Going Solo

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Actor Riteish Deshmukh, 31, gives out a slew of interviews at Nikhil Advani’s Bandra office terrace. Sitting hunched at a table, he alternates between checking his phone and answering queries on his first solo film in 7 years – Jaane Kahaan Se Aayi Hai – which is due to release on April 9. Riteish studied architecture in Mumbai to practice it for a year in New York. He is still a passive partner in a Mumbai based architectural firm called Evolutions, which he started with some friends. He also belongs to what can politically be called one of Maharashtra’s first families. His father Vilasrao Deshmukh, Maharashtra’s long serving Chief Minister, is now a minister at the centre. Elder brother Amit Deshmukh is an MLA. Yet though he claims to “love and enjoy” politics and tries to “be in touch with” architecture, he is clear that his priorities lie with cinema.

Having finished with his interviews, Riteish straightens up, and lets us into an office on the same terrace which we hadn’t noticed till then. He sits back and keeps his phone aside. And talks passionately for over an hour to Rishi Majumder. About politics and architecture. And how he still chooses cinema. 

Photo: Apoorva Guptay

Are you connected to your lineage? What does Latur mean to you?

Latur means everything to me. I keep going back to Latur and the Maharashtrian traditions I have been brought up with, which my family has been following for years. My family culture is very like the Congress culture. There is no caste and creed. No exclusivity. We go to the temples as well as the mosques in and near my village.

I was born in Latur and came to Bombay when I was five years old. Then till about 23 every summer and Diwali vacation has been spent in Latur. I’ve played in mud, climbed trees, milked cows, run around in puddles and put firecrackers inside cow dung to watch it explode around the house. I’ve done everything a village boy could do, even though I grew up in Bombay. There were always both these worlds… 

What relationship do you share with your elder brother Amit – a politician, and a younger brother Dhiraj – a businessman? 

We’re a very close knit family as brothers. We talk to each other about everything. They advise me on films, and discuss which film I should or shouldn’t do and tell me when they think my acting was s****. Similarly I advise Amit politically. Tell him he should do something a certain way. Both of us advise Dhiraj, who’s done his MBA and is handling some businesses.

Is there any quality you have inherited from your parents?

(mulls) My patience – from my mother and father. Yes. (smiles) The waiting game. We’re never in a hurry.

What’s the most important thing your father has taught you?

He says if someone has something bad to say about you, just smile. And if someone says something nice, smile. Because if you’re smiling, it means it’s not bothering you. And the fact that you’re smiling at him, means it will bother him.

(laughs) That’s funny, because we’ve actually seen him smile through a lot of political ups and downs.

(laughs) Yes. That’s what he advocates to me too – just smile. (smiles emphatically)

How do you manage your relationship with him under public glare? Would you like to react to what happened post 26/11 at the Taj? Would the same thing have happened if you were not a film star? 

Yes. I have to watch how I project my relationship with my father very carefully. The reaction post 26/11 was maybe because of the glamorous profession I came from. But also it was because it was a sensitive time.

‘My family culture is very much like the Congress culture. There is no exclusivity. We go to temples as well as mosques’

The media is always on the lookout for an issue. And you have to understand that TV channels are a one way platform. If two people think something is wrong they broadcast that opinion on to a thousand people. It was the media who actually said things like I went there for a film recce, and that my next film Rann was to be based on this. Every TV channel was trying to out do the other. But I don’t want to defend this. There wasn’t anything unjust in their reaction. What happened wasn’t a non-issue. If my presence there, at the Taj with Ram Gopal Varma has hurt anyone, I am sorry.

Are you worried that your image as an actor may affect your family’s image? An example would be when you took on a sex comedy…

As long as my family knows what I’m doing, they’re not going to ask questions later. Kyaa Kool Hai Hum was a sex comedy. Apna Sapna Money Money and Masti were also quite sexual. They had a lot of sexual innuendoes. I enjoyed doing them. They were fun. People loved them, even though some people might not have appreciated that sense of humour.

