‘Common man is back in focus,’ says Pavan Malhotra and adds Indian cinema is moving towards simplistic storytelling

When Cinema Journal caught up with the maverick actor Pavan Malhotra he was taking a break in his hotel room, between days stretched over a heavily scheduled shoot. Yet, he was in no mood to let that affect him. He quickly struck up a riveting conversation not just about his OTT debut, but also gave us a peak into his life as an actor. Excerpts from the conversation:

How it all began

For the last few weeks, he has been ruing the demise of director Buddhadeb Dasgupta. “I have worked with Buddhadeb Dasgupta in Bagh Bahadur. That was a very important film in my career. In fact, when my film with Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, released in 1989, I shot for the cover of a popular magazine. Buddhada saw the cover and came looking for me to Bombay. He had a keen eye and was sure that he wanted to cast me in Bagh Bahadur. That is how the film happened for me. Both the films won National Awards in the same year and went on to make cinematic history in the country. I am very grateful to Buddhada for giving me that role and being so confident about me right from the beginning, even when we hadn’t met. I have a lot of respect for his body of work,” he recalled.

On being asked if he felt that the director never got his due and was perennially overshadowed by comparisons to the greats like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen or Ritwik Ghatak he said, “I worked with him in just one film, and have watched a couple of other films he made. But I don’t know if I can say for sure that he didn’t get his due from the industry. He was very well known in the global film fraternity and also in Bengal. There was a certain kind of magic realism in his method. One can’t really use commercial success to grade someone like him. The fact that we are still talking about Bagh Bahadur after 30 years of its release is what makes it a great film. There are films that are released and quickly make a lot of money. But after that no one remembers those films, they just disappear. But the world will always look back fondly at Buddhada’s work as a filmmaker. That is his achievement, that is where he stands apart from everyone else!”

Quitting television

For someone who has worked in a variety of projects like Nukkad, Black Friday, Jab We Met and Judwaa 2 with equal ease, Malhotra believes Indian filmmakers are now slowly adapting to the middle-of-the road brand of filmmaking. “This was something Hrishikesh Mukherjee had done so many years ago. We now see more and more people making films on the lives of the common man! With OTT you don’t have to wait to watch the next episode, you wait for the next season. Even then you have a remote in your hands and can move on to some other show as and when you please. OTT is another window for creative people to express themselves and budgets are definitely better than TV.”

When asked why he moved away from television, Malhotra says, “I quit TV as a choice because there were too many shows bordering on the conflict between saas-bahu drama. It was something I didn’t like at all. You see, cinema has its own space; OTT too has made a separate genre out of itself. Watching a film with 300 strangers is a different experience altogether. So, I believe people theatres will definitely survive the pandemic because the public enjoy the ambience. It is not just about the film it is about the entire experience. Actors perform for the camera, the medium can be anything. They just want people to watch their work, that’s all!”

Taking the OTT route

The actor recently made his OTT debut with Disney+ Hotstar’s Grahan, which has been inspired by Satya Vyas’s novel, Chaurasi. The web series follows the aftermath of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, which also interlinks two stories from different eras. The show stars Zoya Hussain, Pavan Malhotra, Anshuman Pushkar, Wamiqa Gabbi, Teekam Joshi and Sahidur Rahman in pivotal roles. However, the show seemed to have been mired in controversies with radical groups protesting against its political backdrop.

“People tend to react when something they see on screen is factually incorrect. It is true that some people were worried about the way Grahan would be received since it was based on some political events in history. But once you watch the series, which is already streaming now, you will see that it is actually a very sweet and beautifully told love story. It is not right to object to something without watching the entire series. No community has been shown in bad light. That is just a misconception. I am very clear when I sign any new work. I don’t take up anything that makes fun of the Indian Army. It is on principle that I have taken this stand!” he said.

Playing diverse characters

As an actor Pavan Malhotra takes pride in the fact that no one can mimic him. Every character he has played is distinctly different from the other and there are no particular mannerisms that he carries from one set to another. “It is very easy for an actor to avoid the entrapments of being put in a box. Whatever is there to a character, it is there in the script. Now it is up to the actor and how he sees it. He could be a sapling, or a bush or just a tree or even build a jungle around him from the script that has been given to him. In most cases this eye for nuances is instinctive but experience also plays a key role. Exposure to world class cinema and one’s reading of it is another important factor that adds to the way an actor prepares himself. I have nothing against people who have developed a particular style and body language. But I feel as an actor one should not become a prisoner of his image. He should break that image over and over again, so that no one can ever put him in a box,” he added.

Versatility matters

He believes people remember actors for their entire body of work, not for just one film. “Amjad Khan was not great because he played Wajid Ali Shah. He was a great actor because he could do a Gabbar Singh and a Wajid Ali Shah with equal ease! You also have to give credit to Satyajit Ray sahab, who had such an expert eye. He believed that someone who had played Gabbar, could actually go on to play Wajid Ali who was slightly effeminate and had to sing thumris. During the shoot for that film, Amjad Khan met with an accident and Ray sahab postponed his entire shoot for three months. He did not take any other actor to play that role. He only wanted Amjad Khan because he knew instinctively that he was an actor who would never carry Gabbar’s mannerisms to Wajid Ali Shah,” he recalled.

People’s person

For an actor of his calibre, Malhotra would like his fans to remember him as a people’s person. “When I sit in a taxi, I always talk to the cabbie. I love train journeys. There is a certain kind of sweetness in arguing with five people, bribing the TT and then being finally able to grab a seat for yourself. Soon after, people tend to share the seat on an hourly basis with the very people he was fighting with. People will take out their tiffin that they have got from their homes, share food with each other, get down at station to buy water or dry food for complete strangers and not even take money for it. These are people you may never meet again in your lifetime. But you still have managed to create a bond with the. That is the beauty of the Indian culture and that is where this new concept of filmmaking comes from. Films are now beginning to reflect that. Films are finally about the common man, the focus is back on him!” he said.

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