Pratik Gandhi, who has become the toast of the town post his nuanced portrayal of the infamous stockbroker, Harshad Mehta, in the web series Scam 1992 - The Harshad Mehta Story, is a renowned Gujarati actor who has been honing his skills on the stage for the past 15 years. The actor talks about how life has changed post the release of the Hansal Mehta directorial, and reveals why he calls theatre an actor’s gym.
How does it feel to taste this kind of a success, especially after having such a illustrious career in theatre?
My daughter had the best reaction! She asked me ‘Papa, why are suddenly so many people calling you up and congratulating you?’ So, I told her that I have worked in this web series and people are loving my performance. To this, her reaction was: ‘But why now? You have done so many plays… did they not watch you then?’.
Yes, it is a bit strange. People I would approach before and get promptly turned down by are now calling me up to congratulate, to work with me, to take interviews. I am not bitter, you need to write your own success story, and sometimes it takes time OTT platforms are a mainstream medium and its reach is vast. With the web-series, I am now reaching everybody’s home, I am on every mobile. Hence, people are getting to know about me now. But it is still very overwhelming, to say the least!
How difficult was it to play such a controversial character, especially since he is still so much vivid in public memory?
It is very interesting for actors to approach such characters as there are a lot of things available in the public domain for reference. But I have observed that often while playing a public figure, we focus so much on the persona that the human side of such characters are often largely ignored. There are two sides to the Harshad Mehta story, one is how he ruined the economy and led so many people to commit suicide, and the other is that of an ambitious guy. I read up everything I could lay my hands on. And then I unlearned all the information. I knew I had to approach him from a neutral, unbiased space, where he is neither the villain nor the hero.
But how did you manage to get into that objective space, can one be completely unbiased while playing such a character?
That is where my years of theatre experience came handy! I have played a lot of real-life characters (including Gandhi in Mohan No Masalo which also earned him a Limca Book of Records mention) on stage and what I have always tried is to touch the emotions and the human aspects of the characters. Instead of acting like the character, I try to react like them. I don’t want to make any grand statement through them as an actor. I think it is more important and definitely more interesting to keep it open to the audience’s interpretation.
There were a lot of places in this web series where it was easy for the actor to get a bit carried away and play to the gallery. ‘Hero’ ban jana bohot natural instinct hota hai for an actor…especially the kind of lines I had in this, they were rather filmy, and as an actor you are tempted to pitch it as a punch. My entire aim was to make everything realistic. Instead of projecting the lines as a hero, it had to sound like a person who talks like that in regular situations, that is their way of talking, it is not dialoguebazzi.
How much credit do you give to your theatre experience?
Just as a cricketer requires net practice to improve his game, to put one correct punch in a match, a boxer needs to practice it a thousand times, an actor needs to hone his/her craft as well. And theatre is the best place to do so. I call it an actor’s gym.
I am performing one play for the past seven years, and another for five! You go and perform the same characters over and over again, find newer nuances, experiment, sharpen the rough edges, make it perfect.
It gives you consistency as an actor, and also a reality check…it teaches you to take the audience reaction with full humility and not get swayed by appreciation. One day they will love your work, the next day they might hate it. Also, if you keep putting these bits of praise in your pocket, your pockets would weigh you down in the next performance!
But one thing that theatre give you and movies/web series don’t is that you can play the same character in an entirely different manner and experiment with newer nuances at different shows, but when you are acting for the camera, once you set the tone of the character, you have to continue with it. The first day of the shoot sets the graph and the pitch of the character for the entire show. But for an actor, that is the fun of working in different mediums, each has it’s own charm!
How do you think, the OTT platforms are changing the scene for regional actors who had so far shied away from Hindi content which was confined to Bollywood?
I always search for substance. I have always been inclined toward doing characters that would help me learn something as an actor or where I am adding value to the script. Theatre gave me that opportunity. But with the OTT platforms becoming big, lot of experimentations are happening with the content. The OTT platforms are giving the makers that kind of freedom. There is no pressure of getting the box office numbers in the first three days. There is no need for a big name to sell a film. And that is changing the game. This is the best time for actors.