Harman Baweja has a comfortable routine. At 10.30 am every day, he heads to Baweja Studios in Andheri, which he took over from his dad who suffered a stroke six years ago. On three days of the week, he holds production meetings with directors. The other three days are for writing. Once every three weeks, the team tries to get some writing done outside the office. On other days, his staff leaves by 8 pm, which nudges him to head out too. It’s the kind of organised system he arrived at after years of feeling “all over the place”. He wasn’t looking to disrupt it. He definitely wasn’t looking to get back into acting. Especially not 15 years since his last film.
In Hansal Mehta and Mrunmayee Lagoo Waikul’s Netflix show Scoop, based on crime reporter Jigna Vora's memoir, Baweja is a joint commissioner of police who’s aware of just how much power he has over the journalist (Karishma Tanna) who relies on him as a source. He positions himself in front of her in a way that lets him tower over her, inappropriately plies her with gifts like perfume and eventually asks her to “give more” in return for information, a viscerally creepy turn of phrase. Baweja’s so at ease in front of the camera, it’s surprising it took him this long to return to it. But it took a lot of convincing.
At a meeting with Mehta, an old friend whose 2002 film Yeh Kya Ho Raha Hai? he’d produced, the director began discreetly taking photos of him. Or at least he thought he was being discreet. “It was obvious. He thought he was being so sneaky,” says Baweja, who then saw Mehta and Scoop’s casting director Mukesh Chhabra go off into a corner for a bit of whispered discussion. When the director asked him to consider taking on the role, he appealed to the instinct ingrained into every Indian child – wanting to make their parents proud. “He said: Do this for your dad,” recalls Baweja. The actor finally relented, but he insisted on going through an audition first. “I didn’t want to get to set and then hear them say: Well, now we’re stuck with him. What can we do?”
Baweja’s always been a bit of a reluctant actor. As a teenager, his uncle knew he was going to be one before he did. “He used to tell me: Stop being embarrassed about it and just tell your mom and dad,” says the actor. Instead, he studied hotel management when he was 16. He eventually did have the big conversation with his dad, director Harry Baweja, after which he left to attend The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute in Los Angeles. “What I was studying there and what my dad was doing back home were two different worlds,” he says. One day, while talking to his dad on the phone, he asked why the director was shooting a dance sequence. He couldn’t understand why the hero would suddenly break out into song. “You need to quit and come back. You’re not understanding Bollywood cinema,” his dad replied. Baweja readily agreed. He figured that instead of shooting a student film for the course, he could get all the practical experience he needed helping his dad make movies.
Back home, he began working in various production departments. He taught himself to edit using the software Avid, would sit in on meetings as a writers’ assistant with a dictaphone and hang around the sets to see what he could learn. “Dad had extra working hours for his son,” he says fondly of that time. “The world worked 8 hours and they were hard-working, I could work 12 hours and still be good for nothing.”
Love Story 2050 (2008) was the film Harry had always wanted to make. The romantic drama follows a man grieving the death of his girlfriend time-travelling to the future in search of her doppelganger. Baweja remembers dissuading his dad because the film would be “bloody expensive” to pull off. But the director was unruffled. The film was a lonely, difficult experience, with Baweja – making his acting debut – surrounded by greenscreen, talking to light stands and pretending they were robots. He’d spend days being the only actor on set. Later, he was told that other characters would be CGI’d in. What he learnt at Lee Strasberg had sounded good in theory, but he couldn’t implement any of it on set, he found.
The film, and he, were eviscerated upon release. “He can't act. He doesn't look good. He doesn't have screen presence,” wrote film critic Raja Sen in a review for Rediff.com at the time. It was hard on the family. Baweja’s sister had abandoned a project she was making for film school to assist on Love Story 2050. And their mother, Pammi, was the film’s producer. “The day after it released, the four of us went on a vacation that wasn’t really a vacation,” he recalls. “It was the four of us sitting in four different corners, wondering: What the fuck just went down?”
