“Underrated actor” is a tag that follows Arshad Warsi everywhere. The description does not bother the 50-year-old actor. “It’s better to be underrated than overrated,” he told Scroll.in.

During a recent interview at the Mumbai office of Prakash Jha Productions, Warsi was visibly tired after a long day of photo shoots and jet-lagged from a recent Paris trip but enthusiastic about his upcoming film Fraud Saiyaan. Directed by Sourabh Shrivastava and produced by Jha, the January 18 release stars Warsi as a confidence trickster who marries many women and lives off them. “It’s a very interesting film, a complete comedy,” Warsi said. “For an actor it’s very interesting because being a fraud, I personally feel, requires talent, to be so convincing.”

It’s a rare occasion that Warsi is in the lead role and is not playing second fiddle to a less accomplished actor, but that’s not something that drove him to take the film, he said. “I do films purely based on if I like the script,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if there are two, five or 10 heroes. The last film I found interesting was Jolly LLB, to be honest, and then this.”

In Subhash Kapoor’s 2013 comedy, Warsi played a small-time lawyer taking on big fish. The success of Jolly LLB paved the way for a more expensive sequel, with Akshay Kumar replacing Warsi. In the interim, Warsi starred in several forgettable films, including Mr Joe B. Carvalho (2014), Welcome 2 Karachi (2015), Guddu Rangeela (2015), The Legend of Michael Mishra (2016) and Bhaiaji Superhit (2018). Warsi’s hopes, then, are riding high on Fraud Saiyaan: “I really hope it does well.”

Fraud Saiyaan (2019).

Fraud Saiyaan, which also stars Saurabh Shukla, Sara Loren, Elli Avram and Flora Saini, was filmed in 2014, but its release was held up for several years. Are there concerns about whether the film’s premise will hold up today? “It doesn’t make a difference,” Warsi said. “If it was a very topical or political film, maybe it would have been dated, but it’s a comedy film.”

Warsi has been stuck with comedy ever since the success of Rajkumar Hirani’s Munnabhai MBBS (2003), in which he played the lovable lout Circuit, a sidekick to Sanjay Dutt’s goon-turned-doctor. Warsi reprised the role in the sequel, Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006). The films rebooted Warsi’s career, which had been wavering since his debut Tere Mere Sapne in 1996, but also boxed him in despite his range.

Warsi, though, is not complaining. “It’s very simple. Eight out of 10 films that are made in India are comedies,” he said. “Even our serious films have comedy in them. People like comedy, maybe because there’s too much stress in the world. And it’s a safe bet for producers also. And because I’ve done comedy and people have liked it, I automatically become one of the preferences [for such roles].”

Munnabhai MBBS (2003).

The rare occasions when Warsi has done a serious role, he has been appreciated. One such notable performance was in Kabeer Kaushik’s 2005 crime drama Sehar, in which Warsi played an honest police officer who brings down a notorious gangster. “Kabeer came to me and narrated the script and I completely loved it,” Warsi said. “And I asked him – are you sure, because I’m known to do comedy. But hats off to him. He was very clear. He said, you’re a good actor and that’s all I’m interested in.”

For Warsi, Sehar remains one of his most memorable films, along with Abhishek Chaubey’s Ishqiya (2010). In the dark comedy, Warsi and Naseeruddin Shah play a nephew-uncle pair of criminals who are tricked by Vidya Balan’s seductress. “That was a very interesting character,” Warsi said. “It’s not comedy really. I enjoy my work, and I have a good time whatever I do.”

Warsi has also been a dependable member of ensemble-led comedy franchises, such as Dhamaal and Golmaal. Doesn’t he wish he had more opportunities to tap into his versatility? “I would have liked that, but it’s a business at the end of the day,” he said. “There’s a person who’s investing money and people who are coming to watch and they want their money’s worth. So I can’t blame anybody. You’ve got to be realistic. In fact, I’m very fortunate that in spite of this, I’ve reached that stage where you can’t say that I only do comedy. Which is not there in all actors.”

Ishqiya (2010).

Part of Warsi’s practical approach perhaps comes from his early years of hardship. Orphaned at a young age, he took up odd jobs to earn a living before becoming a professional dancer. He got his first film “literally suddenly”, he said, when Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited approached him for Tere Mere Sapne. “I tried my best to get out of the first film because I was so nervous,” Warsi said. “Because for me, actors were some people who were fortunate and gifted. I never believed I was one of them. And the fear of failure was really strong.”

Warsi even left a message on his director Joy Augustine’s phone backing out of the film, but the next thing he knew, he had a plane ticket in hand and had to turn up for the shoot. Jaya Bachchan offered him the role without a screen test. “I asked her, why did you take me? I wouldn’t take me,” Warsi explained. “She said, you shot a roll of 36 pictures, one after the other, and you had no qualms about the camera. You were comfortable. And that’s a huge quality.”

Aankh Maare, Tere Mere Sapne (1996).

The year looks promising for Warsi. He is headlining an upcoming web series, Asura, which co-stars Barun Sobti and will be released on Voot. “It’s a murder mystery, a psychological thriller,” Warsi revealed. “I play a forensic scientist. Usually we’re very Hollywood-influenced when it comes to this genre. But this is very local, it has mythology and other familiar concepts. And it’s a bloody good script – I just couldn’t say no.” Apart from Asura, the actor will be seen in Total Dhamaal, the third in the Dhamaal series, and Anees Bazmee’s comedy Pagalpanti.

Despite multiple setbacks, Warsi has landed on his feet each time. How does he deal with the ups and downs? “I’m the only actor who was jobless for almost three years and then I signed a film, and then again I was jobless,” he said. “But giving up on yourself is the worst thing to do. People will do what they do – they will give up on you, then believe on you – that will always happen. I’ve always believed that I know my job. Sooner or later, others will also know.”

This faith in his skills has been his biggest strength. “The problem lies when you don’t know your job and are conning your way through your career,” he said. “There are so many yesteryear actors, of which only a handful are still working. The ones who are good continue, the rest fade away.”

Sehar (2005).