Saqib Saleem on playing a secret agent in Crackdown, and shooting during pandemic for Comedy Couple
Saqib Saleem talks about experimenting with action, and why he is eager for the release of Kabir Khan's cricket drama '83.
After some hits and some misses, Saqib Saleem’s career has taken an interesting turn as he gets to transform from a lover boy to an action hero. He was seen playing a fearsome gangster in ZEE5 Original series Rangbaaz, and now, in his recently released espionage drama Crackdown, peppered with heroism and action, Saleem plays the role of a silent, brooding secret agent.
He portrays the central role of Riyaz Pathan, who believes in eliminating threat at any cost, in this crime thriller with a lot of twists and revelations. “The roles I have done so far have predominantly been happy-go-lucky kind of guys, who have had an element of comedy. But in Crackdown, I play a smooth operating secret agent. It is a commercial pot boiler, it is an entertaining show, and has got a lot of cliffhanger moments. It’s something new for me. It made me tackle some other space, in my head at least. It’s very fast-paced, and has a lot of action, and yet it also has a very interesting narrative,” says Saleem.
“What we have tried to highlight in the show is that there are a lot of unsung heroes who are putting their life at stake so that we can sleep in peace at night. My character always has to be on the go. He is always lurking in the shadows to stop threats towards the nation. I had to be physically fit. I made sure that I look like a mean machine. I also realised that to do a lot of action one needs to be flexible, and when you build the body, it gets stiff, so whether it is yoga, pilates, kickboxing... I did all that, so that I can pull off the role convincingly, and it looked effortless,” he adds.
Saleem was training in action for a year and a half. When the show was offered to him he was in the middle of the training. “I asked my director Apoorva Lakhia if he was stalking me (laughs). How does he know that I have been training for action? I have been doing a lot of kickboxing and normal boxing because I believe that as an actor, you have to keep adding things to your skill set, and that helps you play different roles on screen. So training in action has come in handy now that I shot for this show. I really needed to get the physicality of the guy right. There is a lot of kicking, punching, a lot of hand-to-hand combat, a lot of gunfights, and a lot of chase sequences. But what was tougher was getting into the mind space of a secret service agent... what kind of turmoil he goes through, and all the instinctive decisions he has to take. I first got the physicality right, and then went about understanding the guy and being empathetic to what he does. That journey was very interesting for me... to approach a character with a different ideology and to gauge where he’s coming from."
"Also, there are certain standards set in our industry by all the leading men, whether it is Hrithik Roshan, Tiger Shroff, Vidyut Jammwal, Akshay Kumar or Salman Khan. All these guys have set the standard very high. To live up to that... the audience knows where the bar is set. One had to really push themselves to achieve something that people can talk about.”
The eight-episode series, now streaming on Voot Select, also stars Shriya Pilgaonkar, Waluscha De Sousa, and Iqbal Khan, and is directed by Lakhia, the man behind high-octane Bollywood action dramas like Shootout at Lokhandwala and Ek Ajnabee.
For Saleem, first two to three months were difficult during the pandemic as he loves keeping busy. “But after that, there has been a conscious effort to get back to work," says the actor who shot Comedy Couple, a rom-com during the lockdown, which is his next release (premieres on ZEE5 Premium on 21 October). “I just can’t sit at home and do nothing. I am a restless person. I shot Comedy Couple, the entire film for over 30 days while taking all the precautionary measures. I am very excited about the film. It is an easy breezy romantic film. Given the times we are in, we need a light film to watch, and I feel it’s a film that will do very well on the digital platform. If we had opted for a theatrical release, perhaps it wouldn’t have got the optimum number of screens,” he says. Both Saleem and his onscreen wife Shweta Basu Prasad play standup comedians in the film, and will be seen drawing inspiration for their scripts from real-life experiences.
Talking about the shooting process, Saleem said, “Shooting during a pandemic was difficult but only for the first two days. It felt as if we were on a sci-fi film set. Everybody was wearing a mask, shield, PPE kit, gloves, so it was very unnerving initially but once we got into the flow, it was one of the most enjoyable experiences. We were a crew of over 40 people, who were getting COVID tests done every four days because I felt if I am going to be so scared while shooting at all times, then it will show on screen. So I had to be sure that I was fine because a lot depended upon me, and if I had fallen sick then the shooting would have stopped. I had to take extra precautions like not meeting new people. We were shooting in Gurgaon for 30 days but I didn’t go and meet my parents as it would be risking their lives. Fortunately, no COVID positive case happened on set.”
But what the actor is most excited about is ’83, one of the biggest films in his career, that revolves around India’s historical 1983 Cricket World Cup win. He may be a bit disheartened with the film getting postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic but Saleem, who will be seen playing the role of former India cricketer Mohinder Amarnath, feels he has fulfilled his childhood dream of "playing cricket for the nation" by acting in the project. “It was like a dream come true. Shooting for a film which was celebrating India’s first big cricketing victory, and to be playing Mohinder Amarnath, who was one of the chief architects of that victory, was a very happy feeling,” he says.
“I got to work with somebody as good as Kabir Khan, who is a great director and such an easy man to work with. It was a very heartwarming and enjoyable experience. Ranveer (Singh) is a ball of energy. He gives so much love to everybody, it is infectious. He has been the best Kapil Dev there could ever be. He got it so bang on, on screen. I am a massive fan of his. He is the only guy, amongst all the actors, who can give out his character by just a picture. You see a picture of his character, and you realise what his character is like," Saleem adds.
“Of course, it is very disappointing that the film got pushed but we are dealing with a much larger problem, and we had to make sure that we stay safe rather than worry about anything else at this point. But yes, I did feel bad for ’83.
We have put in a year and a half in its making. I really hope and pray that theatres open and the film is released in a theatre because it is such a big-screen experience. But first, we need to get rid of the virus, get a vaccine, and try and get our lives back to normal. Films will eventually release in movie theatres, and people will go and watch them, like they have always done.” he signs off.
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