Shashank Arora has had a curious career trajectory. In a short 8 years he has not only traversed the festival space with his breakout film, Kanu Behl's Titli (2015), but was also the lead in one of the first Indian films to be released exclusively on Netflix, Q's Brahman Naman. Arora will next be seen in Amazon Prime's Made In Heaven, a series written by Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti. There's also a supporting turn in the upcoming Salman Khan-starrer Bharat.
Yet Arora doesn't limit himself to acting alone. A self-confessed music lover, he is currently composing for Geetu Mohandas' Malayalam film Moothon starring Nivin Pauly, in which he also plays the antagonist.
Arora is well-spoken, self-aware and at times dangerously honest. He speaks with a frantic excitement, like someone who has more thoughts than words in which to put them. Here we chat with him about his career choices, the balancing act between meaningful roles and money, and the life of a young actor.
Despite having been in the industry for quite a few years, you don't seem like someone who's had to make many compromises to be a part of projects you don't believe in. Would you agree with that?
I'm glad you feel that way, that is certainly something I'm going for but there have been lots of projects along the way that I didn't want to do and ended up doing. It would be harsh to name them. I still feel I could have made firmer choices, but I got scared. I'm greedy like any other man in this world and money leads me to a different direction but I wish I could have held my own more. But I'm trying to just do stories which I like doing.
I'm blessed that it's falling into place with Titli and Manto, Song Of Scorpions and Lipstick Under My Burkha and this Malayalam film called Moothon. I play the villain against this insane protagonist Nivin Pauly. These are films I love doing. It's a mixture of being blessed and the correct people approaching me. I think I was perhaps brought up in an environment where I was surrounded by art. My dad is a graphic designer and my mom is a musician and a writer. So it was this constant influx of this particular flavour of art which I've carried into my cinema.
Was the language a challenge in Moothon?
I'm speaking Bombaiya Hindi in the film, but it was a challenge to soak in that world because Malayalam is a completely different family of sounds. And a scene is like poetry so if you have a different language and you're coming in with Hindi, you have to find the balance in the phonetics, it can't be jarring so that was tough.
I'm horrified when I see that character, it horrifies me that I had to be that human being. I'll never do something like that again because it's impacted me in many ways. It was one of my most unpleasant roles and I did not cherish him most days.
I believe you're also composing for Moothon. You've talked about how music is your first love. Is composing something you want to do more of?
Yeah, I am composing for that as we speak. I studied music in college and I'm a hoping musician. I'm not a great musician at all but I like making music. It gives me more joy than acting. I'd rather hold a ukulele than be on a set but it's not something I want to make money from.
Web shows are increasingly serving as a platform for talented actors and directors who haven't got their due on the big screen. Made In Heaven is a great example of that. Do you see the web becoming the goal for many actors or is it still seen as a stepping stone to film?
Fuck yeah. We have so many more platforms now. It's as simple as now there's more avenues and we're going to get more jobs. It's not 300 crores riding on every project and financiers can choose to experiment with people who have talent and not saleability and that is key to any art form and it's working.
For some people, the silver screen is all there is. For me personally, I used to do street plays in Delhi and the high I get doing that is very similar to the high I get seeing people watching Titli. I realise it's the exact same rush if I'm in the dubbing studio and I'm pelting one out and there's applause on the other side of the mirror. So for me, the medium doesn't matter per se, but I know that it matters to a lot of people.
You were actually one of the early few to jump on the web series bandwagon with your show Gangster Newton. The trailer came out in 2017 but the show never saw the light of day. What happened with that?
Which is happening now! We just finalised this amazing DOP from America, Darren Joe. He's one of my favourite DOPs and I fought for him to shoot Gangster Newton and now we're getting him.
I wasn't completely happy with our work at that point of time because we wanted to create A Beautiful Mind on steroids. That is what we were going for and we weren't there, that's why we stopped. But now we've finally got a crew together and the script for the first season which we're happy with and so we're going ahead.
