There is nothing in common between the Netflix web series Betaal and Amazon Prime Video’s Paatal Lok, except, perhaps, their dark themes and the actor Ankur Vikal.

In the horror-themed Betaal, Vikal plays Bhunnu the engineer. In Paatal Lok, he is the one-eyed dacoit Kana Commando.

We will be seeing more of the National School of Drama-trained actor over the next few months. After the stage and the screen, Vikal is now travelling through the streaming universe with such upcoming shows as Baahubali: Before the Beginning and the third season of Inside Edge. In Amol Gupte’s under-production biopic Saina, starring Parineeti Chopra, Vikal plays Saina Nehwal’s coach.

“Sometimes casting directors remember me and sometimes I call them and remind them I exist,” Vikal told “I still go to auditions for even two-bit roles, while many actors after gaining some experience don’t. I feel like I should give everything a fair shot, and I feel rejuvenated because of the enthusiasm and spirit of young talent in the auditions.”

Aahana Kumra and Ankur Vikal in Betaal (2020). Courtesy Red Chillies Entertainment/Netflix.

Some roles fell into Vikal’s lap, such as Kana Commando in Paatal Lok. “Right after finishing Baahubali, someone called me to say the person supposed to play the role in Paatal Lok, then called Jamuna Paar, dropped out for whatever reason, and if I could come for two days to Chitrakoot to shoot,” he said. “I thought, why not.”

He has a distaste for what he calls the entertainment industry’s “unwholesome” practices, which push actors to engage in “perception building” – something he is not a fan of as it is “completely divorced” from his craft, which he took up as a way to “pursue truth”. Yet, Vikal has been steadily racking up the credits, which include the Macduff-based Riyaz Boti in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Macbeth-inspired Maqbool (2003), Bharatbala’s Maryan (2013), Siddharth Anand’s Bang Bang (2014), Pawan Kripalani’s Phobia (2016), and Tabrez Noorani’s Love Sonia (2018).

In the 2000s, Vikal rode the crest of the short-lived Hindi indie wave, headlining Mahesh Dattani’s gay-themed Mango Souffle (2002), the experimental Missed Call (2005), and Ashwin Kumar’s thriller The Forest (2009). Among his most mainstream films was Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2009), in which he played the gangster Maman.

Ankur Vikal as Riyaz Boti in Maqbool (2003). Courtesy Vishal Bhardwaj Productions.

“I have done theatre as truthfully as I could and simultaneously did the films that organically came my way,” Vikal said. “I am not on social media, as presenting a certain self and clicking selfies has nothing to do with my job. I never bought PR, since I thought if I did my job truthfully, someone somewhere will join the dots one day, and realise I’m sincere with my work. Publicity makes you visible. You can only observe life and apply it to your craft if you are invisible.”

Vikal honed his craft on the stage. His first play was in 2001, in the Motley theatre group’s Manto Ismat Hazir Hain. Vikal played Saadat Hasan Manto. The role was initially offered to Irrfan, who rejected it since he wanted to focus on his film career.

Since then, Vikal has starred in Motley’s Safed Jhooth Kaali Shalwar, All Thieves, and The Caine Mutiny Court Martial, among others. Between 2013 and 2015, Vikal travelled worldwide with Yael Farber’s play Nirbhaya, based on the 2012 Delhi gang-rape and murder. Vikal played all the male roles in the play developed around the experiences of the sexual abuse of his six female co-actors, which included Priyanka Bose and Poorna Jagannathan.

Three years of travelling with Nirbhaya kept Vikal away from the movies. But even before Nirbhaya, he had been ducking out of the spotlight.

Even as Slumdog Millionaire was winning big through the awards season in 2009 and 2010, Vikal excused himself from joining the rest of the cast for the global tour so that he could rehearse for The Caine Mutiny Court Marshal. In 2009, Slumdog Millionaire won an award for Outstanding Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Motion Picture at the Screen Actors Guild Awards in Los Angeles. Vikal’s SAG citation was couriered to him at his address in Mumbai.

Ankur Vikal and Priyanka Bose performing 'Nirbhaya'. Courtesy Farber Foundry.

Vikal attributes his perspective towards life and acting to his schoolteacher mother Veena and his labour rights activist father Ajit, who changed 25 jobs over his career.

“Because of his views, he kept switching jobs, and we kept changing addresses,” Vikal said. “This nomadic life and the often precarious financial condition made me ready for the actor’s life later on.”

The youngest of three siblings, Ankur Vikal grew up in Surat in Gujarat. His surname is actually the pen name of his poet grandfather Vidhyaratna, who grew up in an orphanage in Lahore and moved to Gujarat before the Partition in 1947.

Vikal set out to train as an architect in Vadodara, but instead began acting in plays. Architecture was soon chucked aside for the pursuit of creating character blueprints.

After graduating from NSD in Delhi, Vikal moved to Mumbai. “Most NSD graduates use theatre as a stepping stone to get films,” he observed. “For me, theatre was my primary job, and films happened on the side.”

His early experience with showbiz left him wary. “For almost all the films I did in the 2000s, even big ones like Maqbool and Striker, I never got paid,” he claimed. “I would call the producer from PCOs, but they wouldn’t pick up. Then I left them to their conscience.”

The situation isn’t very different today: “If a film is made in 100 rupees, one actor gets 85 rupees, and then the film is made with the remaining 15, from which you have to also negotiate your pay. I am not down with that.”

Points of Origin (2016), featuring Ankur Vikal and Tessa Thompson.

The need to be stubbornly principled, even at the cost of wider exposure, was underscored by an incident that took place before the premiere of Manto Ismat Hazir Hain in Mumbai in 2001.

“My father was driving down to Mumbai from Surat to see me perform, and on the way he had a cardiac arrest and died,” Vikal said. “I cremated him and went back to doing the play. I thought, why do I need an audience to pursue truth through acting? What is this notion of success? An actor should be able to do his job invisibly.”

By staying the course, Vikal feels that he can “manifest the roles” that are meant for him: “It’s maybe a bit harder in our country, than outside, as here, points of origin matter. Where you end up in life is largely dependent on where you begin.”

As he navigates the new directions in his career, with the cat Tigger and a garden filled with flowering plants, herbs and vegetables for company, one question lingers: does he feel that he missed the bus? Hindi mainstream cinema has undergone a sea change in recent years, with unconventional actors going on to becoming prominent names and stars in their own right.

“I just think this industry is skewed, and chasing stardom and success here isn’t worth it,” Vikal said. “The actors I looked up to are, for example, Utpal Dutt, who did his movies, but also lived and moved among the people, did people’s theatre. For me, the whole business of storytelling is about telling truth. I know my way of life might be a losing battle, but I want to go down all guns blazing.”

Missed Call (2005).

Also read:

‘Paatal Lok’ review: A halfway tour of hell on earth

‘Betaal’ review: Horror-themed web series cannot be taken seriously even if its makers want you to