The new year holds out the promise of new beginnings for Emraan Hashmi. After ending 2018 with an acclaimed performance as a whistleblower in Danis Tanovic’s Tigers, Hashmi’s first release in 2019 is Why Cheat India. The 39-year-old actor plays Rakesh Singh, a conman who runs an entrance examination racket in Lucknow. Hashmi is also starring in the Netflix series Bard of Blood and Father’s Day, a biopic of Indian detective Suryakant Bhande Patil.

Directed by Soumik Sen, Why Cheat India is Hashmi’s first film as a producer. The January 18 release, which also stars Shreya Dhanwanthary, has been co-produced by Emraan Hashmi Films and Ellipsis Entertainment. It was previously titled Cheat India.

Hashmi made his debut in Vikram Bhatt’s Footpath in 2003. This was followed by frequent collaborations with his uncle and filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt in Murder (2004), Gangster (2006), Jannat (2008) and Raaz (2009). Other notable productions include The Dirty Picture (2011), Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai (2011), Shanghai (2012) and Azhar (2016). Why Cheat India marks “the beginning of a new journey”, Hashmi told during a recent interview in Mumbai.

You ended 2018 with an acclaimed performance in ‘Tigers’. Was ‘Why Cheat India’ a challenging role too?
It has been very challenging. It is completely demolishing what I have done before as an actor. I am starting afresh with this film, and I think this is the beginning of a new journey. It is time to phase out the films that have been successful and go into a slightly experiential zone.

The texture and the tone of the film is real, yet entertaining. It is almost like a camera has been placed in the homes in Lucknow. It is a good departure from what I have been doing before. And so it is a bit nerve-wracking. I just hope that I get accepted.

Why Cheat India (2019).

What interested you about your character Rakesh Singh? And what does the film say about cheating and the education system?
What struck me about Rakesh was his duality. He looks like such a nice guy with starched shirts. He prays to god every morning. But he does some of the most devious things.

We had to bring about that balance of not looking at a wheeler-dealer in a typical way, a certain unpredictability. He is a guy you might hate or a guy you might love. He has some very endearing qualities, which has come out well in the writing.

The film speaks about how the whole education system needs an overhaul and a revolution. Cheating is just one aspect of it. Our education system is fundamentally flawed: the government spend and the lack of it, mugging, disinterested and unqualified teachers, the lack of university seats. The list is endless. And then there is the cheating mafia, which is eroding the system and making it from bad to worse.

With ‘Why Cheat India’, you are also turning into a producer.
Production is a very different ball game. It is about a series of decisions you have got to make and live by. You learn along the way, and I am on a journey where I am willing to learn on the job. Thankfully in this film, I have partners who have delegated the work. I would have gone mad if I was an actor and a producer.

I am looking to produce more high-concept films. I am producing Father’s Day, which is a biopic. I want to offer something unique to the audience.

Dil Mein Ho Tum, Why Cheat India (2019).

How differently do you look at a story today than, say, a few years ago?
I want a good story. I see the passion of the director who is making the film. The writing has to be fantastic and novel. The story and characters are important. Sometimes you don’t know the ability of filmmakers and get on board just because of their passion.

Films like Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, Shanghai, Awarapan and Jannat challenged me. They steered my career into a fresh direction. Whenever I have ended up taking a risk and tried something new, it has paid off. I am hoping Cheat India does that too.

When did you decide that it was time to take a different route? Was it because of the serial kisser tag that has dogged you through so many films?
In our industry, you generally end up in a box. You can’t deviate too much from your roles. But things are changing, and what looked arty or out of the box are being explored today and are becoming commercially successful.

It is going to be 18 years in the industry for me. My turning point was not based on one film, but a series of films. There was no one particular moment, but with many of the films, I felt like there was a been-there-done-that feel to them. As an actor, it was very important to spread my wings and try unique roles.

Pee Loon, Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai (2010).

Was it challenging to shed the roguish lover boy image?
It is very hard, and I am still trying. Sometimes, an image gets so strongly etched in an audience’s mind that it becomes difficult to break out of it. But it is important to do that from time to time. It is tough – you’re known for a few things that have worked in your favour and you have to try that much harder.

You have often said that competition propels you to become a better actor. What are you up against?
It is fiercely competitive. It is not like it wasn’t competitive when I started out. But it has gotten even more competitive. You have generation shifts every couple of years now. Earlier, it took a decade or two. Fresh talent is tuned into the stuff that is accepted. You have got to be on your toes.

Tigers (2018).

Your next project is the Netflix show ‘Bard of Blood’, an adaptation of Bilal Siddiqi’s novel.
The book itself interested me when I read it long back. I have been following many web series. As an actor, you get a chance to sink your teeth into different kinds of roles. You get more hours to form that arc for a character, while you might get only two hours in a film. It is a great platform for any actor who is greedy.

You had collaborated with Bilal Siddiqi for your memoir ‘The Kiss of Life’, which details your son Ayaan’s battle with cancer.
The experience changed me and made me more responsible as a person. I realised that I have got basic, nascent writing skills, even though it was a collaborative effort with Bilal. It was a kind of cleansing as I went through that experience six months before I started writing the book. The process was cathartic.

I think it also changed the way I look at films. It had a psychological effect. Any huge event in life can completely change you as a person. I don’t know how, but it did definitely did change something in me.