One of the more noticeable features of actor Jaideep Ahlawat – apart from his imposing 6’1 height and handlebar moustache – is his pockmarked face. It’s reminiscent of another fine actor who was respectfully classified as a ‘character actor’ by mainstream Hindi cinema and had limited opportunities as a leading man: Om Puri. Ahlawat might have had a similar trajectory, if not for being an actor at a time that coincided with the rise of streaming platforms in India. Ahlawat was neatly boxed into the supporting cast for almost a decade — you can spot him in mainstream films like Rockstar (2011) & Raees (2017) — but entered the spotlight when he got cast as Hathiram Chaudhary, the protagonist in Sudip Sharma’s crime series, Pataal Lok. (Hathiram’s slow-burn anguish might remind some of Puri’s portrayal of a violent and beleaguered police officer in Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya from 1983). Rarely are actors of Ahlawat’s calibre trusted with roles that are complex, challenging and central to the story. Coupled with an explosive supporting cast (including no less than Anup Jalota), Pataal Lok established Ahlawat as one of the industry’s most compelling actors and a leading man.
Ahlawat made his debut as a mercurial, bigoted politician in Priyadarshan’s Aakrosh (2010) – heavily inspired by the acclaimed English film Mississippi Burning (1988) – and was then typecast as the vengeful henchman or villain. He got meaty characters in Gangs of Wasseypur - Part 1 (2012) – as Shahid Khan, Ahlawat’s violent ways were given the dignity of a backstory for the first time — and Raazi (2018), a film that made impeccable use of his poker face. Today, the 42-year-old Ahlawat has joined an elite club of actors that include the likes of Pankaj Tripathi, Sanjay Mishra, Vijay Varma, all of whom are inching their way from the periphery of posters towards the centre. The actor’s most high-profile role since Pataal Lok has been in Anirudh Iyer’s An Action Hero (2022), in which Ahlawat plays a local Haryanvi politician named Bhoora Solanki. Bhoora is a temperamental Jaat man who is as busy nursing his bruised ego as he is grappling with the grief of losing a brother. It’s a role that sees Ahlawat dig into his own Haryanvi background as well as exhibit both his action skills and comic timing.
Jaideep Ahlawat spoke to Film Companion about his acting journey of over a decade. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Do you remember your earliest auditions in Mumbai?
Around the time I was about to graduate from the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) at the end of 2008, I was approached by the team of Ishqiya (2010). A lot of directors, producers would keep visiting FTII at the time. I think my audition went well, but I probably looked too young for the part. The character was eventually played by Adil Hussain.
It [those initial years in the city] was good, as just another actor. Trying to meet people, finding out what auditions are happening. It’s good to have the emotional support of your batchmates in the same city – Rajkummar Rao, Vijay Varma, Sunny Hinduja. We were all struggling for the same things, it was a good time. We were trying to audition as much as we could.
Apart from Ishqiya, were there any other auditions for which you came close to getting the part?
There were many. If I may name another film, there was Once Upon A Time In Mumbai (2010) – the character eventually played by (Randeep) Hooda bhai! I auditioned for it, and I thought it went very well. There were many, many such auditions.
What were you hearing as feedback, when these parts weren’t working out?
I think most of my auditions were fine. But sometimes you don’t look the part, sometimes you’re too young, too thin etc. Most people were happy with my auditions, is what I remember about that time.
Did you ever get a feeling that you were being stereotyped for looking a certain way?
Thankfully, no. No one said I looked like a villain or a character actor etc. I was auditioning for characters. When you look like the part, half the job is done. But I was never told that I look like a certain part.
But you started out playing a villain henchman, corrupt contractor, the villain etc. Did you feel like you were being slotted?
Never. I was the one choosing the parts. It’s not like when I came to the city, someone was sitting with a platter of roles for me to choose from. You’re trying to get what you can, and you’re using every bit of opportunity to showcase the actor you are. I’m lucky that my first two films were with a director like Priyadarshan sir. I was never thinking that ‘I won’t do henchmen, cops or villains’.
Before Shahid Khan happened in Wasseypur, were you hoping for more diverse shades of characters?
There was no plan as such, and if you really look at it, Gangs of Wasseypur was only my fourth film. I was just trying to get good parts. Somehow Shahid Khan fell into my lap.
Was there a culture shock of moving from FTII (Pune) to Mumbai – or were you prepared?
I think I was. When you’re studying in a premier institute like FTII, you’re watching all possible kinds of cinema. You’re meeting all kinds of directors, actors. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t idealistic or bent towards doing a certain kind of cinema. I wanted to do good work, work with nice people. I always knew there was going to be a struggle, and I was prepared for it. I knew there was no one waiting for me with a role that would turn me into an overnight sensation – I wasn’t deluded. I knew I’d worked on my craft, and I would have to undertake the grind of meeting people, start with small roles and hopefully prove my worth to the filmmakers so that they would trust me with bigger parts.
