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Interview Hindi

You start making choices that interest you, and slowly it becomes your forte: Gulshan Devaiah

Actor Gulshan Devaiah speaks about working in the absurd black comedy Afsos and trying to do the unconventional even in standard commercial cinema.

Shriram Iyengar

From the charmingly evil Jimmy and the dead-serious Mani in Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2019) to the devious Buraq Ansari in Commando 3 (2019) or a monster terrorizing a village in Ghost Stories (2020), Gulshan Devaiah seems to have struck a purple patch when it comes to interesting roles.

Since making his debut in cinema a decade ago, the actor has been quietly charting his way through the industry. His recent run of success has brought him much notice, and deservedly so. With a Filmfare nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his double role in Mard Ko Dard..., Gulshan Devaiah has certainly caught the eye.

Currently shooting for Reema Kagti's upcoming Amazon Prime Video original series Fallen, the actor, speaking of his roles, said, "Conventional and non-conventional after a point does not matter as long as it is interesting to me. It has to make sense to me as an actor, to my craft."

One challenging way of looking at it is through characters that are difficult to like but also difficult to ignore. The actor's recent foray into the digital medium came with Afsos, a black comedy about a suicidal man who finds himself wrapped in an absurd drama stranger than he can write about.

"It is about our interpretations of life and death, and from Nakul's perspective, it is how we all tend to suffer a little more in our imaginations than our reality." Gulshan Devaiah said. Excerpts from the interview:

Afsos is a delightful black comedy that builds on a fascinating plot. How did it come your way?

These three gentlemen who had written the script, Anirban Dasgupta, Dibya Chatterjee and Sourav Ghosh, wanted to meet and narrate something. So I just met them and found it bizarrely interesting. I thought this is either going to be great or completely not. It gets into a territory which is a bit bizarre. I thought pulling it off would be difficult.

They did not have the screenplay or the script ready back then, but I found it really interesting. More importantly, all three had a nice, tasteful, good energy about them. There was a laidbackness which did not lack enthusiasm.

Over time, they told me that they were speaking to [director] Anubhuti [Kashyap]. When I spoke to her, she said she was totally on board. So, things kept falling into place for the project. Every time I met them, I liked it a little more. I guess it was a combination of Anubhuti being on the project, my tuning with the three gentlemen, and my own fascination of pulling something like this off.

I thought Nakul's character is a loser. To make a loser's life interesting is a bit of a challenge. If the audience loses interest in him, we are done, it's packup. 

It does feel like a dark comedy built around the issue of a depressed man with suicidal tendencies, quite bizarre a point to begin with...

No, it is more than that. It is about our interpretations of life and death, and from Nakul's perspective, it is how we all tend to suffer a little more in our imaginations than in our reality. It is charmingly bizarre. In places, it does go into mythological territory. All these make it interesting.

This is yet another out-of-the-box character played by you, lining up with the double role in Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2019) and the polished villain in Commando 3 (2019). Are you consciously looking out for such characters, or is it just happenstance that you are being approached for them?

I think it is a bit of both. I am looking for out-of-the-box characters since I always want to do something unconventional. People also look at me as an actor who can do roles like these.

Dibakar [Banerjee]'s Ghost Stories (2019) was the toughest thing I ever did in my life. People also see me as an actor to play offbeat, unconventional and sometimes difficult parts. I also find it challenging. I don't consider myself a very conventional actor. I think it comes naturally to me. I don't think it is purely calculated.

You start making choices that interest you, and slowly it becomes your forte. I am a sucker for variety. I want to explore as many different things as possible.

But does this not also lead to its own stereotype? You have played a villain in a major commercial film like Commando 3, but would you like to play conventional roles in commercial films as well?

I don't mind doing conventional roles, provided they give me the freedom to interpret the character. I don't want to make things bizarre for the sake of being unconventional.

In Commando 3, I told Mr Vipul Shah, 'I understand you are making a conventional action film. But can I get some space to interpret?' I thought that he [Devaiah's character] was a Londoner, and he is well-educated, so the style of speaking and the mannerisms were important. I also had to understand the sensibilty and the story that the director was trying to say, and had to tailor my performance to that. That is also a challenge. It is interesting to sometimes fit into something that does not come naturally to you, but you find a way to adapt to that.

Conventional and non-conventional after a point does not matter as long as it is interesting to me. It has to make sense to me as an actor, to my craft. It has to also make sense from a career perspective. I have slightly become conscious of that because I think I choose roles which will take my career in a forward direction as well. Having said that, everything is not as mathematical. It [involves] very instinctive decisions also.

