Actor Gulshan Devaiah believes this year has been a turning point. He began the year playing a double role in Vasan Bala's Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota – widely considered one of the year's best performances – and ended it on the other side of the spectrum as an exaggerated villain in the action entertainer Commando 3.
For the first time he has so many meaningful projects coming his way that he's having to pick and choose and lose out on some great ones in the process. It's not a bad problem to have for the actor who's been around since 2011 and, despite having made a mark in films like Shaitan, Ram Leela and Hunterrr, hasn't entirely managed to break into the mainstream.
He will be seen next in Dibakar Banerjee's segment of the upcoming horror anthology Ghost Stories, which he describes as the hardest thing he's ever done. Following that he'll be in Amazon Prime Video's Afsos. He spoke to me about his issues with web series, the disappointing release of Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, and the appeal of commercial films like Commando 3.
What's the role you get most recognised for?
Hunterrr. But some people are too embarrassed to say they've seen the film and admit they liked it. It's definitely my most watched film. Everywhere I go people call me Hunter. In Maharashtra, they call me Vasu. All the Bollywood photographers call me Vasu sir (laughs) and it's very endearing. They keep asking me when I'm making the sequel and I use it to convince the director to make a second part. I don't think we've lost time and I definitely feel it has a brand value now.
It was classified as a sex comedy and I do have a bit of an issue with that because for us it was a romantic comedy and a coming-of-age love story. I think it became a sex comedy because they decided to market it that way which makes sense. What do I know about this business? I think that it did benefit the film and got it eyeballs. It had a decent theatrical and people downloaded the shit out of it.
You've said you'll never do another villain role again like the one in Commando 3. What's the appeal of doing a film like that?
Never say never. I do enjoy it and I'm also a bit experimental. It's interesting to see if I can fit into such movies. It also bothers me that we can't make better cinema. Even if it's simplistic and over the top, that doesn't mean it can't be enormously fun and innovative. So I feel that I should try and fit into such things wherever I can. I try and do films like Hate Story or Commando 3 which people brush off as 'a commercial film' but I'm going to still see if I can be better and serve the form but still try and push the boundary and see how I can contribute to the story. I'm curious also to see how I'll be able to bring value to such commercial projects and if I'm able to take what is written and create something more than the writing, create some layers, and Commando 3 was a great opportunity for that.
I come from theatre and in theatre you always project to the last row. So sometimes you can't be subtle. It really doesn't occur to me that I'm doing something over the top. I just try and serve the script and the format. I admit in Commando 3 there are a few places I look at myself and I think 'I didn't get this one' or 'I could've done better'.
Your work in Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota is considered one of the year's best performances, but the film was largely seen on the festival circuit before getting a limited release and ending up on Netflix. Was it heart-breaking when it didn't get a wider release?
It was definitely heart-breaking. I've grown up dreaming about cinema and not OTT platforms. The holy grail for me is cinema and box office success is paramount, there's nothing greater than that. That is always important and the fact that MKDNH didn't have the kind of impact we'd hoped for was really sad.
I felt it had the potential, but it had a lot of things going against it. We had some trouble with Ronnie (Screwvala)'s decision to take up the VPF (virtual print fee) issue with the exhibitors and that hurt us. It's a genuine problem between producers and exhibitors and it just so happened that it coincided with the release of the film. INOX didn't play us at all and other theatres gave us limited screenings. Releasing with Kesari was also a bad idea because Akshay Kumar has such a wonderful track record in terms of the box office collections. He earns people money. Why would exhibitors give you his shows? I also think Indian audiences don't have the best opinion of 'festival films'. For example, for a film like Luka Chuppi they'll storm into theatres and see but with MKDNH, it doesn't compel them to watch it in the theatres.
But these are all observations. I really don't know if this is the audience we were destined to get. We really thought it's an entertaining film and I don't think it fulfilled its theatrical potential. But you get over it. It's not the first time I've been disappointed, and it won't be the last.
Your upcoming film Ghost Stories is a Netflix release after which you're starring in Amazon Prime's series Afsos. Has streaming made it one of the best times to be an actor?
I don't know if it's the best but it's definitely interesting. Long ago when TV broke out, I imagine that's how actors must've felt with a new medium. With streaming it's a bit mixed right now because TV is a mass medium and OTT platforms are not. And we don't know what's happening with OTT platforms. We don't know what kind of numbers any of them are doing or whether they're making a profit or not. I think the true worth of it we'll realise in 5-10 years, when it all settles.
