An actor who is known to play an assortment of characters throughout his career understands that one of his challenges is in representing himself in every role differently. And you’d see how meticulously Pavan Malhotra believes in that truth after watching him play an underworld don in at least five movies, each time portraying a different don. Pavan is one of those outstanding actors who has not only learnt the nuanced art of acting but also understood the sciences of getting under the skin of a character and grasping its mannerisms. Little wonder then that he manages to bring out those extraordinary performances every time he is on screen.
We met the National and BAFTA Awards winner at one of the suburban five-star hotels in Mumbai, looking relaxed in a simple, navy blue T-shirt and khaki trousers. And just as easily as he portrays his roles, he engages us in a long conversation, where he opens up about his years of experience in the Indian film industry. The youngest of five siblings, who hails from a typical Punjabi family that shifted to Delhi from Lahore after Partition, talks to us about how his passion for acting has only grown with each passing day. And watching him over the years, we can vouch for it too. Currently working on two projects, Lahore, by director Sanjay Chauhan, and Weekend, by director Abhishek Jawkar, Pavan tells us how all that matters to him at the end of the day is how satisfied and at peace he is with his own efforts in a job. Here are excerpts of the conversation he had with us, over many cups of tea.
My first encounter with cinema was through the very first film I was involved in: Gandhi. I was the wardrobe assistant because somebody suggested my name. I didn’t know much about films back then and I was reasonably nervous. But a week later, I began enjoying it. I knew the cast was largely made up of Hollywood actors, but I was interacting with people like Martin Sheen without knowing a wink about the Hollywood biggies that they were. Then I came to Bombay, as it was called back then, and worked as the production manager and assistant director in Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi for Saeed Mirza and Vinod Chopra. Soon after, I got Nukkad in 1986.
I did theatre in Delhi but have not done any since I arrived in Mumbai because I now find it difficult to do theatre and films simultaneously. The reason is simple: if I start rehearsing for a play and its on-stage dates are fixed, I cannot cancel them even if Spielberg approaches me. It is just not right. Besides, I wanted to perform in front of a lens and not on a stage, and the whole idea of shifting to Mumbai for me was to work in films. I have done some regional movies too, including Telugu (Aithe, Anukokunda Oka Roju, Andhrudu and Amma Cheppindi) and Punjabi (Gelo, Zorawar, Once Upon A Time in Amritsar and Eh Janam Tumhare Lekhe). But I believe in destiny; I had never thought that I would do films when I was doing theatre. From the very beginning, even when my dad hoped that I would look after the family business, all I knew was to act, and to do that with integrity. Moreover, I was the kind who could never go around asking for work.
Every role that I have done has come to me. My first break, Nukkad, came to me only because someone else had backed out of the project at the last minute. If one might remember, all my character Hari did in the first 13 episodes of that serial was to s
imply stand around. However, the character clicked with the audiences and went on to become a huge hit. And when a character becomes a hit, they start writing about it. So was the case for me in 1989, with Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro. I wasn’t on Saeed Mirza’s mind when he started writing the script. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised when he told me he wanted me to play the role. I couldn’t be more grateful for him offering me that role. Then, while Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro was still in production, Buddadeb Dasgupta offered me Bagh Bahadur because he saw me on the cover of a magazine in Calcutta, and came down to Mumbai looking for me. Then, Robert Buckler saw Bagh Bahadur at the London film festival, and that’s how I got the lead in Brothers In Trouble. Then, Anurag Kashyap, whom I hadn’t known personally, cast me for Black Friday because he had liked my work in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, Bagh Bahadur and Brothers In Trouble.
My approach towards donning any character is to first read the script and understand what it demands. Then, I try to understand its mannerisms. I have been offered the role of an underworld don in a couple of movies, but each of them had a different swagger to it. And I had to render it staying committed to that character’s truth because I believe that every character has different shades to it. For example, in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, Salim, the role I portrayed, is vulnerable but cocky; he wants to be noticed, to be picked up. On the other hand, the essence of Tiger Memon in Black Friday was about being drunk with power. His body language and speech had to bare those characteristics. Then again, the role of the underworld person in a commercial film like Don has different shades, with other complex mannerisms. That being said, while I believe that actors can indeed bring their own twist to a role they take on, ultimately it is the script that tells them everything they need to know about a certain character and they must be loyal to that.
Method acting is not for me, although I have nothing against someone who follows that school of acting. For instance, I won’t go a week without a having bath just because I had to act like a dirty person. What matters is the result of what you enact, not how you bring out a certain scene on to the screen. I use childhood experiences to portray my characters too. For example, as a kid, I remember an army officer who visited my dad’s office and he used to stammer at words that began with ‘s’. I used this idiosyncrasy for my character in the series Intezaar, where I was a police inspector. I feel a sense of accomplishment when someone tells me how unrecognisable I am in a movie, like in the case of Road to Sangam one of my friends refused to believe it was me, especially because I had also modulated my voice, and it sounded like it was dubbed. But when people say, “He must be really vicious if he portrays a role in that manner,” it makes me feel vindicated as an actor, because I am not really that character.
Your passions besides acting: Dancing and travelling
Best part about being an actor: To be able to travel a lot
A luxury indulgence: To travel the world with lots of comfort
You crave for: Gajar ka halwa and Indian food
On your bedside table lies: My cell phone