For the first month after Paatal Lok’s release on Amazon Prime Video in May last year, Jaideep Ahlawat barely managed to sleep for two-three hours a night. The actor, who played the protagonist Hathi Ram Chaudhary in the web series, would be woken up by congratulatory calls or messages even at three or four in the morning! “It was the first time in my life that I started keeping my phone on silent before sleeping,” he chuckles at the memory, which feels nothing short of amazing for the 41-year-old who started his career in 2008 with smaller roles in Hindi films.
Almost a year later, the love and appreciation continue to pour in for the actor who had also received praise for his role in 2018’s Raazi. Attributing the success of the show to the brilliant writing and direction, as well as the other technical aspects which all came together, Jaideep also thinks it is the economy of the length of his role as well as the relatability factor that worked in its favour.
“The story’s responsibility was on Hathi Ram’s shoulders and that character has every layer, every emotion that a common man can relate to. He is a failure on the home as well as work front. He wants to do good but he also gets frustrated and irritated with the situation around him. He faces all the negative emotions but he overcomes them to emerge a winner. However, the beauty of the show is that he is as ordinary a winner as he should be. He is still not the pioneer of social change but a lot changes in his own life. He is a winner from within and that is what the aam aadmi connects to,” he says, analysing the role that made such a huge impact on the audience's minds.
Ask him about his family’s reaction to his achievement, and you can hear the warmth flooding his voice as he speaks fondly of them. “My younger brother, who stays in Chandigarh once asked me how I’m dealing with the attention, because people there are asking to click pictures with him because he is my brother!” he laughs. His parents, naturally, are proud of him and relieved that his work is being recognised. “My father is more aware of how things work here. My mother is also really happy but her only two questions for me when she calls are, ‘khana khaya?’ and ‘tabiyat theek hai na?’,” he shares with a smile.
Hailing from Rohtak, Haryana, a young Jaideep did not dream of beating up villains on the silver screen but of fighting the real enemies of the country. “I wanted to join the Indian Army but that somehow did not work out. Frustrated with things around me, I joined theatre while I was in college,” he recalls.
Playing different characters on stage helped channelise his restless energy and he realised he enjoys the process. On his theatre guru’s suggestion, he completed his acting course from The Film and Theatre Institute of India (FTII) and arrived in Mumbai in 2008 with dreams of doing some good work in the field.
After having been exposed to world cinema as well as Indian cinema during his days at FTII, Jaideep was excited about working with some of the greats of the Hindi film industry. “There was a better understanding of the craft of acting. Actors such as Balraj Sahni saab, Naseer saab, Om Puri saab, Sanjeev Kumar ji had paved the way, as did Robert De Niro and Al Pacino from Hollywood movies. Then actors such as Manoj bhai and Irrfan saab had taken it ahead. I was inspired by all of them but I also knew that I will have to find my own style,” he says.
The gang of boys
In 2012, filmmaker Anurag Kashyap cast him in the role of Shahid Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur (GOW). Today, the film enjoys a cult status and is the only Indian film to be featured in The Guardian’s list of the 100 best films of the 21st century, but Jaideep shares that back then, he did not have any inkling of what the film would turn out to be. “All I knew was that we were on to something new and that we were enjoying it. Also, you feel safe when your director knows you and knows the character you are playing. After working with Anurag sir, one starts understanding what is working and what’s not. So, I just went with the flow,” he says.
Although the film did not turn him into an overnight star, what it did for him was that it showed people that he is an actor to look out for. “Before GOW, the struggle was to let people know that there is an actor inside me. That struggle was over. Even if people didn’t know your name, they knew that here is an actor who can do good work,” he says.
The movie also starred actors such as Rajkummar Rao and Pankaj Tripathi, who are appreciated for their talent and acting prowess today. When they bump into each other, do they reminisce about the old days? “Rajkummar is my batchmate from FTII and we have seen each other grow in the industry. I worked with Pankaj bhai in my first film Aakrosh (2010). We might not catch up and talk about the initial years but we know each other’s journeys and it feels good to see that we are in this together,” he says.
Jaideep is currently basking in the appreciation he is receiving for his performance in the Netflix anthology Ajeeb Daastaans. “The audience will get to see some really interesting stories and characters and also see some twisted aspects of human behaviour and relationships,” he says.
One of his main criteria for taking on a new project is to see that he avoids repeating himself. “After Commando, I got a lot of offers for villainous roles which I did not take up. Mera script padhne ka mann hi nahi hota, so those roles don’t even register with me,” he says. Doing something new each time he appears on screen and surprising the audience as well as himself, is what excites him. “I am not afraid of trying anything new. In fact, I wait for it – something that the audience does not expect to see me as. As an actor, I want to explore such roles. That’s where the fun is,” he signs off.