Tahir Raj Bhasin's method involves drawing inspiration from real life, and blending it with a little bit of himself
Tahir Raj Bhasin speaks to Firstpost about how his Chhicchore character, Derek, led a college life that was very different from his own, and his reaction on meeting Sunil Gavaskar for his upcoming film, 83.
Tahir Raj Bhasin reveals that he spent a few days in Mumbai's Kamatipura, in order to prepare for his role of a child trafficker in his debut film Mardaani.
Tahir says that though he did not meet the real-life counterpart of Derek (his character in Chhichhore), he formed a backstory to aid his performance.
Tahir claims he brought a bit of both Sunil Gavaskar and himself to his role of the cricket legend in his upcoming film 83.
On entering the Yash Raj Studio in Mumbai, I walk past a collage of stills from some memorable films it has bankrolled over the years, and I think of them as gifts that keep on giving.
I imagine an entire army of iconic villains it has presented to Hindi cinema — from Kaala Patthar's Shatrughan Sinha, Darr's Shah Rukh Khan, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge's Amrish Puri, to Amitabh Bachchan in Mohabbatein, John Abraham in Dhoom, and Anil Kapoor in Tashan. But none of these powerhouses had the contemporary coolness of Tahir Raj Bhasin's Karan Rastogi in his Bollywood debut Mardaani (2014).
"I couldn't have seen myself in that role in Mardaani. It was a result of the makers and the audition process that I got that role," Tahir says, echoing the same thoughts for his latest character, Derek, in Chhichhore as well. "Derek is all about controlling the room. Since he appeared 35 minutes into the film, he had to make an impact through his personality. That's why we see him bare-chested, smoking a cigarette in the balcony of his hostel room. On the contrary, I'm someone who's much more shy, and I'd rather be sitting in a corner of the room."
Tahir feels being an actor allows him the luxury to live many lives, though for only a short period of time. But he's a firm believer in borrowing from his own life in order to portray characters convincingly. The actor has successfully used the trick to essay a wide range of characters in the five films he has done so far. "Life teaches you more about acting than any class ever can. Even when I was shooting (for 83) in the UK, I'd make sure to visit a museum in my free time. I needed to update my knowledge and experience so that I could bring that to the table in my craft," he says to me in the beginning of our conversation at the Yash Raj Studio.
However, he agrees that all his training and education has only helped him in his career so far. His first course in the field was a Master's degree in media from the University of Melbourne, Australia. "What Melbourne really taught me was how to take care of myself. I was living with family in Delhi. Had I moved directly to Mumbai from there, I would've had an existential crisis. Melbourne taught me I had to cook and clean. I also worked as a waiter at a cafe. It tells you how much you take things for granted, since you have help back home. There's nothing that makes you value your free time when you're working in a cafe on Sunday. Everyone else has the day off, and you're cleaning their dishes."
The actor moved to Mumbai at the age of 23, and eventually joined the Institute of Advanced Acting and Behavioural Studies. "It taught me about body language. Every person's body language tells you something," he says, as he informs me that his third stage at the institute involved voice training with Naseeruddin Shah. "I asked him what 'method acting' is. He said it depends on what you do. It's a palate you get from different experiences, and how you choose to use it. That makes acting the most fascinating for me."
In an interview to this writer, Shah had said that an actor should not focus on what they are thinking, but on what they are doing, in order to convey an emotion through action. Mirroring that thought, Tahir emphasises on his learnings from the veteran actor, and says, "There's both the inside-out acting and the outside-in acting. I like to use a combination of both, depending on what the scene requires. If it's a scene where (Sunil) Gavaskar (his character in 83) is walking on the field and there's no dialogue, it's how you look at the fielders, and how you use your shoulders. If it's an intimate scene like when Bevda (played by Saharsh Kumar Shukla in Chhichhore) is in hospital, and it's an extreme close-up, you know you can't use your body language then. You have to connect to your oldest friend, who is in deep trouble because of something you want to achieve."
Tahir Raj Bhasin, dressed in a hoodie, boasts of unadulterated clarity and a politeness that is rare for an actor of his calibre. Even when he asks for coffee to a service staff member, he explains to him in detail his requirements: an espresso shot with just steam, and no milk. The artiste clarifies "Meri wali coffee," ("my preferred coffee") on reading the confusion on the server's face. Once he leaves, Tahir smiles at me, as if to imply that he hasn't really 'made it' yet.
