Home » Interviews » “The greatest gift I have got from my childhood is my sense of imagination” – Gulshan Devaiah

Gulshan Devaiah is one of the most versatile actors of our times. Having interacted with him on several occasions, I can also vouch for the fact that he is an extremely warm and nice human being. Every conversation that I have had with him has been special as the man talks about cinema and life passionately and in detail. In this interview, he talks about why he thinks Dibakar Banerjee is the finest storyteller and director in the country, playing a creature in ‘Ghost Stories’, acting out scenes from Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha in school, his association with theatre veteran Vijay Padaki, films which could never see the light of the day, why ‘Afsos’ was a challenging show to pull off, playing a cop in the upcoming Amazon Prime Video series being directed by Reema Kagti and more.

I remember a few hours after ‘Ghost Stories’ started streaming, people were tweeting about your performance in the film.  I watched the film the next day. Several minutes passed and I started wondering when you will appear on the screen, not realising that you were in the garb of the ‘creature’.

The make-up and the costume made me feel like I was in a small room all the time (laughs). I was very excited at the prospect of working with Dibakar Banerjee. I had got a call from his office informing me that he was interested in offering me a part from the anthology film he, Karan Johar, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap, were going to make for Netflix. I had met Dibakar on a couple of occasions but I never really had an elaborate conversation with him till then. He took two hours to tell me half an hour worth of script. I was sitting motionless and listening to him speak. I knew he was making a very ambitious film. We were going to be making a creature film in broad daylight and in rain. It was a bizarre but exciting idea. He had preliminary sketches ready which were made to decide on the look of the monster. I was in shock because of what he was trying to do. I was also excited to think how we are going to pull it off.  He had a shortlist of actors with him. I was very fortunate that he picked me. Maybe, it was because the others did not have dates (laughs). He was very sure that he did not want a stuntman. In the US, there actor who specialise in prosthetics based performance. Andy Serkins is one of the most famous ones. But in India, we do not have many. I had to train for fifteen days to get into the skin of the character, quite literally! I had a body double who performed some really difficult stunts. Unfortunately, a lot of that did not make it to the final edit. It seemed very difficult. We were trying to make a very ambitious film but there were budget constraints and there were weather-related issues as well. Despite these difficulties, our spirits were high and we were determined to perform our respective duties to the best of our abilities. I knew at the end of the day, when I come back home I would be very happy about what I did on the sets. People who saw the film would not have realised the issues we faced while shooting for it. They might have also thought that the role I played was easy to portray. I guess that is fine (laugh). We shot for seven days. I was supposed to shoot for five days but it was raining constantly and so, the shoot went on for two days more. I think the rest of the cast shot for a couple of days more. It was raining constantly. As far as the costume was concerned, everything was glued into me. It was almost like a small room. It took me about four hours to put on the make-up. It takes a lot of time to wear the body-suit. Every time I would I take it off, water would start pouring out of it. I was wearing the kind of contact lenses that made everything look blurry. In low-light, I could barely see anything.

A lot of people felt there was a political and social subtext to the film.

I think that was quite evident. People can make out whatever they wish to. There is definitely a political statement which Dibakar was trying to make there. It was also inspired from an incident which happened in Uttar Pradesh. It is not only a reflection of the current scenario but makes a commentary on a lot of things in our society which have been prevalent for a long time. There is a dialogue in the film which roughly translates to “if you don’t move, nothing will happen to you”.

This was a horror film and you have played several negative characters till date but interestingly, your exposure to acting happened with enacting scenes from Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha from school.

Yes, that is right. I like myself the way I am right now. I don’t mind what I used to be. I was naive, used to live in an imaginary world and did not have a very good sense of the real world. I had a lot of friends but was not really close to anybody. It took me a while to understand how to live in the real world. The greatest gift I have got from my childhood is my sense of imagination. I inherited it from my artistically inclined parents. I have a fairly good imagination and it has developed over time. It can be quite a dangerous thing, though, to live in an imaginary world all the time (laughs).

