The Bad Man. The Dirty Mind. With the iconic delivery and unique eccentricities he bought to the characters he played, Gulshan Grover created some of the finest villains of Indian Cinema during the 80s and 90s. With four films coming out shortly in the space of a month, he is now looking to break free of the typecast roles that brought him such a huge fanbase, with the belief that as Indian film diversifies in its output, so must he.
Invited to be one of the chief guests at the closing night of the London Indian Film Festival, The NRI had a chance to catch up with the humble gentleman miles away from his onscreen persona.
Did you manage to watch any of the films playing at the festival?
Actually, I was in Paris and only got here a few hours ago. I met a French producer, with whom I collaborated on the film Rose and Margarit, and we talked about doing another French film together. I was also very delighted to meet the Indian ambassador to France and discussed the love that French people have for Indian cinema and cuisines.
Are you now interested to transition into more European and World Cinema?
Yes. Actually, I pioneered the movement for Indian actors to transition from Bollywood to international cinema. My first Hollywood film released in 1996 was Chernobyl 2. I did not completely leave India for foreign shores, but I wanted to take my craft to the next level. At that time, foreign directors who scouted India for talent to be in their films did not want heroes. They felt that commercial Bollywood actors were not worthy of their exposure, and that only actors from parallel cinema or theatre would translate well overseas. I felt this was wrong of them. If something is popular and commercially successful, why would you think it as a bad thing? Why do you think the world won’t like it?
So I took it upon myself to find work abroad. First I went to Hollywood. From there, I worked on a French film in 1997, then did a German film, and a British film, and so on.
Do you feel that Indian Cinema should now start looking for a more global audience?
I don’t think so. Each country makes films for their home viewers, as that’s the primary market. Cinema is an art that requires participation of commerce in a large way, in the sense that someone needs to fund it for publicity and advertising. So you cannot ignore the commerce. Our film culture is well known for its unique qualities of its singing and dancing intervals, and a different way of storytelling. Since primarily each country makes films to be watched mainly by their own people, only some of those films translate well to other parts of the world.
India has parallel and progressive cinema with an eye on the foreign market, like those shown at this festival. These kind of films definitely have more of a chance of translating abroad.
Which of your villain characters would you say is your personal favourite?
I am very grateful that my fans love my work, and it is because of them I have this stardom. But I have outgrown my work. You grow in your craft, and you feel you can do much better. I actually find my earlier work has very rough edges.
I shortly have four films releasing in a span of a month, which is very unusual for an actor. There is Bullet Raja, where I play the main villain. Then there’s a very funny film called Sooper Se Ooper where I play a lead alongside Vir Das. Then there is Yaarian, a young college teen romance, where I play an inspirational character. And finally there is Baat Bann Gayi, again a comedy film where I play the double role of a college professor and a gay choreographer.
It’s an interesting variety of work. The very fact I have four films releasing with such roles shows that filmmakers still have faith in my ability to play a lead, a co-lead, or a funny character. So I feel my new work has newer energy.
During the 80s and 90s, a typical Bollywood masala film wouldn’t be complete without the inclusions of a villain and a comedian, both of which you’ve played. These popular archetypes have fizzled out of modern day Indian cinema. Do you feel that a space should still exist for these roles?
Actually, they both still exist. But the funny bit goes to a second hero, like the hero’s best friend. Similarly, the vamp characters that used to perform the item numbers have also disappeared as the main heroines are now doing them. Filmmakers generally think it’s more economical to give the principal actors more screen time. “We’re paying them anyway, so why don’t we double up characters and use them in comical situations as well.” To be honest, I don’t think the individual comic archetype will ever come back.
How about villains?
Oh, we’ll always exist. You can’t do without us! (laughs)