A string of flops followed – cricket film Victory (2009), romantic comedy What’s Your Raashee? (2009), gangster drama Dishkiyaaon (2015). Baweja had signed all these movies before Love Story 2050 released and was going by his gut, trusting the directors. “The odds of them making a film that didn’t tickle the box office were low. But none of the pieces fell into place,” he says. His instincts had failed him. His looks and dance skills repeatedly prompted unfavourable comparisons to actor Hrithik Roshan.
“I was very disillusioned,” he says of his eventual decision to walk away from acting. “I was like: Do I need this? I’d rather just chill. I was never dying to get into acting, I just enjoyed it.” His parents were supportive. His dad would have liked to do another film with him but by then, Baweja was insistent on quitting. In the years that followed, he focused on writing and producing. He didn’t try to keep the actor in him alive. He wouldn’t have been able to move on if he had, he says.
Now, he talks of that period as one of realising how people are destined to do different things, go down different life paths. When I ask him if he’s able to think critically about that part of his career, to pinpoint what went wrong with his movie choices, there’s a long pause before he simply replies, “No”. He talks of moving on, of getting on with it and burying the hatchet. He likens his early career to a past life he can’t relate to. He laughs when he says that if not for this interview, he wouldn’t be revisiting it at all. “Certain things just happen. I don’t want to get in my head about it,” he says. It’s all very Zen but a sarcastic bent creeps into his tone when he talks about the “love” he received from critics for his performances back then. Later, he describes that part of his life as “painful”. He admits that he was bitter. He revisits this statement later in the conversation, repeating the descriptor to himself five times before amending it. The more accurate reaction, he says, would be “hurt”.
All this explains his initial reluctance to take up Scoop. “When you start acting, you open yourself up to the world again. You’re subject to a couple million people who will watch the show and have an opinion. I had to push myself to do it,” he says.
On his first day back on a set after nearly 15 years, there were a “shit-ton of nerves”, which Baweja tried to hide, trying to convince himself it was just another day at the office. The first scene he shot required him to run on the treadmill while taking a call. He was worried about being too bogged down by the physicality of it – running, taking the call, stepping off, wiping himself off with a towel – to remember his lines. But by the end of it, all that running had helped him expend whatever nervous energy he had. Now, he could finally relax in front of the camera.
It also helped that he wasn’t the focus of the show. He could be the “actor” instead of the “hero”, a distinction he could finally embrace, a role he began to find was a lot easier. “When your face is on the poster, you have to live up to that responsibility,” he says. “But for this show, it wasn’t on me. This freed me up to perform.”
Baweja is still content. “I’m happy in my little world,” he says. His office is a stone’s throw away from his house. His routine is familiar. He likes how he looks. Before Mehta offered him Scoop, he was working on getting lean but the director liked the weight he was at and asked him to “hang around” that end of the weighing scale. “Hanging around was hard so I ended up putting on more weight,” says Baweja. He’s comfortable with the weight now, he isn’t looking to lose it anymore.
Not dwelling on the past becomes a recurring theme of our conversation. It takes the actor a while to recollect what his audition scene for Scoop was – “You’re talking to someone who has the memory of a goldfish,” he explains. He can’t remember any acting advice he’s learnt from any of his directors. He isn’t thinking about parlaying his success into future projects either. When I ask him if the praise for his performance has prompted him to reconsider returning to acting, there’s a long pause. Eventually, he replies, “I guess.”. He still hasn’t seen the show. He doesn’t plan to.
Detachment comes easy to Baweja. At one point, he talks about it being a year since he shot Scoop, which I take to mean he’s had enough time to process the experience. “No, not time to process it, I had time to forget about it,” he says. He uses the analogy of an exam to talk about his approach to not just the show but his whole career – once it’s done, the results are out of your hands. “You can’t go back and change a thing. So why try?”