered about that. I have always gone, may not necessarily against the stream, but definitely off the mainstream; of whatever the majority thinks. It’s like not going on the super express highway but choosing to go by the small bylane on a bicycle. And not zooming past all the cars. I have chosen to go this way, thoroughly enjoyed my journey, tried and explored unknown little roads. I know what goal I want to reach. So, there is no confusion.
Today when I look back I feel overwhelmed that people have loved me for being different and not being stereotyped. Successful label demands that I will only do this because this is successful and I will go on repeating it. I have never done that right from the beginning of my career. After the first three silver jubilee hits [a film that ran continuously for 25 weeks at the theatres was declared a silver jubilee] with my boy-next-door image, which people loved, the fourth film I chose was Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika (1977). So, that’s me. That I can do it, for which I am grateful to the audience.
You come from a middle-class family. We all know how parents react when their kid expresses his or her desire to venture into the arts since there is no guarantee of an income. How was it in your case?
I chose to go to the JJ School of Arts and that too fine arts, not applied or commercial arts. So, there was zero certainty of how I would earn. But my parents, despite their middle-class financial background, allowed me that freedom, which is one of the greatest things they gave me. Even today I can’t think of parents allowing their child to choose such an uncertain path. Uncertainty is the only reality. For them to allow me to do that also shaped my entire career.
Every time there was some kind of a dilemma or I was at some crossroads, I would think of them and say that if I make a compromise here it will be a great insult to them. I was the only son and had three sisters. They didn’t ask me to do something else to take the family responsibility. Nothing! They said if this is what you want to do, please go ahead, but just ensure you don’t give it up halfway through. Make a success of it.
How did you feel when the film media and fans started calling you ‘boy next door’?
I am extremely happy about that. But whenever I was playing like, say, my character in Gharaonda, if you look at him, of course he is a middle-class boy and all that. But he was a middle-class boy who asks his girlfriend to marry his boss and says that they will continue to have an affair, and when the boss pops it everything will be theirs. It’s such a, if not negative, but a grey character. I ensured that I not only made it believable, but also brought the vulnerability of that character out more than his not-so-heroic thoughts. Let’s put it that way.
So, for a middle-class man I always brought very successfully this believability into that. It was like, I not only know this man but this is even how I would behave in all the characters I played. When I succeeded in that, then superficially that boy-next-door kind of thing goes back automatically. That believability is more important than this label.
My character in Rajnigandha and my role in Chhoti Si Baat came one after the other. People, particularly the media, were very happy to say it’s the same middle-class man and boy-next-door [in both films]. But both are diametrically opposite characters. The person in Rajnigandha is an extrovert to an extent that he keeps talking about office politics and everything but never utters ‘I love you’ to the heroine. And the character in Chhoti Si Baat is an introvert, a shy person. But you [media] forget about these subtleties and differences. I have no problems with that. I am very clear and therefore I keep exploring those little details and nuances.
Somehow the Bombay middle class isn’t getting space in mainstream Hindi cinema today.
First and foremost, where is the middle class today? Not having your own vehicle was once one of the criteria of being in the middle class. Do you think that remains the same today? So, the middle class has also changed. The aspiration and dreams of the middle class have changed. And rightly so. As society evolves, things change. How can we keep comparing the middle class of the 1960s and 1970s with the middle class of today?
Like in Baaton Baaton Mein (1979), this boy and Tina Munim are travelling to office by train. Now that’s where the romance blooms. And how? He sketches her, etc. Now, do you think it would relate to today’s times? There is no space in local trains. It is so stressful. But apart from that, even the lingo or the idiom of the young generation has changed. You talk through your mobiles, Facebook, Instagram, and all that. Unless that gets reflected, you can’t talk of the middle class of today.
You recently said that you don’t like it when people say Ayushmann Khurrana is continuing your legacy because by doing that we are putting him in a box, which is wrong. But in general what do you think of actors like him, Rajkummar Rao and Vicky Kaushal, who are not the typical larger-than-life types?