I think like most actors, even I naturally gravitate towards good storytelling. If it’s written well, I can probably go somewhere with it. If it’s badly written, it doesn’t matter how much work I put into it, it will still end up looking bad. There were so many performances that was almost our syllabus as actors: Godfather (1972), Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Scarface (1983). Hrishi-da’s [Hrishikesh Mukherjee] works, Gulzar sahab’s Angoor (which is among my top 5 favourite films of all time). We were watching Irrfan sahab’s work in Haasil (2003), Maqbool (2003), aur hum sab pagal hoke pade the [we went crazy after watching them].
I remember Irrfan saying in an interview how he was completely disillusioned with his move from Delhi to Mumbai, going so far to call the film industry a sabzi mandi (a marketplace).
I think the difference between Irrfan sahab and if I take my own case is, I was in FTII – a place that sees directors and producers more often. I was aware of what to expect from the city when I landed. Irrfan sahab came from National School of Drama (NSD), Delhi. When you’ve spent years doing theatre, you also expect a certain kind of work to be offered. Maybe it was the era too. I think we came almost 20 years after Irrfan sahab did. Around the time we came, social media was finding its feet. So the awareness was beginning to come. Twenty years ago, a young lad in Haryana might not know what life in Mumbai is about, but if you ask someone in Haryana today, they will be more exposed to the culture of Mumbai. The culture shock is gone. We knew jaane ke baad bhasad hone waali hai [after our move, we would have to pay our dues.]
Did the years of playing a villain or a henchman prepare you for Khalid Mir in Raazi?
Thanks to Meghna [Gulzar]! I don’t know how she put the faith in me to play the part. I don’t know if there was a grey shade in Khalid Mir — what looks like a grey shade to an outsider is him doing his job. He knows the price he has to pay, and he’s made his peace with it. When a story is written well, it accords equal importance to each and every character on paper. It was an interesting experience, building it from the ground up. Watching documentaries around spies, around the political tensions of that era, it helped me play the character to the best of my ability. I tried to make the character as believable as possible. Apart from the name and fame that it gave me, Raazi, I think, made me a better actor. I think I became a more astute script-reader, finding the meanings of what was left unsaid between the lines, and for that I’ll forever remain grateful to Meghna.
I liked how you played him as a straight shooter. He rarely second-guesses himself…
Yes, that’s because he’s really experienced. He knows the ins and outs of his job. The first thing he says to Sehmat’s father: “Aapki beti hai? Kahaan bhej rahe hai… (She’s your daughter? Where are you sending her…)” because he knows how most undercover spies turn up. She’s just another spy for me. He gives you all the information of the field, the pros and cons of the situation. You can’t beat around the bushes, that’s not the job.
There’s a beautiful scene in a van towards the end of the film, where after giving the order to kill Sehmat, we sense regret in his eyes.
I think it’s the first time the audience is seeing regret in his eyes, but my take is that he’s made such calls in his life earlier too. He’s paid the price for doing his job and I think he’s a tormented soul. He lives with the choices he’s made. It’s probably the part of the job he hates the most, but he knows that there’s nothing bigger than the job he’s been trusted to do.
Pataal Lok almost felt like Om Puri’s character from Ardh Satya got a 10-hour show to his name.
Thanks to Sudip Sharma, Clean Slate Filmz and Amazon,for putting their faith in me to play the role of Hathiram. Even if I may say so about my own show, I think it’s one of the finest scripts I’ve ever read. I remember reading and being a bit dumbfounded about the kind of trust they were placing in me. Also, I felt very responsible and scared. The first thought I remember having after reading the script was, if I manage to convey the written word, then we might be onto something good. And immediately after that the second thought was: if I somehow fail in doing justice to the part, I think it will take another four-five years for someone to show faith in my ability. But the crew was great, the cast was really good, and Sudip bhai knows his script inside out.
Thank you for comparing my performance with Om Puri sahab, but I wasn’t thinking about any other cop character. I wanted to build something from the ground up with the help of the written word. It was a beautiful time in my life, the hectic schedules. I remember the shoot was almost six months long. Logon ko loo lag rahi thi [people were falling ill because of the heat wave]. The good intent, and the hard work paid off.
I wanted to talk about Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar (2021) and your association with Dibakar Banerjee, a filmmaker who really draws something special out of you. For instance, I remember noting that you never raise your voice through the entire film.
Tyagi [Ahlawat’s character in Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar] knows his job. In the scene you’re mentioning, where he’s beating a guy, he knows unless he beats him up and screams at him, he won’t get the information he needs. But at the same time when he gets the phone call, he automatically switches his tone to say “Jai Hind sir!” like he’s a robot. He’s been doing it for years, so he’s really experienced.
What’s amazing about Dibakar is the characterisation of his characters. He tries to incorporate multiple layers of a character within the same scene. I’ve told him to his face – “It’s the most exhausting thing, working with you as an actor” – but it’s also one of the most rewarding things. Once he knows that an actor can play with the shades, he jumps into it. He makes you think about playing 10 different ways of playing with the different shades of a person, till you find the ‘right’ shade. It’s an absolute treat to work with him.
