He’s full of beans. It is because he is soon going to become a father for the second time. We hear that he is going on paternity leave, at least for a week. For, he believes that it is not only important to earn money, but also spend time with family.
As of now, he is enjoying himself whilst interacting with the media. We last saw him in Padmaavat, seven months ago, which was the first ever super-hit film to be made on a budget of over 300 crores in India.
Shahid is optimistic that his new film Batti Gul Meter Chalu will also get a ‘hit’ tag, like the director, Shree Narayan Singh’s last film, Toilet — Ek Prem Katha.
So, we begin our chat with his next home production, the baby and his new film. Isn’t it doubly exciting to have both coming up in September? “I don’t think anything can be compared to a baby of my own, but yeah, it is as close as it gets,” he grins.
“Ask me questions,” he insists, before talking about his film, and when that is done, he says that Batti Gul Meter Chalu is about an issue that affects everyone and is not just a small-town drama. “The issue was already exciting because it was universal, but what was doubly exciting was that it is freshly treated and made immensely entertaining.”
He informs that the main issue is not electricity, but the fact that since the privatisation of electric supply, the bills are getting higher for something that is a necessity. “There are faulty meters all around, so how will you deal with the excess billing figures? A common man has nowhere to be heard, his back is against the wall, which is why the character here — Tripathi, played by Divyendu — thinks of killing himself. I remember this excess billing story happened with me before I turned an actor. I would go to the power supply’s office, just to try and understand why I was getting exorbitant bills when I knew how much consumption had been there, and there was no solution,” he says.
The world created by the director, he says, is quite unique. The location, the sing-song language and the milieu were all contributions by the director and writing team. “My character is not someone I am sure you will like, so that is my disclaimer,” he grins. “He is not necessarily nice. He is full of himself, raw, rough around the edges and jugaadu (resourceful in an innovative way). He’s quite loud, and if put in a room of upper crust people, they would look at him say, ‘Dude, who’s that?’ And though he happens to be a lawyer, it’s not out of respect for the law or as a passion, and neither does he have great skills. He would rather make money through jugaad.”
Shahid knew which way to approach his character, but when he asked the director about preparing for the prolonged court sequences in the second half, Shree told him precisely why he should not. “SK, my character, is a lawyer who cannot be taken seriously, and Shree-sir told me that I should stick out like a sore thumb in court. The idea was not to be a lawyer who is prepared, but someone who seems out of place in a court. Yami Gautam was playing a qualified lawyer and she was consulting real lawyers in Delhi to prepare for her character, but I could not do that — in order to be true to my role.”
That said, Shahid enjoyed shooting these sequences as they were mostly funny and entertaining. “There were lots of dialogues that needed to sound candid and we had to move fast. The lines contained a lot of facts and figures and we shot big portions in one go with a four-camera setup to make the scenes look more organic. We all had to learn seven to eight pages every day.”
We ask one relevant question — why has the director revealed so much of the story in the film’s trailer? This was a rather retro way of doing things, right?
“This is exactly what I asked Shree-sir!” he says. “See, there are two types of trailers, and I have been a part of both kinds. He likes the kind of trailer that makes a film accessible, which informs people what a film is about. Today, people do not want to be fooled or misled, and then say, ‘What’s happening, yaar? We got the impression that this film is about something else,’ So the trailer makes the beginning, middle and end clear.”
That is why, says the actor, Tripathi is shown dead in the trailer. Shree, he adds, did not want to hide the beats of the film, and this worked very well for the director in his last film and directorial debut, Toilet — Ek Prem Katha.
“In fact, Batti Gul… is like two films in one,” Shahid continues. “The first half is about family, love, friendship, emotions, fun and songs. The second half gets deeper into the issue. The trailer was also designed that way.” He grins again as he adds, “But there is enough to add fresh value in the film that is not in the trailer.”
About his fastidious choice of films, Shahid has a clear answer. “Times have changed, and it does not matter how many films you do, but how well you do them. I give all my attention to one film at a time. Yes, I have had many ups and downs in my career, but it is better that way, though people say I take too many risks.”
Shahid feels that there is a risk in everything, even in playing safe. “Maybe in this insecure profession, playing safe is a better business plan, but then the audience can get bored of you,” he adds. “For me, my fear is that if I get bored, my creative energies may dry up. At the end of the day, it is better to be a student than a teacher.”
“Unless I do different films, and play diverse characters, I will not be putting anything new into my system,” he goes on. “Only then can I come up with something fresh. I just do films instinctively. I have to be original and find my own trajectory. For that, I have to back myself with my beliefs. Look, there are certain things that drive you, otherwise, you can stop enjoying what you do. The journey should not be forgotten, though one can learn new things as one evolves.”
Padmaavat, he says, was done for the same reason, though he knew he had a secondary role. “Just think, if everyone started thinking that only Deepika Padukone has the main role, it would not have been made. But for me, working in good films and with great directors is the priority, not necessarily doing the main role. I am creative and believe in challenging myself. So, I do not think of relatively unimportant things. My identity is because of my performances, and relationships with the audience happen. Bas, I have to keep working hard.”
But Shahid feels that his getting deep into characters should be restricted to for a valid reason. “Weird things can happen otherwise when you internalise a character. One week into Udta Punjab in Amritsar, and for 12 nights, I would get a fever with drenching sweat, so much that I changed three shirts every night. Every possible test was done, and the doctors insisted there was nothing wrong. It was just a physical manifestation of my going deep into that zone.’’
He adds, “It is important not to take myself seriously after pack-up, because I am depleting myself of energy that I need for such complex characters.”