Pavail Gulati on humanising an entitled everyman in Thappad, and taking life one audition at a time
Pavail Gulati, the male lead in Anubhav Sinha's Thappad, reveals how he played the part despite disagreeing with his character most of the time, and making a career out of playing small roles.
Pavail Gulati confesses he is an everyman, with all his prejudices, conditioning, and entitlement. He is a far cry from Vikram, the character he played in Anubhav Sinha's social drama Thappad earlier this year. He may not be as spoilt and blissfully unaware as Vikram is, but claims there is a shade of Vikram in every human, irrespective of gender.
"If I'm Vikram, there is a Vikram in Tanvi (Azmi) ma'am's character too, who played my mom. There's a Vikram in Ratna (Pathak Shah) ma'am's character as well, who played my mother-in-law. There exists a grain of patriarchy in women too," Gulati says in an exclusive interview with Firstpost, days before the lockdown confined us to our respective homes.
I must admit that I was mildly intimidated going into the interview as I had watched Thappad only a few days before. Gulati was extremely convincing as a man who slaps his wife in the heat of the moment, but never apologises for his action. In fact, he exacts revenge from his wife Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) for not reconciling and "blowing things out of proportion."
"I disagreed with Vikram the whole time. He was so away from me that I couldn't comprehend the relentless streak in him for most of the film. I come from a family surrounded by women, and have been raised in a way that I'd never think of doing what he does in the film," the actor says, rolling his eyes recounting the act he had to put on while shooting for Thappad. "The inside joke on the set was, "Tu toh pitega." I knew Vikram's actions were ingrained, but reprehensible. But I had to defend my character so I kept explaining my point of view to others. I think that's how I came closer to playing my character."
Although I had seen Pavail Gulati on screen multiple times before, his performance as Vikram was so immediate and impactful that it was difficult to imagine him as someone else, including his real self. But then the flash of Vikram crying while driving in the final shots of Thappad came back to me as I entered his building on Yari Road, Mumbai. He was steeped in a layer of vulnerability that made him worth rooting for. I came out of the film telling myself that Amrita took the right decision to walk away, but also found myself saying, "Poor guy, he was not that bad!"
"Vikram, for me and Mrunmayee (Lagoo, Vaikul, co-writer), was always a guy who wasn't a villain. He was a slave of patriarchal upbringing. He didn't know what was wrong. Hence, there was no way he could've fixed it. I thought this was the toughest part of portraying Vikram, and Pavail did a commendable job with it. Would love to keep casting him," Anubhav Sinha tells me.
Pavail agrees that Vikram was a product of the 'sanskar' or values he grew up on. "He's a 'good boy' as many of us are raised as. He's great at his job because he's been trained to work hard. He's also respectful towards elders, as is the culture we're learnt to embrace all the years growing up."
In a telling scene, Vikram visits Amrita's place in order to convince her to get back home, but when he storms out after an argument, he gets off the car, goes back, and touches the feet of Taapsee's father (Kumud Mishra) as a mark of
respect sanskar he cannot do away with.
But Gulati was not entirely empathetic towards his character, owing to their dissimilarities. Rather than unreasonably defending Vikram's actions, he did some soul searching of his own, and looked back at instances when he did not realise how unfair he was being to the relationships he held so close to his heart. "As much as we think we're liberal and feminist, we take relationships for granted subconsciously. It's not a gender thing. We do it with our fathers as well," says Pavail.
"When your mom calls, you often tell her you're too busy to talk. But if you see four missed calls from your boss, you call back immediately and apologise. So we often take for granted the relationships that we should actually consider more important in our lives. Now, whenever my mom calls, I never miss it. That's been my biggest takeaway from the film," he says, smiling. This comparison also found its way into Thappad, when Vikram's boss tells him he was wrong to hit his wife. "You were mad at me. Would you have done the same to me? You don't hit your wife. It's not done," his boss says in the film.
This is exactly where the deeply intuitive writing by Mrunmayee and Anubhav comes in. It cleverly borrows instances, conversations, and remarks from society, that almost all of us are privy to, and weaves them into the narrative so that the story never becomes preachy, and always remains demonstrative.
Gulati confesses that another scene that hits home is when Ratna Pathak Shah's character tells her husband that she had to sacrifice her love for singing when she got married. "You never disapproved of my singing. But you didn't encourage it either," she says. Guilty, Kumud's character realises he was selectively feminist, when he pushed his daughter to pursue her passion for dancing but did not look at his wife's remorse with the same lens.
"He wants to be a feminist. But patriarchy is ingrained even in him that he overlooks his wife's desire while encouraging his daughter's. I must've also been like that a lot of times. I may have joked among friends that women are rash drivers. Obviously, I didn't mean it, but it's a tough line to walk on," says Gulati, recalling he was initially very apprehensive of saying certain lines in Thappad, like, "Nikalti kyun hain ye gaadi leke?," "Karti kya hai ye?" (aimed at Dia Mirza's character, his neighbour who drives an SUV), and "Foodie hoon main, foodie!" (directed at Amrita, when he complains he married her despite the fact she did not know how to cook).
