Gulshan Devaiah on finding the Duryodhana in every character, and playing each villain differently
Gulshan Devaiah is not a bad guy in real life. Having played a plethora of negative characters on screen since his debut in Anurag Kashyap's 2011 thriller The Girl With Yellow Boots, Gulshan could have succumbed to the darkness of his characters. But if his latest act of Jimmy in Vasan Bala's action-comedy Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota is to go by, he does not exactly believe in playing villains menacingly.
Hoping that I see more of that Gulshan, I set the tone for the interview when I request him to wear the pair of red sunglasses that made his evil character stand out in Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota. He agrees sportingly, though clarifies that he did not keep the sunglasses from the set, but has a similar pair. Sensing disappointment, he adds that the ruby red sunglasses were originally inspired from Tony Stark of the Avengers franchise, but did not turn out to be like his shades eventually. Had that materialised, Gulshan could have boasted of his own pair of EDITH glasses (You will not get this reference if you have not seen Spider-Man: Far From Home yet).
"Do you want me to wear these throughout the interview?" he asks (or suggests), as he adjusts the sunglasses on his face and checking himself out in an invisible mirror. By his side are the three pet cats — Eela and her two kittens Einstein and Ginger Singh. From attempting to chew off his new chappals to pouncing at custard pies, the three cats have a constant lurking presence in our interaction, before one of them rests herself on his study table by the window.
Recently, when Gulshan shared the release date announcement of his next film, Aditya Datt's action entertainer Commando 3, he claimed that it was his last negative role (#MotherPromise). "It's because I've been offered way too many negative roles now. Many may argue that I've done different kinds of roles so why slot me into one, but I'm actually guilty. More than half of the roles I've chosen to do are negative. Now, obviously, I have played them all differently but it's so much fun to play bad characters. They give you a far better range than the good ones," says Gulshan, as we sit for a chat at his Yari Road residence.
The doorbell rings soon as a delivery guy dishes out packed coffee glasses at Gulshan. He apologises for the interruption, explaining that he did not have milk at home so ordered coffee from a nearby shop (so relatable!). Once we smell the coffee, we resume the conversation on his obsession with bad guys on screen.
"I look for Duryodhana in every negative character. In fact, I search [for] Duryodhana in all my characters. If you look at Duryodhana, he had a lot of positive qualities like war skills, physical beauty, kingship but was blinded by hate and ego. He was very vulnerable," says Gulshan, referring to the depiction of Duryodhana as a tragic hero in several Sanskrit plays like Bhasa's Urubhangam, where he was projected as a product of Dhritarashtra's ambition and blindness.
"When I say I look for Duryodhana in every character, I don't mean it literally. It just stands for a chink in armour, which if it had not been there, the person would have been very noble. For Duryodhana, it was his ego and gullibility. So Duryodhana here just refers to the imperfection that separates that character from others," Gulshan clarifies, pointing out that in the case of his twin act in Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, the imperfection of both Jimmy and his karate-performing brother Mani was that they both suffered in their imagination. "Mani could have very well been Jimmy had the two been each other's shoes in the instance when Mani sleeps with Jimmy's girlfriend," says Gulshan, referring to the inflection point in the graph of both the brothers.
After the incident takes place, the film introduces Mani as the "cliched self-destructive drunkard" and Jimmy as the "cliched psychotic villain". But the way Gulshan played both was a breath of fresh air. He had a ton of reference points for both once he started decoding the characters but realised in the course of being Jimmy that he was a typical World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) villain. "I grew up on WWE. So in my mind, I was very clear what a typical hero and a typical villain look like. Jimmy is a proper WWE villain. Though I did not base it on any particular WWE wrestler, it borrowed heavily from the Attitude Era," says Gulshan, adding that he had his share of inputs for the character, like the banana chips in the scene where he confronts Mani and a dialogue comparing the sibling rivalry to that of Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth (hilariously translated as Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel in the English subtitles).
"It was very critical to find Mani first. Since Jimmy was just the opposite so it was easier to crack him with Mani figured out. For Mani, some visual references were there. I found this Swiss karateka called Andy Hug, also a kickboxer, who died at an early age. He had a mullet, so Mani's mullet also came from there. I watched a lot of his videos just to try and understand the physicality of karate. Then there was a film I did with Balan called Peddlers, in which there was a character named Sagai. He had a very interesting accent so I think the language came from there," says Gulshan, adding that the way Mani spoke was also the imperfection or the Duryodhana factor that he was looking for in the character.
