Actor Randeep Hooda has just moved into a new flat in Mumbai. His old home, he says, was too cluttered with material belongings he no longer needs. "I'm trying to practise minimalism," he says, adding that a Manto book, a script he's reading, his riding clothes and a recently-acquired camera are all he requires to make him happy. "I never wanted to be a richer artist, I wanted to be a better artist. Yes, I don't have palaces and stuff like that. But I've got palaces and temples inside my heart," he explains.
When most actors are adding people to their entourage, it's odd to hear one talk about downsizing. But this is Randeep 2.0. Ironically, this new version has been prompted by a film he was in preparation for, but will never see the light of day.
In 2016, director Rajkumar Santoshi had announced his film on the Battle of Saragarhi and Hooda was going to play Havildar Ishar Singh, the role that was played by Akshay Kumar in Kesari earlier this year. Kumar announced his film in 2018 and within a year, it was out in the theatres. Meanwhile, Hooda was silently "growing the Sikh in him". He grew out his beard, learnt Sikh martial arts, and fervently prayed for the film to be made.
Hooda has a reputation for losing himself in parts by putting himself through intense preparation and drastic physical transformations. Sadly, a lot of his hard work has gone unnoticed in films that were either not watched or weren't good enough. He half-jokingly admits that this has also come in the way of holding down a relationship. "That's why I spend time with my horses and go on wildlife trips," he says.
The good news is that he's back at work. He's reunited with Mira Nair (A Suitable Boy) and Imtiaz Ali – both directors who've had a great influence on his career with Monsoon Wedding and Highway, respectively. He's also in Dhaka, a Netflix action movie starring Chris Hemsworth. He speaks about the ordeal of the last few years with no regret and bitterness, but with gratitude for coming out of it a better person.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
It's been a while since we've seen you on screen. What have you been up to?
One of the things that I was going to shoot has gotten a bit delayed. I already spent two-and-a-half years with a long beard and hair, and turned into a Sikh. The beard was up to my bellybutton. I didn't cut a single hair on my body for two-and-a-half years, like Sikhs do. I really attempted to live that character.
Is this for the film on The Battle of Saragarhi?
Yeah, it's a great story, and for whatever reason, I didn't let it go. I really gave it my all till it came to a point where too much of my time was passing by and I came to realise that this film might never see fruition.
What happened with the film? You shot half of it and then it just stalled?
Yes. Every project has its own life and destiny, it's all I can ascertain. Then I got this very exciting role in a Netflix movie called Dhaka with Chris Hemsworth. It's directed by Sam Hargrave and produced by the Russo brothers, and written by Joe Russo.
How did Dhaka happen? Did you audition for it?
Yes. They had seen some of my previous work. I think they saw Highway, Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster, Sarbjit and all that. I was very excited about it because usually in the West, Indian male actors don't get to do action parts. I think a couple of female actors have done those parts so I was very lucky to get that part. When that film happened, I went to the gurdwara, asked for forgiveness and told Babaji that I have to make a living, I have to act because that's what I am, and that I tried my best. I was very teary-eyed as I took off my hair. It was painful, but I had to do it. All my family and friends and people who wish me well had been asking me to do it for so long. I had started sleeping with my door closed in case my parents or my nephews came in at night and cut my hair off. Everybody, right from Salman (Khan) said, 'Why don't you just shave this off and do other work? Then when this movie starts shooting just stick it on.' But I said I would not shave off my hair till this film got to its anjaam.
When I told Naseer bhai (Naseeruddin Shah) about Dhaka, he said, 'Waheguru has blessed you with this project, so go do a good job.'
Did you continue holding on to the film even after everybody else had moved on?
Yes. I tried my level best. This character really gave me a lot, it made me a better person. It gave me wings as an actor and as a person. I discovered the beautiful things about Sikhism and I lost my vanity completely. I learnt Sikh martial arts, I learnt their scriptures, their prayers, their history and what makes them great. It was a very internalised process. While the kesh was an external expression of that, it wasn't as if I was just growing hair. I was growing the Sikh inside me.
I've always changed myself from role to role, tried to do experiments, tried to bring out different aspects of me, rather than just change my hairstyle and clothes and stylist. Here I was given an opportunity to do that and I felt very thankful.
