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‘Hard work takes you places’, ‘It is important to take regular holidays’ and other dictums the great actor lived by, in this interview from January 2004.


  • My early education was at my maternal uncle’s  home because my parents couldn’t afford to keep me with them. I was very good at studies and at sports. After the school annual function I would usually cart a bushelful of prizes home.


  • I’ve always worked hard throughout my life, without a stop. And I don’t regret it; it gives me a sense of pleasure. I’ve been studying and earning my livelihood ever since I was in Class 9.


  • I was a shy  child. I was an army corporal’s son who wanted to join the army. But when I was introduced to dramatics in college, something sparked within me. 


  • I felt suffocated as a child, a reaction to the social realities around me—particularly poverty. It bothered me as a young person, it still bothers me now. Acting gave my reticent personality, a voice.


  • Naseeruddin Shah and I became thick friends during our NSD days and have remained ever since. Naseer encouraged me to join the FTII course in Pune, which he was doing though I could ill-afford it.


  • The FTII selection committee didn’t know how to slot me. They said that I didn’t look like a comedian, that I didn’t look like a villain, not like a hero, so what would I do in the film industry? Girish Karnad and Jairaj were the two people who believed in me and gave me an A+ for my audition.


  • The greatest benefactors in my life have been those who have helped me without making it apparent. I was living on the kindness of friends during my first year at FTII. That was when Girish Karnad came to my rescue by arranging for me the main lead in a children’s film by B V Karanth. That took care of my entire second year’s expenses, including boarding and lodging.


  • The hero-villain, heroine-vamp mentality among the FTII students was very strange to Naseer and me. We thought of ourselves as character actors who’d play whatever role was given to us. We didn’t want to be villains or heroes for the rest of our lives!


  • When I graduated from the FTII I knew that I didn’t fit into the films that were being made at that time. Around the same time, Ankur was released and I knew that I had to look for work in the parallel cinema.


  • I used to dream in school and college that I would be in a position to change things, to alleviate suffering, to change society. When you grow up, you relate that dream to your work. Even if I have not been able to change society, it gives me deep satisfaction that at least I worked in films that talked about social change, about the social disparities. 


  • I never imagined that I’d go international during my student-actor days. My English was very poor during my NSD days, coming as I did from a municipal school. I had a complex about it. I just got lucky. I didn’t make any special effort to solicit work, though I worked hard on what I got. Though I have an agent in Britain, most of my work has come to me directly.


  • When Michael Sragow of Salon magazine called me, “the greatest actor alive”, it felt good. It makes you feel that a reviewer is being very kind. Obviously a critic has to see a body of work before he can make a statement like that.


  • Hard work takes you places. Talent needs to be nourished continually. You can’t afford to rest on your laurels once you’ve had a big hit. If you do, the deterioration begins. To keep your talent alive, to keep it sharp, you have to keep working every day.


  • If I’d gone directly into mainstream cinema, maybe I’d have been richer.  But I wouldn’t have had the respect and dignity that I have today. I’ve done all kinds of parts—from villains to comic roles—and it has been an unbeatable experience.


  • In 1984 when Ardh Satya was declared the hit of the year, I was 34 years old and lived as a paying guest in Mumbai. I couldn’t think of marriage in those living conditions. When I got married for the first time at 40, the marriage lasted only a year. It took me a long time to get over that. Today, into my second marriage with Nandita, I sometimes worry about my six-year-old son. Now I’m wondering whether I should not have gotten married earlier.


  • I feel that your achievements are your own, related to your discipline, your professionalism and your hard work. While it is also true that people work hard and are not equally lucky, it is your responsibility to keep working hard. I don’t think that is ever wasted.


  • I want to give up smoking. After all, the body is an actor’s medium of expression. Because if your mind is telling you to behave in a particular way and if you’re physically paralysed, then what’s the use?


  • Age has been kind to me. My career has expanded considerably after I hit my 40’s. But during the last decade, I have started to think about money. That is why I started doing commercial Bollywood films.


  • If my performances have gotten better over the years, then it is experience working for me. Certainly one keeps improving. It’s like a surgeon’s hands are much smoother after performing 10,000 operations. There is more finesse, more surety.


  • It’s important to take regular holidays as one gets older. The film industry may not have the concept of holidays, but I sure do. You shouldn’t always get up at 7.00 a m, look at your watch and think, “Shit, I should be shaving now”. Everyone needs time off.


  • An outdoor shoot in London is not a holiday. It’s work, dammit.


  • I don’t envy  the Bollywood heroes. The kind of varied work I have done, the heroes could be envying me, in some cases.  I may not be Amitabh Bachchan, but I am Om Puri.
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