Today, I will not do a sex comedy. At the start of my career, not many people knew who I was, or what I was doing. But today, a lot of people, especially kids, enjoyed films like Hey Baby and Dhamaal. This response has made me feel a little responsible towards them – the kids.

In New York, you started leading parallel lives. You were working with an Architectural Firm and training at Lee Strasberg Institute. Did you think at that time of carrying on two careers? Or did you think you’d choose one? 

You know, as an architect I was at that stage where I had studied all my life. I had finished five years of architecture. From there I went to New York for work. For the first time in my life I was independent. So I thought why not experience various things in life like photography, a wood workshop and theatre, at Lee Strasberg. But that wasn’t about training to become an actor. It was about finding yourself in a new city. I never thought I would do a film though.

Then one day, I went to Subhash Ghai’s (he was a friend of my father’s) sets for Yaadein, at London, just to see how things work because I was doing a thesis on the TV industry. The DOP out there thought that I wanted to be an actor (laughs). So he called me after a year and a half, thinking that I would still want to be an actor. They were looking for a new face, and talent. So I thought lets go and try it out.

How did your family take to this decision? You belong to a conventional family.

I was already an architect. So even if I didn’t make it as an actor, I could always be an architect.

Your architectural firm Evolutions has a sizeable amount of work. And then you’re a movie star. Where do your priorities lie?

Films has always been my priority. Acting is my full time occupation.I started my firm with a few friends of mine who look after it. Whenever I get a chance I go and upgrade and update myself. For me it’s a way to be in touch with architecture. I get into designing more on the ideation level than the detailing.

You haven’t acted in Marathi cinema as such… 

I would want to. I’ve heard two, three scripts which I haven’t liked much. If I see the right kind of script I’ll do it tomorrow.

Why have you steered clear of serious roles, before Rann?

They’ve steered clear of me. I’m glad Ram Gopal Varma cast me in a role that was different.

Jaane Kahaan Se Aayi Hai, due to release is your first love story – which you’ve wanted to do for long. Also your first solo film in a long time.

Yes this is it. It is a sweet romantic film. But also this is the first time that as an actor I feel in complete control of the ‘meat’ of a film.

Does your political background affect your life in the film industry in anyway? 

No. Of course people were conscious of who I was when I started out, but they had to deal with it, not me. See, I’ll tell you what. If you think whatever roles or friends I got, I got because… (stops talking suddenly)

Not just roles and friends. There are not so nice things that could have come your way because of your background as well. It’s like getting in anywhere with baggage…

See, when I came in, they weren’t going to judge me. They were going to judge this ‘Chief Minister’s son’ who’s come to act. So that baggage was always there. I couldn’t run away from it. All I could do was work. With time, if I was good I would be good. If I was bad I would be bad. And if I was ugly I would be ugly.

Also in the first few years it was about how they addressed me in the newspapers, saying ‘The Chief Minister’s son’. Then it became ‘The Chief Minister’s son, Riteish, now an actor’. But nowadays they don’t address me as my father’s son. It was a big shadow to be under. And I’m glad I could finally come out of it, and cast my own shadow.

Any words of advice which helped you through during the initial days?

When my first film released Yash Johar called me up to congratulate me and said he felt what he had felt when Karan’s (Johar – Yash Johar’s son) first film released. After a few years I met Shahrukh (Khan) and he asked me to read a lot. He said it would help me, as an actor.

What books did you read? 

I started with a lot of quick fiction. All the Dan Browns. A couple of Harry Potters, John Grisham, Sydney Sheldon. Also Three Mistakes Of My Life by Chetan Bhagat. I really enjoyed Mark Haddon. 

Your only formal training was a course at the Lee Strasberg Institute, known for its method acting. How did this fit in with Bollywood?

I had watched a lot of Hindi films, so I knew exactly what I was getting into. Then it was about exploring the medium and doing things within your limitations. Also I’m not comparing method acting to things out here. If there are actors who can do method acting in today’s day and age, fair enough. I’ve learnt method acting, but I’m not into it. I’m comfortable in my kind of acting, my space of acting, which has three aspects – understanding it – when I get the brief, analyzing it, and implementing it. Then you have to decide how to pitch it. I could pitch it over the top like I did in some comedies or straight facedly, as I did in Rann.

