In an episode of Paatal Lok, a show that blew up weeks into the lockdown, Jaideep Ahlawat’s Hathiram says, “Main sambhal lunga”. It came as an odd reassurance amidst a line-up of shows and films that would be lapped up by a pandemic-fatigued audience on the small screen. Since then, the actor who might have gone unnoticed in big Bollywood productions like Rockstar, Raazi or Gangs of Wasseypur has kept his promise, slowly taking over the streaming space. With his latest outing in An Action Hero, he set his sights on the big screen and last year’s slate of films was richer for it. After almost a decade in the entertainment industry, Ahlwat is convinced that he has only just begun. He has after all spent a better half of the decade getting typecast as the local goon. But in An Action Hero – a film that sees him in the spotlight as a parallel lead alongside Ayushmann Khurrana, he’s making a strong case to stay in the spotlight. Luckily, he has claimed his spot with his next projects including Kareena Kapoor’s The Devotion of Suspect X and Pataal Lok Season 2.
In an exclusive interview, Jaideep Ahlawat who walks the fine line between playing the supporting actor and exuding main character energy opened up about his filmography.
Between Hathiram in Paatal Lok and Bhoora in An Action Hero, you’re turning out to be a scene-stealer…
I don’t think about stealing the show or stealing the scene because I think that idea is absurd. It can ruin your character when you’re thinking of yourself and not the character. But I’m lucky that I get to play parts that audiences think are scene-stealers. I try to get good scripts. If the storytelling is good then your character is going to make some sense and if you have a good team then it’s easy to play your part and make it believable.
You have a way of merging comedy in some serious roles on screen. How do you manage it?
Be it Paatal Lok or An Action Hero, of late I’ve been getting parts that are both serious and funny. The common ground between them is that they are both Haryanvi so that’s the Haryana humour. Poker-faced, dry, dark humor. But for the most part, I just try to be as honest to the character and to what’s written. Thankfully by God’s grace, they were brilliantly written characters, very nonsensical too. Even if they were illogical, they operate within the logic of their world. I try to be believable and I try to believe that people can be really angry and funny at the same time.
How hard is it to connect with characters who are morally gray and find the empathy to play them?
I believe that empathy is not just for playing a character, you need to have empathy in life and that’s how it gets transferred into the character. For example, in Raazi, Khalid Mir is not playing around. He’s all about business and he’s very serious but when you play that character you have your own beliefs as Khalid. Like when you’re trying to turn a 20-year-old girl into a spy within a span of one month but you know all the pros and cons of being an agent. So if you keep those things in mind and say something that you are supposed to say, that makes it layered. That makes it interesting. That’s how Hathiram is and that’s how Bhoora and Shahid Khan are. They say one thing but mean many things between the lines. My job as an actor is to believe in these brilliantly written characters and make them as real as possible.
People are raving about Bhoora, your character from An Action Hero.
I think everyone loved him. Some found him funny, interesting, even hot. I don’t know how it happened but I’m just thankful to them that they liked Bhoora and his weird ways. I think the character’s honesty and my hard work that came across.
What was your experience of working with Ayushmann Khurrana?
Ayushmann Khurrana is amazing. He’s so funny and a master of wordplay. Some mornings on outdoor sets, he would play music and sing along and I’d be in my makeup chair at 6 am listening to him. As an actor, he’s mature, sensible and hardworking. And as a human being, he’s chilled out so it’s very easy to be with him as a person and as an actor.
Speaking of co-stars, what’s one thing you learned about Kareena Kapoor after working on The Devotion of Suspect X?
I was surprised that she said yes to that film with me being in it. She’s been a star for decades and what I found interesting is that she’s still hungry for good roles. The script is beautiful, the film has an amazing team and Vijay Varma, my batchmate from film school is in it so that camaraderie is still there. Sometimes I tease Kareena for her stardom. I say things like “Itne bade actor ho aap” and she’s humble and so chilled. I never felt that “star” feeling coming from the first family of Indian cinema as one would say, that stardom never came between us. I must say watching her is going to be a great experience for the audience.
You are reprising your role in Paatal Lok Season 2. Is there a lot of pressure there?
I’m currently shooting for it and have wrapped up the Mumbai schedule so now I’m in the zone. The uniform is on my shoulders so I don’t feel the pressure, I feel the responsibility. Hathiram has a connection with audiences so I’ll try to do my best so that I can reach out to audiences again. Sudeep Sharma has written an amazing script and I told him that it’s one of the most intelligent scripts I’ve read in the 10-12 years of my career.
Coming out of character you’ve stayed with for a while can be hard. Is it easy to snap out of character or do you struggle with that?
I think it’s somewhere in the middle. You don’t become the character because there’s always you inside. You can see that there are camera people, sound guys and light guys around. But it’s like most jobs. For example, you’re a journalist and probably don’t take all of your work home, at least not deliberately. But your mind is still working on it. You can’t just switch it off. The human mind doesn’t work like that. So when I play Hathiram I try to leave him behind on set but he’s there, you can’t switch it off. It’s a lot like giving exams. After one paper you feel relaxed, after the next, you feel a little more relaxed and after the last one, you feel relief. But that doesn’t mean you’ll never think of exams again. Some characters you get out of easily and some stay with you longer but that doesn’t disrupt your life in any way. It just disrupts your thoughts and that’s a part of the job.
Are you finally in a space where you feel like you’re getting the kind of roles you like?
I do feel relieved that I don’t have to struggle anymore to prove that I’m an actor. That part is over. Audiences and makers have noticed that this is a guy who can play different roles in his own way. For me, that’s just the beginning. I finally have a say in roles and I can experiment because they believe I can experiment.
What genres or roles do you want to experiment with going forward?
I feel an actor should love every ras – all the nine rasas. I always try to get layered roles. Proper black-and-white characters rarely exist. I want to do every genre under the sun. That’s why I’m saying this is the beginning. I want to explore what I can do. It’s not just new for the audiences and makers but also for myself.
What were the lowest points in your career and what have you learned from them?
I’ve said this many times that I can’t remember my low points. This city has lakhs of actors arriving every year. And you take yourself so seriously that you get angry when these people can’t see that you are a good actor. Maybe the mistake is on your end. I came here with my faith and the abilities that I have worked on. Maybe there were hard times, maybe there was less food on the table but that was my choice. You chose it so you deal with it. Every house has a struggle. Everyone is working to make their life easier. You work on yourself and you see how others are also working hard. You have to practice every day as an actor. There’s no book on it. So I’ve never struggled – I’ve been angry, frustrated, rejected and hungry but never felt that it’s a low point.
The past year saw a slump in Bollywood movies. What are your thoughts on that?
I think it’s a phase. After the pandemic, we were in a space as a country and a society where things have been limited to the home. And it’s taking a while to go out there again. As you can see several films did not work but suddenly Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, Drishyam 2 and Brahmastra did well at the box office. I feel when we bring back good stories, people will go watch them. I think people are taking their time to go out and watch movies. But that’s okay, every business has phases. We’ll be back.