"What were you doing when you were 23?"
The question haunts a moment in Shoojit Sircar's recently released Sardar Udham. When Vicky Kaushal's titular character asks this to a British official while he is in custody, you realise how much an impact Udham's friend and mentor, a young Bhagat Singh, had left on him. While the digital space is abuzz with the overwhelming emotions and technical mastery of the film, actor Amol Parashar, who essays the role of the revolutionary, is basking in the glow of a job well done. He brings a certain relatability, ease and charm in the historical character that makes him look like one of us. One sees him laugh and dance with his contemporaries, go cycling with his buddy Udham, the way any other twenty-something would. Only, at the back of your mind you know who he is, you know what his contribution to India's freedom struggle was — you know what he did when he was 23.
It was a role Amol hadn't imagined for himself, and yet, it all worked out and how. Exciting times are now ahead for the actor, who is set to shoot for TVF's Tripling Season 3 — scheduled to release digitally in the second half of 2021. He is also currently preparing for the release of his next film, a comedy by debutante Rishabh Seth. "It's coming out next month on OTT," he says. "It's technically my first film as a lead, and has an incredibly funny script."
Amol talks about the preparation that went into the making of his character in Sardar Udham, what the evolution of the digital space has done for him, and his love for charting unknown territories as an actor.
Tell me about your experience working on Sardar Udham. How did you crack the role? What was the brief given to you and how did you approach it?
I had known Jogi sir (Jogi Mallang) for a while. He has been the casting director for all of Shoojit Sircar's films so far. They go a long way back. He gave me a call for a potential meeting and a try out for Bhagat Singh's part in Sardar Udham. When I heard about the role, I thought it wouldn't work out for me. It was Bhagat Singh and they could get anyone they'd want. Also, going by the kind of work that I had done so far, I thought they wouldn't find me fitting into this world and this character. But after a meeting or two, I was told that Shoojit sir was very excited and the team started talking about my dates. That's when I realized that this was actually happening. I don't know how, but it was.
I then met Shoojit sir, discussed the idea of the film that he wanted to make, the world he envisioned, the research the team had done, the characters he wanted to portray. His idea was to interpret these facts, the history and these people in his own way. His attempt was to make them more human and real – they were everyday human beings with different, greater ideas about the world and society around them. He told me, "I know you must've watched all the Bhagat Singh films growing up. You don't have to go back and look at what somebody else has done. Do your own thing. We have all the facts in place – who he was, what his ideas were. Then we will form a human being out of this character, as we would with any other character." At the end of the day, they were 21–22-year-old students who were very aware and active politically. That was the kind of reality we wanted to capture. I also started reading the writings by them, about them, their letters to each other – those are the only records we have of their thoughts – and then it all started making sense. This was a lens of these people that we perhaps hadn't captured to its fullest, beyond what they said and did.
During the brief itself, we were told not to come with a baggage. It was to be real; you shouldn't be trying to play a hero. That's what true heroes are from real life – they are not doing anything 'heroic' in their own way. They are just who they are. That's what most of the scenes are for Bhagat Singh in this film. He's casually chatting with his friends, sometimes cracking jokes, at times discussing ideas, politics and policies, going through every other day of his life. So, the energy that was needed resembled a college theatre group, where a group of 10 passionate and aware youngsters would sit, exchange ideas and jam together. And he is probably that person in the group who's younger than anyone else and yet, everyone looks up to him. They just wanted to see this boy, no one else. That perspective helped me remove the weight that a historical figure would hold and create the idea of him as a 21-year-old boy instead – a boy who talks sense, has read all the books in the world, who everybody listens to. He loves life, he loves people. This idea made it fun and I started having fun too. As it turns out, they too enjoyed it. It was good to see the makers have that faith in me.
You've played such varied characters in your career so far — be it the delivery guy in Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare, Bhagat Singh in Sardar Udham, a wedding planner in Feels Like Ishq, and of course, Chitvan in TVF Tripling. All these are such distinct characters. You've mentioned in previous interviews that it's somewhat of a conscious choice too. Can you tell us a little about it?
