THE LIFE OF AN ACTOR – GULSHAN DEVAIAH

Gulshan Devaiah, a fashion designer turned actor, began his journey from Karnataka, and has made a notable appearance in Bollywood. ‘That Girl in Yellow Boots‘ paved his way ahead in the filmography. He is widely known for his roles in ‘Shaitan,’ ‘Hate Story,’ and ‘Hunterrr.’ He has some upcoming projects lined up.

Team Storiyaan spoke to this jaunty personality about his early days, work, along with a little about his projects that are yet to be released.

Interview

Questions and answers

You have spent ten years in the fashion industry. How did you divulge your field to acting?

After indulging in the fashion industry for eight years, I retired from it in 2008. I wanted to pursue my dream of becoming a professional actor in Hindi films. It was a childhood dream. Since about 2006, I have been trying to figure out how to pursue my dream. One of my colleagues in Wigan and Leigh College wanted to become a professional camera person. I found it odd. At that time, he used to teach computer graphics to the graphic designing department. He took leave, trained himself, and pursued courses. Now he is a professional news cameraman. He took the risk to give up this job and pursue his passion. I figured that if he can pursue his ambition, I can do it too. I didn’t have all those liabilities. My family did not depend on me, and I was making a decent amount of money. I was not spending it on anybody else. It motivated me to kick myself, plan and prepare, and become a professional.

Talk to us about your journey in the fashion industry.

Throughout my childhood, I was very artistically inclined as I inherited that from my parents. I was above average when it comes to my hand skills and my creative skills. One of my friend’s cousin suggested the NID or NIFT exam. I had never heard of these two institutions before that. Since there were no websites of institutions, newspapers were the source of information. I got the NIFT application. Although I didn’t know anything about fashion, it seemed interesting. I got the ad in the newspaper for coaching. I did a two-month preparation course for the entrance exam as it is difficult. So that’s how I learnt and discovered fashion.

I fell in love with Dior and Gucci because, at that time, Tom Ford was the head of designing for Gucci. And then Dolce and Gabbana and then I discovered all of these things from the newspapers and the second-hand magazines we used to get. So nobody mentored me. I was sponge at that time because I knew nothing about it. Then suddenly, I was exposed to all these things through the magazine, the old vogue. I enjoyed it because it was a completely new field. I could express myself differently and enjoyed making clothes. I was even fond of John Galliano. The top extravagant nature of his way of expression was condescending into an art form. It wasn’t just clothes on the runway. I enjoyed that and tried to have a similar impression. I want to say things through my clothes now. I was quite good at it because, at my graduation, I won quite a lot of awards at the national level for which my institution rewarded me.

Having done theatre before appearing in front of the camera, what are some of the lessons that the stage has taught you? Do you think your craft would be different if you had not done theatre initially?

I do not think I would have been an actor if I did not do theatre. The craft is the same, but the application can vary. NIFT was an undergrad degree, and I did not go to acting or drama School. There was no way they would take me and give me the experience. I didn’t have an acting background, so having a conversation with my parents regarding drama school was tough. I was familiar with the stage from a young age at school. But then I lacked a proper understanding of the craft. I started doing plays with Bangalore based amateur theatre groups after graduation. I met people, directors, and learnt a lot about theatre and acting while working with them as they had more knowledge or drama school. I also read a lot of beginners’ study files books. The difference between theatre and cinema is that theatre is live and in one continuous flow. You complete rehearsals, start and finish the show. That is quite amazing and rewarding as you get the reaction from the audience on that instant. Cinema can be very challenging in terms of being focused and concentrated as it has the start-stop method. It never allows you to do things in a continuous flow. There can be incidents in the background or technicalities of shooting so, get used to the stop-start method. My inclination was always towards the cinema. I did enjoy the theatre, boosted my confidence, and empowered my skill set. But once I started doing films, I knew that the nature of the cinema would be very different. So I figured the application of techniques and found success.  That gave me confidence and made me comfortable.

 

Can you tell us about the events that led you through your breakthrough in Bollywood?

