First, there was Kumud Mishra’s genial canteen owner Khatana in Rockstar (2011). A few years later, came Sriram Raghavan’s Badlapur (2015), in which Mishra played the wily cop Govind. A 180-degree departure was Mishra’s Jatav, the compromised but sincere sub-inspector in Article 15 (2019).
Over the past decade, the Mumbai theatre veteran has sparkled in a variety of roles, from someone as despicable as a man preying on his daughter in The Girl in Yellow Boots (2011) to the world’s best father in the February release Thappad.
The versatile Mishra will be finally seen in a lead role in Nitin Kakkar’s much-delayed Ramsingh Charlie, which will be streamed on Sony Liv from August 28. Mishra plays Ramsingh, a circus artist and Charlie Chaplin impersonator. When the circus closes down, Ramsingh struggles to make ends meet.
The Kolkata-set film stars Divya Dutta as Ram Singh’s wife. Ramsingh Charlie was screened at film festivals in 2016. In a previous interview with Scroll.in, Nitin Kakkar said that the movie didn’t get a conventional release because “the distribution network said it’s not a good return-on-investment film”.
For Mishra, making Ramsingh Charlie was a “war”, just like mounting a stage production. “When you see your director carrying lights and serving food to all the actors, then even we start sharing tasks beyond our call of duty,” Mishra told Scroll.in. “When you are making a film with such passion, economics stops being important. Then travelling by train, living in an inexpensive hotel, not having your vanity van is not an issue.” Excerpts from an interview.
A character in the trailer says that the circus is dying because of television and mobile phones. Did you see any parallels between circus and theatre?
I saw parallels between theatre and the rag-tag way in which we made the film.
Theatre is very different from the circus. Today, the circus isn’t surviving because circus owners aren’t upgrading at their end, and enough investment isn’t happening because it doesn’t bring good returns. With theatre, you just need one man telling stories to an audience. It doesn’t need much money. As long as people want to hear stories, theatre will exist.
You are playing the lead for the first time. How important has this film been for you?
The film is important to me because the story is so important, and not because I’m playing the lead role. Whatever excitement I had about that, I exhausted it while shooting and moved on.
I always told Nitin that if you find someone better than me for the role, please take him. In this movie, it was not important whom I played, but the film needed to get made. If I was offered some other role here, I would do it with as much love. What character I am playing never comes between which film I do or don’t do, because the film is more important than an individual character.
Also, with some directors like Nitin, the journey is more important, as it was with both Filmistaan and Jawaani Jaaneman. As for the lead role, if people first love the movie, then they love me, and then somehow if I get more work because of that, great.
In cinema, technology comes between your performance and your audience. Your final performance is produced out of several takes. Can you delve into a character as deeply in a film as you can in a play?
I don’t perform for the camera, so it doesn’t matter how close or far it is. On a film set, I only care about whom my character is speaking with and where they are. If I can do justice to a scene, great, and those great scenes are the small pleasures of cinema that you won’t get again. In theatre, I can relive my performances as many times as we stage the play.
I always say that with films, you have to be like Gautam Buddha. Cut off the world and only see the bird’s eye. Because there’s so much noise around you, so many people, that if you don’t focus and lose yourself, it is hard to bring truth to your performance.
I will give an example of a moment of truth in cinema. In this movie, I say my line to Divya [Dutta] ji, and slowly leave the scene. The camera moves from me to her. And her reaction to me is so unexpected, so strange, that it’s not Divya ji anymore, but her character. I’m fortunate to witness something like that.
You are among several film actors right now who are simultaneously active in theatre. How do you stand out among your peers?
You should never perform for the audience. If you do, you become smart. But the audience is smarter. The audience will catch you and know that you are performing for them. The audience likes it when you don’t intrude into their space and give them happiness lightly instead of trying to dump it on them. So my job is simply to stay true to the script, the director, the world they create along with me, and I create along with my co-actors.
The difference between cinema and theatre is that while acting in films, the audience is simply not on my mind because it is not anywhere around me. I’m only in conversation with my character.
But in theatre, I am subconsciously aware of the audience’s breathing. Wherever I move on the stage, the audience moves with me. My job is to not let the audience know I am aware. I have to maintain the illusion that they are not disturbing me. When the audience will laugh, I am not aware on stage, and when they do, that shouldn’t affect my character.
What do you think of the future of theatre in a world with Covid-19?
Recently, Kunal [Kapoor] sir called from Prithvi Theatre. He is planning some live workshops, online interactive sessions, things of that sort. Because theatre practice and education should continue. The problem is that as long as the disease is here, the live experience of theatre can’t return.
Those who financially survive on just theatre are really struggling. Organisations are trying to help, but they can only help so much. I was supposed to be in Bangalore and act in Abhishek Majumdar’s play Kisaan before the lockdown, but that didn’t happen. We are all making plans to resume soon in some form.