After a refined and well-received performance as a frontline worker in Amazon Prime Video's latest series, Mumbai Diaries 26/11, the dependable Mohit Raina is currently on a high. With accolades and congratulatory messages being showered at him from all corners, his quiet pandemic has suddenly witnessed a flurry of activity. In a candid chat, he opens up about the series, the challenges he faced of getting stereotyped to historical and mythological roles, how he managed to slowly unlearn the power his larger-than-life roles held and his role in the upcoming film, Shiddat.
Sneha Menon Desai: When I reached out to you asking if you could do this interview, you replied to me much later saying, 'I am really sorry for the delayed response, but I am not used to so many messages since the pandemic.' I can imagine that there's a lot happening for you right now. How are you coping? Does it get too much?
Mohit Raina: It wouldn't have been that difficult. Because there was a long gap during the pandemic since there were no releases, there was so much of silence. And suddenly, on the night of September 8th, when it [Mumbai Diaries] released around 8 pm, my phone literally crashed by midnight. I haven't been able to handle all the messages, calls, DMs, mails, Twitter. It's so much that it gets difficult to suddenly message everyone. I haven't been used to it for a long time now, so, can I go a little slow please?
SMD: I heard that you were a straight choice for the show. You didn't have to audition for the role, the makers had seen Uri and felt like they had found their man. Were you as sure of yourself as they were of you? Or did you have moments of, 'how am I gonna pull this off?' It's a very layered character – he is heroic in a sense, but he is also very flawed in a sense, he is very real.
MR: When Nikkhil Advani approached me, I had heard that he was making The Empire around the same time. I had heard that he was making a historical, magnum opus show, and I didn't want to do historic. I was like, 'Oh God, again a sword?' I have done this quite a bit on television. So, I had made my mind that I would just go, sit for some time, talk to him and then politely, maybe after a couple of days, I'd tell him that I wasn't looking into it. When I went there, he said that he was making a medical drama. I realized that I had this pre-conceived notion, and he had called me for something else. He asked me what I thought of it, and I said, 'Sir, I am on for it. You tell me how do you want to go about it? What do you want to do?'
For Mumbai Diaries, we had preparations for a month or so. For 15 days, we did theory, where we used to sit and write each and every word; then we used to do the procedures – how to hold the scalpel, how to wear the gloves, etc. There was so much involvement at a pre-production stage and your director wanted you to come a day prior, rehearse for the scene and then shoot it the next day. For my introduction scene, we did the rehearsal a day prior and shot it the next day. I have not worked like that, so that really gives me a lot of time to prepare and it makes me realize the outcome that a maker is expecting from me.
SMD: Your performance as Dr. Kaushik Oberoi was gripping, but I have to say, for a lack of a more refined word, you were also hot. Was that essential to the character to tap the McSteamy, McDreamy space? You knew you were also playing the hot doctor, right?
MR: Trust me, I didn't, because when we were doing the look test, he [Advani] said, 'I want to present you in a very different way. I want you to grow a lot of beard, then let's try glasses.' Then he said, 'You are a workaholic, you haven't slept so, we need to add little more of the dark circles.' So, we enhanced the dark circles. Then he was like, 'I don't want your hair to be seen. Let's try a bandana.' So we tried that too. Nowhere had I thought that I was a good-looking doctor, to be honest. But yeah, when I saw it, it looks little different, and the kind of responses I have received are quite positive.
SMD: You stepped away from television at a time when you were at the top of your game, and it took a couple of years for you to kind of find your groove in Bollywood and perhaps also the kind of work you wanted to do. What was that interim like? How many Lord Shiva roles did you had to turn down and how hard was that?
MR: This is basically not true. I was doing a mythological show (Devon Ke Dev – Mahadev) and then post that I did one more historical (Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat), and after that, I worked on another periodic show based on Saragarhi (21 Sarfarosh – Saragarhi 1897). So somewhere, I didn't realize that I had gotten used to larger-than-life characters. It took me some time to detach myself and make myself understand that you needed to be a nobody to do something. I remember after the series finished, there was a love story that was offered to me. It had a tailor falling in love with a customer, so I remember my response at that point was, "Tailor? Me? Are you sure? I don't think it's for me." When I look back, I think it was so foolish of me to say that. So gradually, I understood that. Because larger than life characters come with a lot of power and there's a lot of more to play with. So, slowly I detached myself. After Saragarhi, I got the opportunity to do Uri, because the maker was quite keen on it. And post that, I got a chance to do Kaafir. That was the point when I realized I needed to kind of start playing these roles.
SMD: What are the challenges of breaking into Bollywood when you already have a reputation on TV? What are your relationships like with PRs and social media and managers? Do you enjoy this stuff? Do you get it entirely?
MR: There were a lot of challenges initially. There were lots of scripts that came to me, which I wouldn't like to name. But there was a very A+ project with a leading lady involved, and there was this negative character in the film. I had gone to meet the makers and was in a coffee shop. Everything was almost finalized. That was the first time I was meeting them outside. There was an elderly couple who were sitting and having coffee over there on the next table. They came up to me and touched my feet. They hugged me and they were kind and very emotional. So these makers saw this and realized, 'We can't do this to this guy, he won't be accepted in this way.' Because they understood that this was the kind of following I had where people loved me so much, they said, 'Mohit, let's forget it, we don't think you will be able to do it.'
I said I will be able to do it, but you know how these things are. So, it has its own challenges, it has its own problems. In a way, you have to be careful, because your audience is really different. I got lot of feedback saying, 'Your language has been very foul as Dr. Kaushik Oberoi. We have never seen you like that in real life.' Maybe I was too much into it, or I didn't realize it, or what they've written in the script, so I have no memory of it right now, but that was something that made me realize that for the kind of people who see me like that [the man who played God], they don't want me to go into that space. They want me to do something very different than that, so you have to find a balance somewhere, where you satisfy their love while satisfying your hunger and niche as an actor too.
SMD: When we were recovering from Mumbai Diaries, because it really is a gut-wrenching watch, you have dropped Shiddat's trailer as well. So you really do have a lot happening for you. What can you tell us about Shiddat? How do we see you there?
MR: Both Mumbai Diaries and Shiddat were shot before the pandemic, so both projects were lined up to come last year. Unfortunately, they didn't. I think they were destined to release next to each other, so I am quite excited. Shiddat is basically again something that I have never done before. It's full on romance, which I wanted to do. What I can tell you right now is that it's a story about a guy (Sunny Kaushal), who can go to any extent to get his love back in his life. I play his his mentor or guardian. It's a very different role. I also saw the trailer and understood from it that it'll be like a pure love story. I too don't know how it has shaped up and how it's going to be like, but I play Sunny's mentor/guardian. It's a very different story, it's very interesting and Kunal (Kunal Deshmukh), our director, has done a fabulous job. The music is amazing and these two (Kaushal and Radhika Madan) are looking fantastic. I am hoping that people will love it and see me in a very different way. Thankfully, there's no foul language over there, so I'll be saved.