You’ve won many awards for performances in a comic role. Do you think such categorization trivializes an actor’s efforts? Saif (Ali Khan) had once taken objection to being given a award for his ‘comic performance’ in Hum Tum. 

Even Abhishek, during the Screen Awards, had won an award for a performance in a comic role, and jokingly said: “This is the best humour”. They need to get it right. There’s best actor and best supporting actor. For the best actor in a comic role, they need to nominate the best supporting actor in a comic role. This isn’t funny – it’s really very sad. It’s also the reason why today only actors in the ‘drama’ and ‘romance’ genre are considered real actors, even though the biggest hits emerge from comedy. But this happens with the Oscars as well. Hangover will never get nominated for an Academy Award.

Favourite films? Films you would like to be in?

3 IdiotsTaare Zameen Par. Internationally, District Nine and Hurt Locker. Every good film I see I want to be in. But then (smiles) you realize the film works because the casting’s already very good.

What kind of work does your firm, Evolutions do? Where would you like to see Indian architecture go in the future? 

We’re like a ‘boutique’ firm. We take few projects and do it well. We’ve been part of resort planning, and designed farm houses, educational institutions, and select residences and office buildings as well.

I’d like to see responsible architecture in general. We’re a breed dictated by herd mentality. So if one guy designs a building with glass then everybody has to have a glass building. If there’s blue glass, then there will be blue glass all around. Clear glass, will lead to clear glass. Also I think architecture is the responsibility of the client too. Sometimes budget restraints, FSI, fighting for space so that every square foot counts – lead to buildings becoming a series of similar boxes.

You’ve said your favourite architectural pieces were the glass pyramid at the Louvre and the multiplex your firm designed in Aurangabad. Why? 

I didn’t say this – it was misquoted. I said the multiplex was one of the architectural pieces which I have designed. It’s an entire cube, which is slightly tilted. It’s slightly modernistic, and to do that kind of building in Aurangabad was a big deal.

The Louvre glass pyramid designed by I M Pei is my favourite, and is a great structure. The Louvre is a palace, converted into a museum. So there are a lot of footfalls. They didn’t have a way to connect all the building entrances. So they decided to connect the building entrances from the centre. But if they decided to erect any building it would take away from the entire space, so they decided to use glass for the pyramid at the entrance. And then they had to reconcile a structure that is pyramidical, symmetrical and futuristic with a classic structure.

You collect contemporary art. Which artists?

When I see a good art work I pick it up. Artists I like include Sunil Padwal, Chintan Upadhyay, Paresh Maity, (S H) Raza… a lot of contemporary artists.

There are divisive elements saying that to instill Marathi pride, we must exclude or turn away others. Do you ever feel like reclaiming what being a Maharashtrian means?

I’m proud to be a Maharashtrian, because I’m born into a Marathi family. I’m proud of my language and my literature – just as a Gujarati would be. Everyone is proud by birth to be whatever he is. I’m even prouder to be an Indian.

See let me explain it like this – and this could be misread if it comes out wrong. Between you and me, you stand for you, I stand for myself. Between my house, and my neighbour’s house, I like my house. Imagine we’re playing a match. Between my building and your building, it’s my building. Between Worli and Mahim, I’m playing for Worli, and you’re playing for Mahim. Between Mumbai and Pune, I’m playing for Mumbai. Between Maharashtra and Gujarat, I’m playing for Maharashtra. Because you have to choose one side. Now, if it’s between India and another country – I’ll play for India.

Having said this, what is it exactly that you want my take on.

I’m talking about the statements made by Raj Thackeray and the MNS and those made at one time by Bal Thackeray and the Shiv Sena – the politics of exclusivity. Haven’t you ever felt like reclaiming the Maharashtrian identity? You’re the only Maharashtrian who is a big Bollywood film star, an icon of sorts…

You have to see where I come from. I come across as an actor, and the member of a political house. So many times, I refrain from making a political statement, because I leave the political part of things to my family, because what I say will stand for my family’s ideology.

