In Hindi, the word 'jawan' means both youthful and a soldier. Sidharth Malhotra, who made his debut in Student Of The Year (2012), has kind of combined the two in his latest film, Aiyaary, scheduled for release on February 9.
As a youthful army colonel in this film (complete with a romantic angle), the young actor, who has exhibited an amazing variety in his roles and films so far, plays an officer who has learnt everything from his mentor, a major (played by Manoj Bajpayee), but then has a clash with him.
For good measure, the young man also celebrated his birthday on January 16 with the Border Security Force (BSF) jawans at Jaisalmer.
When we meet Sidharth, we ask about his experience of spending time with the soldiers, and of sharing his birthday with them. "It was fascinating," smiles the actor. "There are more than a thousand jawans there, and there were almost 20 of them who shared my birthday, so we cut a cake with all of them."
We believe they all also did a lot of army activities along with the real soldiers. Sidharth nods, "When we shared their activities, we realised how hard they work for our country. We just wanted to spend a day with them and give them good memories with some recreation, singing and dancing. We wanted to make them laugh and smile. That is all we can give back to them, because what they all do for us is too high in value. I thanked them for making my birthday special."
The knowledge that Sidharth gained from them first-hand was priceless. "We get fed up with our day-to-day jobs and take occasional breaks, but they cannot! They are always on guard, often looking in one direction for hours, holding a gun. Their resilience and discipline make my stress look so tiny," he raves.
Sidharth also came out amazed at the many aspects he gleaned from the enriching days with the jawans. "How our border is manned, and the manpower that is being used, and the money that is spent by our government is insane. We all take such things totally for granted, especially in the big cities."
Sidharth smilingly admits that he was also clueless "like most of us" about many other things. "Did you know that the BSF and the Army have different jobs and come under different ministries? Then we have the Research & Analysis Wing (RAW), the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Military Intelligence - all different organisations. The BSF is on-ground 24/7, but we appreciate them only in times of war. But whatever the weather, these people have to keep relentless vigil."
Coming to the film's title, did it not whet his curiosity? "It did! It did!" he grins. "The intriguing part was not knowing its meaning and yet finding it interesting. My first conversation with Neeraj-sir was about what Aiyaary means. He told me that it was a Persian word that he had read in the book Chandrakanta. It translated into "the ultimate trickster". These are shape-shifters who can change their form at will, and the term is so apt for military intelligence agents."
Does the film also talk about one's internal enemy, like Prahaar and Sarfarosh did? "Yes, it does talk about one's point of view on corruption and politics," he says. "But in this thriller, the actual tussle is between Manoj's character and mine. You see, Manoj has taught me everything I know. When we clash, he tries to stop me, and I run away. Within that cat-and-mouse game that follows, there are a lot of messages. Also, there is a lot of grey and no clear blacks or whites, which makes it even more exciting."
The impressive ensemble cast (Anupam Kher, Naseeruddin Shah, Kumud Mishra, Adil Hussain) are all first-time co-stars for Sidharth, apart from Manoj. How was it working with them all? "I am happy that there was space in this for me," he quips. "The point is that I have sequences almost exclusively with Manoj-sir, not all of them. But I found out about the rest of the cast only after signing the film. And that kind of ups your game, because these are experienced names that have done credible work across all mediums."
About Manoj, he says, "Like all of them, Manoj-sir treats acting like a true loyalist to theatre. We had acting workshops and I saw the preparations he did. He was also sweet enough to talk to me about Urdu diction and the techniques he followed. When we shot this crucial scene in London, where I am speaking a lot to him, it was daunting. There were no crutches to hold as an actor, and I was just up and close with my anger. But I knew actors like Manoj-sir do not falter. That gave me the confidence and made me prepare more."
Sidharth is completely confident about Aiyaary. "Neeraj-sir gives a lot of thought to every word he writes and to every frame he shoots," he says. "Ideally, every film should release solo, but we moved ahead when Padmaavat had to release opposite PadMan." (Exactly an hour after the interview was over, PadMan was shifted because of Padmaavat and now the two films are again competing on February 9!)
As an outsider, how does he find his journey so far, with respect to industry contemporaries Varun Dhawan, Ranveer Singh, Tiger Shroff and Arjun Kapoor? "It's too early to comment on this when even senior actors are assessed only after 10 or 15 years," he says after a moment's thought. "All my films so far have been varied. There have been action films, romantic films, family films and ensemble-cast films. I think that is the way forward. Aiyaary, in that sense, is my first real and relevant film that will make a difference."
How does he deal with criticism, especially the constructive kind? "Oh, I have hardly got that, it's been mostly destructive," he laughs. "Even with my last film, A Gentleman: Sundar, Susheel, Risky, I did get some cool reviews, but many trolled me. The release date was bad luck - Mumbai faced a deluge and the Ram Rahim arrest problem wiped out key North Indian territories. In hindsight, I came to know that even the title did not reflect a tough, mainstream actioner. But all my films are dear to me."