Rahul Bose on Vishwaroopam, Midnight's Children and looking like a lizard!

Last Updated: Sun, Feb 17, 2013 05:46 hrs

It isn't often that Rahul Bose does even one mainstream film a year. Suddenly, and almost simultaneously, two big-budget, highly-anticipated films he has acted in have had worldwide releases. As Vishwaroopam and Midnight's Children continue their run in Indian cinemas, he speaks exclusively to Sify.com.

When asked about the back-to-back releases, he grins that he doesn't do too many films a year because, 'I don't get that many!' Cast as Saleem Sinai in 1997, for a BBC mini-series that was subsequently shelved, he now plays the delightfully over-the-top General Zulfikar in the film version of Midnight's Children

Bose has received positive reviews both for his portrayal of Zulfikar, and the menacing militant commander Omar in Vishwaroopam, a role for which he had to speak chunks of dialogue in Tamil.

The actor-director-activist-sportsman, who's as well known for his detailed research into the roles he plays as for his witty retorts, looks back on his career so far and speaks about the filming of his two big releases.

Since English, August, you haven't really played any role that has to do with your ethnicity. You've been a Mr Iyer, a Pakistani General, now a Pashtun militant. Is that something you get drawn to, or just how you've been cast?

No, it's obviously something you get drawn to. These choices are not unconscious, or fortuitous. They're very, very calculated choices. 

So, I look for things that will make me uncomfortable, where some people will say, 'We hated you', or 'You failed'. What's the point, otherwise, really?

And have you had such negative feedback for any particular role?

Well, Maan Gaye Mughal-e-Azam was a debacle. But, thankfully, not many people saw it. Maybe four or five people saw it. So, I'm happy about that. (Laughs) But they savaged me. 

Otherwise, out of the stuff that people saw, I think I'm happy to say there's largely been a consensus, whether it's been The Japanese Wife, or I Am, or Mr and Mrs Iyer, or English, August. I don't know whether, in any film of mine, my work has really polarised people, and made them say, 'He was horrible' or 'He was really good'. I don't think that's happened.

There've always been people who have hated me and my work. But so far, thankfully, they've been in the minority. Also, being very self-aware, I think I'm the most savage on myself, which is something that most people who criticise you don't imagine you can be. But what they don't realise is, you've been there and you've done that, in terms of criticism.

However, what is interesting is when the criticism is totally unfounded. Like, I remember a reviewer who said I look like a lizard. (Pauses) That was the review of my performance in Shaurya, that I look like a lizard. So... I... (shrugs)... what do I do then? At least say, 'He looked like a badly-acting lizard', or 'He looked like a well-acting lizard'. So, that's the stuff that you just have to move on from. 

I think another reviewer said 'He looks emaciated in the second half'. So, what am I supposed to do? You know what I mean? What has that got to do with the performance? So those are the kind of comments that say so much more about the reviewer than the reviewee.

You've been cast in a couple of Tamil-speaking roles. Not so much Tamil as Mr Iyer, but in Vishwaroopam, there were chunks of dialogue in Tamil. How hard was it to emote while speaking a language you don't know?

Mr Haasan is the best teacher. I just mimicked him. I had no clue what I was saying. Well, I had a rough idea because he would tell me the gist, and there were some words in Sanskrit also. But, I mean, I don't know the language. So, I just parroted him faithfully. 

I parroted him in the dubbing studio, he worked very hard with me. The credit, in fact, goes entirely to him. If you ask me to say any of those lines again, I would collapse in a heap of shame and inability.

You know, we did every scene twice when we were shooting. And there, I had no clue what I was saying or how I should be saying it. So, the dubbing proved to be very difficult. I had to be very skilful, because I'd delivered it wrong during the scene. Mr Haasan really saved me then. 

You know, I knew what I was saying, but in the middle of the acting, you sometimes lose intonation. For example, you might say, 'What is wrong with you?' and then at the dubbing studio, Mr Haasan would say, you can say, 'What is [at a deliberate pace] WRONG with you [fast and aggressively]?' and it makes sense. The pause makes sense. Otherwise, the pause wouldn't make any sense at all.

Vishwaroop must have been a lot easier.

Yes, it was, not because of anything else but because Mr Haasan was there. And the same goes for the Tamil version. I understood the English, I understood the Hindi, I knew what I was saying, because we would do one shot in Hindi, and one shot in Tamil, so everything was done twice over. I totally understood it, but finally how to deliver, pronounce, intonations, enunciation, that was all Mr Haasan.

How about the Pashto?

We had a Pashto teacher at the shooting and the dubbing.