The only series I've done so far is Smoke for EROS Now and it did well for them. But a lot of people who watch Netflix and Amazon haven't watched it or come across it. I had a chat with people at EROS and they said it was really tracking well for them but on Twitter there was nothing. I'm guessing their audiences aren't the kind who go out on Twitter and rave about a show.
At the same time, fewer films are releasing which does bother me because I think cinema has to be enjoyed on the big screen. I know all films don't make massive money and streaming platforms do give another business model to smaller films, but I still feel it's a bit of a compromise. I'm struggling with it. If I could, I'd only do films and no series. No disrespect to series, I am doing some myself. I do think there's also so much you can learn from the OTT business.
You won a Star Screen award recently. What value does that have? Does it have any sort of tangible impact?
I have no idea. I'm yet to find out. It made me feel really nice in that moment. I went on stage and cracked some jokes which landed (laughs) which was a success for me. I got a lot of messages saying it's well deserved which I really appreciate. But I don't take such things too seriously. There's a long road ahead and I'd like to do something that no one's done before. I don't know what it'll be, perhaps winning an Oscar and Grammy together or a full EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) (laughs). But I don't really look at awards as having any impact of my career.
You've talked a lot about your struggle over the years to find meaningful projects that excite you. In such a situation, can an actor actively create those opportunities for themselves?
Yeah, I've started to seek opportunities now which I never used to do. I used to just wait for things to come. I used to think being good is good enough, but I don't believe that anymore. And I'm more confident now. I definitely believe I'm a value addition to a project. I can bring a certain work ethic and a certain professionalism which, apart from what you think I can do, will add value to you. That, and competitive pricing (laughs).
Now if I meet someone I want to work with, I don't mind getting a meeting and asking if there's anything they want me to read or test for. I don't want to feel like 10 years down the line that I never tried. There are people who write their own stuff and create opportunities for themselves like Viniit Kumar did for Mukkabaaz, but I don't think I can do that.
Do you feel you've gotten better at navigating the industry?
I think I have. Very early on in my life I realised that I will not come across great scripts. The kind of scripts that I would read every word of and not change a single thing. Those are really rare and hard to come by. But good parts are much easier to come by, so now I try and identify those. Once in a while, you come across scripts which you wouldn't touch, like Dibakar Banerjee's film in Ghost Stories. It's so good and I'm so in love with him and his work. It's my first Netflix release so I'm curious to see the response is like. It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. During shoot, every day I would wake up and tell myself that I've stretched myself too thin here and that I don't think I can do this. I credit Dibakar for pulling me through.
Does it get frustrating to see lesser actors get parts you're vying for?
Not frustrated but I do get jealous. For a lot of films, I'm like 'I could've done this' but you have to realise that in terms of your craft, you may be better than someone but their positioning maybe better than yours. This is also a business. When some people are excited about another actor over you, there has to be a reason. This is life and you can't control what people think. I don't want to feel bad about it and have that negativity running through me and be some bitter actor in my 50s. It's like that line in Gully Boy – 'koi dusra mere ko batayega main kaun hoon?'
If you look at Ayushmann, for example, I can do all those films. Could I sell all those films? Perhaps not, because I don't have the same positioning. But can I be as good as him in any of those films? Of course, I can. I can pull off any of the films that Rajkummar Rao has done. But I don't have their positioning. I can't keep being negative. My opportunities will come. I just have to create my own positioning and create value around myself.
If you look at Ayushmann, for example, I can do all those films. Could I sell all those films? Perhaps not, because I don't have the same positioning. But can I be as good as him in any of those films? Of course, I can. I can pull off any of the films that Rajkummar Rao has done. But I don't have their positioning.
If you could go back 5 years, what's the one piece of advice you'd give yourself?
Your career and your craft are two very different things. Think about them separately. They're obviously related but you have to work on them separately. I was good at working on my craft, but I wasn't very good at my career and making decisions that were necessary. That's the hard lesson that I've learnt. And that's why I feel a lot of my contemporaries have done so well. They had figured this shit out very early on and I've learnt so much from them. Whether it's Vicky Kaushal or Rajkummar Rao or even Kartik Aaryan. I remember meeting him after Pyaar Ka Punchnaama and he'd had two colossal flops back to back and you could see he wasn't very happy with his career. But he was very clear in his mind about what he wanted to do. And regardless of what people think of him, he's mind-bogglingly popular. So it clearly paid off.
I understood that I'd missed a few buses. But it's okay, I still have my entire life ahead of me. I remember I was nominated for Best Debut across all the awards for Shaitan. I didn't win, of course, and in a way it's good because I wasn't ready to go out there and face people. I felt like I didn't belong there, it was too overwhelming. And when you feel like you don't belong there, you don't. Now I do.