Monday, March 04, 2013

A tour-de force

Saurabh Shukla, actor extraordinary, returns to the theatre after a gap of 18 years

Photo: Saurabh Shukla in a scene from the play,  'Two to Tango and Three to Jive'

By Shevlin Sebastian

In 1994, a script-reading session of the 'Bandit Queen' film was taking place. There was director Shekhar Kapoor, actors Seema Biswas and Saurabh Shukla, and a couple of Saurabh's friends from the National School of Drama in New Delhi. “There was a scene which was funny, and I read it quite nicely,” says Saurabh. While everybody congratulated Saurabh, Shekhar kept quiet.

Later Shekhar said, “You have performed it so well and clearly that I can sit on the 50th seat and know what the scene is like. In that case, I will be tempted to take my camera 50 seats away. But if you keep the emotion inside, then I might not see it in the 50th row and might come to the 20th row. If you hide even more, I will come to the first row. But if you hide the maximum I will come and take a close-up of your face.”

What Shekhar was trying to say was that Saurabh needed to internalise the emotion. “This was a tip that I never forgot,” says the actor.

Saurabh, of course, made his mark with the blockbuster Mafia film, 'Satya', where he played the gangster Kallu Mama. “I did not perform well,” says Saurabh. “My co-actors did well and I reacted to that. It is a tango. It cannot be a one-man show. You need great actors around you to do good acting.”

Incidentally, 'Satya', released in 1998, was one of the turning points in Bollywood, because a non-commercial film had become a hit. “Suddenly the market was going 'Oh, Oh',” says Saurabh. “Who are these new boys? They don't look like heroes. One is fat, another is thin, while the third is dark.”

Thanks to 'Satya', Saurabh was flooded with roles. And, in an 18-year career, he has acted in about 70 films and has been frequently lauded for his extraordinarily natural acting. Some of the movies include 'Taal', 'Lage Raho Munna Bhai', 'Slumdog Millionaire', and 'Barfi'. He has also been a scrip-writer as well as a director.

And during these years he never once thought of theatre, even though in the early 1990s, he was part of the Repertory Company of the National School of Drama. “Theatre is a big commitment,” he says. “It takes me three months to get ready for a play. If I concentrate on that, I would lose many roles. If I go to a city to act, I cannot be present for a movie shoot.”

But today, well-established and seasoned, he no longer has the fear that if he stays away for one month from Bollywood, people will forget him. And that is how Saurabh came to Kochi, recently, to play Parminder Singh Sethi, a middle-aged, pot-bellied hotelier, in a stagnant marriage, who is looking to have affairs.

Pitted against Saurabh, in the play, 'Two to Tango and Three to Jive', are the actresses Achint Kaur, Mona Wasu and Preiti Mamgain. The dialogues are crisp, funny, and bold. Here's what one of the characters, Shomali Singh, said, “I love these pure sexual experiences. They complete me. I feel like a woman.” And a baffled Saurabh tries to come to terms with this frankness, with subtle movements of his face and hands. Not surprisingly, at the end of the play, the actor-director received a standing ovation.

And Saurabh also expects plaudits for an upcoming film, 'Jolly LLB', which will be released in March and stars Boman Irani and Arshad Warsi. “I play a judge called Tiwari,” he says. “I am very excited by the way I played it.”

Saurabh Shukla, actor extraordinary, is still going strong!

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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