With Tyagi, I was trying to play him in the most ‘normal, mundane’ manner possible. I didn’t want anything about him to stand out. He’s an officer in the ATS [anti-terrorism squad], he’s been doing it for years, so he’s practically seen everything one has to see within the job. So he’s almost nonchalant in the way he says “Arrey yaar, galat aadmi ko maar diya tumne! Ab banao inhe Pakistani!” [Oh God, you’ve killed the wrong people. Now brand them as Pakistani terrorists!] Beautifully written scenes, the last bit about Pakistanis was something I improvised.
You improvised that?!
Yes, and Dibakar was really happy with it. He’s really open to improvisations, which add to the scene. I really enjoyed playing the part of Tyagi, deciding what kind of hairstyle he would have, the flamboyance with which he’s equally comfortable in a tracksuit, or something more formal. He’s always chilled out, and very aware of his work.
I’m intrigued about what happens in the aftermath of a success like Pataal Lok? Is there a void?
It was a weird time for me. Everyone was stranded in their homes. I remember the first lockdown was announced sometime in March, and the show came out in May. We were all sitting at home for the next two-three months, talking to people on the phone or video conferencing. There’s a creeping feeling of ‘what if things were normal, and the people I might have been able to meet in person’. Pataal Lok felt like a start – the feeling was now at least there wouldn’t be a question mark around my ability. No one will say “Jaideep ko ek baar try karke dekhte hai [We’ll give Jaideep a chance]”. There’s a faith that Jaideep can be cast in any role, and he’ll bring something special to the table. It took about two-three months, but the work offers have been steady since. There’s some interesting work being offered, quite a lot of it is also not great. Now, the journey is at the stage where makers also know what you’re capable of, and there is some assurance in your own ability too.
In the pipeline: there’s Pataal Lok S02, we’ve just about finished the Mumbai schedule. And we’re headed to the North-East soon. I finished shooting for Devotion of Suspect X with Kareena [Kapoor Khan] and Vijay [Varma]. There’s Avinash Arun’s Three of Us, which recently premiered at IFFI 2022, where I’m acting with Shefali Shah and Swanand Kirkire. An Action Hero is in theatres right now, things are great. The intent is to always seem believable on screen.
Does good work automatically lead to more good work?
Of course, I think it’s something that happens with everyone. The more refined you become at something, the better offers start coming towards you.
Can you afford to put your feet up and rest for a few days?
I don’t think so. You’re constantly aware. There’s no real pressure, but one is always aware about the work reaching out to the general public.
What were your expectations from An Action Hero when you took it up?
I don’t really have expectations from my films/shows. It’s basically looking for the next part that you might have not played. For eg: like you were mentioning – playing a cop. I’ve already played a cop, but there’s not just one variety of cops, the treatment can always be different. So in An Action Hero, even though I’d played characters like Bhoora before, I don’t think there was so much thought process that was visible in such a character before. There’s this conflict in him. He knows the politician within him has already believed the star, but the pehelwan [strongman] has taken it upon himself – how can his brother die like this and everyone walks away?
I thought it was a very interesting story, where it was entertaining but also had a very clear point of view on so many things. I think that’s why people are responding to the film.
How attached are you to a film’s commercial failure now? Are you clued into the opening weekend of a film, does it make you anxious?
No, I’m not particularly anxious. I obviously want the film to be seen by as many people as possible. I mean surely, after a film’s failure there is some introspection about what might have gone wrong about the film? It’s getting almost unanimously positive reviews, but people aren’t going to the theatres to watch it. It’s slightly disheartening, and it’s not a feeling anyone likes to soak in. It’s the hard work of so many people, so it’s obviously not a nice feeling. But no, I don’t become anxious about it. It’s a smart film, it is fast-paced, it has humour, it has action. Anyone who has seen it has only said nice things to me about the film, so it can get a little confusing when people at large don’t come to watch the film. But it’s okay.
Do you second-guess your instincts when a film doesn’t perform as per expectations?
Not really. It’s a phase, sometimes it pans out and sometimes it doesn’t. No point beating oneself for it. I think as a society we’re still not at the point where we’re going to the theatres like we used to, in the pre-pandemic times. I think aadat thodi kam padh gayi hai [we’re less used to it]. It’s my personal theory, but hopefully this phase ends and we tide through it.
It was such a smart performance, where I felt you’re almost parodying your early works. Would it be fair to say that you were introspecting about the backstory of your characters in Rockstar (2011) etc?
I don’t entirely agree. The character in Rockstar didn’t have much scope. He’s an elder brother, who is involved in some form of trading, and thinks his younger brother is a good-for-nothing. He doesn’t have a point-of-view per se. They’re both from Haryana, but the similarity ends right there. Bhoora is a completely different animal. He has the ability to tell right from wrong, but it’s something that also differs from person to person. Can he tell right from wrong or rather does he want to? [It] adds a whole new dimension to it. He has a personal belief, and a social belief – it’s all mixed. It’s something we might judge Bhoora for, but we’re all just like him. By the end of the film you realise that he’s not just an individual, but he represents the society at large. You can pick anyone up from any corner of the country, and they would act just like Bhoora does.