I was never a good salesman: Pavan Malhotra

Pavan Malhotra is a versatile actor who has been a celebrated contributor to the film industry for the past 25 years. From theatre to television to cinema, Malhotra has done it all. Some of his major roles have been in Children of War, Black Friday, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, Bagh Bahadur, and as ‘Hari’ in Nukkad. He also played prominent parts in the movies Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Jab We Met, Pardes and several others.
In 2016, a retrospective of Pavan Malhotra’s work was held in New Delhi, titled- “Unmasking Pavan”. It was presented by the IIC Film Club and six of his films were showcased. A seminar, moderated by Amit Rai along with Khalid Mohamad and Mrityunjay Devvrat, was also held.
In a conversation with Prerna SM Jain, the dynamic and down-to-earth actor talked about his artistic journey.

How did your journey into acting begin?
Towards the end of my school, a friend of mine told me that he wanted me to take part in a play called ‘Tughlak’. I said yes, and then I realised that he was talking about a professional, ticketed play in a theatre. I did 4-5 different cameos and for me that was an absolutely different world. Post that, I joined the group ‘Ruchika’, where Faizal Alkazi was one of the directors. In college I participated in inter-college competitions and joined different groups. I always say that I was just floating, I reached places by destiny. I never thought that I would come to Bombay to become an actor. During the shoot of ‘Gandhi’ in Delhi, someone gave my name for the position of aWardrobe Assistant. I said that I didn’t know anything about this, but the person assured me that it was similar to what I had done in theatre. They told me it is only for a week, so I informed my father. He had a machine tools business. My father was concerned that in his business one needs to learn a lot and it takes time. I told him that this part would be my last job in this acting profession, so he agreed. But, even after a week, they didn’t ask me to leave. When I came to Bombay, my friends told me that they needed a Products Assistant for ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’, so I started working with that. After that, Saeed Mirza asked me to work as the Production Manager for ‘Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho!’ I thought that although I was looking for acting jobs, one had to survive. You shouldn’t write back home and ask for money. I worked for the movie ‘Khamosh’, by Vidhu Vinod Chopra, which we shot in Pahalgam. I did several odd jobs as well.
After all this, I landed ‘Nukkad’. That is where my acting career began. The role landed in my lap, as just two days before the shoot, someone left the role. This was because in the first two-three episodes, the character was not doing much. So, the actor just left. Somehow that character just clicked for me. We went for a function after the thirteenth episode, and young girls would run after me. Then I did ‘Intezaar’, ‘Manoranjan’. And then I got the movie ‘Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro’.  Buddhadeb Dasgupta noticed me in a magazine, and he loved my eyes. He came down from Calcutta and narrated the film. He offered me the film Bagh Bahadur.The character was different from Salim Langda, who is a boy from Dongiri where most of the smugglers came from, while Bagh Bahadur was about a folk dancer who paints his body like a tiger and performs. I don’t carry my mannerisms from one play or film to other. In 1989 I shot both the films and in 1990 both of them got best film awards. These films are now shown in media schools as a part of studies. I was shooting for ‘City of Joy’ in London when Robert Butler saw ‘Bagh Bahadur’ and approached me for ‘Brothers in Trouble’. Post that, I did ‘Black Friday’, and many other films. So, like I always say, God has been very kind to me as I have never been a good salesman.

From theatre plays and serials like ‘Nukkad’ to films like ‘Black Friday’, you have had a diverse range of experiences. Could you please elaborate on that?
Theatre is a good learning ground. But there is a difference between theatre and cinema. In theatre, a lot of people try to work on their speech, where even the last syllable is absolutely clear. But when we talk, because of breathing, the last syllable does go down in volume. In theatre they say that even the deaf old lady in the last row should be able to hear your whisper. People say that theatre is more difficult, but I feel that cinema is more difficult. In theatre you have different scenes which go in a sequence where you are talking to co-actors or the audience. Although there is no retake, but you have done two months of rehearsals. You are also so conditioned to silence that any mobile phone sound or noise causes a big distraction because you are mentally unprepared. Also, if there is a little bit of a fumble, the audience lets it go. In cinema, the scene is cut up in so many shots. By the time you are ready and have built up the emotion, someone says ‘cut, cut’ as they need to fix the lights or some other aspect of the scene.
As the scene is cut up in so many shots, there are long gaps in the shoot within one scene of, say, a restaurant scene where you are having a cup of coffee. It can be shot one day and you have to pick it up from the same place after twenty days. Now, you have to keep the continuity in mind. Plus, you are performing for the lens. We use a long trolley that moves for certain scenes. If I am doing a love-making scene in which I am kissing a girl, then with one eye I can see the camera moving. If the camera comes on one side, you automatically move towards it. You have to keep moving towards the camera. The most interesting thing is that when the lens is there, people are there, but when the director says action, no one is there. I always say that if you want to become an actor then your emotion, your shame, your clothes – if you can remove it in front of 50 people, only then you can become an actor.
Basically, you are lying, you are lying that you are crying, laughing, and making the fiction believable. You cannot think that people are watching and what will they think. For example, in the film, ‘Brothers in Trouble’, there is a whole sequence where twenty people in one house would ask for a prostitute to come in on a Sunday. My scene was to remove my clothes and go in. The production units kept for these kinds of shoots are very small, so that people are comfortable, but you need to get used to it. I am very lucky to have had such different roles like ‘Salim Langda’, ‘Bagh Bahadur’, then ‘Punjab 1984’. I shot a biopic of Bhagat Puran Singh, who was like the Mother Teresa of Punjab, called ‘Eh Janam Tumhare Lekhe’. I did a film called ‘Children of War’ where I played the role of a hardcore dirty man. Where, maybe if you see that, you may not want to talk to me. I am an actor, so I play my part. You also get to travel a lot in this profession, where you meet different people and interact, and that is where you find references for your characters.