This character really gave me a lot, it made me a better person. It gave me wings as an actor and as a person. I discovered the beautiful things about Sikhism and I lost my vanity completely.
You've always pushed yourself to get into a character. I rewatched Sarbjit and you were unrecognizable in the film. Did the director ask you to lose all that weight or was it your idea to transform so drastically?
See, filmmaking is a collaborative decision. If any one person says that I did this or I did that, it's wrong. It is in the conversations and discussions that you arrive upon things. It was my decision to push it that far. But it was also a requirement because there was a certain pathetic-ness to that character that needed to be communicated to the audience. I also needed to feel it myself. How would you feel if you have been in a prison with no light, with chains on your ankles, and your wrists for eighteen years? All this comes from a sense of respect towards the character, it's not about doing something that nobody's ever done. In fact, when I signed up for Sarbjit, we were going to shoot my healthier portions first. But due to some problems they decided to shoot his bits in jail first, so I had to rush into the weight loss. It was not healthy. I am still suffering from little ailments here and there. But that's okay, it's all worth it.
What's the furthest you've pushed yourself for a part?
Each part requires a different kind of pushing. Physical pushing is the most apparent one, but that's not the most difficult one. It's the easiest one. Getting the mental and emotional beats of that character is harder. I found Imtiaz's film very challenging, although there was no physical transformation.
There are also certain blocks you have as a human being and as a person which you have to overcome. I could've danced more in my films but I felt like the songs took away from the narrative. All of a sudden so many people come stand behind you and start dancing… I never identified with it. When VCR had come, my siblings and I would always fast-forward the songs to get to the story…
You know I once had the pleasure and honour of watching Guide with Dev Anand ji. He cried through it while holding my hand. When Dev Anand ji died they were showing his songs on TV and I thought, I have no songs. When I die, what will people show? But then I've had the fortune of doing Jism 2 which had good songs. There's Highway and then Murder 3 and Jannat 2. So I kind of opened up myself to that as well. Even in Jism 2 which many would not consider a performance film, I really tried to live out that character of a crazy revolutionary who has gone a bit nuts. In that there is a song where I am playing the cello and singing. I learnt the cello for a month for that song.
I am human and I do feel that sometimes I haven't got my due but I cut out that thought as soon as possible because it shows a sense of entitlement. You get what you get. Life doesn't owe you anything.
What is the heartbreak of hearing that you were terrific, but the film wasn't? Or that you gave a great performance but not enough people saw it.
The biggest desire of an artist is to reach out to as many people as possible. So it is a heartbreak, no doubt. It is a heartbreak that you gave it your all and then inspite of the film being good it didn't reach out to people. There are aspects to filmmaking other than just filmmaking. The mounting, the positioning, the marketing, the number of theatres – all those things count. But I do not hide behind any of those excuses.
Is there a performance you wished more people had seen?
You do feel that momentarily, but I busy myself with photography and writing, or something else. I get my mind off it, rejuvenate and move on. I am human and I do feel that sometimes I haven't got my due but I cut out that thought as soon as possible because it shows a sense of entitlement. You get what you get. Life doesn't owe you anything, people don't owe you anything, the world doesn't owe you anything. This is how the chips fell, so you've got to brush off the dirt and clean your knees and elbows and start all over again.
When is the last time that you've been terrified by a character?
The film I've just shot with Imtiaz. When he told me about it, I said, 'I don't think I'll be able to pull it off.' It happens to me every time because it's not like I have a set of expressions that I pull out for every character. It's all organic and you don't know that when the camera starts rolling, if you'll be able to tap into your emotions. Only 30% of what I actually worked hard on ends up showing on screen. I was disappointed about that. I said: How can I get this percentage nearer to 100, where the time I am spending in preparation shows on screen? Usually only 30-40% per cent is being seen. With Sarbjit, it went a bit more because there was a lot of physicality involved. I thought with Saragarhi it would go beyond that.
Do you remember your first paying job as an actor?
Yes. It was a TV series called Rajdhani that also had Neha Dhupia and Tigmanshu Dhulia was directing it. This was the year 2000. I had a terrible accident and I had to be written off the show, which is good I think. When I met Tigmanshu for the first time, he didn't know me because somebody else had cast me. And he said 'NSD se ho?'. I said, 'No'. And then he said 'Achha, good good'. I remember my first scene – I appear in court and I am giving a statement because I am a witness. Then from Monsoon Wedding, my journey became more of an actor's journey because I met Naseer saab in it. I did his workshops, and then I did a few plays with him.
