Remember the journalist who shared a cup of gulab jamun and vanilla ice cream with Paan Singh Tomar in the titular film? Or the lawyer Mirza hired to help him transfer the haveli to his name in Gulabo Sitabo? It’s been years since Jab We Met, but one still can’t help but chuckle thinking about that slow driver singing, ‘tum kya jaano tum kya ho?’ as Aditya and Geet tried to rush their way to Ratlam. All of them have two things in common – performances that stay with you despite a limited screen time, and Brijendra Kala.
The actor, having completed almost two decades in the Hindi film industry, has cemented himself as a dependable performer. Give him a scene in your film, and he will develop it in a way that gets remembered. Honesty to his work, he believes, is what makes that happen. It’s perhaps that honesty which led him to Mr. Bansal, an important role in the recently-released Sherni, that is now being widely appreciated. As the forest officer who would rather sing than work, he brings in a sense of unapologetic charm and humour in an otherwise serious film. In a telephonic interview, Kala candidly talks about what made the character stand out, how well-written characters remain a rarity in the kind of roles offered to him, and the way he adds a little bit of himself in every role he plays.
Mr. Bansal was a layered character with more screen time – not limited to a couple of scenes, something that is not very common with supporting characters. What did you enjoy the most about it?
When Amit [Masurkar] told me about the character, I only received a one-line brief: He is s an officer in the forest department, and is Vidya’s boss. He’s a little corrupt but is very light-hearted and lively. And I love such characters. If you take a look at my body of work, you can spot many characters that have a similar liveliness in them. So, the first time I heard about it, I was quite thrilled and said yes to it almost immediately. Once the script started developing and I realized that there were additional layers to the role, he sings karaoke too, then I started liking it even more. I found it to be one of those mazedaar characters.
The film has a very serious subject. It’s very sensible and responsible in itself, and gives something back to the audience. In a story like this, when you have a character like Bansal, it works as a relief factor in the film, helping people watch it more attentively, and probably like it more too. If such characters are there in a masala film, they perhaps won’t even get noticed. But because this film had an element of silence and stability in it, this character brought in a sense of stir, which I really liked.
Was it more satisfying as an actor, to do a role that was well-defined and allowed you the time to experiment?
Definitely. There are some characters that don’t have much material to them but you have to refine them yourself. This character, however, was ready-made. I only had to grasp it and perform it in my style, which I did – everything else fell into place by itself. You could see that it was perfectly molded into the storyline from the beginning. However, yes, most of these characters are such that you really have to put in a lot of effort by yourself.
You had once said that more often than not, whatever we see on-screen is a 50% contribution between the director and writer, and 50% your own hard work. How often do you think the roles you get justify your talent? How much do you have to rely on improvisations?
It happens quite rarely, to be honest. In Sherni, I knew 90% about the character in advance. I only added about 10% of my own personality here. Otherwise, it was a pre-written, pre-developed character. This happened with Gulabo Sitabo too, where I played Mr. Clark. That too was a brilliantly written character. Paan Singh Tomar had a well-developed character. So did Rajat Kapoor’s Mithya. These were the characters I enjoyed performing on the spot.
However, this is not the case with most other roles that I receive. For example, I had to work really hard during Shubh Mangal Savdhaan, where I played the role of Ayushmann Khurrana’s tauji (uncle). I remember the makers even adjusting their dates for me because my schedule wasn’t working out with theirs originally. Naturally, I thought my role would be important in that case. But when I received the script, I realized that it didn’t have much; I couldn’t do a role like that. The director, R.S. Prasanna, then convinced me to do the role and oversee its development on set. Eventually, I had to add a lot to it.
In Ankhon Dekhi, there was a character, there was screen presence, but because there were so many other characters in the film, it needed to be developed more. The story was essentially set on the main character, so everyone else had to work on finding their own space. It was an ensemble cast, and a great film. It was a creatively satisfying film to work on. The outcome of any film, ultimately, depends on how much the director puts their faith in you, right?
Pankaj Tripathi, in an interview, had once said that he is attracted to smaller roles because they don’t have too much of a possibility, but he knows that he’ll still be able to do something out of it. How do you see these roles? How do you make them memorable to create maximum impact, irrespective of its length?
Even if I have one scene, one and half scenes or two scenes in a film, I only do them if my character can be highlighted in them. If its one scene, that scene has to be mine. If I have two scenes in a big film, I make sure people enjoy watching it – in a way they think that iske 1-2 aur scenes hote toh aur maza aata. You must have the capability of leaving the audience thirsty enough to want a little more. When it’s a role with two good scenes, your character becomes memorable in its own. It’s possible for you to have 10 scenes in a full-length film but you end up not doing justice to it. In a situation where you have a smaller role, you end up putting your all in it. I feel that in a huge screen space, even if you get a little scope that is very interesting, the audience won’t forget you; your characters will stay with them.