He got his break in Hindi cinema with Pradeep Sarkar's cop drama Mardaani, where he locked horns with the lead actor, Rani Mukerji, who played a no-nonsense police officer. The reason I tout him as a 'cool' baddie is justified by the confidence he displayed while facing-off an intimidating Rani Mukerji on-screen. "It was 50-50 — the writing and what I brought to the character. I referred to Rani's character as 'ma'am'. It was on paper. I found it was a brilliant move because it immediately gave him a status in front of an actor like Rani Mukerji. But the 'ma'am' wasn't out of respect. It was out of definite sarcasm."
Tahir claims that while preparing for the role of Karan — who runs a child trafficking racket — he made trips to Mumbai's biggest red-light district, Kamatipura. "I lived there for about three to four days. What I picked up from there was that our perception of these guys and the reality are very different. These could be guys hanging out in tracksuits at Palladium Mall, or playing cricket in the afternoon. And then doing this later in the day. So it was very matter-of-fact. So that is how my character is supposed to be. He's just doing his job, his 'family business'. The more I try to make him look evil, the more over-the-top he's going to be. The cool thing about him was he was the hero of his world. Every villain has a justification. That was his justification. When his father dies, he breaks down."
After repeating his 'bad guy' act in Abhinay Deo's 2016 crime thriller Force 2, he signed up to play Shyam Chadda for Manto (2018), directed by Nandita Das. Chadda, Manto's best friend, was a good guy, who goes on to become a huge actor. "Fortunately, for me, Nandita hadn't seen Mardaani. Haha! She watched it after we started shooting. She told me, 'Oh my god! I can't believe you can do this!' But to me, good acting is where you can do anything convincingly. That is the definition of stardom today. Anyway, Nandita just put me and Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who played Manto) together on camera, and we did a few readings. She really liked our chemistry, and that was it. Manto was a masterclass in acting as I got to spend so much time with Nawaz. It was a low-budget film so there were days where we were shooting in very small locations, where there were no vanity vans. Chai and Parle-G biscuits were all that was going on. I just came after shooting for Force 2 in Budapest. I had done two studio films before. So I was wondering what we're doing in a village in Gujarat. But Nawaz told me, 'Achhi picture-ein aise hi banti hain' ('This is how good films are made'). It's important to do commercial work, but sometimes, passion projects are what keep us going," he says.
Casting director Honey Trehan, who worked with Tahir in both Force 2 and Manto, was all praise for the actor. "I have a firm belief Tahir is one of the best actors around. His knowledge and understanding to approach any character is what makes him so special. He's a true artist as he's always ready to explore. I'm sure people who've worked with him will never miss any opportunity to work with this gem again."
Fortunately for Tahir, his next two films were based on real people, which gave him pre-existing references for his characters. The first was Chhichhore's Derek, who was a combination of two college friends of director Nitesh Tiwari — Amar Dubey and Derek D'Souza, both now based in the UK. "I asked Nitesh sir if I could meet them on my visit to the UK (where he shot 83). But he told me not to do that as he didn't want me to copy someone. He wanted me to play it as per my interpretation of the character on paper. So I met them after we'd shot for Chhichhore (in the UK for the final schedule of 83). It was so heartening to be validated by them of how accurately we portrayed the kind of life they lived on campus decades ago."
*Spoiler alert begins*
Tahir further explains his experience of playing Derek, who, as he discovered, was a rather emotional person. "We get to know through Prateik Babbar's character that he was also offered to switch hostels in his first year, but he, being very emotional about his friends in the current hostel, chose not to do so. He may have lost friends through the course of his college life. Like, Bevda is a friend, which is why he gets moist-eyed when he's admitted to the hospital. But I think he's just an alpha male, a lone wolf, who would prefer to smoke cigarettes alone in his hostel room than hang around with his buddies. He doesn't want to be the leader of the pack, until he discovers that the new batch could be the one that he leads to win the GC (General Championship). Also, he recognises it's a do-or-die situation for him. The scene of him running in the race in the end, despite a foot injury, shows how much pain he's in, yet the determination he has to lead by example for his pack," he says.