He's a tough man to please. Which of your performances has he liked?
He like Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster, he liked Highway. I don't know which movies of mine he's seen. He saw D and said, 'Kya yaar. You cannot be Al Pacino and Clint Eastwood at the same time.' I felt like, 'Really? Am I like Clint Eastwood?' I took it as a compliment!
It's been almost two decades of you as an actor…
Yeah, but I've had big breaks in between. After Monsoon Wedding, we were at the Venice Film Festival and there was an American distributor who came and sat next to me at a party and said, 'You know, you were the only one who wasn't acting in the film.' That shattered me. I met this man again at the Toronto Film Festival years later when I had gone with Deepa Mehta's Beeba Boys and he didn't remember this. If someone was to say the same thing to me today, I'll take it as a compliment. But at that time, this comment really shook me. That's when I went to Naseer bhai and joined his theatre group. At first I wasn't really acting, just helping him out. So for four or five years I didn't do any films.
You've had many such breaks. What do you do when you're not acting?
In the first phase, I was doing theatre. In the second, I went around the country competing and show jumping as a professional horseman. I got many medals and trained my own horses. In these last two-and-half years I went about looking for good things in the world. I started this campaign of Heroes Without Makeup. So I met these fifty people, real people, who were doing such good work. I felt that every newspaper was all full of bad news, so I wanted to discover goodness in the world. And then I discovered Khalsa. Then Afroz Shah, who is my dear friend, and I discovered Versova beach cleaning. I basically imbibed this need to do seva. I spent this time doing seva for wildlife, for animals, for the environment and for human beings all across India.
I've also recently taken up wildlife photography. I am getting help from a guy called Sarosh Lodhi. I met him on Instagram. I got a fancy camera which had so many buttons that I couldn't figure out what the hell to do with them, I was so confused. I went to him and he practically taught me everything I know about wildlife photography. I think I've taken some good pictures.
You clearly enjoy learning new things…
Yeah, it should be the goal of every human being. You know what Sikh means? Sikh means 'jo sikhta hai'. Sikh is a student, a learner.
How do these other passions inform the actor in you?
It's all towards the actor. To be a better actor, you have to be a better person, that is for sure. It really enriches your life experiences. They only feed you as an artist.
Are you saying all great actors are good people?
Yes. I can generalise. I mean obviously there are exceptions to every kind of thing. But generally good actors are good people. This is my opinion today, I might change it tomorrow. It's like Groucho Marx said – These are my principles, and if you don't like them, well…I have others.
You've also changed so many jobs before becoming an actor. You've been a delivery boy, a waiter at a restaurant, a cabbie, a marketing person… What have I left out?
I used to wash cars and I was a door-to-door salesman.
Which of these jobs helped you become a better actor?
Taxi driving. Because people forget that you're in the car and after a while, you get to see a lot of personal shit, very close up. I used to do a night shift, from five in the evening to five or six in the morning, in Melbourne. So when people get intoxicated there's a lot of stuff that you get to see close up, which you'd not be privy to otherwise. So that has been my biggest education on human behaviour. When you're trying to approach some script or piece of writing, it comes back to you.
I did this for three years and I met all kinds of people, from junkies to sports stars. That's when I decided to become an actor. I used to talk to people and started making characters. I used to see a person coming out of a particular building, dressed in a particular attire and observe their gait and accordingly set the music in my car. 99% of the time I was right about them, and they would give me a $2 to $10 tip, which was good money.
What do you know now about this industry that you wish you had known in 2000?
That you only get big by association, not because of your talent. You can be a great artist, but if you're not associated then you can't project your art to a level where it gets eyeballs. I wish I had known that. At that time I thought I'll just stand in front of the camera and people will just flock to see me, tear their clothes off in the theatre. But that's not the case. I wish I'd known it then.
There are so many factors that play a part in your journey – being a Jat is one of them. The kind of bravado or whatever we have inherently in us – a certain language, a sort of roughness – that didn't go down well. So all those things happened, but hey, I think the slow simmer works better. If I had gotten success, I would have not pursued the art so deeply.