Have you had any feedback from Pashto speakers?

(Laughs) No, I don't have any Pashtun friends, unfortunately! But it's a good idea to get some feedback. But I think, well, it was passable, but it wasn't perfect. I remember how we were pushed to do it in dubbing, but I'm pretty sure I didn't get there!

Tell me more about your experience working on Midnight's Children. It's pretty obvious from the film that you were one of the few cast members who read the book in-depth.

(Laughs) Well, I read it 15 years ago out of pleasure. And then I read it when I was cast as Saleem Sinai [in a BBC mini-series that was scrapped after protests by Muslim groups stalled shooting], and then I re-read it for Zulfi. You know, to figure out, 'Who the hell is Zulfi?' So, that's three times, and I love the book. I love it. It simply aches with love for this country. That's what I love about the novel.

And Salman and I are friends. The first time we ever saw it with an audience in Bombay, Salman was sitting there, and when the film started, with his voiceover, I went up to him, and put my hands on his lap, and said, 'This is what it is. This is what you lived for.' And he nodded his head. And I said, 'It's come a full circle'. Because he and I had had a quiet dinner two days before, and he said, 'I set out to write a novel about my childhood, when I wrote Midnight's Children. And it became something bigger. So, today, I'm closing a circle.' The movie started in Bombay, and he had closed the circle.

Aside from Midnight's Children, a lot of the films you've acted in are based on novels or short stories. Obviously, you've read them all, you've got an image of the character. How do you go about converting that character into yourself?

That's a very complex question, and it has a very complex answer. I think the best way I can explain it would be to say that I try to absorb as much as I can of the central characteristics of that particular character – the character's basic personality – and I try and find those impulses, I try to find that streak in me. I really, really try to find the broad strokes of the character, hopefully, somewhere inside me. So if the character is angry and disrespectful of women, I have to try and find out when in my life I have ever been that way. And then, I have to try and expand that, really, take over the entire character.

Sometimes, you don't find anything. If you're playing a psychotic murderer, I think it would be very difficult to find that shade inside me, and I would then have to think of the character as a person in my life whom I'm very, very close to, or who I know very well, whose exhibits something like that kind of behaviour.

So, basically, the short answer is that first, you start looking for that in yourself. Then, if you can't find it within you, then you try and find it in the nucleus of your friends. And then you try and widen the nucleus. But, sometimes, you just don't find anyone. You don't get to know psychopathic murderers as a matter of chance. So, then you have to look into history, into cinema, into all kinds of cultural references to bring it as close as possible to your understanding.

I'm not recommending actors become psychopaths, but I'm recommending actors live life to the fullest, so that they can extend the banquet of their experiences from which they can pull out a colour, a sliver, a trigger, and then build on it.

You straddle two worlds, with theatre and film. With theatre, the emphasis is on making everything big, projecting your voice and your expressions, so you can be heard by the deaf old woman in the last row. And with film, it's the opposite, because you're larger than life on screen, and every flicker of expression is caught. Is it hard to switch from one mode to the other?

No, I think acting is the same no matter where you go. The only thing that changes is the projection of voice, and a certain adaptability. I would call them external recalibrations of the basic skill. So, it's a basic challenge, and the rest of it is really a matter of technical skill. I think it's very unconvincing if actors blame a bad performance on the fact that they had to switch between theatre and film acting. 

Acting is the same, and I think any good actor should be able to make that adjustment. Either you have talent or you don't. And if you do, you can work with any medium.

Lately, cinema's been imbued with a lot of moral responsibility, right from contentions that pop culture encourages crime against women to contentions that drinking and smoking shouldn't be seen on film.

I don't think that has anything to do with cinema. You know, look at Hollywood – it's right there, and Los Angeles is one of the cities where almost nobody smokes. I think the reason Los Angeles managed to conquer, and make smoking such a reviled habit, was because it took the onus of spreading the message in schools through rock song competitions, drawing competitions, visits to hospitals, all kinds of things. Not through cinema.

So, that's how society has to change attitudes, not by banning something in cinema. I don't believe anything should be banned. If you don't want to watch it, don't watch it. But to lay the blame of smoking at cinema's door, or drinking at cinema's door, or crime against women at cinema's door... well, then you could say that the incidents of motorcycle accidents have increased in the last 10 years, which indeed they have, so no films should show motorcycles. But then, you know, the incidents of accidents in cars also have increased, so therefore no speeding in cinemas should be seen! 

I think that kind of totalitarian, draconian, narrow-minded, utterly regressive kind of thought is just that. It would be infantile and stupid if it wasn't dangerous.

More from Sify: