There are some actors who don’t pay attention to film critics. Avinash Tiwary is not one of them. He still remembers film critic Baradwaj Rangan described him as the “love-child of Daniel Day-Lewis and Ranveer Singh”. “Things like this stay with you as you are reminded that at least someone is seeing your work and acknowledging the contribution.” Since he made his film debut in 2017, Tiwary has teetered between recognition and invisibility. Being cast in Karan Johar’s short feature for the Ghost Stories anthology on Netflix led to Tiwary being seen as a bigger star and being offered bigger vanity vans. His roles in television series, like Yudh and Naagin, didn’t go under the radar, but neither did they establish him. Now, with the success of Khakee: The Bihar Chapter, Tiwary seems to be standing on the brink of change.
Khakee: was watched by 3 million viewers in its first week, and continues to be in Netflix’s global top-10 in its second week. Tiwary strongly believes that with the OTT boom, Indian filmmakers have the potential to reach out across the world and create newer, bigger markets for their stories. “I feel that within three to five years, we will be able to achieve a stage where we can have international stars. We have the opportunity, and the potential,” he said. He tempers this optimism with an honesty that isn’t commonplace in the entertainment business. He mentions that the industry tends to be a bit too complacent and safe, that our stories should strive to push more boundaries. “The biggest of our stars and directors are only catering to their existing audience base, which I don’t feel is the right approach,” he said. He’s happy with Khakee, though he did mention his disappointment that one of the scenes he was most excited about was ultimately removed for fear of offending public sentiment. He also said that he may not be the target audience for the show, but the experience of playing Chandan Mahto, a lower-caste underdog who becomes a feared ganglord, has been a rewarding one
When the role of Chandan Mahto came to Tiwary, he wasn’t sure about taking on the project. “I read the scripts for the first two episodes and felt I wanted to do the show. However, when I read all the episodes, it felt all the more far-fetched that I could do justice to the part,” said Tiwary who ran the show premise and his character’s brief by his father. His father advised him against doing Khakee, saying it was “too removed from your zone”. Ironically, that remark proved to be the catalyst. “Now, I had to do it, because it was challenging,” said Tiwary.
To prepare for the role, Tiwary arrived at the location 10 days before shooting and spent time at the local dhabas observing truck drivers and their everyday demeanour. “I started discovering a few things I could do with this character, like his body language before and after his transformation, the way he stands or talks to others — these came from the observations after living there for those 10 days.”
Tiwary, who grew up in a middle-class household in Bihar, sounded embarrassed to share how he found acting. “Sometime, during my first semester of Engineering studies, I began to question myself what am I good at — and I suddenly realised that I can cry on command. While even professional actors often seemed to need glycerine, I didn’t.” The shift happened quickly. “Within two months of realising that I could emote on command, I found myself performing on stage. It was an exhilarating feeling.” Tiwary first worked with theatre groups like Yaatri, Ansh and Ekjut, before deciding he wanted to study acting. He enrolled at the New York Film Academy (NYFA) and upon his return to India, he worked with Lekh Tandon on two TV shows for Doordarshan. Tiwary remembers Tandon fondly, crediting the veteran filmmaker for instilling a sense of confidence in him. “I was desperate for work, even willing to do a one-minute role if it left an impact. But Lekh sir kept reminding me that I had the potential to drive a film or show on my shoulders.”
Tiwary’s strategy in his early days was to choose projects in which he wouldn’t be widely noticed. He did TV commercials, worked as a hand model, did voice-overs, made appearances in corporate videos — the focus was on paying the bills while lurking in the shadows as he waited for the right project. “I never wanted to be someone who becomes a daily part of the audience’s viewing habits,” Tiwary said. This was what he kept in mind while selecting television serials — he deliberately chose shows that were weekly instead of daily soaps.
