You are an engineer, don’t waste time on acting – that’s what The Viral Fever’s Jitendra Kumar was told when he tried out for the National School of Drama six years ago.
The rebuke only strengthened the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur graduate’s resolve to act and in 2013, he moved to Mumbai and joined comedy collective TVF. Kumar has since become one of TVF’s most prominent faces. His everyman roles in the TVF web series Pitchers and Permanent Roommates have made him an internet star. Earlier this month, he made his Bollywood debut in Qasim Khallow’s Gone Kesh, as the boyfriend of a woman undergoing premature balding.
Kumar’s latest appearance is as Jeetu bhaiyya, a too-good-to-be-true teacher at a coaching institute for IIT aspirants in the TVF web series Kota Factory. Jeetu, who does not like to be called “sir”, balances tough love with support and appreciation for his students. Kota Factory was premiered on YouTube and TVFPlay on April 16, with new episodes out every week.
In an interview, Kumar talked about how an IIT graduate became an actor and how he wants his career to shape up.
Describe Jeetu bhaiya.
Students leave their homes and parents at the age of 14-15 and come to this harsh environment of Kota to live for two years. Suddenly, their support system is gone. You take one-two months to adjust to the lifestyle itself. Your friends and a few teachers become your backbone. Jeetu is one of those teachers who looks out for his students and makes their life easy.
Did you have teachers that good in Kota, where you studied for two years?
Teachers are attentive towards two types of students. The very good and the very weak ones. I was in the middle, so I never got attention.
But yes, there are a few teachers like that. They told us, don’t stress about studies for the first few months. They said, stay here, adjust, make friends, automatically studies will begin.
‘Kota Factory’ creator Saurabh Sharma told ‘Scroll.in’ earlier that the series rallies against the negative representation of engineering and coaching-class culture. What are your thoughts?
What you see in 3 Idiots is 60%-70% true. Most kids going to Kota are from the middle class. They have been told that they have no option but to find a quick career through engineering because they don’t have the means to explore art or business. Later, they realise that coming here was wrong, and this is difficult. The pressure begins.
The pressure is also there because the kids know that back home, everyone is genuinely supporting them and rooting for their success. The kids cannot let them down. There’s also a lot of herd mentality. A case of their-boy-did-it-so-ours-should-too. I don’t know the solution to this: a better education system or a change in perspective.
This did not exist few centuries back. Someone could make good clay pots, and that is what they did to make a living. Now, people try to fit themselves into a career. It’s a very recent invention.
What do you make of the uptick in engineering-related fiction online and the number of engineers turning online content creators? TVF too was founded by IIT alumni.
Engineers always switched paths. They moved to MBA or took UPSC [Union Public Service Commission] exams. With the creative industry, there wasn’t a straight roadmap. Here, the internet helped and TVF’s work was influential. Suddenly, the engineering kids saw, we can do whatever we have the knack for.
As for so much engineering-related content everywhere, it’s because everyone tells their own story first. Engineers took to the web content space early on, and they told their stories. You got Pitchers, Kota Factory, and other stuff.
Your acting experience began with plays at IIT Kharagpur.
I was part of the Hindi Dramatic Society, for whom I did a lot of plays – of [Rabindranath] Tagore, Vijay Tendulkar, Mahesh Dattani. My favourite role was that of Tendulkar saab’s Sakharam Binder [in the Marathi play of the same name]. The appreciation I got for that made me confident about my acting skills.
The video that first made you a star was ‘Munna Jazbati’, where you play an over-emotional intern.
After finishing IIT in 2012, My senior Biswapati Sarkar and I joined TVF. Then, they had only done Rowdies, which became popular. I acted in a video called Har Friend Zaroori Nahin Hota, which wasn’t well-received then.
Biswa had a script set in an engineering college, and he had this character Munna Jazbati, who’s emotional about everything. I acted in the video. But the response to the first video was disappointing. I left for Bangalore to work in a compuany.
Munna Jazbati was released a few months later. It was a huge hit. My office colleagues were super-impressed and were like, you’re an actor, boss. I decided to go to NSD.
What was the National School of Drama experience like?
I cleared round one of the interview, but I wasn’t prepared enough, since at NSD, you need to know dance and classical music in addition to acting. The interviewer told me what’s the point of entering the acting profession being an engineer? I took it badly, though now I see where he was coming from.
To prove him wrong, I came to Mumbai and joined TVF full-time. In fact, I am one of the few lucky actors who began acting from his first day in Mumbai.
You mimicked Aam Aadmi Party Chief Arvind Kejriwal in his presence?
Arvind Kejriwal had already seen the video where I mimicked him for the first time. He met me and said, you act very well. During the video, he was surprised the entire time and kept looking at me, shocked and trying to suppress laughter.
I am not a professional mimic. I can mimic around a written character. Copying mannerisms is more important than voice-mimicking. Doing Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Nana Patekar is easy. Kejriwal was tough. I kept seeing his speeches till I got a handle on his mannerisms.
Sometimes, I flopped. For Bindaas channel’s Change Aayega, Hum Laayenge, we would do 10-minute gags. I mimicked Saif Ali Khan. It was atrocious and I hope no one saw it.
What’s the story behind your Twitter handle Farjigulzar?
I discovered poetry at IIT. There, I became a huge Gulzar fan. I fell in love with his way describing complex emotions in simple ways, and even I started writing poetry. I remember loving his poem Makaan Ki Oopar Manzil and Yaad Hai Ek Din. At TVF, everyone had cool Twitter handles. Someone suggested naming me copycat Gulzar and I went with that.
What are your thoughts on the commercial failure of ‘Gone Kesh’ and what is your next project?
My next film is Chaman Bahaar, a Yoodlee Films production. I play a paan-seller who is in love with a woman in a small town, and she doesn’t love him back.
With Gone Kesh, I was both satisfied and disheartened. Satisfied because it’s not easy to go up on the big screen, and I loved watching myself on it. The film was seen by very few people, but whoever saw it, appreciated the film and me. Disheartened because I wish more people saw it. But with a digital release, I feel it will find an audience.