I don’t think there is a particular event, but this may be one. The legend has it that Anurag Kashyap saw me dancing with Kalki Koechlin to a song called ‘White White Face’ from ‘Tashan.’  Anurag was impressed by the energy and expression. I am not sure about the impact it had on Anurag because his story keeps changing, and maybe he doesn’t remember that. I was auditioning, trying to find work while doing theatre. My first experience was to do a minor part in a film that was not released. Then, the show I was supposed to go to got canceled at the last moment. I was a bit upset and walking around the home. Kalki called and asked me to join her and Anurag for dinner. I thought it was a casual outing. Anurag gives me scenarios for the girl in yellow boots. He said that he would take a few days to think of something. Anurag hadn’t written but wanted to see my skills. I took three days and came up with something he loved. So the significant casting, like how I got cast, was probably that.

 

'That Girl in Yellow Boots' was completed in just 13 days. How difficult was it to adhere to the schedule?

It wasn’t difficult for me as I had to shoot for four days only. I wasn’t familiar with Anurag while shooting. He had a long take that sometimes took 6 to 7 minutes. Things usually wrap up in three and a half minutes for me. People used to say that they didn’t get enough time. There was a Diwali raunchy dance sequence with drums that they wanted to do with me. The local Maharashtrian of Ganpati Mahotsav but with Diwali sequence that had lights and crackers. So they lost a little bit of time. They couldn’t do it because those artists and musicians had come and we couldn’t sit back. But that was just a minor thing. Other than that, I never felt that there was a rush. I think they had planned it. Every time I wanted to do another take, they would always give me another take. Perhaps it was a lot more demanding on Kalki because she was pretty much there every day.

 

How did you come across your latest short, “The Sleepwalkers,” which has a very intriguing premise? Can you tell us a little bit about the plot?

I have no idea about it. Radhika Apte told me about it and said that I should be a part. I didn’t want to rush, so I said that if free, I would do it. She gave me the script, and it was nice, but I don’t know about it. She told me a few more things and also that Shahana Goswami will be in it. I admire Shahana, and we are playing a couple in this. Also, Radhika Apte is one of my closest and oldest friends in this town. I have already acted in the Konkona Sen Sharma debut feature. So this is Radhika Apte debut shot, not a feature film, but I thought this needs to be a trend. I think it has something to do with greedy human beings and how they don’t understand that greed is all-consuming. It does destroy everything that surrounds us.

What kind of genres and films do you think are your strong suit? What are some genres you would like to explore further?

Except for horror and psychological thriller, I would be comfortable with all genres. I was scared of watching evil dead; that’s how much I’m terrified of horror. I had lost all hopes of becoming an actor. In 1998 watching the gangster movies ‘Satya,’ I saw Manoj Bajpayee and Ram Gopal Varma. The unconventional storyline was versatile, and I started seeing myself placing these roles—all kinds of genre appeal to me. I haven’t been through a picky phase. I don’t limit myself. I think every project has its appeal regardless of its genre, except scary movies and psychological thrillers. However, I took up ‘Ghost Stories’ because it was Dibakar Bannerjee, and it was an insanely good script. So never say never. I take whatever roles and characters appeal to me.

In one of your interviews, you said that the entertainment industry is a game of perception and is based on box-office collections and likes on social media. Can you ponder some more views on this thought?

There is a demand for meritocracy, which shouldn’t be there. A lot is going on about insider-outsider, nepotism, favoritism. Some things are wrong with the whole structure. But when it comes to art like acting or pageantry, it is subjective. Say, for example, you cannot measure between Ayushmann and me because it is subjective. The box office can measure it. That way, he beats me. But, it is a flawed metric because it creates a perception. Art, talent, and artistic qualities are not mathematical equations.  I am conscious, so I talk about it. In the end, it is about how you sell and convince people in a room that you are best suited for this role. Our careers revolve around perception, and we have to embrace that. We need to re-assess the way we approach our work as it helps us not take things personally. We create or try to control the way we are perceived because our career demands it. We show pictures where flaws are not evident to change the perception of people.

Having done a fair share of both big-screen and independent films, how do you think you have honed your skills through your journey?