He reveals how he had to imagine a backstory for his real-life counterpart, in order to bring his character to life. He conjured the story of Derek moving abroad immediately after college, following which he got married, had a kid, and subsequently experienced an unpleasant divorce. "The custody of his child is not with him. So when Anni (played by Sushant Singh Rajput) asks him to leave (in the film) when his own child is hospitalised, he tells him he's not going anywhere because he doesn't want to lose a child again. They're the only real family he's had all his life."
*Spoiler alert ends*
The film's director, Nitesh Tiwari, spoke to this writer about working with Tahir. "What's heartening about Tahir is he's very meticulous and extremely hardworking. He'll keep asking a lot of questions. As a director, it's my responsibility to have his answers ready. It also helps you understand your character better because someone is taking an individual interest in that. Tahir had a lot of questions regarding his middle age. Some of the things you won't see in the film but it helped us establish the character better. I was well-prepared to convince him why he has to go bald in the middle age but he loved the change," the filmmaker said. He'd also mentioned how the actor isn't the "sporty type", but that barely discouraged him from spending hours with national coaches learning soccer, volleyball, athletics, and Kabaddi.
"He knew we'd only use one or two shots of him playing these sports, but he trained very hard so that it show his experience on screen. He also practised very hard for a specific flick of lighting the cigarette. It was just to make him look cool. He practised it in his free time, and every two weeks, he'll show me the progress. So he has gone really out of his way to show the edge Derek has in the film."
Tahir is glad Chhichhore was the first film in which his character was not killed. "In all my previous films, there were moments of empathy. But you didn't come from the film, saying, 'Yaar, he was a good guy'. With Derek, you really rooted for the character. I did a special screening with my family and my chhichhoras in Delhi on the weekend after it released. In the end, they were cheering for me so loudly that it felt like an actual stadium. I almost felt bad for the regular audience, who had purchased tickets to watch the film."
However, Tahir claims that his campus life at Delhi University's Hindu College was quite different from the one he experienced while shooting for Chhichhore in IIT Bombay. "When we were shooting, the students had their enrollment week going on. So we had to be extra quiet. None of them came to watch us shoot because they were busy studying till 3 am! They were very focused, unlike us in an art institute. What's ironic is that when I joined the theatre group in my college, the first college fest we participated in was Mood Indigo. And I stayed in the very same hostel we shot in. It seemed too convenient a story for others till I showed them pictures from then," he says, smiling.
The artiste states that modelling Derek on real-life characters was different from playing cricket legend Sunil Gavaskar in Kabir Khan's upcoming 83, based on the Indian cricket team's historic win at the 1983 World Cup. "Derek was part-fiction, part-imagination. We took a few creative liberties there, like showing him as someone who works out. Nitesh Sir didn't want to go Dangal on him, but wanted to show him as a well-built athletic guy in college. On the other hand, playing a legend like Sunil Gavaskar had a lot of responsibility. This film will be the first time the nation will witness the story of the Indian cricket team that won the World Cup for the first time. It's a huge deal!" Tahir says.
He remembers the first time he met Gavaskar, walking into the room with an "aura". "When I asked him a pointed question on why he had an intimidating walk on the field during his younger days, he explained since he opened for India, in matches against strong cricket teams like West Indies and Australia, his confident walk got the better of the bowlers and fielders psychologically."
He also reveals his Chhichhore co-star Sushant Singh Rajput's tips for his role in 83, since the latter played another legendary cricketer in Neeraj Panday's 2016 film, MS Dhoni: The Untold Story. "He reminded me I had to play good cricket as Gavaskar, not as Tahir. So apart from the cricket training we all got, I kept watching a lot of Gavaskar's videos on the field. I studied his body language to incorporate it into my performance. But I was also mindful I didn't have to ape a cricket legend. So it was a fine balance to bring a lot of Gavaskar and a little bit of Tahir to my game," he says, showing me an image of Gavaskar as his current mobile phone screensaver.
Some actors indeed borrow from real life, and form a creative concoction that they then employ to their craft while facing the camera, between action and cut. But for Tahir Raj Bhasin, the process isn't quite so linear; it's about hitting that sweet spot every time, where, in addition to his 'method', he brings a bit of himself to every character he plays.
All images by Rahul Sharda.
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