You’ve also spoken about your fondness for music in the past. In fact, back in your school days, you had seen it as a career option too. You sang a little in Sherni too, and traces of music can be found in many of the roles you do. Are they deliberate additions or were they always a part of the characterizations?
I love music. In fact, I keep singing every now and then in most of the films I do. In Sherni, it was already a part of the character. Same for Jab We Met – they had asked me to sing a folk song. That’s when I had suggested that this guy keeps driving long distances and listens to old songs from his cassettes, so why not give him an old filmy song to sing? However, there are some characters of mine who I deliberately make musical. There was a film called Pagalpanti, where in a scene, I had to beg in the streets of London after being looted by goons. That’s when I incorporated a song in it. Now because it was London, I knew I had to throw in a little bit of English in the lyrics, so I instantly recalled Amitabh Bachchan’s Amore Mio from The Great Gambler. And so I turned it around and crooned, ‘Amore mio spaghetti pasta, give me some coin, or some nasta’ (laughs). It’s upto you on how to make your character stand out.
Tell us a little about your comic timing. What do you do to get it right? Be it just running around, hiding from PK in the office in Sherni, or even that scene in Jab We Met where you are driving the car – how do you make it click?
It’s majorly about implementing your life experiences in your roles. One time, I, along with my wife Modita, and a friend Puneet had gone for a visit to the Sai baba mandir. My friend is a big believer in God – so much that when he sits in a car, he prays. There’s a particular time in the evening when the prayers happen when he too, needs to pray. There’s a road in Nasik, close to which the darshan happens. Our car had gone to the highway, he was driving and I was sitting beside him, when I saw that he was bending down, touching the breaks. I was perplexed, and turned around to see my wife when she told me that it’s pooja ka time. That stayed with me. So [while shooting for Jab We Met] when I saw the car and the idols placed on it, I knew exactly what to do.
Your presence of mind matters the most when you are an artist. If you see any of my contemporaries, you’ll find that they are extremely sharp. In fact, it becomes difficult to shoot if you have actors like Sanjay Mishra, Saurabh Shukla, Vijay Raaz or Arshad Warsi with me because something or the other keeps happening even before a take happens. There’s a certain amount of spontaneity that keeps you going as actors, especially in scenes where you’re alert enough to spot a scope of displaying your sensibility, your humour.
In real life too, I keep throwing these one-liners whenever I talk to my friends. When a conversation happens, I try to keep them hooked, so that no one is bored with me, and I am bored with no one. When things like this happen, it becomes a part of your personality off-screen. And so, it becomes an imperative to make that reflect on-screen too.
You’ve worked a screenwriter in the past. It’s little known that you’ve written for shows like Star Bestsellers and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki.
I had always been passionate about writing. When I used to live in Mathura, I met Dr. Achala Nagal, who is a famous screenwriter, and did theatre with her and her sons. When I shifted to Mumbai, I used to assist her for a living. Screenwriting is quite different from normal writing, there’s a concept, you develop it, then you write a screenplay for it, then you write dialogues – I learnt whatever I did from her. There was a time when I wasn’t getting enough work as an actor, so I used to write. I wrote dialogues for Balaji Telefilms in shows like Kuchh Jhuki Palkein and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki too, for some time. I wrote an episode of Star Bestsellers for Tigmanshu Dhulia.
Does being a writer help you in developing your characters now?
Most definitely. Now that I don’t write much anymore, my writing ka keeda gets satiated through my on-the-spot improvisations. To tell you a story, I was originally supposed to have a good role in Abhinav Kashyap’s Besharam. When he approached me, he told me that it was a negative character. I found it to be a little odd for me, because I didn’t even look all that menacing. He told me to develop my character according to my vision, and so I did. My character used to torture Ranbir Kapoor’s character by singing. I incorporated a bit of dohe, a bit of nautanki to it. I even sang five songs with Jatin Pandit in doha-chaupai style. Finally, after 10 days of shooting, and me putting in so much hard work in developing this character, it got scrapped. That aside though, whenever I shoot for something new, I add something of myself to my characters to elevate them.
If you had to talk about one filmmaking experience that remains the closest to your heart, which one would it be?
Whenever you work with stars, or big directors, it becomes a memorable experience. However, right now, all I can think of is Irrfan, with whom I worked with in Paan Singh Tomar. Even early on in my career, I had worked with him and Tigmanshu [Dhulia] in a small series called Hum Bambai Nahin Jayenge. The last I worked with him was during Qarib Qarib Singlle. Those moments with Irrfan made the experiences priceless and unforgettable. I was fortunate to know him, work with him. Whenever I worked with him, I wasn’t working with a co-star, I was working with a friend. He has left us now, but if he was with us today, I knew we would’ve worked a lot more together. But it all remained incomplete. In our early days, we used to have less work, so we would spend a lot of time playing cricket and flying kites in the day and have music parties in the evenings. It was a great time, a simpler time.