I think I’m a better actor now. My intention was always to try to get better and efficient. After a point, the increment is subtle. It is something the audience cannot see, but I can see it. The way I use my body, my voice, the stage. So all of my experiences have given me ideas. Sometimes it works, but when it doesn’t, we have to think on our feet. While shooting for ‘Commando,’ the director asked us to watch the rushers. I was not serving the purpose of my role, so I had to rethink and re-strategize. So I feel I have improvised since the beginning and getting better and confident. I have more composure in front of the camera. A film set is always chaotic, but it shouldn’t affect your concentration. It’s easy and tricky as acting is technical. It is about the light, angles, background edit, the frame. In the cinema, you have to hit the right mark, and there’s a frame. You cannot go outside the frame

Your very first short film, “That Girl in Yellow Boots,” was screened in some of the most prestigious Film Festivals. How did you bag this role? How did you prepare for this role?

It was a feature film. There was a scene where I was in the house, and ‘Ruth’Kalki’s character comes back. She has to find the gangster who is looking for her boyfriend. That was the scene given to me because I had moved in from Bangalore. Anurag wanted to see how that would impact my role. He also wanted to incorporate an English song by Dr.Rajkumar in a Kannada movie. I had three days to put all of this together. I listened to that song 30-40 times to put everything together. Then I created this character from my experience of living in Bangalore for 30 years.

Your dual role in 'Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota' was considered widely as one of the best performances in that year. How did you juggle the emotional shift of the characters to make them distinct from one another?

I discussed with Shavasana for preparation. He said he would help me through the technical aspect. The harder of the two roles was the cripple karate master. I had to learn how to fight with one leg. I trained for four months for characterization. I had to work on physical training. As the role of a cripple guy, I just had to put my foot down and enjoy being able to stand on my feet. I tried to find a voice for this guy. I went through a guy who did a minor part in the movie ‘Peddler.’ As they were people who grew up on the streets, I started to figure that out and comprehend it in the characters developing them. Since I figured Manni, cracking Jimmy became easy. So to summarise, I worked a lot more on Manni’s role than Jimmy’s role.

You have a knack for selecting quirky roles. What do you look for in a script? What are some qualities of a character that attracts you?

I think scripts find me. People come to me with intriguing manuscripts. I think the variables are the story or character. They should be interesting. When I read the story of ‘Hunter,’ I was fascinated by this character of an average guy. It also depends on the person I’m working with, who is the storyteller. I need to know what they are trying to make. I want to understand the sensibility of this story and how I can fit in. Sometimes it depends on the financials. It depends on its impact on my career if it’s a passion project or a catalyst for my job. I haven’t been through a ‘Never Say Never’ phase. Luckily so far, I haven’t played a character solely for the financial aspects.

Many in the film industry have done movies and shows solely for financial gains. Has this happened to you? Are you sometimes motivated by the financial aspect of a project?

There are films, and then there is a cinema. Of course, it means the same thing. But to drive the point home, sometimes you watch good films. I tweeted about Avengers being a fun movie. But I don’t think it is the cinema. In terms of artistic expression, I don’t feel it transcends into an art form, and that movie being art. But you cannot say that about films like Citizen Kane, the Joker, or The Godfather. So they are not just films. They are cinema, art, and a movement. Many movies are incredibly exciting films but are artistic in the way they reach out to you. So, I consider Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films to be cinema. He has a unique, artistic expression, over the top exaggerated emotions. He is making a film, telling a story, expressing and living it, which is a part of his artistic expression. Again it is all perception that depends on individuals to understand film and cinema. The majority of people make films only. They live in the times where I think your artistic expression is a bit squashed. But that doesn’t mean that people are not making cinema. Some people are still making cinema.

You have quite a few projects lined up for this year. Which are you most excited about?

I was shooting in Rajasthan with Reema Karthik for Fallen, a new project. We were about a third into it when we had to stop filming. I am looking forward to getting back to it. That is the only thing that I can talk about right now. All other projects are just ideas and concepts. We don’t know what will happen under these circumstances. I usually prefer doing one thing at a time as it becomes a part of my life. It is like joining a new place of work. You go there every day, work, and come back for a definite duration. I feel that I can apply myself better when that happens. I don’t have to work with different sets of actors. I can be prepared to be in that zone, get it done, and then move on.  I prefer this way of working.

Can you share with us one of the most hilarious behind the scene moments while shooting a scene?