But I made an exception for the controversy around My Name Is Khan. I said: “My name is Deshmukh. And I stand by my name is Khan.” So whenever need be, when it’s going to make a real difference, I put myself forward.

Do you have a problem with dynastic politics?

No. Because it’s not something that can be wrong or right. There are new people who are entering politics, and then there are people from the dynasties. There are people working hard and those not working hard. Why can’t we let people choose?

We’re a democracy. We have seen great leaders fall. My father has won as well as lost elections. Today my brother has won. Tomorrow, if people don’t like him he’ll lose. And in a democracy, if people are happy voting for a dynasty, who are we to decide otherwise? 

What when those not belonging to a dynasty are deprived of a ticket – of the right to contest? What about democracy within the party? 

And let me ask you this. If a candidate is deserving, then why should he not be given a ticket because he is someone’s son, or brother? I admit that there have been cases where a non-deserving candidate has been given a ticket. But because of those lapses, why should a deserving candidate be denied the right to contest because he or she belongs to a dynasty?

You’re intelligent, qualified, and immensely exposed. You could be a connect between the two Indias, a voice of reason in the mayhem. Why do you shy away from politics?

Of course it’s occurred to me to be a part of politics. Of course I’ve been asked this question a thousand times. I’ll tell you what. I’m in a different profession. I love politics. I enjoy it. But it has to be full time. It has to be the only thing you do, to be successful at what you’re doing. You have to grow in politics.

And right now I love films too much to think of anything else. Also please don’t be mistaken that if tomorrow I come into politics it’ll be an easy thing. No. Who am I? You have to work hard, and figure out things right from the grass roots.

But I would want to be attached to a social cause and do something at my level as an actor – not because I’m looking for votes.

Any social cause in particular?

One cause that I’m very passionate about is going to sound very basic – littering. People litter, they throw things out of their houses, and when they’re on the street. They are irresponsible. I feel that if we figure out our responsibility towards such basic things, it will improve the larger picture. It will enable us to take on larger responsibilities.

What does Shivaji Maharaj mean to you? He was from the Maratha caste, which you belong to. What do you have to say about how he is being usurped by politicians?

I don’t just respect or like him because he is from my caste. At a time when India was about the Marathas and Mughals, he started his own army, and captured a fort at the age of 16. At the age of 32 he was an emperor. I mean, I’m going to be 32. He started his own currency. He spoke about swaraj. He was a visionary.

But after a period of time, everyone is used. So there are political agendas, and people who have made Shivaji Maharaj a ladder to climb. But Shivaji Maharaj doesn’t just belong to those people. He doesn’t just belong to Maharashtrians. He is great, and beyond this, like some other rulers in Indian history are – be they Maratha or Rajput or Mughal.  

You tweeted recently saying: “will we ever be a reservation free country (We were supposed to be 50years post independence)”. Yet you’ve supported the women’s bill on twitter. What is your stand on reservation?

I feel the Women’s Reservation Bill is great because there needs to be a representation of women in the parliament. If left open, you’ll never have them in parliament, because there will be a man somewhere to pull his clout and be there instead. So it’s great to have this till you give women a chance to establish a foothold and be really equal. 

Even otherwise I’m not against reservation. But so I’m told, so I’ve read – I’m not too sure – that when reservation was provided for in the Constitution, it was said that after 50 years the reservation should go – it should phase out.

And if reservation still exists and is necessary, then I guess somewhere we must have failed to empower everyone – I don’t know much about the intricacies – which is why we’ve not been able to make ourselves a reservation free country.

You’re very very active on twitter. What does it mean to you?

It’s my page. I talk about whatever I want to talk about. I react to whatever I want to react to.

I follow certain people – about 50 people. These are the people I want to follow and want to know about. They have not asked me to follow them. But I am free to do so if I want to.

There are about 70000 people who follow me. I have not asked them to follow me either. They can’t dictate my space, just as I can’t ask them to continue following me if I am boring.

I think that kind of freedom of having your own space, without people encroaching upon it, of being in your own space and doing what you want to do, is the beauty of twitter.

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