Gulshan Devaiah moved to Mumbai from Bangalore more than a decade ago to become a “good leading man who’s also a good actor, or even a great and legendary leading man, who’s a great and legendary actor”. Will he get there, as he hopes?

Devaiah’s latest effort is Amazon Prime Video’s series Afsos, which is out on February 7. Written by Dibya Chatterjee and Anirban Dasgupta, Afsos follows Devaiah’s Nakul, a clinically depressed writer who hires an assassin (Heeba Shah) to kill him after 11 failed suicide attempts. Things go awry when Nakul wants to abort the mission after developing feelings for his therapist (Anjali Patil).

“Sometimes, you suffer more in your imagination than reality,” the 41-year-old actor said about Nakul. The insecure, middle-class writer is similar to his sexually obsessed character Mandar Ponkshe in Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s Hunterrr (2015). Both are what he calls the “average Ramu”. Devaiah added, “What made Mandar special was him sleeping around to feel good about himself. What makes Nakul special are the circumstances he gets into for his glum outlook on life.”

Afsos (2020).

Devaiah is coming straight off from praise for his role of a village strongman-turned-alpha zombie in Dibakar Banerjee’s installment in Netflix’s anthology horror film Ghost Stories. Despite being in the movies since 2011, the 10-minute role, of which nine minutes are spent under unrecognisable make-up, has earned him some of the best reviews of his career. Devaiah had no expectations from the film and wasn’t sure he would be recognised at all, but he now wonders why the role has drawn so much attention.

“Perhaps, though everything seems very sudden, what I had been doing for so many years created a positive impression in people’s minds, so the effect was cumulative,” he said. “I would keep getting messages from my audience, that I am underrated and underutilised. Perhaps, with Ghost Stories, people thought I have got what I deserve.”

Off the top of his head, Devaiah remembers Karan Johar and Reema Kagti praising him for his ghoulish act. At least one of those handshakes materialised in a role: Devaiah is playing a policeman in Kagti’s Rajasthan-set web series Fallen, alongside Sohum Shah and Sonakshi Sinha.

Gulshan Devaiah in Ghost Stories (2020). Courtesy Netflix.

Devaiah’s career began with morally grey or outright negative roles in low-to-mid-budget productions such as That Girl in Yellow Boots (2011), Dum Maaro Dum (2011), Shaitan (2011), and Hate Story (2012). He played similar roles in commercial projects such as Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013) and Commando 3 (2019).

In between, he played diverse characters, including the double role of a don and a martial arts teacher in Vasan Bala’s Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018) and a serial womaniser in Hunterrr, a role that his fans still keep talking about.

Despite leading-man ambitions and an impressive resume, he didn’t quite hit the sweet star-actor spot. Devaiah attributes this to being clueless about converting the attention he received “between 2011 and 2013” to “hustle”.

“The only thing I knew to do was good work,” Devaiah said. “The others after me were better at hustling like Ayushmann Khurrana, Vicky Kaushal, Rajkummar Rao. I am learning from them.”

Is being good not good enough? “Idealism has its place but you also have to be practical,” Devaiah explained. “I don’t want to be dragged down thinking I am so good and hardworking but I didn’t get the chances I deserve. I see disappointment and disillusionment in veteran actors who’ve been around for 30-40 years. I constantly think about what am I not doing, where am I missing out. Sometimes, in an interview, I might have the right answers, but not the right attitude. That might be enough for someone to not choose me for a role. I keep these things in mind.”

Gulshan Devaiah as Jimmy and Karate Mani in Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2019).

Unlike his Afsos character, Devaiah is neither overtly bogged down by missed opportunities nor is he chasing big-banner productions. Most of his films have been made on limited budgets.

“Small banner, big banner is secondary for me,” Devaiah said. “My goal in life is to do roles through which I can challenge myself, surprise audiences. I don’t look for validation from a big director or big production house. The legacy I want to leave behind is of me being a versatile actor. Hunterrr or Mard were not big banner projects. But the connection I made with the audience with those roles is what I aim for.”

Some of Devaiah’s projects have either not been released or have gone straight to streaming platforms, which are not the best places for small movies to find audiences. There’s still no release date for Bala’s eight-year-old Peddlers. Kanishk Varma’s Hindi-Marathi bilingual thriller Daav/Haadsa, which stars Devaiah as a policeman, remains in the cans. The much-delayed Cabaret went straight to Zee5, while CandyFlip was released on Netflix.

But he cannot pick films based on the ability or willingness of their makers to release them, Devaiah said. He cited the example of Tarun Mansukhani’s Drive. “Did anyone expect a Dharma film to go straight to OTT?” he said. “Shit happens man, I can’t worry about it. I can’t even put it in my contract that the film must be released. I can only tackle things I have control of, like my film choices or performances.”

Gulshan Devaiah in Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013). Courtesy Bhansali Productions/Eros International.

Besides Fallen, Devaiah has nothing on his plate that he can talk about except a thriller Hinterland, announced long ago but yet to be shot. The film, also starring Manoj Bajpayee, “is about a man chasing another man, and how the system is rigged in a way that a conflict between two parties helps a third party”, he said.

Devaiah prefers to work on one project at a time. “Be it a three-day shoot or a 300-day shoot, if I can, I only eat, sleep, think one thing at a time,” he said. “I would say my work ethic of putting 100% attention to something is my biggest strength.”

Many acclaimed roles, a few commercial successes, and yet his best role didn’t even make a blip on the radar. “Hunterrr is the only brand value I have actually,” he said. “People were attracted to the nostalgia of the film. Everyone had one friend, brother, or cousin, who was like Mandar. Everyone, post-puberty, tried the sort of things Mandar did in the film. I definitely related to the things happening in his life, if not him exactly. Many women told me that they also related to the events in the film.”

Chori Chori, Hunterrr (2015).