Was it a funding issue earlier?
No man, everyone was ready to pump money in and asking us to make the show but what do we make? Why do we make it? And we stopped right there. Our show is about science. It's not about the mafia, it's about a maths student and it's for all the people out there who love math. This kid (in the show) his superpower is math and I haven't seen someone like that in our cinema. That's the only reason I did this, because I want the geek in me to be like 'fuck yeah'.
In a few short years, you've had a film at Cannes, you're in Made In Heaven, and you're also in a Salman Khan film. You've seen the entire spectrum. Was that by design or did it just happen?
Since it doesn't matter to me what format I'm in, I think that's what's helping me. But I have made certain calls to stick with what I would like to watch. You hope to avoid things where you say 'I would cringe when I see myself in this'. That's the decision you make but sometimes the money is so good that you're 'Fuck it. I'll cringe and I'll take the money' and that helps me do five more Titlis.
Recently a fan tweeted to Ranvir Shorey saying I'm a fan but why do you retweet every bit of praise you're getting. To which he said – I used to think like you but ended up not getting work. It's funny, honest but also a little tragic because of how talented he is. Do you often get advised to be more visible so that you don't get lost in the sea of talent?
Yeah I did see that and it's a sad state of affairs and I feel the same, of course, because many times I have to go out of my way to say 'I did this' and it feels a little sad but there's two parts to it. Either you can be a Philip Seymour Hoffman – he's one of my favourite actors in the history of the world and still not the most famous fellow. But he had a body of work that is enviable. And the other path is someone like Javier Bardem, equally great actor but more in the public space. So that's what Ranvir saying, you have to choose your path.
I hate it. I hate saying 'I did this picture, go watch it'. I just want to say 'I made a film, if you want to watch it, watch it'. I know a lot of my counterparts are very good at it, they're very good at selling their movies and I have to learn.
You hope to avoid things where you say 'I would cringe when I see myself in this'. That's the decision you make but sometimes the money is so good that you're 'Fuck it. I'll cringe and I'll take the money'
Does social media feel like a useful tool to achieve that or does it feel like pressure to be appealing?
It feels empowering but it feels futile as well. It's an echo chamber. It feels worrisome as to how many people you are actually getting across to. It's just something PR companies do to create a bubble around the actor so they feel that the word is being put out. It's a very fine line.
For me, on social media I honestly don't know what I'm doing. I wish I did. I take it one step at a time. If I had a kick-ass body then sure I'd post that but it turns me off. It turns me on much more to see Johnny Depp going on about his characters than to see him flash his six-pack.
And honestly, when you see actors in our country, don't you want to visualise behaviour of an intricate complex person? That is an actor's true final job, to provide a reflection to future generations that 'this is how we were'.
But do you think audiences want to see an actor like that?
It's a chicken and egg situation. It's what they've acquired. Their taste is now is butter chicken. But they've been fed butter chicken for thirty years, and they don't know fish exists and now you give them that and they're like 'wait a minute, maybe this goes down better'. So it's going to take ten fish to come in and go down their throat but the fish are coming.
In the more mainstream space, we've seen you in Rock On 2 and now there's Bharat. Is there a different acting muscle required from say Brahman Naman or Titli?
Yeah, it's a different muscle. It's not a different world but you're working this part of yourself which knows that the obligation of the particular theme or the genre is a whacky comedy. But you know you're going to create an organic character. Your job as an actor does not differ, it's just the final implementation of it. I still create a real person but I just know that in this shot the reality I need to create in a film like Housefull, the nonexistence of reality might work better. So that muscle you finetune over a period of time.
Do you have a specific wishlist of the directors you want to work with?
I'd love to work with Abhishek Chaubey, Dibakar Banerjee, Chaitanya Tamhane and Nagraj Manjule. There's so many. But I am also doing my first American production that I can't talk about now with Universal Studios, hopefully, later next year. It's a small part but it has some of my favourite actors in the world in it.