Then Laila Majnu (2018) happened. The film, directed by Sajid Ali and produced by Imtiaz Ali, took almost three years to materialise. Tiwary was an uncertain mess for most of this time. “I was first contacted for the film in December 2015. I tested 21 times for the part. Sajid asked me to not sign anything else, for the fear of creating a baggage. I obliged, only to be told in July 2016 that Balaji Motion Pictures was shutting the film down.” Tiwari then signed an OTT project to be directed by Ajay Bahl for Hotstar, only to be contacted by Balaji again because they were reviving Laila Majnu. “They handled the rest of the negotiations with Bahl’s team, and only then Laila Majnu resumed.”
While he waited for Laila Majnu to work out its tangles, Tiwary joined the ensemble cast of Milind Dhaimade’s Tu Hi Mera Sunday (2016), a charming slice-of-life dramedy. “The film was selected for BFI [British Film Institute], and we were all invited. By that time, I had reached a point where I felt the need to start looking for other avenues if it [acting] doesn’t work out.” But the response Tu Hi Mera Sunday received at the screening reassured the actor and it’s still one of his favourites from his own filmography.
Preparing for Laila Majnu, especially the post-interval scenes where his character Qais transforms into a lean, vagrant Majnu, felt revelatory to Tiwary. “I went on an extreme diet, determined to transform physically in the 17-day period before the shoot began.” But changes proved to be beyond the mere physical. “The more I followed my diet, the greater need I felt to conserve my energy and cut off socially. That led to something transformative. I don’t consider myself a spiritual person, but I felt things I hadn’t before — the real discovery of Majnu happened in those 17 days,” he said.
There was more that Tiwary gleaned from the experience of Laila Majnu, which failed commercially. “Up until then, all I wanted was one big film. But once it released and disappeared, I didn’t know what to do with myself. So the learning has been to push the goal post everytime you find yourself nearing your goal,” he said.
Tiwary does have one long-term goal: He wants to be an actor who can fill seats in a theatre. “Right now, there is a saturation of content for an average film-goer, who barely makes time for 10-15 theatrical visits a year. We have more creators than watchers, and currently only a handful of people have the power to bring them to theatres. I want to be one of those stars.”
Next year, Tiwary will be seen in two major shows — Bejoy Nambiar’s Kaala and the Amazon Prime special Bambai Meri Jaan (earlier titled ‘From Dongri to Dubai’). “It might sound boastful, but right now I am involved in projects I would genuinely be envious of if I was someone else looking at my trajectory,” he said. He believes that as an actor, he “needs to do a little bit of everything” to establish himself. He described acting as a rich man’s game and pointed out that very few actors who are ‘outsiders’ — without existing familial or professional connections in the Hindi film industry — have been able to get break-out roles in recent times. “Unless you continue to spend huge monies to build yourself or be constantly seen with the big-shots in photographs, you don’t become a big brand. A star kid who still hasn’t even had a film release yet is a bigger star than someone like Tripti Dimri, who I believe is far more talented than anyone else in her age group. Would you call that a just system?”
Tiwary didn’t hesitate to rattle off his opinions of his contemporaries, whom he admires for different reasons. Of Siddhanth Chaturvedi, Tiwary said the Gully Boy (2019) actor is a better performer than the projects he’s chosen. Kartik Aaryan has an amazing business sense, said Tiwary and he was full of praise for Vicky Kaushal — “There is a genuine, nice feel to his presence and he has the chops. It’s only a matter of endurance now.” Tiwary is also a fan of Rajkummar Rao, but with a bit of a reservation. “I want Rajkummar Rao to be properly back. He was doing what was needed much earlier,” Tiwary said. He described Vikrant Massey as “far more talented than anyone else right now”.
He is clear-sighted about his own prospects as an actor. “It’s a probability that I will take longer than others, but I will reach the top, which I am certain of. But then, the media will make it a race, and call you ‘defeated’ if you end up taking more time than the other. We have made everything in life about getting to the top.” Tiwary doesn’t mind taking time to reach his goals. “I will be there for the next 20 years, no matter what. It’s bound to happen. I remain confident, because this is where it started from — the desire to be an actor; nothing more, nothing less.”