It is a refreshing change to meet Saurabh Shukla. No wary PR person hanging on to every word, no pretence of higher artistry, no other media around, no excesses. “I don’t have any staff,” says Shukla. “No spotboy, manager, PR, or even a driver. But that keeps me happy. I have chosen to lead this kind of life. So I don’t regret that I don’t have a penthouse and I don’t drive a BMW. I am fine if I am not featured in the press, and it is also fine if I am not given an award.”
That last part, at least, is not true any more. This year, the Swarna Kamal for the Best Supporting Actor has been conferred on Shukla for his role of a judge in Subhash Kapoor’s Jolly LLB. In 1994, Shukla made his mark in the Shekhar Kapur-directed Bandit Queen. It took 20 years for recognition to come his way, and the irony is not lost on him.
“After 20 years in the industry, this is my first award as an actor,” he says. “It obviously felt nice; I felt very happy and felt all those emotions that anybody goes through. I want to thank people. But what has changed? Have they discovered me suddenly?”
Shukla’s friend, filmmaker Sudhir Mishra, who has been a member of multiple juries of Bollywood awards, offers a flattering, though baffling explanation. “I have often seen this with Saurabh that he becomes so integral to the character, so real, that you forget he is acting at all,” he says. “With him, you don’t think that it’s unreal. So, the subtleties of such performances go amiss with a jury.”
It is this ability to portray roles so close to lived experiences that sets Shukla apart. In Barfi (2012) and Jolly LLB (2013), he played comical characters in the Chaplinesque mould, where laughter and pathos go together. Till date, Shukla has not set foot inside a courtroom, and yet, has successfully built a world-weary, sarcastic persona for Justice Tripathi.
For Jolly LLB, Shukla and director Subhash Kapoor researched real stories of Delhi’s Tis Hazari Court. Shukla talks of a judge at the court who also runs a transport business on the side. “Every evening at 5 pm when the court closes, the bus reaches the premises and he takes over as conductor! He does that because he saves money on those two rounds,” he says. “We are not living in America, where if you are a judge, you get a big house and have your own courtroom. Where does a Tis Hazari Court judge live? Probably across the Yamuna, because it’s cheaper to rent there.”
Shukla added mannerisms to the judge to suit his character. “When I went to the shoot, I told Subhash this guy must have a perpetual tea problem,” he explains the process of delineation. “He starts his day early, his wife packs a tiffin and right from the moment he enters the courtroom till 5 pm, he does not find time to drink tea because he has too many cases. The only person he has is his orderly, so he keeps a heater inside his office. The orderly assumes that when the judge comes in, he will want tea at 9 am, so he keeps the tea ready before time. That means, his tea is perpetually cold by the time he takes the first sip, and he is always grumpy about this!” Shukla plays out this trait of Judge Tripathi almost to a fault in the climax courtroom scene.
His training as an actor from New Delhi’s National School of Drama has ingrained him in technique, but it is his regular-Joe origins that impact his performances. The actor treasures his privacy and does not talk about his family. Born into a middle-class family in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, Shukla grew up in Delhi. His parents moved to the city for their jobs and both taught music in Delhi University. While his father is no more, his mother still lives in the family house in North Delhi. He remembers how even then they would watch an average two films a week. That is where he caught the acting bug.
Although his performances in theatre earned him appreciation, they weren’t enough for him to pay his monthly bills. “There was one whole month when I lived on tea, didn’t eat anything because I had no money,” he recalls. “A kind soul from my theatre days gave me half-a-litre of milk each day, and I lived on that at night.” However, Shukla doesn’t remember his struggler days with remorse. “I don’t think of it as painful,” he says. “It was a very vibrant time for me.”
♦ In 1990, Saurabh Shukla gained popularity as Gopi in Vijay Anand’s detective series Tehkikaat on Doordarshan
♦ Shekhar Kapur had created the role of Kailash in Bandit Queen specially with Shukla in mind
♦ Till date, Shukla has written 13 films
♦ The actor is also popular in Mumbai’s English theatre circuit, with plays like Red Hot and Two to Tango Three to Jive getting multiple re-runs on public demand
In 1994, Shukla moved to Mumbai to act in Bandit Queen. The move, though financially beneficial, wasn’t an instant success. The first one-and-a-half years didn’t bring any work, but a brotherhood of film strugglers from Delhi kept him company. “Viktor Acharya, Manoj Bajpayee, Kannan Iyer, Tigmanshu Dhulia, we were all together. We came from Delhi and we didn’t have any money,” he says. “But somehow at the end of the week, the money turned up for booze and for the mutton.”
Shukla’s luck changed with the 1996 crime saga Satya. He co-wrote it with Anurag Kashyap, and the film finally got people talking about him. This is also the time when a new, collective voice had started to emerge in Hindi films and Shukla became a faithful journeyman. Occasional commercial roles have made him the money, like the colourful Saxena in the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Baadshah, but in his own words, “offered nothing to an actor”. In 2010, Shukla nearly gave up films because quality work had dried up.
Then, Barfi came along. Anurag Basu’s film was just a verbal idea, no script or dialogues, the kind of cinema that excited Shukla. “Barfi and Bandit Queen are somewhat similar,” he says. “Not the stories, but the process. In Barfi, we never had dialogues. Anurag used to come and tell us about a scene and what he wanted us to do. We could never tell where the story was going, but all of us had complete faith in the director.” Shukla says he knew Basu would take the story to the right conclusion and on his part, just focussed on getting the emotion right. “Ranbir Kapoor and I improvised each day, as my character is Barfi’s alter ego,” he says.
The actor is married to a Bengali (his wife Barnali dabbles in film direction) and has a Bengali mother. That, he says, makes him “90 per cent Bengali”. Inspector Datta of Barfi drew from this cultural familiarity.
Even today — in fact, more so now — Shukla gets excited by out-of-the-box offers like that of a scientist from Hyderabad who approached him with a 500-page script and an offer to shoot a film on a 5D camera. While the film never got made, Shukla finds the medium — hand-held storytelling — appealing.
At 51, Shukla owns a home, a car and a comfortable office in Mumbai: no mean feat for a man who has made his living by essaying character roles. Material gains, though not easy to put together, have not changed his attitude to his craft. He yearns to work with filmmakers like Anand Gandhi. “The characters are challenging and the actors are hungry too,” he says. “In the late ’70s to early ’90s, actors didn’t get anything to challenge them. Parallel cinema was happening, but that had very little impact. Mainstream cinema offered money but nothing for actors. Cinema is changing now.”
In the meantime, Shukla revels in a variety of roles, even surprising choices like Main Tera Hero. “I wanted to see if I could do it,” he says. This year’s itinerary promises to keep him busy. In the offing are films like Raju Hirani’s Peekay and a comic drama, where he plays the co-lead with Sanjay Mishra. For an actor like Shukla, it is a good time to be a character actor in Bollywood, and a 20-year-wait could perhaps just be a new beginning.
(Archita Kashyap is a freelance writer based in Mumbai)