Reinventing himself at the age of 60 is an exciting challenge for Bollywood actor Suniel Shetty. The actor, popular for hit 1990s and 2000s films like Balwaan, Mohra, Border, the Hera Pheri franchise, Refugee, and Main Hoon Na, and now Dharavi Bank on MX Player understand the dynamics of the industry well. In an exclusive interview with financialexpress.com’s Eshita Bhargava, Suniel Shetty spoke about his OTT debut, the process of reinventing himself, the reasons behind the failure of films at the box office, his journey in the industry, and more. Excerpts from the interview:
This is your first one for an OTT platform. How was it preparing for such an intense character?
That’s what I thought, that it would be tough, and I chose it because of the same reason. I am glad that I was able to justify my age. I wanted to do something very different and meaningful – Playing Thalaiva was one such opportunity. People are liking it. What I’ve done in the last few years hasn’t been very exciting. Dharavi Bank was unique and hence I came on board for it. You can call Thalaiva a gray or black character, but someone who existed in Mumbai in our times and someone who lived in the city would understand his side of the story. He’s a Robin Hood to people and a threat to the cops. It was challenging, but the support of the director, writers, and the team made things a lot easier for me.
Did you take any classes to get the diction right? How did you prepare for it?
I didn’t take classes, but we had a diction coach who used to send me the lines and how he would expect me to practice them. I come from a South Indian family; I know a lot of my family members that speak in a particular way. I didn’t want to do a caricature of a South Indian character. But, for Dharavi Bank, the words and the pronunciation are something that I focused on, and that kind of worked when I played it out with Samit. Every word was calculated and every line and its delivery were important as it came from Thalaiva.
You’ve given us some incredible films but I want to understand how it was working for a series. What’s the difference between shooting for a film and a series for OTT platforms?
It is different because OTT gives you a better opportunity to understand your character and add layers to it. You are aware of the growth pattern, and the entire story is very much in front of you. However, when it comes to playing a character in a film, because of the duration, you have to make sure that you convince people within that time, the 20-30 minutes that you have as compared to the 2 hours that you have on OTT to unfold your character. So, I believe in films it’s far tougher to convince the audience than in OTT. Films are tougher as compared to OTT. That said, from a work perspective it is also very demanding because of the long hours and of course the tough competition. The pandemic has led to the boom of OTT and has given rise to some unbelievable actors. Working for OTT is like you’re constantly at the edge of your seat, it’s like going back to school, doing your homework, and trying to compete with this brilliant sea of talent.
You are reinventing yourself with every film or series you are a part of. I cannot draw similarities between the two of your projects. Is that a conscious decision?
It is. I was emotional and started believing that I needed to do this for this one and for that one and thereby missing the kind of content that I actually wanted to be a part of. I still love people around me but I also realise that the audience is paying to watch my films and they expect certain things from me. And that is something I realised ever since the box office numbers started dwindling. So, that was the time when I consciously decided to reinvent myself and bring changes. I waited for the right opportunity to do something meaningful because, after a while, they wrap you up in a box and put you aside. Fortunately for me, the media kept me alive, and my fitness kept me alive. The youth started touching base with me, my personality is not my Instagram handle or my Twitter handle. My personality is the present and was always my LinkedIn.
Now I know I’m 60 years old, and I don’t want to play a 30-year-old. I don’t want to pick a 40-year-old character, rather I want to play an interesting character. And thanks to OTT, thanks to the change in the phase of Indian cinema, there are great characters that you can play. To me, success matters, but being a part of successful teams matters the most, more than anything else. I had a great time, and I have my time even now. If I can maintain that respect, and that dignity and do great work, it’s fine for me.
I got an opportunity and I feel blessed about it. And being appreciated and loved is what fills my heart. When I travel, when I meet people, I see love, and respect and I tend to forget everything. And that’s the way I always wanted to conduct my life. That’s the way my father lived his life, my mother lives hers, you know, and that’s what I expect for myself. I expect my kids to believe that love is what you need and the rest will fall into place.
How do you see the cinema evolving?
When I came into this industry, I got an opportunity through the video room, and everybody believed that they were going to watch movies at home because they thought the theaters were finished. However, the mass audience asked for actors with the body and who could do action. So, the birth of action heroes happened, and now in the last 10-12 years, cinema has emerged. Everything has grown when it comes to the technical part of it but from a content perspective, we started making films for studios. We started making films looking at data and finance and not creativity. A CEO who comes from a financial background is telling us how to make films and that is why we are where we are in terms of box office numbers. Analysis, number, company, and valuation is all okay but if the content ‘hi nahi chale ga to aap Dheere Dheere to mar hi jaao ge na aur wahi hua hai.’