Shortly after the film started streaming, you tweeted “After working with Dibakar Banerjee, I now know how it must be like for actors to work with Ray”.

I said it for effect. I thought over it and found it to be cool (laughs). I have worked with a lot of directors and they are all good. Dibakar is the best filmmaker we have in the country by a long shot. I know people gauge success with how much money you have made. Dibakar is going to leave behind all the wonderful work he has done, similar to how Ray left behind his cinema for generations to discover. His cinema has inspired millions of people across multiple generations. Dibakar is definitely up there among the modern greats. He is the best storyteller and the best director we have in this country. There is a difference between being a storyteller and a director. There are some people who are amazing storytellers but average directors. Dibakar is both a great storyteller and a great director.

When you were in Bangalore, you worked a lot with theatre veteran Vijay Padaki and his group Bangalore Little Theatre.

Yes, I cherish all the time I got to spend with him. I remember once I did a play with him which received a lot of applause. After the play, I asked him ‘do you think I am good?’. I was thinking of coming to Mumbai at that time and was going through a phase where I was not sure if it was the right thing to do. He told me you are good but make sure you work with good directors. On your own, there is a chance that you might lose your way. I try to follow that as much as I can. Everybody is not of the same calibre and you make do with what you have.

You made your debut in films with ‘That Girl In Yellow Boots’. Since then, you have been a part of many films but there are a couple of films which were announced or even made but never saw the light of the day. ‘Tina Ki Chaabi’ and ‘Peddlers’ were shot and completed. ‘Love Affairs’, a film on the Nanavati Case, was announced but not made.

‘Peddlers’ was directed by Vasan Bala and is an Eros property. If you see ‘Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota’ you will not believe it has been made by the same man who made ‘Peddlers’. It is very dark and disturbing film. Vasan was probably going through a tough phase in his life and the film was a result of that. I had a very small role in ‘Tina Ki Chaabi’. I was a glorified background artiste in that film (laughs). All of us were ready to shoot ‘Love Affairs’ but I guess the producers were a little nervous as ‘Rustom’, which was based on the same incident, was announced around the same time. I think the film should have been made as it would have been interesting to have two completely different films on the same subject.   

A couple of your other films, in the past, have also suffered from poor or delayed releases.

Releasing a film is difficult because of the business model. There are various ways in which you can monetise your property but the bulk of the money will come from the box-office returns. There are certain big-event films which people want to go to the theatres for. And, there are certain films which people are just not interested in watching in theatres. ‘Hunterrr’ was a successful film but it was not a film which made 50 crores. I am still trying to wrap my head around how this business works. When ‘Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota’ came out, people thought ‘yeh festival type ki film hogi’. Digital platforms have given a lot of people an opportunity to showcase their talent. An idealist like me cannot keep blowing the trumpet about films releasing in theatres. I have to accept the reality and make peace with it.  

In the digital show ‘Afsos’, you played a character who wanted to commit suicide. What attracted you to this particular project?

I thought it was a challenging to pull off as it was in a very dark space. There is a supernatural and mythological angle to it as well. A lot of people have seen it and most of them seemed to have liked it. I met the writers and I really liked the team that was working on it. My interest in the show increased exponentially when I got to know Anubhuti (Kashyap) would be directing it. I have worked with Anurag (Kashyap, brother) but they are completely different. She has her own sensibility. She has not written the show but it is an interpretation of a story which had been with her for a while.

You are currently shooting for another show for Amazon Prime Video which is being directed by Reema Kagti. Apart from you, the show also features Sonakshi Sinha, Vijay Verma and Sohum Shah . What can you share about the show?

I am not at the liberty to reveal much about the show at the moment. We did rehearsals and readings for the show for a while. Reema (Kagti) made sure that all of us were well-prepared before we started shooting for the show. I have always fantasised about playing a cop on-screen and I finally got that opportunity with this show.