Coming from Delhi, how difficult was it for you to play roles that were characteristic of Bombaiites?
I came to Bombay on 15th March 1982. I still remember the date. ‘Nukkad’ happened in 1985. During those three years I was doing production work and meeting all sorts of people. I used to work as a production manager in the same area as the one in which ‘Salim Langda’ was shot at. During ‘Nukkad’ it was a little difficult, but people would interact in the language around me. For example, the Bombaiya slang, ‘Bas Kya?’ There were 10-12 ways to say it. Saeed Mirza used to say the ‘Bas Kya’ very differently and I would say that I am saying the same thing! I used to find Bombaiya very interesting. The way of talking and the jokes sound funny in the beginning but one really starts enjoying it. I am not very good with languages, but the more dialects and language you learn, the better. Like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag had a ‘tadka’ of Punjabi, the film I am working on right now is based in Haryana. When I was working in ‘Khamosh’, I heard the Kashmiri language and so I know some words and phrases. For ‘Bagh Bahadur’ I used to hear Bhojpuri on my Walkman to pick up the dialect and rhythm. In fact, for ‘Bagh Bahadur’, we used to spend three and a half hours on body painting for every shoot. I used to stand and hold the bars. Then I would sit in the sun for half an hour to let the paint dry. Post shoot, the enamel paint had to be removed with thinners and kerosene. So, I used to go back to the hotel draped in a fabric and I would have to bathe twice with a soap to remove the kerosene. But it was all worth it in the end. ‘Bagh Bahadur’ has been recognised as a special movie and is taught in media studies.

Which role that you have ever played, in serial or film, is the closest to you?
There is no one such role. I have always put in my 100 percent in all my roles. But ‘Salim Langda’ was my launching role, which got me more films. If you talk about my roles in movies, I think my role in movies like ‘Bagh Bahadur’ and ‘Children of War’ was more important than the ones in ‘Pardes’ or ‘Don’. But you cannot compare those movies as well.

What was the biggest obstacle in pursuing your dream?
By God’s grace I have never had a problem getting work. But here, you have to know many more things than just acting. You need to know PR, how to handle the media, how to handle producers. I am not good at all this. Every single job came into my lap. Whatever I tried to get I could never get it as I was a very bad salesman. In cinema there are very few film journalists, though there are a lot of film gossip journalists. Which is fine. People might be more interested in that. You can write about the gossip, but add in a few pages about the cinema at the end, where you write about good lighting, art direction and acting.

How has Covid-19 impacted the film industry?
It has impacted the industry very badly. Everything has stopped. TV is like a monster that you have to feed every day, and now only the old things can be seen on it. TV is dependent on advertisement money. When people are sitting at home, and nothing is selling, there are no new programmes. I am guessing that would make the advertisement rates go down. This year was going to be the busiest year for me. In December I didn’t have dates left. I had three web series, and films; now everything is gone. Nobody knows what is going to happen and when the shooting will start. Of course, the problems are going to reduce, and we will have to learn how to live with this. With social distancing, if I have to hug someone in a scene, I don’t know how that will be done. There will be many changes. My parents were refugees; if they could survive, so can we.

How have you utilised your time during this lockdown?
I think the word ‘utilise’ would be wrong. I have not read any books. I live alone so I am used to this. Luckily, I have a helper at home. Recently I had my birthday, so my whole day went in answering my phone. I watch TV at home, watch web series, WhatsApp, and I have long conversations with friends. Sometimes I get into arguments as well with close friends over political opinions. So, I like to spend time at my place. On 19 March I came back from a shoot in Karnal. After coming back, I have only gone out of my house twice, one of which was to go to a bank to withdraw money. Most of the things come to the building. If there is nothing else that I can do to contribute, at least I don’t want to burden the doctors and occupy an extra bed by stepping out unnecessarily and getting infected. People say that everything is God’s will. If that is so, then blindfold yourself and walk on a highway! You must use your brains. Nowadays there is a lot for people to see at home. This is a time for everyone in the country to stand together despite any differences with anyone, and fight Covid together.

What is your most memorable compliment that you have ever received?
There are some memorable ones. I was a part of the project, ‘Children’s Film Society’, with Aamir Khan and Amrish Puri. It could not complete because of budget issues. When Amrish Puri saw me, he recognised me from my work. During the lunch break of the shoot, he asked me if I understood what is a sparrow’s flutter. Then he gesturally said that there are some birds that really swoop in all directions, really high, but they vanish, then there are some birds that may flutter at different heights consistently. It doesn’t matter at which height you flutter, it’s just important that you do. He said that I have seen that quality of fluttering in you. Another compliment was during the first show of the film ‘Mubarakan’. When everyone came outside the show, Arjun Kapoor’s sister came in front of me and she hugged me tightly and said, ‘What you have done for my brother’s film, I will never forget, thank you so much.’ And the way she said it, even today when I think of it, I get goosebumps. The sister’s feeling for her brother I will never forget.

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