Anubhav Sinha claims that it was Gulati's interpretation of the character during the audition that bagged him the part. "I'd never met him or seen his work. But the moment I saw the audition, I knew he was the one I was looking for. It's quite unprecedented I cast an actor straight on set." Pavail was finalised days before the film went on the floor. He auditioned right before leaving for London to shoot for Anurag Kashyap's short in Netflix India Original's horror anthology Ghost Stories, in which he played the husband of Sobhita Dhulipala's character.
"Since I was leaving for London for Ghost Stories, I auditioned without any preparation or baggage. I just did the scene as it came to me in that moment. I think that worked in my favour, as Anubhav sir later told me my performance in the audition was very unrehearsed," Gulati says. He was more worried about the schedules of Ghost Stories and Thappad clashing. "Anubhav sir and Anurag sir talked to each other, and made both happen. I was fortunate I didn't have to walk out of either because of scheduling clashes," he adds.
The actor recalls telling Sinha that he did not have any time to prep for his character in Thappad. "He told me not to worry, as every man has prepped for such a character all his life. There was no extra preparation needed to play a typical Indian entitled man."
As he caresses his cats snuggling on the sofa he is seated on, Gulati exudes the unassuming charm that probably prevented Vikram from coming across as utterly despicable. When I ask him to play the guitar, he reveals it has been out of tune for ages. But he refuses to pose with it for the camera, keeping it aside with a smile. He goes on to add that he wants to be honest to his parts, irrespective of their staging and length.
"I do believe there are no small parts, only small actors," Pavail says. He has breathed life into a wide range of characters, including in TV show Yudh, Imtiaz Ali's short film The Other Way, and Abhishek Varman's 2019 period romance Kalank. He claims he was noticed the most for his appearance in an episode of Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti's Amazon Prime Video India Original show Made in Heaven, which fetched him the part in Ghost Stories as well.
"I loved working with Zoya. She isn't just a great director but also a fantastic writer, with Reema," he says, before I chuckle at a scene from the show, involving his argument with his parents. When his mother (Neena Gupta) tells him, "You can't marry a girl like that. A girl should be pure," he responds with a killer line, "Pure? Like ghee?" he laughs along when I narrate that part of the scene.
When I reached out to Zoya Akhtar, she says she is glad to have found that character in Gulati. "When he came in for an audition, I felt he had the perfect look I wanted. I was secretly hoping he can act."
"He read the scene with me once, and it was good. I checked the brief to see if he responds to direction, and he was great. I was so relieved, and I said, 'That's great. Thank you.' I knew I had my actor. He thought he screwed up, he told me later. Shooting was easy as he's focused and fun, and very polite to the crew."
Gulati has mutual regard for Akhtar as he says she is one of the few filmmakers who judges an actor only on the basis of his core, followed by skill. "Zoya knows how to cast. She always looks at whether an actor can deliver, rather than plainly saying, 'He isn't my character.' How will he be your character in the audition if he hasn't even read the script? He may be interpreting the scene in a completely different light than you may want him to. That's very unreasonable. A lot of directors don't get that. But that's how the audition process goes. Audition do aur bhool jao."
The wise words stem from experience across years when he worked as an assistant to ace casting directors Shanoo Sharma and Mukesh Chhabra. On the job, he learned not only the attributes a casting director looks for in an actor, but also how there was no formula to cracking an audition. "I watched 15 people audition for the same role. Thirteen of them would do it the same way, but the route the (other) two actors would take would always give a lot to learn from. Also, you learn to empathise with actors as it's a ruthless industry. The empathy always comes in handy when you're acting with co-stars on set."
But the biggest learning for him, from functioning on the other side of the casting table, came from dealing with failure. "There will be countless failures in this line, probably more than the successes. You may be a great actor, but may not be fit for the part you audition. There are a lot of factors into play, like your looks, portfolio, experience, contacts, casting director, and now, even Instagram followers. So as I said, 'Audition do aur bhool jao'," he repeats.
Gulati's words, accompanied by his laid-back demeanour, show that he is not in an aggressive pursuit of making it big in the Hindi film industry. He saunters into sets and offices, completely aware that he is here to stay. He does not want to be another Vikram, in more ways than one. In the case of his Thappad character, the trigger to slap his wife was a setback in his professional life. However, the bitterness remains absent from Pavail's own life, because he claims he has never blamed anyone for his failures.
"I've seen a lot of actors around. I'm a graduate of Whistling Woods so I know a lot of actors from my batch and college. I watch a lot of them get disoriented or bitter or they give up on their dreams through the years. We all know how draining this industry is yet you can't afford to blame others. Bitterness won't take you anywhere. I've always kept myself occupied, if not with acting then with casting, theatre (he was a part of Naseeruddin and Ratna Pathak Shah's group Motley), or just honed my process in one way or the other. They have been my institutes in many ways," he says.
His assured words, and the trajectory to substantiate them, remind one of the panther-like approach Pavail Gulati has perfected over the years. He has every quality required to rule the jungle, yet he chooses to be a panther. Unlike Vikram in Thappad, he does not need a metaphorical slap on the face to tell him that he needs to take it slow.
Photos by Rahul Sharda.
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