The stage helped Deepak Dobriyal break free from his secret anxiety about being a provincial. What irony, says Sunaina Kumar, Bollywood will let him be nothing else
WHEN DEEPAK DOBRIYAL drives to his movie premieres, most recently that of Tanu Weds Manu, people think this dimunitive man in his serviceable car is a gatecrasher, till he flashes his invite. Dobriyal, 35, is someone who has made a career out of gatecrashing, the outsider from Pauri district in Uttarakhand who plays the lackey to stars in bit roles. When he steps out on the streets, people recognise him as Rajju from Omkara, Mamdu from Delhi6, Bhati from Gulaal or Pappi from Tanu Weds Manu — all characters who have not even been given the dignity of a grown-up name. Yet, Dobriyal is often the face you remember the most from these movies.
In his house in suburban Mumbai, he points out the plants he’s growing. He dreams of going back to Garhwal and living there on a farm for three months every year. “I would be content just swimming, fishing and growing crops,” he says in his soft, lilting voice. For now, he has this balcony and the house he shares with wife Lara.
Dobriyal’s parents left the hills for Delhi when he was five. He studied in a government school in Delhi, a painfully gawky kid, tongue-tied and suffering from a small-town complex, never quite fitting in the ways of the city. Dubbed a slow poke, everyone would say of him, “Yeh toh life mein peeche reh jaayega.” It is a legacy, he says, of his village where slowness is a way of life. In Pauri, where he returns every year and considers home, there are still no cinema halls. There was no electricity either until a decade ago. Despite modernity creeping in, television and mobile phones, his elderly relatives love to receive hand-written letters. And Dobriyal, faithfully complies, loathe to wound as he has been for not accelerating.
His friend Piyush Mishra, lyricist and actor, talks about their common background and hurts accrued. About belonging to a lower middle-class family and being judged on the basis of your appearance, status, inability to speak fluently in English. His father, a section officer in the Indian Statistical Institute who started as a peon and rose from the ranks, expected his son to follow suit. After passing school, he was staring at the prospect of being a personal assistant or a steno. One day, he walked into a play at Mandi House and was hooked for life.
For someone who had spent life battling complexes, acting became both the means and the end. From being a proxy actor, he went on to become the star of the stage, working with veterans Arvind Gaur and NK Sharma for seven years. Gaur remembers a time when Dobriyal would rehearse till 1 am and return at 6 am for more — having walked most part of the 15 km from home to Mandi House. Those years were crammed with selfimprovement. He read books, saw world cinema, listened to a variety of music and, finally, learnt to accept his weaknesses and turn them into strengths.
For a low-income family, having the elder son eke out a living from theatre was not good news. His father coerced him to quit acting, but the amenable Dobriyal had discovered a latent rebel streak. “Theatre helped me discover I was not just a spineless nice guy,” he says. He had an uneasy relationship with his father who never touched him when he was a child. Never hugged him until his mother passed away in 2007. “In Indian families, sons often grow up stunted, without being able to express affection. I wish I had a closer relationship with my father,” says Dobriyal. He found new selves and new family in theatre. With a bunch of theatre buddies, he moved to Mumbai 10 years ago. The initial years were inevitable struggle, till he found a no-lines part in Maqbool and a small role in Blue Umbrella, before becoming Rajju in Omkara — a part that won him a Filmfare Award in 2006.
Theatre had melted his anxieties about being a provincial nobody. Now cinema is ensuring that he — along with Rajpal Yadav and Vijay Raaz — plays nothing else. His next two films are Mumbai Cutting and Teen Thay Bhai. In Teen Thay Bhai, perhaps one should not be surprised that he plays a man called Happy. In Mumbai Cutting, a set of 10 short films, his is the only silent segment. He plays an actor who comes to Mumbai and misses the train because he doesn’t know how to get on. “People cannot see beyond the image they have of me. They see me as someone from the mofussil as a result of my physicality, language and mannerism,” says Dobriyal.
Dobriyal always had an uneasy relationship with his father who never hugged him until his mother passed away in 2007
It must be frustrating for an actor who on stage played the lead in classics by Shakespeare, Girish Karnad and Eugene O’Neill, to be reduced to a comic sidekick. But what is intriguing is his reason for leaving theatre. “It reached a point where theatre became too exacting. I’d be ill and puking before a performance.” Rajan Kwatra, a theatre friend from Delhi, uses a strange phrase, calling him “too intense an actor”. Unreasonably high expectations of himself with few tangible rewards — suddenly you have a faint inkling of why his nerves would make him throw up before a show.
Mumbai must have comfortingly low expectations but Dobriyal hasn’t let go that much. His wife Lara — they met on the sets of Omkara, where she was the second assistant director — says all the relationships in his life come second to acting. “He can be psychotic when preparing for a role. While shooting for Delhi 6, he refused to touch mutton.” Because the character has a soft spot for his pet goat.
In a recent film Daayen Ya Baayen, Dobriyal has played a man who returns to his village in Uttarakhand to open a centre for performing arts after failing to make the cut in Mumbai. Unlike the character, he’s in no hurry to return home. Dobriyal believes he will soon break out of the stereotype. His grand ambition is to act in biopics on the lives of the two men he admires, Major Dhyan Chand and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan — undeterred by Nusrat’s dimensions; he’s played a 65-year-old on stage, without make-up.
He wakes up early to do voice exercises, and watches world cinema without subtitles to concentrate purely on the performances. Rumour has it when he spots movies with great performances that challenge him, he locks himself in his house practising the role by himself. Imagine then the pathos of this perhaps apocryphal story — Deepak Dobriyal staging the Joker from The Dark Knight inside an empty house for an audience of one — himself.