When filmmaker Karan Anshuman sat down with his team to cast the first season of Amazon Prime's Mirzapur (2018), he knew he wanted to have fun with it. Casting against type by enlisting Divyenndu to play the foul-mouthed scion of a crime family or a relatively meek Ali Fazal to play a college kid who transforms into a beast – Anshuman knew there was one role he didn't want to mess around with. It was the part of the ageing patriarch of the Tripathi clan, who exists below the radar for the majority of the first season, until he doesn't. Anshuman remembers chasing Kulbhushan Kharbanda for nearly a year, after which he got a meeting. "The idea was to play it safe, and this is Shakaal right?" Anshuman asks over the phone. As soon as he entered Kharbanda's living room, Anshuman began second-guessing his gut. "He was feeding his parrot like the ultimate nice guy!" Anshuman recounts. Unsure about what he's going to say about the explicit language and the violence (his character forces a woman to mutilate her lover's genitals in the finale episode), Anshuman and his team persisted and narrated the scene in granular detail. "We were all a little nervous about telling him what we wanted him to do in the show. But his non-reaction (to the language and the violence) was reaffirming," says Anshuman.
Kulbhushan Kharbanda also appeared in Shefali Bhushan's Guilty Minds recently, where he plays a senior partner at a family-owned law firm. Unlike most of his peers (except Naseeruddin Shah), 77-year-old Kharbanda has taken to streaming as seamlessly as anyone. According to Bhushan he totally understood the complexities of what she was trying to say through her show. Despite a career of nearly five decades, as Bhushan puts it, Kulbhushan Kharbanda is still with the times.
At first, Kharbanda doesn't seem very keen to talk about Shakaal. The villain from Ramesh Sippy's Shaan (1980), who feeds police informants to crocodiles while flashing a cold and impenetrable smile, has become almost synonymous with his career. And that's probably why when I bring it up, he sighs: "Everyone still asks me about it!" Only when I ask him about the aftermath of the film's failure, is when he opens up about his most iconic role.
Making his debut in Sai Paranjpye's Jadu Ka Shankh (1974), where he plays the King's (played by Girish Karnad) evil brother, Kharbanda also went on to star in Shyam Benegal's Nishant (1975), playing a lowly village constable with pliable morals. After a long association with Benegal, which he claims (in jest) would fetch him a 'monthly salary', and delivering hits like Bharathiraja's Solva Sawan (1979), which happened to be the Bollywood debut of a young actor called Sridevi, he snapped up arguably the most sought-after job in Hindi cinema of that time: the main villain in a Salim-Javed/Ramesh Sippy film, especially on the heels of Gabbar Singh.
Kharbanda wasn't shouting about it from roof-tops, in fact he tried his best to hide it for as long as possible. "Once the word got out around three-four months before the release, it became difficult," he says. He recounts how he got blamed for the film's failure. "After Shaan's failure, I had to return the money for four-five films I had signed. I was the villain in all of them." He also remembers watching a preview screening and 'predicting' they might have missed the mark with Shaan, something he confided to his good friend Girish Karnad. "Girish kept reminding me for a long time how strange and true my prediction turned out to be," Kharbanda says.
Lying low for almost a year after that, Kharbanda redeemed himself with Mahesh Bhatt's Arth (1981). "I've heard that when a film does well, it benefits the actor. I'm yet to see it happen in real life. Every two years, one good film would come along and flops would quietly disappear," says Kharbanda.
One of Kharbanda's most widely recognised films for a 1990s kid, is Mansoor Khan's Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992). In this film, Kharbanda plays the part of Ram Lal Sharma – a former athlete turned cafe owner, struggling to provide his son with the latest sports gear for his annual sports championship. Even though most of his parts in the 1990s were indistinguishable among a "Commissioner uncle" or something in the father mould, Ram Lal wasn't a stock character. As the film turns 30 this month, Kharbanda bemoans how even Jo Jeeta didn't do well on release. "My daughter, who was really young at the time, used to drive us crazy because of how obsessed she was with the film. The cassette would keep playing at home!" Kharbanda recalls.
During the late 90s, Kharbanda's filmography became populated with what were referred to as 'crossover films' at the time. Kharbanda recalls starring in three Mira Nair films and seven Deepa Mehta films, including the elements trilogy and most recently, Midnight's Children (2012). His first collaboration with Mehta, Fire (1997) stoked widespread controversy. Reminiscing about that time, Kharbanda says, "I think it began around 1990, when they began burning Hussain's paintings, and then ousted him from the country. They burned posters of Fire, and then vandalised the sets of Water in Varanasi. There would be protests against films even before, but something changed around this time."
When I probe Kharbanda's non-mainstream choices during the 2000s (like Navdeep Singh's Manorama Six Feet Under, 2007), or the 2010s (Prashant Nair's Delhi In A Day or Ashvin Kumar's No Fathers In Kashmir), he dismisses it by saying he's never been someone with a 'plan'. "These weren't choices, this was what I was offered. All I asked was if the money was okay, and I said yes! I don't think I ever had the luxury of choosing work, I simply tried to do two projects every year," confesses Kharbanda.
Nearing five decades as a working actor, Kharbanda (rather impressively) seems to be keeping up with his average of two projects per year. Whether they're films with pronounced politics like Haider (2014) or benign star-vehicles like Khandaani Shafakhaana (2019). And even though he deflects all credit for his choices, one look at his streaming career could convince anyone that he has a knack of attracting interesting, conventionally progressive projects. The colourful language or graphic violence never being a hurdle for him. "I'll tell you an anecdote from when I was directing a play in college, and I scarred the young boys and girls by screaming at them for not even being able to embrace without feeling conscious. Also, I had a problem with the language where insults sounded like "main aapki zubaan kheech lunga". I was of the opinion that we should swear like Punjabis even then – so obviously I wasn't put off by the swearing in Mirzapur," says Kharbanda.
"You have to understand that this man has seen a lot of single life. You'll need a lot to ruffle his feathers," mentions Anshuman, also going on to add, "between shots in Mirzapur, he would regale these stories of film parties and Hindi cinema of the 70s and 80s. He's seen it all."
Anushman remembers a scene from the first season, where he realised the value of having someone with Kharbanda's experience to convey volumes with little nuances. "There was this dinner scene where Munna is complaining about how spicy the mutton is. Kaleen is somewhere in the middle, and this man is just chewing the hell out of the bones. It's a moment that establishes the hierarchy within the house," says Anshuman.
Shefali Bhushan mentions how their conversation around Guilty Minds spilled over to discussing the country's politics, talking about her own father, history and the different variations of Punjabi. "One can have a conversation with him about pretty much anything from the past, present or future." It will be interesting to see what Kharbanda chooses next, now that most streaming platforms have taken note of his innate modernity. Rest assured, it's not going to be 'safe'.