Rajesh Tailang on the rise of the character actor and how he owes his career to 'affordable data plans'

Rajesh Tailang has been a solid presence in mainstream Hindi cinema and simultaneously the streaming content in the last five years. He made his acting debut with India's first daily soap opera, Shanti in 1995.

Tatsam Mukherjee October 07, 2020 18:08:55 IST
Rajesh Tailang on the rise of the character actor and how he owes his career to 'affordable data plans'

An International Emmy might be a cause of celebration for many, but Rajesh Tailang seems relatively poised.

Richie Mehta's Delhi Crime, where Tailang plays a cop investigating a case based on the 2012 Delhi gangrape incident, has been nominated for this year's International Emmys in the Best Drama category. However, this isn't the first time Tailang is one step away from International glory. In 2014, Rajesh Tailang was nominated for Best Actor at the Canadian Screen Awards where his fellow nominees included Jake Gyllenhaal (Enemy), Daniel Radcliffe (What If) and Brendan Gleeson (The Grand Seduction). He was the third Indian actor to be nominated after Seema Biswas (Water) and Roshan Seth (Such A Long Journey). "I think I was the only one who didn't win," he adds with a laugh.

Tailang has been a solid presence in mainstream Hindi cinema and simultaneously the streaming content in the last five years. He made his acting debut with India's first daily soap opera, Shanti in 1995. From navigating the jungle of Hindi cinema (and now OTT shows) for over 25 years to the upcoming season of the highly-anticipated Mirzapur, Tailang opens up on his journey.

When did you come to Mumbai, and what were those first few years like?

After finishing NSD between '90-'93, I came to Mumbai within a year. Around six months after I had graduated, I had gotten a role in India's first daily soap - Shanti. It was the role as a member of the principal cast, and I got it while I was still in Delhi. I came to Bombay and gave one final audition for the part. I think the first episode of Shanti went live somewhere around 15 August, 1994, then it went on for almost 300-400 episodes over 3 years.

What are your memories of shooting Shanti?

This was the era when we had a 3-camera set up, unlike these days, where they usually have a single camera set up. They would insist that we enact the whole scene in one go, there wasn't a concept of 'blocking' like it's there today. Which is why they chose theatre actors, who could memorise many pages of dialogue in one go. It was a very familial set-up, and it was all very professional. Especially for that time. We would get our scripts a day before shooting, delivered to our home. We wouldn't have very long shifts; it would be about 8-9 hours. These days I think they undergo a minimum 12-hour shift. I think in Shanti, we worked with a bank of at least 20 episodes, which were episodes for a whole month if I'm not mistaken.

Rajesh Tailang on the rise of the character actor and how he owes his career to affordable data plans

Rajesh Tailang in a still from Mukkabaaz.

Post Shanti, the first time you probably made a dent in a mainstream Hindi film was in that memorable scene in Mukkabaaz with Vineet Kumar Singh, where you say "fashion karenge!" in response to Vineet saying "yeh humaara passion hai".

Oh yes, that's a long gap.

What happened in this gap?

I worked in a few more serials after Shanti, which was something I was primarily doing for survival. But the focus then was to act in movies. They were films like Govind Nihalani's Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa. It was supposed to be Jaya Bachchan's comeback film. We shot it in 1996, but it finally released in 1998. In my first film ever, I did the role of a 65-year-old man. I think I was about 26 then. I went on to do three films with Govind Nihalani, I did a small role in Thakshak, and then I played a role in Dev (2005) alongside Amitabh Bachchan and the late Om Puri ji. I did Hansal Mehta's first film, Jayate, which never got a release. I did a small role in Mangal Pandey. I was also in Farhan Akhtar's Lakshya, where I play the chief in the Army hospital. I had about 4-5 scenes with Hrithik, but that entire track was removed from the final film probably because time constraints.

I did about 5-7 films like these, and I wasn't really having fun. Then I decided to make the move from Mumbai to Delhi around 2006. In Delhi, I once again started doing full-fledged theatre. While working in Delhi theatre, I went to many festivals from around the country, also I started teaching at NSD. I did this for a few years while also travelling with the theatre group. After that whatever film opportunities would come, I would immediately say no. I think I didn't do a film for a span of about 5-6 years, because I was really content with the work I was doing in theatre. After that, I bumped into a person called Richie Mehta, he was making a film called Siddharth. He wanted to cast me as the film's lead, and also wanted my help writing the dialogues of the film. I think that was around 2011 or 2012. I jumped at the opportunity considering it was a lead part.

Do you sometimes wish that the OTT platforms would have shown up 20 years earlier?

I don't know. I think even then I wouldn't get work on the OTT platforms. See, when these things have to work out I think they work out by themselves. It's about the time for an idea too, it's about how the audience becomes accepting towards seeing an actor like me. I think in the 90s and 00s, and the kind of films that are being made today, are vastly different. There's scope for real characters, which wasn't the case then. I guess if the OTT came at that time, then it would make the same kind of films that the audience was ready for at that time. Like the kind of TV that was being made at that time, something I call the pre-Balaji and the post-Balaji period. I was getting roles in many TV shows while I was Bombay, I just decided not to do them.

I spoke to Adil Hussain once - who said he does films and shows for two reasons: one for dil (heart), and one for the bill. Do you have a similar distinction when you choose your projects?

I think most creative professionals do that. I've known Adil for a while, he was my class-mate in NSD, and I can vouch that he's the same. We're the only two working actors who are based in Delhi. But then there might be a few roles, which might appear like I've only showed up for my pay-cheque. But the truth is, that I've even taken up roles in the commercial space because I took up the challenge of acquainting myself with that world. Why can't I fit into the world? Mind you, you can't sleepwalk through commercial films. No one can take a moral high-ground and diss anything in the commercial space. You need a different set of skills to excel the lines and emotions and connect with the audience in those films.

Rajesh Tailang on the rise of the character actor and how he owes his career to affordable data plans

Tailang in a still from Netflix's Selection Day.

Something like Commando 3…

Yes, of course. Commando 3 is one of those films. In fact, the role that Adil played in Commando 2, is the one that I'm taking over in Commando 3. That of the RAW chief.

It seems like we’re in the golden age for the 'character actor'. Where Nawazuddin, Pankaj Tripathi and Sanjay Mishra are as big as many leads. Do you think 'real actors' are finally getting their due?

I think so. The audience is really evolved at the moment, considering how they're watching the best in the world. They have certainly developed a taste for good work. I think I owe my career to affordable data plans (laughs).

What do you think about the work being offered to you at this point? Are you happy with it?

Most of the roles offered to me are that of a father, a sports coach (thanks to Selection Day), or men in uniform - cops, army personnel or a member of RAW. Sometimes I get surprises too. Like I've done a role in a comedy film recently. It's called Comedy Couple.

Have you been surprised by the reaction to a role?

Mirzapur, surely. I didn't know it would become so popular. 50 out of 100 people, who meet me today refer to me as 'Panditji'. Even though I have almost 25 years of work behind it. Compared to my earlier works, it wasn't even a significant role in my opinion, but I guess what actors often fail to see is the context of the success and failure. You could do your best work in a bad film, and it will fall through the cracks. And you do a decent part in a phenomenon like Mirzapur, and people see you as this massive success.

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