It's an impossibly sunny day in Mumbai. I'm waiting for actor Jackie Shroff on the balcony of his sea-facing 9th floor apartment in Bandra while he finishes another interview inside. Sometime later he emerges in green-tinted sunglasses with a loud and cheerful hello, as if greeting a long-lost friend. By this time, accompanying the blazing sun was also a noisy procession on the street below. Shroff has a solution for this. He starts surrounding the area around our chairs with massive plants that he calls his 'babies'. As he drags the large pots around his balcony, he informs me that he's planted them himself. "It's called Areca Palm. Just google it, dear," he instructs, placing the last one to complete a circle of plants around us. Now we're tightly engulfed in what feels like a treehouse and I can barely see Shroff's face. "I really hope you enjoy this interview," he says from between the leaves. And enjoy myself, I did.
This is my second attempt at interviewing Shroff. The first was two weeks prior at the screening of his first web show Criminal Justice. In the brief 10 minutes I was given, I couldn't compete with the multiple distractions around the actor. At one point, the marketing team came in for a quick huddle with Shroff who enthusiastically offered to promote the show on social media with short videos of him saying things that only Jackie Shroff can get away with. I heard him say the phrase 'Yeda ban aur peda kha'. When we tried picking up the conversation, he started craving maska pav. "Ek slice bread lo, uspe achha butter aur shakkar lagao… Mujhe khaane ka bahut dil kar raha hai. Aur seengh chana bhi," he said, longingly. A jar of seengh chana was quickly brought from his car. Shroff made a few of us stand with our palms joined like we were waiting for prasad and generously poured chana into them before leaving. Apart from that chana, the only other useful thing I received that day was his email address. I didn't have to work very hard at that because he repeatedly announced it to everyone in the room. "Koi likhta hi nahi hai," he laughed. "I really do reply." He was telling the truth.
"I do feel nervous. The whole unit is looking at me thinking I've been around for some 250 years! I just hope I can live up to their requirements. Main paagal ghoda hoon. Kahi bhi bhaag sakta hoon. I need them to leash me"
Shroff has been in the movies for 37 years and has acted in over 200 films. While we often credit many of his contemporaries like Anil Kapoor with staying relevant, we may have overlooked Shroff's breadth of work, especially in the last few years. With short films, web shows and features across languages, he's silently spread his wings across all forms of storytelling. According to IMDB, he currently has a total of 14 films in various stages of completion. These include major Hindi titles like Bharat and also South releases like Saaho and Vijay 63. So how is he so prolific? "Full power 24 hours….Shakti. Full power shakti… Durga ma. Samjha bhidu?," he says with gusto. I can't say I fully got that but Shroff is doing something right. Last month he had two releases on the same Friday – Criminal Justice, his first web show, and the John Abraham-led Romeo Akbar Walter. In both he had pivotal roles. One could argue that he was also the best thing in them. "Hardly people come to talk to me about it but I keep doing different work. I don't have a PR team. Koi aaya toh main baat karega, nahi aaya toh main jhaad se baat karega," he says.
A lot of what Shroff says is hilarious and confusing. Some of it even feels like gibberish. But just when you give up hope of getting any real answers, he sneaks in some wisdom. He's reminded of a crucial scene in Rangeela where he's about to confess his love to Mili (Urmila Matondkar) but stops short when he realises that she'd rather be with her childhood friend Munna (Aamir Khan). "When I see both of them together, what should be the expression? Should I smile too much or should I make a crying face? I decided isko main beech main kheloonga. I thought Rahman sir mera background dene wale hain, mera cameraman achhe se shoot kar raha ha, my story was with me, toh main kitna mooh bigaad loon? There's no need to go too much into the character…. You see, marne ke scene mein marne ka nahi," he says.
That said, those who've worked with Shroff say he may have trouble remembering his lines, but he's more astute than he lets on. Thiagarajan Kumararaja (Super Deluxe) who directed Shroff in his Tamil film Aaranya Kaandam in 2011 attests to this. He remembers the actor playfully hurling Tamil abuses on set to no one in particular and running away laughing as people turned to see who it was. "He comes across as someone who doesn't think about the character. But for the second meeting, he got some footwear and said, 'I think the character should wear this'. He's brings in a lot of those things that very fine actors do. These are things you expect from a star who is known for his acting skills, not someone who is known as an icon," he says.
