In an early scene in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar, a question by Brijendra Kala’s journalist character, “How did you become a dacoit?”, gives Irrfan’s titular bandit the opening for one of the late actor’s most memorable lines ever: “You find rebels in the ravines, dacoits you get at the parliament.”
This has been the highlight of Kala’s two-decade acting career – providing able support to the star while also holding his own. Other examples include his laidback taxi driver in Imtiaz Ali’s Jab We Met (2007), the idol seller in Rajkumar Hirani’s PK (2014), the next-door neighbour in Rajat Kapoor’s Ankhon Dekhi (2014), and the marriage fixer in Aanand L Rai’s Zero (2018).
In these films and countless others, the 55-year-old actor shares key scenes with the leads while also elevating his bit roles into something more flavourful. Kala has an inimitably wry way of delivering dialogue, slow at one minute and so quick in the next that he’s nearly incomprehensible, accompanied by slight but deliberate movements.
Kala has a similar role in Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo, which is out on Amazon Prime Video on June 12. Kala’s Lucknow lawyer shares several scenes with Amitabh Bachchan’s eccentric landlord Mirza who wants to get rid of his brash tenant Banke (Ayushmann Khurrana).
“After four-five takes of a scene, Shoojit said it’s all good, but then Amitabh sir said, wait, Kala ji, why don’t you do this scene one more time, but in your own style, just as how you would do it,” Kala told Scroll.in. “That for me was a big moment, seeing Amitabh sir being aware of what each actor does in their other works.”
Kala had high praise for Juhi Chaturvedi’s screenplay: “Usually with my roles, I’d say that what you see on the screen is 50 per cent contribution from the writer and director and 50 per cent my own hard work. But with Gulabo Sitabo, my character was all there on the page. The last time this happened was in Paan Singh Tomar.”
Since first appearing in Dhulia’s directorial debut Haasil, Kala has notched up over 60 acting credits. While he has never had one major role, he is a most dependable actor, whatever the movie.
“I cannot remember ever auditioning for a film role,” Kala said. “Usually directors have already decided me for a role, and they get the casting director to contact me. For films, I have only done look tests, and then I am immediately on set. I have only auditioned for TV ads.”
Kala describes his journey from his hometown in Uttarakhand to the glitz and glamour of the Mumbai film industry as the story of a “small-towner who has had to do everything possible to reach his goal.”
Kala was born in Sumari village in Pauri Garhwal district to a games superintendent in a veterinary college and a housewife. “I had three sisters, and I came from a middle-class home, which meant my family wanted me to join some government service,” Kala recalled. “So I studied BSc. also, but I had plans to act.”
As a child, Kala and his school buddies would regularly perform for the All India Radio programmes Balgopal and Yuvavani, transmitted from the Akashvani office in the nearby Uttar Pradesh town of Mathura.
A chance meeting there with film writer Achala Nagar (Nagina, Baghban), the daughter of Hindi writer Amritlal Nagar, was an early turning point. Kala joined her theatre group Swastik Rangmandal. Over the next 17-18 years, he acted in plays across India in cities like Delhi, Lucknow, and Mumbai.
Around this time, Kala applied to the National School of Drama, and later, the Shree Ram Centre for Performing Arts’ repertory. When neither worked out, Kala promised to himself in “filmi style” to forget Delhi and make it in Mumbai.
After reaching Mumbai in the early 1990s, Kala began assisting filmmakers such as Chander H Behl and helped Nagar with her writing assignments. These helped him pay his bills, but roles were hard to come by.
“One time, I took a reference letter from a cinematographer to a producer’s office, asking for a role,” Kala recalled. “They made me sit, have tea, then the filmmaker comes and tells me, see we have actors like Kiran Kumar, Shatrughan Sinha, Sonu Walia, Satish Shah, so you tell me, how can we pan the camera and show you? I did not understand if he meant I am not as good as these actors or if I am short so they can’t put me in the same frame.”
During this phase, Kala forged strong friendships with fellow strugglers, with whom he later collaborated, including Saurabh Shukla, Manoj Pahwa, Manoj Bajpayee, Sanjay Mishra, and Dhulia. Among Kala’s early roles in television was in the series Hum Bambai Nahi Jayenge, directed by Dhulia, which also featured Irrfan and Mishra.
“Those days we did not have much work but our constant banter and dreams saw us through,” Kala recalled. “And we kept chalking up plans for projects we could all work together in.” This led Kala to writing Bhoron Ne Khilaya Phool, one of the funniest episodes of the short-lived anthology series Star Bestsellers. Directed by Dhulia, Kala’s story followed a bunch of men conspiring against each other to win the heart of the local beauty. Irrfan played her father.
Television roles followed, alongside writing work for Ekta Kapoor’s soaps, including Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki. But Kala’s heart wasn’t in television. He yearned for a break in the movies. He had a small role in Aditya Bhattacharya’s unreleased Dubai Return. His first release was Haasil, in which he played a newspaper vendor who helps the hero (Jimmy Sheirgill) send a love letter to the right address.
It wasn’t until the back-to-back releases in 2007 and 2008 of Jab We Met and Mithya that Kala found recognition.
Mithya, written and directed by Rajat Kapoor, starred Kala as Shyam, a small-time crooked cop working for Naseeruddin Shah’s crime boss. Kala shared terrific chemistry with his equally impish partner Ram (Vinay Pathak).
Why has Kala become so indispensable in a film? The actor attributes this to his ability to evoke “apnapan”, or fellow feeling, through his characters.
“See what roles will I get in life?” Kala said. “Father, grandfather, uncle, or some government employee. In fact, I have played some cop or the other in nine-ten films. But what makes one inspector different from another? Therein comes the magic of the artist, who can correctly capture the right rhythm for each part.”