Stereotyping... that I have stopped playing. From now till next year, I am not playing a bad guy. I get offered a lot of bad guys after Jimmy (Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota) and Commando 3, [but] I have turned down a lot of roles. I am happy that people would like to work with me, but I would like to explore my versatility. I would like to explore some diversity and see what else I can do.

The series Afsos also explores an interesting dynamic between the counsellor (Anjali Patil) and your character, Nakul. Did you have workshops, practise that psychological unravelling?

We had a couple of readings, but I had to do everything from Nakul's perspective. It was important for Anjali to understand it from Shloka's perspective. Nakul is a puppy. Everything for him is exaggerated. He suffers in his imagination. His attachments and detachments are also exaggerated. That was also my interpretation of what was written.

When I am in a scene with Shloka, I know how to behave because that is pretty much what Nakul is. We did not have any long workshops to understand the psychology or the relationship between the psychologist and a patient, et al. To be honest, it was down to the writers, and they had perhaps researched it better. I simply had to play it from Nakul's perspective. That made it interesting, because he suffers in his mind. He is also manipulative. Even Shloka's character is not as she seems.

You are also part of this growing stage of digital cinema. Ghost Stories did well. After Afsos, you have begun work on Reema Kagti's Fallen. So has that recognition in this space changed things for you? What does working in the digital medium mean from an actor's perspective?

I don't know if things have changed for me. But I come from a space where I have this respect for traditional cinema. I grew up watching cinema, wanting to be a cinema actor, fantasizing about my face being on billboards and stuff. So cinema for me is this. The way cinema is consumed will always be, for me, on the big screen. You may also watch series on the big screen. Seven-hour-long with four intervals (laughs). That will always be cinema for me.

When the digital space opened up, I was a bit sad that it was going to kill the whole cinematic experience. But it did not happen. It did to some extent rattle the cinema world, but then I think we have figured out a way to cope with and learn from each other.

I look at it as a really long film. It is slightly longer than a feature-length film. From a general actor's perspective, there is more work for people, in interesting avenues. There is more detailed exploration in the character format. You can explore more than one primary character. I am currently doing the show with Reema [Kagti] where there are four primary characters.

Another example is Game Of Thrones where nobody had one favourite character. I think that is interesting. In cinema, sometimes, you can't do more than two or three at a time, because you don't have enough time to tell their stories.

Speaking about Fallen, how is the shoot coming along? (This interview was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in shooting schedules being suspended.)

Oh, it is going along really well. I have been having a really lovely time. I am enjoying working with everyone here. We have been preparing for two months.

How long is the schedule?

It is a really long schedule. I will be working with the team till the end of May. 

You have completed 10 years in the industry. How do you look back on the decade?

It has been an interesting journey. I have no regrets. My career could have been better than what it is right now. Why am I saying this? I was very work-oriented. I didn't understand many other things. How to be myself, for one thing. It took me some time to be comfortable on stage, and belong.

The moment you feel you don't belong here, you don't belong. Initially, I suffered from that, feeling like an outsider. Nobody made me feel like an outsider, but it is just that. Suddenly, you are amongst movie stars. You start to feel like an impostor. By the time you get comfortable, the spotlight has shifted.

I didn't know how to channelize the energy. I am learning that right now. Learning from my contemporaries. I am learning from my juniors. People who came after me are way smarter than me in how they are approaching their careers. That's how I look at it. I have matured as a person. I have improved as an actor. I am more comfortable in myself. More aware of myself and my craft, I am more efficient as an actor. In that way, it is great.

Talking of performances, Jimmy/Mani was a laugh riot. As much fun as the film was, was working in it also fun? Did you expect it to gain popularity with the fans as much?

No expectations, actually. It was fun acting. I always enjoy acting. It was fun for me. Me and Vasan [writer-director Vasan Bala] have a great working relationship. Never did I look at something that people will love it. The intention was to do a great job, be prepared, and have a good day. At the end of 12 hours, you have to feel good. When you have fun while working, then something good comes of it. The love and appreciation the film got was a result of that.

Apart from Fallen, what does this year hold for you?

I am going to finish this [Fallen] before I start anything else. I will be shooting for a bilingual film with a director from Bengaluru, Rishabh Shetty. He has won the National award. It is a thriller again. I will join them once I finish my work here, and the film will be shot in Kannada and Hindi.

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