I remember I was doing a scene during the shoot of ‘The Girl in Yellow Boots.’ I was supposed to hit Kalki, and Anurag said that it was ok, do it. I had to intimidate her, but there was no effect on her. As she is my friend, I told her to give in a little as I tried my best. Anurag told me to get rougher. I didn’t want to hit her. Then we decided that we will phase the scene.  While doing this, she had come to a position so I could fake slap her. According to the camera angle, it will look like a slap. During the shoot, some improv happened. She came two steps ahead of her mark, and it would look idiotic if I fake slapped her. I had to think on my feet. I improvised and made her sit in the camera angle and gave her two fake slaps instead of one. I told her that this was because she missed the mark. She gave the right reaction to it. At that time, I was mad at her, forgetting the mark. We had to do a long take for 5-6 minutes. But now that I think about it, it is quite funny because she just did whatever she wanted to, and I had to figure it out. It was one of my first movies, so you can imagine the tension I had.

Out of the blurb, what can the audience expect from 'Altaf in Candy Flips'?

I think people should watch it and come to their conclusions. It’s not a very big part. A friend of mine was putting this movie together. Kalki, Prashant, and me, along with others, got together to support him in making this film. With great difficulty, he raised the money, was able to release it. As he asked that if I would play a character, I agreed. We kept shooting every day, finding a new scene. It revolves around a smart street guy who can speak different languages. Everyone knows him, and he knows about everything in Goa. There are a lot of characters like these in Goa. It is based loosely on a Malayali guy who is a shack owner there and maybe a gangster also. But you don’t know, you can’t tell. So they look and behave according to that. But it could just be the looks. He was supposed to be some character that is likable and very enterprising, but also slightly shady.

In your ted talk, you said, “you live with a romanticized idea of what acting is.” How has your perception of being an actor changed from when you were a kid?

I had no idea of acting. I tried to understand the finer points of acting as a craft. I think most of my early twenties went into watching and re-watching films, theatre performances, and actors whose performance was standing out. During rehearsals, I would remember and try that actor’s actions like using voice, positioning, etc., not mimicking. So, it’s a very romantic idea when you are a kid. It looks all glossy, big lights and posters, nice clothes, and people just chanting your name. I think it is easy once you figure out acting and your style. The life of an actor is difficult because it is demanding and based on the perception of people. People might look up to someone while others have their opinions, but both are right and wrong. Once you start to fathom the idea, good and bad, become loose terms. So living with that perception is strenuous initially, but gradually becomes fine. It is a philosophy. You should have a philosophical approach to life if you are an actor. Try not to take things personally, regardless of your ambition. You may or may not get it. The tricky part is to live. Some short-lived actors still hang on to their stardom of how they were 35 years ago. It becomes a little pathetic. One would not want to end up like that.

Talk to us about your 'Finding Duryodhana technique that you employ while reading a script. How did you formulate this technique?

The name is misleading. I’ll tell you a little story. I played Duryodhan in a play when I felt that I had evolved, and my performance was reaching the audience. In the last moments of his life, many different characters, including Krishna, came to talk to him. It was like a 15-minute scene. I had started using the craft effectively to prepare for this part. I realized that I was going through the flow of emotions through rehearsals. I could get angry and cry at the right time without trying. My process was correct while I enjoyed it. That gave me an idea. The tendency of playing everything perfectly exists within many leading men. If they play the hero, they tend to whitewash it even if the script doesn’t demand it. They are kind of scared of being vulnerable. I use Duryodhan because he has some great qualities as a person, as a man, except for his ego that doomed him. So, when I say find the Duryodhan in character, it means to find the imperfections in character, owning and accepting it, and embracing it. We all bump into problems. It’s ok because nobody is perfect. Sometimes you have to even enhance and exaggerate those imperfections on screen because then it is relatable, and it’s more real.

Rapid-fire

1. Ricky Gervais or Jack Black? : Ricky Gervais

2. Fashion designing or acting? : Acting

3. The weirdest rumor about yourself : That Kalki and I were a couple.

4. If you wrote an autobiography, what would you title it? : The boss of the Cosmos

5. A quote that you follow in your life : Quality over Quantity

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