Scam 2003’s Gagan Dev Riar on Becoming Telgi

The first five episodes of Scam 2003: The Telgi Story are now out on Sony LIV.
Scam 2003’s Gagan Dev Riar on Becoming Telgi
Scam 2003’s Gagan Dev Riar on Becoming Telgi

Whoever came up with the saying “crime doesn’t pay” should take a look at Hansal Mehta’s Scam series. After the first season catapulted Pratik Gandhi to fame, the second season, which tells the story of counterfeiter Abdul Karim Telgi, is doing the same for Gagan Dev Riar. Telgi’s scam is valued at approximately Rs. 30,000 crore and Riar’s portrayal of Telgi is priceless. Film Companion spoke to Riar about bringing Telgi to life, the actor’s refusal to pass judgement on his characters, and him finding inspiration in the legendary Hollywood actor Tom Hanks.

Here are the edited excerpts from the interview.

FC: What kind of research and preparation does one need to do when portraying a character like Abdul Karim Telgi? 

Gagan Dev Riar: Actually, this is the first time that I'm performing a character based on a real person. Whether you do a fictional character or you do a real-life character, preparation is needed for everything. My background is in theatre, and one of the first things you are taught to do in theatre is focus on the text. You read the script thoroughly, over and over again, to understand where the character is coming from. When I was new to all this, they would tell us, “After reading the script, you write down 50 things about that character that are not mentioned in the script.” These are some things that you came to understand after reading the script. Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I don’t need to write it down, but I still prepare a list mentally. 

For instance, I think about my character’s educational background, his gait, his speech and dialect. What is his sur (tone)? Then you have to pick the things you want to highlight. 

For the camera, I thought his body language would be very important. Hansal (Mehta) sir had already told me that I was going to have to put on weight. I gained about 18-20 kgs so that I could look like him. I looked at his (Telgi) photographs, there aren’t many videos available but when you look at photographs you can pick up small things that you see, like recurring gestures. Hansal sir also told me, “Tum Telgi mat banna, Gagan Telgi hota toh kaisa hota, woh karo.” (Don’t become Telgi, find him in Gagan). I had to find the character within myself and not copy from somewhere because there wasn’t a lot available anyway. As long as it doesn’t become a caricature, you’re good. Hansal sir also warned me against researching the character too much because all the available material on Telgi looks at him as a criminal: “Don’t play him as a villain because it will colour your honesty”. He’s a human, so you have to look at him as a human.

The third thing to keep in mind was his bhashaa (language). I am from Punjab, but meri Hindi bohot saaf hai (my Hindi is very clean), because I am a theatre actor. But he wasn’t a theatre actor, he was from Karnataka. What would his normal tone be, how would he speak normally? To understand that I travelled to Khanapur (Karnataka) and spoke to the locals — shopkeepers, street vendors, and even just people on the road asking them directions etc. — and I recorded all of that. Then, I came back and played the recordings over and over and found those spaces in the script. An actor friend of mine from Solapur, Deepak Deshpande, helped me make the speech more natural.

Gagan Dev Riar as Abdul Karim Telgi
Gagan Dev Riar as Abdul Karim Telgi

FC: How did you approach the task of humanising someone who has committed such a large-scale fraud?

GDR: I think it was a little easier for me because I believe in forgiveness. We all commit small transgressions on a day-to-day basis. We know it is wrong, but we still do it. We’ll give bribes to get out of sticky situations, and break the signal if we are running late — none of this is right, but we justify our misdemeanour. Hum sab hi apraadhi hai, kaun kitna bada apradhi hai ye court ko decide karne dete hai (We’re all guilty of committing crimes, we will let the law and order decide the gravity of our crimes). We never know when we will get caught. We always try to get away with things. That is my perception. Yes, Telgi did commit crimes, but somewhere he must also believe that he was some kind of a Robin Hood, because he did help a lot of people — he helped people financially. Somewhere he did good things also. Now even the courts have acquitted him of his crimes. All of this was important for me to understand and not look at only one side of the story.

FC: Did you feel any pressure on you since the last Scam 1992 (2020) was a huge hit?

GDR: Actually, thanks to all the theatre that I have done, because we perform alongside many actors — we have our show and then there are other shows on the same day — we are not taught to compete with other actors. It's about concentrating on your own work. That training has helped me not to take any pressure. Obviously, Hansal sir and Tushar sir eased my mind. They said: “Don’t take any pressure”. Today, as I was looking at comments on YouTube, I saw that a guy wrote, “Nobody can beat Pratik Gandhi.” He’s a marvellous actor and he has done such a fantastic job as Harshad Mehta. Someone else replied to that comment saying, “Nobody is beating Pratik Gandhi! He was playing Harshad Mehta, this guy is playing Abdul Karim Telgi!” And I was like haan yaar ye sahi bol raha hai (yes, what he’s saying is right!). I am with you on this (laughs). 

Gagan Dev Riar as Abdul Karim Telgi
Gagan Dev Riar as Abdul Karim Telgi

FC: This is your big transition from theatre into mainstream media, what does it feel like?

GDR: I don't know whether it's mainstream or not — time will tell if I will get work in the future. I’ve seen people coming and going. I'm just trying to keep myself grounded and be very humble about the type of accolades and love that I am getting from people. There is a video on Instagram, of Tom Hanks where he’s saying, “This too shall pass.” I believe in that and I really get inspired – whenever I am feeling a little overwhelmed and thinking that you’re at the top of the world, I go back to watch that video and remind myself that this too shall pass. If you're feeling down and if you're feeling sad, this too shall pass. Which is a beautiful thing.

I try to keep that in mind. That's how I'm feeling. Udd raha hu, per pata hai ki baithna zameen par hi hai (My head is in the clouds, but my feet are firmly placed on the ground).

FC: When shooting this show, are there any memorable experiences, anecdotes, or something that particularly stayed with you?

GDR: Every day is a new experience. This was the longest I have faced the camera so definitely I will remember this shooting experience for the rest of my life. There was this one courtroom scene where I had to show the duality of the character. He knows he’s lying, but he is doing it anyway. Tushar sir wanted me to show that duality in his eyes. I was trying my best to rehearse it, but then we just did the take. He [Tushar] called cut, and then he walked up to me all the way and gave me a big hug. He said, “This is what I wanted.” All my co-actors, the junior artists, everyone clapped and it is one of my most treasured memories. 

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