Randeep Hooda has had a mixed career graph ever since he first burst onto the scene in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001). He has appeared in a string of roles that range from overlooked to forgettable, including in D (2005), Risk (2007), Mere Khwabon Me Jo Aaye (2009), Love Khichdi (2009) and Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster (2011). Hooda’s female fan following has swelled with his shirtless appearances in Jism 2 (2012) and Rang Rasiya (2014), but critical acclaim has come his way only after he played a soft-hearted Haryanvi kidnapper in Highway (2014).
Hooda has been the leading man in several films of late, including Main Aur Charles (2014), Laal Rang (2016) and Sarbjit (2016), and he is back on the screen with the June 10 release Do Lafzon Ki Kahani, a romantic drama co-starring Telugu actress Kajal Aggarwal. The 39-year-old actor and polo player impressed critics and audiences with his performance in Sarbjit, for which he lost and regained 30 kilos to essay the titular character of an Indian prisoner in a Pakistani prison. His physical abilities will be on display yet again in Do Lafzon Ki Kahani, in which he plays a mixed martial arts practitioner, and the July release Sultan, in which he is the coach of the wrestler played by Salman Khan. Now, more than ever before, physicality is shaping his acting future, Hooda says in an interview.
The Randeep Hooda story finally seems to be picking up. What were the changes in your approach that have contributed to the making of Version 2.0?
If you mean my career post Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, well, then yes. Earlier I did a lot of films with first-time time directors. Monsoon Wedding was a really long time back. There was no standing for most of the films I did after that, including D. There were not bad films at all and I really enjoyed doing them. But in our country, you need to get the films out to the audiences and that was not happening.
So yes, there was a phase when nothing was working out until Once Upon a Time happened and with stars and names bigger than myself – Balaji, Milan [Luthria], Ajay [Devgn]– the film reached the right audience and people took notice of me. And then Tigmanshu Dhulia offered me Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster in which I was with very talented actors – Jimmy Shergill, Mahie Gill – and found a platform again for myself. Since then, I have been doing films that have helped me get recognition and adulation for my work. I grew, matured as an actor and my association with Naseer [Naseeruddin Shah’s Motley theatre group] also helped me a lot. The industry began to give me a lot more eyeballs.
How much of this change was organic and how much was it a more structured, methodical approach towards picking projects?
There was a lot of providence with Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai. Milan Luthria and I are members of a riding club. In fact, he and Naseer had signed my admission form. Milan wanted me to do the film and would not take a ‘no’ for an answer.
Just before that I had broken a leg – a horse fell on me while I was playing polo. I was at home when Naseer visited me. He asked me, “What’s happening to your career?” And I had a chat with him for the first time. I used to be too idealistic about my work until then. My idea of films and filmmaking was very different. I changed myself over time. Yes, I missed my bigger opportunities. If I had not turned down Rock On! and Rang De Basanti, my graph would have been very different indeed.
Why did you turn down ‘Rock On! and ‘Rang De Basanti’?
Very stupid, stupid reasons… very stupid reasons. Thankfully it’s all in the past. I think I used to take myself too seriously. The ability to laugh at oneself is very important. I was at a party, chatting with Farhan Akhtar, who told me that it is important to handle recognition that comes your way by retaining the ability to laugh at yourself. I am serious about my work. But I also know how to make light of things. I can be really witty. The famous Haryanvi sense of humour is there alright.
What happens when a film does badly but your performance gets appreciated? It has happened to several of your films, most recently ‘Sarbjit’.
It is a very, very sad thing to happen. As an actor you are not remembered for your performance but your performance in a good film. But it does not change my equation with the director, unless it is already sour. You work as a team and if you are good friends – and I share a very intimate relationship with my directors emotionally and psychologically – it does not change the equations.
For instance, Laal Rang got mixed reviews. It was not a bad film. It is a very India-specific film and I got a lot of praise for my acting. It remains one of my dearest, most favourite performances because it allowed me to reinterpret my state Haryana in a different way and was about reacquainting audiences with folk songs with a modern touch. But it got a raw deal because of an inexperienced producer. It broke my heart. I believe it was not given a proper chance. The writer is a dear friend and very talented and we do hang out a lot.
Did the same thing happen with ‘Main Aur Charles’?
Yes, Main Aur Charles as well. I think it was pitched incorrectly, even though we shouted from the rooftops that it was not a biopic but about a jailbreak. The title also said Main Aur Charles. When some of the prisoners involved with the jailbreak saw the film, they appreciated its accuracy. It was a misplaced film in that sense.
Many of my films require a different kind of marketing approach that cannot follow the usual trailer-song-release approach. They have suffered because of template marketing, but I remain very proud of all these films because they have added to my diversity as an actor. If I had any career adviser, I may not have experimented so much, not played so many diverse and beautiful characters. I am sure that 50 years from now, these Randeep Hooda films would be considered as works of art. And now with Netflix and other platforms, these films may not have done well at the box office, but they will eventually find their audience.
Physicality has played a very important part in all your films.
Now more than ever!
There is a perception in the Hindi film industry that male actors who are obviously sexy are not taken seriously. Do you agree?
Ha, ha, ha, ha! That could be the case, but then not that many actors fit that description. I have not had trouble fitting into both categories. Even in my unkempt best – whether it is Highway or D – to my surprise, there has been a huge female appreciation.
From ‘Laal Rang’ and ‘Sarbjit’ to ‘Do Lafzon Ki Kahani’ to ‘Sultan’, that’s quite an eclectic lot for a single year. It brings us back to the topic of balancing risky projects with commercial releases.
Do Lafzon is a quintessential formulaic love story with great songs and two good-looking people in an emotional love story. A better example would be the year Highway released. It was not a typical Sajid Nadiadwala production and was not supposed to get those kind of eyeballs. There was also Rang Rasiya, which released after a delay of eight-nine years. It came at a time when biopics were not the flavour of the season. And then Kick was released and I had the best role any male actor could have in any Salman Khan film. I got appreciation in all three. The marketing and distribution of these films made a difference to my career. I take pride in all these genres, in the diversity of my work.
Would it be fair to say that ‘Do Lafzon’ is a departure from the dark, brooding characters you have played so far?
I stay away from such generalisations. Do Lafzon is a Hindi version of a Korean film [Always] that plays on the fantasies of every young woman about falling in love with a man who will protect her with his physical prowess. It is also the ultimate male fantasy to be able to do so. It is a quintessential love story with a washed-up mixed marital arts guy with a troubled past and a lovely young girl. It is one of my biggest commercial films so far with some great songs and action. But it is not a departure from all my previous roles. That distinction should go to my character Shankar from Laal Rang. He is the coolest guy I have ever played.
Does the theatre discipline help you to get under the skin of the character literally?
The discipline you are talking about is something I imbibed from Naseer – the work ethics and approach. In fact, he is recasting me in a play I had done with him earlier. I am a product of Motley, having worked with Ratna Pathak Shah and Benjamin Gilani. The physical transformation I go through is just my own understanding of the part. I enjoy theatre and I love the instant gratification of the medium. But I feel films are tougher because you are required to remain in character for a longer time.