In Aaranya Kaandam, Shroff plays a menacing gangster suffering from erectile dysfunction. The movie opens with him trying to have sex with a girl who looks half his age and when he can't perform, he thrashes her in frustration. The role came to Shroff after several Tamil actors refused it for obvious reasons. Kumararaja, whose first film this was, says getting Shroff on board was the "easiest thing". The actor says he's famous for doing parts that no one else wants. "When my Shah Rukh baba was Devdas, no one wanted to play Chunni. I said it's all cool…It should be strength, not length. Role main power hona chahiye, bhidu. A chair has four legs. I should be one leg. I don't care whose ass is on the chair," he says, sounding very pleased with his analogy.
At 62, Shroff comes off as someone who's just learnt to enjoy his career. It seems the method to his madness is to have no method at all. He's embracing the interesting parts coming his way without overthinking it. Of the six short films he's done, most have been directed by filmmakers with little experience. He's also done a few of them pro bono. "What talent they have. Fuck! It's like them taking my carbon and giving me oxygen," he explains, while smelling the leaves of the plants. "Tera body of work sunke main kya karega? Mujhe past laurels main interest nahi hain. I'm a canvas, boss. Come paint me," he declares.
In the short film Khujli, Shroff and Neena Gupta play an elderly couple living a mundane life until they decide to take a leaf out of the book 50 Shades of Grey. Director Sonam Nair says she reached out to Shroff and he immediately jumped in. She remembers the childlike enthusiasm with which he worked on his costume and the thought he put into picking the right glasses for his character. But on set, he had a sudden crisis of confidence. "He said he read the script again and it required too much acting. I remember him saying 'This needs Sanjeev Kumar-level of comedy. I don't think I could do this'," says Nair. Later, when he won a Filmfare award for his performance, he was in shock.
"I do feel nervous. The whole unit is looking at me thinking I've been around for some 250 years! I just hope I can live up to their requirements. Main paagal ghoda hoon. Kahi bhi bhaag sakta hoon. I need them to leash me," explains Shroff. Kumararaja says he was touched by the lengths the actor would go to to please everyone with his work. Before starting the film, he warned Shroff that this was a small production with less funds so he had to be on time. "He comes from an era when discipline was not a big thing but he understood me. The next day he kept sending me messages – I've reached Chennai, I'm on my way, I'm reaching the location in 10 minutes, I'm in the van… He was such a sweetheart about it," he says.
When he's not working, Shroff is farming. His Instagram page is proof of that. He speaks about his farmer Shantanu da and the Kohitur mangoes he got for him from Murshidabad with more clarity and willingness than he does about his job. He's currently engrossed in a book on plants his friend and co-star Dimple Kapadia gifted him. Another old friend, Danny Denzongpa, sends him oranges and banana seeds from the jungles of Sikkim. Apart from his son Tiger Shroff's work, he prefers not to watch too many movies. Instead he watches documentaries on new Japanese farming techniques and the medicinal value of plants. "This gives me a lot of joy. This is my life. Plants give you vibrations," he says.
In the interview before mine, the journalist had asked Shroff how he'd like to be remembered. I don't know what his answer was, but the young generation that may not have seen Ram Lakhan, Kaash, Parinda or King Uncle, has definitely seen the hilarious and endearing YouTube video of him abusing his way through an ad for polio vaccinations. That and many videos titled 'Jackie Shroff being funny' are sitting at a million-plus views. In one of Film Companion's interviews, comic Biswa Kalyan Rath voted Jackie Shroff the funniest comic he's seen. So does he think about how the current generation views him? "I don't know but when I go partying, kids flock around me. All my actor friends' children are my buddies. Shakti Kapoor's son Sid is a buddy. We party together," he says. After a pause he adds, "My heart is fluttering like a butterfly. I'm a hippie. I'm a fakir."