All of them are excellent actors. Even Alia Bhatt is such a fascinating actor. And all of them are appealing to you people particularly. Audience doesn’t put such labels. Media tries to do that and put them into some kind of a jacket. Don’t do that. I had the advantage of not being an Amitabh Bachchan, Jeetendra, Rajesh Khanna or Dharmendra. I was none of them. Because of this, people loved me for being Amol Palekar. Similarly, please allow Ayushmann Khurrana, Rajkummar Rao, Vicky Kaushal and all these people to be themselves, create their own identities and grow.
They will do wonders and give you something fascinating, but only if you allow them. If you try and curb them and say that one is like Amol Palekar, one is like XYZ, one is like ABC, it will be unnecessary curtailment [of] and restrictions on their talent.
You did many films with different themes. Gol Maal is one such film that is loved even today, after 40 years. Did you and the others working on the film have any idea at the time that the film would go on to become a classic and be remembered decades later?
Never! I think the best part of that was because we thoroughly enjoyed shooting. It was like a sheer picnic. We used to have a gala time on the sets. One of the reasons was that Hrishi-da [filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukherjee] had immense clarity in his mind of what he wants and how to get it. He was a master craftsman. But he was also a very naughty person. And that naughtiness reflected into this, which we all as a team carried forward.
Also, I, Utpal-da [actor Utpal Dutt] and Dina-ben [actress Dina Pathak] knew one another from our theatre days. I and Utpal-da used to watch each other’s plays. And I had the privilege of acting with Dina-ben in theatre.
Our chemistry was completely different. We were never insecure about someone else stealing the show. It was teamwork. In fact, Utpal-da would suggest to me to do a certain thing in a certain way. So, it was that kind of an improvisation, which kept happening. Hrishi-da encouraged this immensely. All this reflects throughout the film in terms of the fun and enjoyment.
I think that’s why it is liked even after so many years. Otherwise, how does a classic emerge? It is this kind of sum quality which remains evergreen. Despite the time, generations and all the progress we have made, those roots remain green and alive.
What were your criteria back then before saying yes to a film?
It's absolutely the same even today. I want to accept a role which offers me a new challenge. As I have kept saying, I don’t enjoy doing something which I know I can do very easily. Like, if I know I can do something easily and what I am doing people also will love that, then my interest [in it] diminishes.
This reminds me of your famous quote, ‘Success is boring.’
Yes. But it is not out of arrogance. It is out of extreme honesty I say that let me try something which I am not sure whether I will be able to pull through. Whether I will be able to work this out, I don’t know. I am almost ready to fall flat on my face. Yes, I may fail. But that fear should not keep me away from trying it out.
I am doing the same thing in Kusur today. At this age for me to take up this challenge of such a multi-layered character, having to carry your audience live for 80 minutes continuously is no joke. To try and then achieve that gives me immense satisfaction, which I am getting even today. It was the same criterion in those times also. I haven’t changed.
From the mid-1990s onwards, acting took a backseat as you began focusing more on directing films. Was this a conscious decision?
It was a conscious decision. As I have said, I am an actor by accident and I don’t have great ambitions to be a great actor. I never had. I am a damn good actor; I know. But beyond that I didn’t want to prove myself as one of the most brilliant actors or something. But as a filmmaker I did have a definite goal to reach where I want to reach, how I should go and how my journey should be. So, I thought let me not get it unnecessarily complicated by also acting and not doing justice to the actor in me. If I direct and also act, then my attention gets divided.
The other thing was that a majority of offers that come to me, even today, are all run-of-the-mill, which is not exciting. Two or three offers keep coming to me every week even today. So, why should I do something that is not exciting and forgo something that is exciting, was a simple way of dealing with the situation. If I got an opportunity to do both, as I could do in Samaantar and now in Kusur, then I will take up the challenge. Because I also have such an able partner as Sandhya [Gokhale] with me who takes so much pressure off me that as a young man I can take on challenges that people of my age won’t be daring to do.
You have always been someone who has raised his voice on public issues, right from the time of the Emergency, irrespective of who was in power. We hardly see that from the current artists.
That you should ask them. I strongly believe that an artist is not an island. We tend to make him an island. Like, this is his area and this what he is meant to be. The artist is very much part and parcel of today’s contemporary social space. And if the politics is affecting that, then we have to be aware of that and keep responding to that. And by political, I don’t mean party politics. Certainly not. I keep raising questions against any and every party, irrespective of who is in power, which I will keep on doing.