The accent of both his characters, particularly Mani, stemmed from a very specific geography. Playing roles specific to their location is not new to Gulshan. When Kashyap signed him for his debut film role, he asked him to play a 'Bengaluru villain' in The Girl With Yellow Boots. The way he moulded the accent of his Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota characters was very close to the world of director Vasan Bala — South Indian but with a tinge of Marathi — an interesting combination specific to the Matunga area in Mumbai. "For Mani, I chose to speak in a manner that it shattered the myth of him being a hero figure in the eyes of his fans. But when you meet him, there's nothing remarkable about him. So I made sure his voice doesn't echo at all and used a very throaty voice for him. It's almost like he doesn't want to speak (mimics Mani). It's as if it pains him to even talk like it does when he walks on one leg."
Mani's character was an anti-thesis to the title of Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota as he felt a searing pain in almost every scene that he was in. When Gulshan shot for the film, it was immediately after a leg injury that put him out of action for months. But he maintains that he never let his personal pain seep into his character. "Mani made sense to me when I realised he suffers more in his imagination. I didn't use my physical pain. I just came across an Instagram post that how sometimes we think it's much worse when it's not. Mani also romanticised the idea of pain. Jimmy also did the same. He used one incident to justify everything he did. It was challenging to train because I couldn't do a lot of moves because of the injury. But nowhere did it come into my performance. Maybe subconsciously, it would have."
He adds that the fact that he was doing a film after a long time did give him an adrenaline rush. "I said yes to the film three months after my surgery. So it did feel special when I told myself every day at the end of the shoot that I had endured another day. But the drive to make this film happen was also because of the effort the entire team put in before the shoot. I started training in the karate gear right in the beginning. So when I got into the costumes on the set, it became ritualistic to perform the two characters. So the process was very spiritual that way."
Gulshan has starred in films helmed by directors ranging from Anurag Kashyap to Vivek Agnihotri. He confesses that playing the baddie in Hate Story did not come to him naturally as he had to struggle with certain tools of mainstream Hindi cinema, like dialogues and lovemaking scenes. "I just submitted to the form. I respected the writers' work. Left to me, I would have made the dialogues more spoken, and less staged. But should have familiarised myself with the language before going on the set. I was shooting in Delhi at night near India Gate and there were hecklers commenting on my dialogues like 'Sher ke panje, choohe ke daant' or something like that. Haha! With lovemaking scenes, there were choreographers directing us on beats. They were going like, 'No, no, no, no, don't tilt your head so much! No, no, no, no, your tongue looks weird. Gulshan, more love, more love!' I asked, 'Do you mean more kissing?,' then they said 'ya ya ya ya'. Haha!"
After Hate Story, he considers his mainstream breakthrough to be Sanjay Leela Bhansali's action-comedy Goliyon Ki Rasleela: Ram-Leela, in which he played the role of Bhavani, the brother of Leela, played by Deepika Padukone. "I never thought I'd do a Bhansali film. The only film of his I liked was Saawariya, that no one else liked. So it took me quite a while but I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of that magnum opus," says Gulshan, adding that he often feeds off his co-stars' energy. "I have a great working relationship with Kalki (The Girl In Yellow Boots, Shaitan, Smoke, A Death In The Gunj) and Richa Chadha (Ram-Leela, Cabaret). But when you work with male stars, you have to ensure they feel secure. They should feel you're not trying to steal their spotlight."
He cautions that one should not feed off Ranveer Singh's energy because it is too much to take. "On the sets of Ram-Leela, it was so difficult to be around him sometimes. The first 10 to 15 minutes, it's easy but then you start sweating. If you feed off his energy, you just start dripping Mars or something. So after giving my shot with him, I used to just walk away. You know, like that cricketer Shrikant. The Australians used to sledge him so he used to just walk off to the square after hitting his shot."
Gulshan maintains that all these experiences of playing multifarious roles and working with a wide range of actors have enriched him immensely. Though he still finds it difficult to relate to mainstream sensibilities, he has found his way to navigate the zeitgeist. "I just look at it this way: I should do more of these mainstream films so that I can make them more nuanced, at least some part of them. I don't try to defy the aesthetic. I just submit to the form and push as much as I can within my boundaries. Even if I can push it by a few centimetres, I consider it a job well done."
It looks like Gulshan Devaiah finds the Duryodhana he is looking for in a variety of places. And instead of crucifying him, he tries to negotiate, one Jimmy at a time.
All photographs by Rahul Sharda
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Updated Date: Nov 11, 2019 10:39:12 IST