The year 2020 saw many actors have their breakthrough moment. The most notable examples being Jaideep Ahlawat in Paatal Lok and Pratik Gandhi in Scam 1992. Both these actors have been around for years, we knew they were great, but it's only last year that something changed. It was hard to look away from their blazing talent. Actor Divyenndu (he's dropped the Sharma) experienced this in 2018 when he played Munna Tripathi, a troubled gangster, in Amazon Prime Video's Mirzapur. He too has been in our peripheral view for 10 years. He made his debut with Luv Ranjan's bromance Pyar Ka Punchnama, a sleeper-hit that spawned its own universe, although Divyenndu chose not to do the sequel. Munna Tripathi altered the way we looked at Divyenndu. It will go down as one of the best examples of inspired casting. Streaming platforms don't share data, but by all accounts, Mirzapur 2 last year made an even bigger dent than the first season. It also ended Munna's glorious run on the show.
We speak to Divyenndu about life after Munna but also the experiences that led him to this character – like his days as a student in FTII, Pune.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
What's life been like after Mirzapur 2. Are you inundated with scripts?
Yeah, exactly. I've been reading a lot of stuff which takes a toll. I mean you have to be in the right frame of mind to judge a script. And I have this irritating habit about myself, even if I know after reading the first ten pages that no, there is nothing here, I still feel I should read the whole thing. There is this moral responsibility that I have that the least I can do for someone is read it.
But are you liking what you're reading?
Yes. The good part is that people are trying to write different stuff now. At least the intention is there. I'm not going to say that everything I'm reading is fabulous, but now I see the intent. And there are genuine brains now who can explore this medium, especially OTT, to their advantage. Now when you're signing a project you have to see a lot of things like the kind of set up you're going into, what's the production value… So a lot of times these things don't match up but you feel good that at least on the writing part people are doing their job.
Is being able to judge a script a specific talent? Because an actor is as good as his/her choices.
Definitely. At the end of the day, it's basic common sense I apply while reading a script. Someone is telling me a story, there has to be a beginning, middle and end, which I've learnt from my theatre days. Those classic three acts. Then there are what you call treatment sort of scripts. In classic three-acts you have to have a story, you have to have intention, you have to have conflict, and resolution. The second one has more to do with how you shoot it, how you show it; there's a different cinematic grammar you use there. Those are the tricky ones. For those you need to have those 2-6 meetings with the director. You need to ask him again and again what's the reference here, how are you planning to shoot.
You've spoken about how your first major role, which was in Pyaar ka Punchnama, was so loved that people couldn't imagine you in anything else. And you worked very hard to not fall into the trap of being typecast. But now you're coming off something which is far bigger. Are things different this time around?
The good part is Munna is such a strong character that you can't imagine recreating it again and again. So here getting typecast is not going to be easy. With Liquid what was happening is because he was a happy-go-lucky guy who can fit in any situation. Now a Munna cannot fit in any situation. In fact, he screws the situation he's in. The good thing now is people are approaching me for different kinds of stuff. I think the word is now out there that here is someone who can pull off a comedy or a dark, gritty sort of a character. People are showing more faith and trust in me as an actor, which I always wanted. It's a good space to be in.
I know what you mean when you say Munna can't be recreated, but sometimes you end up being offered the same world. I'm saying that because when I saw the trailer of Bicchoo Ka Khel I thought 'This is just more of the same'. But then I saw the first few episodes and realised it's actually a different story.
No, you're absolutely right. When you play such characters, the milieu is the same. As for Bicchoo Ka Khel, I'm not going to blame their marketing strategy because it clearly worked. They knew that Mirzapur was such a big fish, so if it shows that sort of reflection in their next project, people would buy it. But it was very different. That is why I signed the project in the first place, because it was different. And I was to play this writer whose life becomes sort of like a pulp fiction storybook. The bottom line is when people saw it, they liked the product. They have all good things to say about it. So can't blame anyone except myself.
Pyaar Ka Punchnama happened 10 years ago. You've waited 10 years for this breakthrough. How important is patience for an actor? Is it a virtue every actor must have?
No, definitely not every actor. It's going to sound a little heavy, so bear with me. It's that voice you have inside you as an artist which tells you, 'This is not it. We can do better'. The aim is to not be comfortable right now. It's the promise you made to yourself while you were doing theatre, while you were training in FTII. Maybe that voice is your training which gives you that confidence that let's not settle for less. It's very personal. That voice is a customised voice, it cannot be applied to anyone.
I read an interview where you said you could feel it in your bones that something big was coming and on some level almost manifested Munna because that's how badly you wanted it. Are you very spiritual?
I'm spiritual, definitely, but I'm not religious at all. Spiritualism also is towards my work only. I have said no to innumerable films and projects in the past. I was like "This cannot happen". I've been doing plays since my schooldays, then my college, went on to FTII. I cannot be just a guy doing random stuff. So I told myself, 'This can't happen. And if it happens, let's in 5-10 years go to the hills or something. Do theatre there in a small way'.
I'm guessing that plan is on hold now.
Now I have postponed that plan to a good 20-25 years! Then I'll go there. So the manifestation part could be right. I wanted it so badly it had to happen.
Every time you speak about this phase, it's very clear that you never doubted your talent. In fact, you wondered why others couldn't see your talent. Did you get any answers to why it wasn't working out?
Yes, later on I thought about it, and the reason is because I look a certain way. I look like that chocolate-ey boy-next-door. People don't expect serious stuff from me, so they would always give me frivolous stuff like three friends going to Goa. I look like I can never be sad in life. I'll be the eternal college student. And after college, I'll go to Goa. In our industry, a lot of things happen on the basis of looks and that's why I give a lot of credit to the makers of Mirzapur that they could see beyond that. They could see the DNA of the actor. I was so happy because that's what I always wanted from our fraternity, from our casting directors. It's okay if you don't cast an actor, but the least you can do is call them for different kinds of auditions and see how they perform.