That is why I feel we should go back to the drawing board, and understand our mistakes rather than blaming each other. We need to understand what emotions are there as far as Indians are concerned. It’s our culture. It’s a religion. We are catering to a 70 per cent audience and not 30 per cent CEOs. The audience is no longer interested in Instagram posts on sushi and about me in a bikini or me showing my six-pack somewhere. They’re interested in how I can make a difference, how I can inspire them, or motivate them to think differently. That’s how I see it. I may be completely wrong, but I believe I am not wrong.
Our finance people and the Prime Minister of the country are focussing on Mann Ki Baat but Instagram and social media accounts of the industry personalities are shouting for Tann ki Baat, Dhann ki Baat. It doesn’t work in this country, so be conscious. Celebrate what you have.
I’ll be brutally honest, gone are the days when people look for a superstar. Content is the king. Please comment.
That’s true, very true. If you do have the X factor in you, you won’t be noticed. Your performance, looks, physic, and the way you are projected has to be right, only then you’ll flourish, as it is ultimately a business. I’ve got an appreciation for Dharavi Bank. It’s a negative character. It’s dark, but everybody would come to me and say, “We loved it, Thalaivan, as the character loved his family.” That’s what India is all about, we all do whatever we do for our family. So that is one emotion that I got when I did Dhadkan. I loved that girl in the film more than anything else in the world. When it was Border, I loved my country more than anything else, then it was Hera Pheri.
While choosing characters, all I think is if my emotion is correct. You know, even now I’m doing another film called 323. It’s about wanting to bring the fugitives back. I don’t care who that fugitive is, I only know that you have robbed my country of my wealth and I want you back. So, hopefully, I’ll be wiser now. I mean, not that I can do what I used to be also, but at least. Do it with grace and dignity.
The films you have been a part of are something that we can watch even now or maybe 10 years later with the same enthusiasm. I want to understand if creating a legacy (that you have) was ever intentional.
No, it was a new setting. I was very comfortable in my skin and nobody gave me a complex. I understood my character, and I understood that part of my journey beautifully. In Border, my character was an underdog, in Dhadkan I loved the girl more than anything. I always choose the underdog character as I was very comfortable doing it. Also, I did multi-star cast films as I knew that the audience wanted more for the kind of money they paid in theatres. So, when you place yourself in the viewers’ shoes, it is then when you understand the subject better. That’s exactly what I do.
I also keep telling Ahaan to go after quality and quantity. Make it worth your while, otherwise, you’ll be unhappy. I’ve made mistakes, and if I don’t tell the younger generation and my own children that this is where I went wrong, where will they learn from? Somebody needs to talk to them and tell them the real story.
You’ve had a humble beginning, but now you can afford probably everything in the world. So, what is one thing that you don’t mind splurging on?
I live very well within my means and I’ve always believed in keeping a low profile. Even when it comes to spending, you see my clothes, you see my fashion statement, I do not go according to fashion. I wear my trousers from an Indian brand. I wear stuff that I’m comfortable with and suits me and it has nothing to do with fashion. I am comfortable with my cargo when I travel as I carry many things and I go for a comfortable T-shirt, and tracks. I do not care about the biggest and the best luxury cars but I need an SUV. It works for my travel, for my bags, for everything else. Another thing I spend on is my home and comfort – There are many people in that house, so I need that extra space for myself when I wake up at 5:00 in the morning and I don’t want to disturb anybody else.
How do you look back at your journey? Was there a time when people said you cannot do it?
When you sit back and listen to what the world has said and then break it down and understand how much is true, you are on the right track. I wasn’t trained for it; I just got an opportunity and I grabbed it. I was a martial artist who was extraordinary. I decided to work on it and own that space. So, I did that to define myself and to have an image of an action hero. I also wanted to try other genres and that’s when I did Hera Pheri, Tera Ghar Mera Ghar. But do you need an opportunity to do that? I’ve got the love; I’ve got the respect. I got everything. But there have been tough times too, and I sat without work for four years. My father was unwell, so I wanted to spend time with him. And because I wasn’t getting quality work, I just quit and spent four years of my life with him every single day.
When are we seeing Hera Pheri 3 and what’s next, what all we have?
I guess Hera Pheri 3 is being worked on for next year now. I wish to work with the same team and whoever joins should have a different character. Even if Kartik Aaryan is there, he would be completely a new character. He isn’t playing Raju. He can’t play Raju. Only Raju can play Raju! The next show that I’m very passionate about and feel very close to is MMA India, the search for India’s top fighters. Then I’ve got a show called Hunters, which is a cop story.