Jaideep Ahlawat has well and truly arrived. The actor, who’s been working in the industry for a decade now, has finally got a role that matches his talent as the lead in Paatal Lok, the latest Amazon Prime Video original series.
From creator Sudip Sharma, the crime drama follows Hathi Ram Chaudary (played by Ahlawat), a washed out Delhi cop who finally gets his big break when he’s put in charge of a high-profile investigation into the attempted murder of a prominent journalist. But all is not what it seems as the investigation exposes an intricate web of corruption, cover ups and deceit.
Ahlawat is one of those talents that’s lingered in the shadows, gradually making his mark over the years in a range of films. For many, he was first noticed as Shahid Khan in Gangs Of Wasseypur, but it was Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi that flung him into the spotlight, as the handler of Alia Bhatt’s Sehmat. Paatal Lok marks the actor’s third streaming project after Lust Stories and Bard Of Blood.
Over the phone Jaideep talks about the new show with excitement, eagerly awaiting audiences to see it. He speaks with a wisdom of someone who enjoys talking about the craft but also has no qualms or illusions of the industry he operates in and the kinds of roles actors have to take on in order to successfully navigate it. The actor spoke to me about the significance of Paatal Lok, the dangers of typecasting and the current state of the web today.
What attracted you to Paatal Lok? What was your first reaction when you read the script?
I literally jumped on it. I loved the finer details of the script and it felt like there wasn’t a single false note put in just to further the story. It’s a show that isn’t just about the outside world, it’s designed to play with your psyche. When I read it, I felt my character Hathi Ram couldn’t be more heroic. This is a guy who hasn’t managed to do anything in life, who finally finds his inner-hero and you feel a sense of release when he completes his journey.
Also, with 70% of web shows today, it feels like people think they just need to add sex, violence and abusive language and suddenly it becomes good. But here there was a lot of scope to use all those to serve the story.
Hathi Ram has grown up with an abusive father, he has a difficult relationship with his son, and he’s not taken seriously at work until he finally gets this high-profile case to prove himself. What was the toughest part of finding the character?
I think finding his vulnerability and holding onto it was the toughest. He’s tired of his life, but you gradually realise that the tiredness is inside him.
It was also tough to capture his mental state because he’s a capable officer and his seniors know that. But despite that, countless people have raced ahead of him and he can’t really share it with anyone, not even his family, because he’s constantly scared his relationship with his son will become like his was with his father. He has no choice but to solve this case because he can’t stand the thought of his son seeing him as a failure.
This is your third streaming project after Lust Stories and Bard Of Blood. Do you feel the best writing for an actor is on the web?
Yes. With streaming writers gets more liberty to write what they want so their best work comes out. There’s more freedom and opportunities for the writer to design and create something properly and give it a framework that benefits the actors.
People say that casting in the streaming space is much more about talent rather than chasing big names. Has that been your experience?
I think so. It comes down to two things. One, our superstars are busy in their world, so they aren’t yet ready to shift here. Secondly, these shows aren’t only seen in our country and for the outside world, whether you’re a known face or not doesn’t matter. If someone is sitting in Germany or Spain watching these shows, only the stories are important to them. They don’t know who’s who and how big a star they are. They only recognise these faces as the characters they’re playing and see them as part of the story.
With projects like Baaghi 3, if the writing doesn’t support or help you much, you have more personal liberty to create a character. There are some points that can be taken from the script and then you build something of your own based on them.
As an actor how do you connect with projects like Baaghi 3 where the writing isn’t as strong? Is there a way to get yourself invested in those characters?
With projects like Baaghi 3, if the writing doesn’t support or help you much, you have more personal liberty to create a character. There are some points that can be taken from the script and then you build something of your own based on them. In India, we attached a lot of value to the entertainment in our commercial films so it’s possible that a character might not even make sense, but it will be there for the sake of entertainment. That kind of cinema is enjoyed by an audience that doesn’t have any kind of knowledge of cinema because they have other priorities. I think we should cater to them.
I was talking to actor Gulshan Devaiah and he said what he’s learnt is that for actors, your career and your craft are two different things. Just because you’re talented doesn’t mean you’ll get opportunity. Would you agree?
Yes, I do. Every actor has a different path. There are many actors who are very talented, but they don’t get much work and there are many actors who keep doing the same thing again and again. As a commercial actor, it’s a different journey and you have to keep finding your craft. The evolution and improvement of your craft and talent is in your own hands.
You’ve talked about how there were long periods of time in the past where you didn’t have any acting work. How do you get through those times and stay focused when jobs aren’t coming in?
Firstly, I never considered the option of doing anything else. I never wanted to do anything other than this. So I kept going. The most that can happen is you will reach your destination a bit later than you imagined. I also had my friends and fellow actors who I could talk to and we motivated each other. You also get to work on your craft in those times and keep trying new things and watching films that inspire you which helps keep that fire going inside you.
You studied acting at FTII. How important do you feel film school or formal training is for an actor? Do you think it can be self-taught?
I feel like film schools aren’t essential but they can help start your journey sooner. It also helps you get an understanding of cinema and the craft. For the first 6 months at FTII all the students from different fields are all just cinema students and no one specialises. It also teaches you that filmmaking isn’t a single discipline, it’s a collaboration and the actors, filmmakers and technicians all learn the value of each other. Also, it saves you some time in trying to understand acting and shooting. At the end of the day, you will have to grow on your own, but film school helps you learn faster so it does make a difference for sure.
Is there a kind of role you’re raring to do that you haven’t been able to yet?
There is a lot. I feel like I’ve just started. I want to try action, romance, comedy. I’m even ready to dance if someone is willing to write those parts for me. Just like the way Sudip Sharma saw me as someone I never thought of playing. Most of the characters I’ve been offered so far have all been very dominating and self-assured, maybe because of the way I look. But Hathi Ram is the exact opposite, he repressed and doesn’t know what he wants and I enjoyed playing him.
You’ve been typecast in the past to some extent with a string of villain roles. How do you break something like that? Is part of it in your control at all?
It’s not really in your control. After Raazi I got a lot of similar offers, after Commando I got a lot of hardcore villain roles. But then you stay out of them because you can’t do the same thing again. But then it’s possible you get a villain role that’s very well written and you’re happy to do it. But as of now, it’s not been in my control. Maybe in the future it will be.