Is that how audition calls work?
The thing is that they don't call you for those kinds of parts. They would never call someone like me for Munna Tripathi. I was always those bourgeois looking boys who have everything going well and if there's any problem it's always related to a girl. Some girl would have broken his heart but otherwise he is absolutely fine. So yes, it was just frustrating.
You've also said you always imagined yourself to be in indie films, although everything you've done defies that. Was it your FTII training that gave you that impression?
Definitely. After passing out from FTII my aim was to do parallel cinema. Films of Farooq Shaikh, Deepti Naval, Naseer Sahab, Om Puri Sahab, Sai Paranjpye's films, Shyam Babu's films; I always liked them. And I've also said in many interviews that I wanted to be Farooq Shaikh when I grew up. Then I went to FTII and bingo. What a perfect cocktail it was. I saw world cinema and I was like 'Yes, this is my life. I'm going to do all this stuff'. And I did. I was doing so many student projects in FTII. I was in such a good space and my fellow students always cast me in everything. I came to Mumbai, saw how everything runs here, and it was so different. It was so alien. For the longest time I was wondering what is going on! The way they ask you to do auditions is not acting. This is digital acting. Like look here, then look there, and smile. I didn't even know what they were doing so I just stopped going for auditions. Then I just got lucky. I think when you're that lazy, God himself will say that he's not going to do anything on his own, he needs some help otherwise this man will just become a sloth. He'll just vegetate. So that was the plan, to be a part of parallel cinema. But bam came Pyaar Ka Punchnama and I'm into the commercial world. Then Chashme Baddoor with David Dhawan! And then there was no looking back.
What kind of films did you consume at FTII? How did that exposure shape you?
It's the grammar of the film which really impacted me. The storytelling was so different, it wasn't very linear always, it wasn't in your face, human emotions were interpreted in a very subtle way… it was just something I could relate to. And it wasn't just European cinema. Stanley Kubrick, for instance, I discovered in FTII. At the same time I was watching Godard, Kieślowski, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky. And there's a very beautiful thing they taught us in FTII, that it's not important to understand every film. Just watch it.
FTII prepared you to be a good actor, but did it prepare you for Bollywood?
No, not at all and I'm so glad they don't. I think those two years are supposed to be utopian. Let's not mix these dirty things of what you want to do when you go outside. These are very small things in life and you have to deal with them for the rest of your life. But those two pure years are very important for you as a person, for your soul. Just go lose yourself there, learn how much ever you can.
Luv Ranjan saw you in a popular ad and called you for Pyaar Ka Punchnama. Did you audition for it?
Yes, definitely. And giving that audition I felt good. It was the opening scene of Pyaar Ka Punchnama where I have to pee and these guys are not opening the door. I felt good because the writing was legit of that film. It had a certain perspective about it, but the bottom line is whether whatever you're saying, are you being honest about it?
When was the last time you saw the film and how do you think it has aged?
It's been a long time. I don't like revisiting my work. I think since people still know you as that character, still remember that, it's a good thing. It means it has stood the test of time.
What are your memories of making it? All of you were new and no one had any expectations of the film.
It was a classic underdog film. Our producer Kumar Mangat told us 'don't expect good weekend figures. With these kind of films you always look at the weekday figures'. Like he said, there were no numbers on the weekend. It was horrible. After Monday it started picking up when people found it to be a fun film. But I knew that this was the sort of film that would have some connect with the masses.
From the scripts you're reading now, is most of it for streaming platforms?
A lot of it, yes. Also now every film can't afford to be released. You need that sort of budget, promotional strategies, etc. The good part about OTT is that you don't have weekend figures to look for, you don't have a 100 or 200 crore club to think about, but then again the competition is much more difficult than anything. Because you're just a click away from Game of Thrones or Fargo or Ozark. What I like about it is that it's a very meritorious world. No matter who you are, if your stuff is good, people will watch it, they will talk about it. That is such a boon for an artist, anyone and everyone.
But with so many platforms do you also think, 'Will I just get lost in this deluge of content?'
I'll tell you a very big advantage which I have cracked in my mind about OTT – you will never talk about bad stuff. You will only talk about good stuff on OTT. Because there is so much happening, you don't have time to watch everything on OTT. You don't have the energy to talk about each and every series. You would only talk about good stuff. Also it's still new, it's a newborn thing, so it will mature. There will be some kind of filtration in terms of writing. OTT is a writer's medium primarily. So all that will happen, gradually.
You've worked with some really talented people. In these 10 years, is there a piece of advice that stuck with you?
Not exactly a piece of advice but when I was working on Chashme Baddoor, I met Mr Rishi Kapoor on that film and that was quite a learning experience. Here was this man who had done so many commercial Hindi films, but to look at him, his dedication, his discipline… He was always before time on set. There was one time we were doing a scene, and during his shot I gave him cues and when it was my shot he also went behind the camera and gave me cues. That was a very big thing. And he was a party person, he liked his drinks and everything, but still to have that respect and discipline towards your craft is something I learnt from him. He used to ask me what kind of acting I believe in. He would say 'I also wanted to go to FTII but was never able to'. We would discuss different schools of acting theories, how you go about it… It was very rare and I used to feel so good. So that was very inspiring and a real privilege.
What's next for you?
I'm going to do a film now which Imtiaz Ali is producing. I have Gajraj Rao with me in the film. It's a different world, different space. I'll start shooting in some time. I'm doing a web series called Donali and it's set in the 50s and the 60s in Chambal. So yes, I'm trying to pick as different stuff as I can.