Manav Kaul.
Manav Kaul.

Manav Kaul: The devil and the details

The actor on juggling stage and screen, and why he doesn't mind the 'new villain' label

For those who follow Mumbai’s theatre scene, Manav Kaul is already a celebrity, having written and directed, for his company Aranya, such productions as Shakkar Ke Paanch Daane, Peele Scooter Wala Aadmi and Mamtaz Bhai Patang Waale. Lately, however, he’s also become known to discerning cinema-goers for the complex, conflicted roles he has essayed.

Most viewers noticed him for the first time in Kai Po Che!, where he played a right-wing politician and the uncle of one of the leads. As the security firm employee Vishnu, he was the best thing in Hansal Mehta’s CityLights—a swaggering, affable performance that abruptly pulls the rug from under the audience’s feet in the second half. Earlier this year, cast alongside Amitabh Bachchan and Farhan Akhtar in Wazir, he lent a quiet intensity to the antagonist, Yazaad Qureshi, a Kashmiri politician (Kaul is a Kashmiri Pandit).

Kaul’s next film is Prakash Jha’s Jai Gangaajal, in which he plays a Bihari politician who comes up against Priyanka Chopra’s tough-as-nails cop. He spoke to us about his hardscrabble early days, his tendency to get involved in the details of a film, and why he doesn’t mind being labelled a “bad guy". Edited excerpts:

Were you always interested in literature?

When I was in theatre in Bhopal, my teacher was Alok Chatterjee, and he had a solid bookshelf. At that stage, you want to impress girls and impress your teacher. So I thought I should read too. There used to be these Raduga Prakashan stores in all the small towns. You used to get translated Russian books for 12, 9. I could afford that, so I used to buy and read them. But I used to think that because they were inexpensive, they must be cheap, so I wouldn’t tell anyone I was buying them. I read Mayakovsky and Dostoevsky—but I would hide their books. That’s where my love for literature began.

What prompted the move to Mumbai?

I was doing a job at the time just so I could do theatre, something to do with computers. After three years, I thought I really need to do something about this. I was living hand-to- mouth. I figured, what could be worse than this? So I came to Mumbai. I was actually thinking of going to Delhi to do theatre. I don’t know what happened at the travel agent’s but I ended up coming to Bombay.

Was your initial plan to act, write or direct in Mumbai?

Only acting. I tried really hard. I used to take my photographs and meet all the casting directors—assistant directors, in those days. Luckily, there was this workshop Pandit Satyadev Dubey was taking every Monday—and it was free. I feel at home in the theatre, so I started to go. In 1998-99, I did the workshop. In 1999, I got a play called Inshallah. I started doing a lot of theatre after that. And Dubeyji was the best.

You also did small roles in films in those days.

I had to take whatever I was given. I was a junior artiste in three films. One was Champion (with Sunny Deol), one was a Govinda film, and there was some film I had to go to Hyderabad for; I have no idea whether it released or not. But it paid 700-800 a day, which was a huge help, because I was living in a chawl in Appapada in Malad East. That was a fascinating period in my life. All the things you hear about Bombay—that there are bhais, that people get shot—you could actually see these things there.

I got this film called Jajantaram Mamantaram, which released in 2003. Serials started coming in after that but I realized that I wasn’t enjoying acting. So I stopped all acting and took a long break. I always say that Kai Po Che! (2013) is my first film as an actor.

Though you’ve played several characters who can broadly be classified as “villains", they never seem to think of themselves as antagonists.

I think that in Kai Po Che! and Wazir, I was the hero. There was this time I was doing a scene—I don’t want to say for whom—and I was asked by the director to laugh. I asked him why I should laugh. Because you’re the bad guy, he said. But I didn’t think of my character as a villain. I think we have to believe in our characters so much that audiences will believe in us.

You tend to act more on screen, and direct and write for the stage.

I rarely perform in my own plays. I write, I direct, I do light design. It’s a tiring job. If I act as well, I’ll be dead. If you see me before the grand rehearsal of my plays, you won’t recognize me (mimes being out of breath). Of course I will act in theatre someday, but probably under someone else’s direction.

Your filmography is relatively slim. Are you picky about your projects?

I don’t want to come across as an actor who’s very picky, but I take time. I only have two things that are important for me. One is that I read the script and feel that I would want to watch this film. The other is the relationship with the director. I have to come on the same page, so I meet a lot with the director. You have to understand the mind of the director, how he’s conceiving the film, how he’s perceiving your role.

That’s why Jai Gangaajal was amazing, because I spent four months with Prakash Jha before we started filming. I read a draft, then I went with my notes, we started talking, then he showed me another draft. We kept discussing stuff—not just about my character but the entire film. I want to be part of the journey—to feel like we’re making a film together.

With Prakash Jha (centre) and Priyanka Chopra.
With Prakash Jha (centre) and Priyanka Chopra.