It can't be a completely conscious choice because I can't create characters for myself. I can say that I want to play a serial killer in my next film but if someone writes and approaches me for that script, only then can I do it. If something like that does come to me, which is different and interesting from my previous work, then I would try to make it happen. I won't shy away from it because it's new. I get bored very easily. I'm a little scared of being in a situation where I feel like I've been doing the same thing for a very long time and have become too comfortable. If new things come to me, it excites me a lot. I make sure I latch on to that.
An unexpected casting choice can always bring something new to the table. The audience is expecting only certain kinds of people for certain roles, so it's fresh for them too. It's a win-win for all.
Of course, there is a risk involved when you are trying to do new things, which is why there's a slight hesitation doing something completely out of turn, but I'd rather err at the side of risk than err at the side of boredom. Thankfully, there have been regular opportunities where people have come to me with different roles and I too have always shown an interest to them. I keep telling this to the people I know, the filmmakers I've worked with in the past. I always slip it in, sometimes, even jokingly, and say, 'Forget what I've done in the past. I want to do something like this.' They should know, so that when they think of me, they are aware that I will be willing to do something new. An unexpected casting choice can always bring something new to the table. The audience is expecting only certain kinds of people for certain roles, so it's fresh for them too. It's a win-win for all.
Konkona Sensharma once said that whenever she receives a new role in a Hindi movie, her process involves recording her lines and hearing them repeatedly to get the tone right. What is your process like?
I don't think I have a fixed process. It varies from role to role and story to story. For example, with Chitvan (in Tripling), by season two, I knew that this was a person who doesn't think before speaking and doesn't know what to say next. So, what ends up happening is that I refuse to read the scripts in advance. I don't want to read it now and think it through the next two months about how I'm going to do it. I don't want to plan on how to say a dialogue or the body language with this character. I want it to come more instinctively and naturally. I know him well by now, I've done my research.
For a role like Bhagat Singh, I couldn't have the same approach. The text was very important here. The words are so measured and well-written that I couldn't just say that I could do it instinctively. So, I kept reading the text again and again, till the time I memorized every single word. Once I did that, I could discuss and think about how to deliver them, the pitch, and how serious or passionate the energy would be. But I had to get the script first – isko toh ghont lo (just gulp it down).
From TVF Tripling, which gained immense popularity, to Amazon Prime's Sardar Udham, how much has the OTT space evolved?
My life in the last five years is defined by the presence, existence and outburst of this medium. 6-7 years ago, this wasn't even an option to consider. Right now, from what I understand, this is probably the first option that any technician or actor would be going for. 80% of the conversation is about OTT right now. The first season of Tripling was in 2016. There were no OTT platforms around that time. There was just YouTube and TVFPlay, and people would mostly watch the content in the former. By the second season in 2018, there were some platforms that were coming in, the international ones had just started. And now, I don't even know how many platforms are there and how many shows are releasing on a daily basis. If someone were to make a show about the industry in the last five years, it would make for a thrilling watch.
I think it has all happened for the better. There's more work, stories, variety and experimentation. There's more money and comfort too, undoubtedly. There are so many of my contemporaries who are finally getting their due, there are new faces and upcoming stars – we all knew each other but the world didn't. All these shows had to happen for the world to sit up and take notice of amazing artistes, including Vikrant Massey, Shweta Tripathi, Divyendu Sharma and Sumeet Vyas, to name a few. We are all hanging out in the same industry lanes. At that time, there were four roles coming in 10 years with 40 people in contention. Now, all those 40 people have work with 40 other projects coming up and their schedules all packed up. It was unimaginable at that time. If someone would've told us then that six years later, we'd be crying about not having enough time to do the roles that we wanted to do, we'd say, 'Kyu mazaak kar rahe ho?'
You've juggled all kinds of formats — web shows, movies, shorts and even commercials. Do you have an inclination towards any particular format? Is any closer to your heart?
Everything started for me with the stage. I hadn't imagined working in the movies or TV when I had shifted to Mumbai. The only thing I knew was stage acting. That was what I wanted to do, which is why I am where I am. It all started from the excitement of performing on stage. That is what I miss now. I haven't done a play in a very long time. I did a storytelling performance a few years ago for a live audience and that was incredibly fun. I miss that. There's a different energy altogether. On camera, if you perform today, someone talks about how good the scene was six months later. On stage, it's right there. I'm sure I'll keep going back to it every once in a while. I aspire to create a live performance in the times to come.