Siddhant Chaturvedi’s Coming Of Age
The three-film-young actor is currently the toast of the town, owing to his subtle and nuanced portrayal of a suave businessman with questionable morals in Shakun Batra’s ‘Gehraiyaan’
It was the press screening of Gully Boy. One expects nothing less from Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, but the surprise package here was MC Sher. It was refreshing and rare to see such a confident debut. Avoiding the post-movie socialising, I sneaked out before the end credits. Near the entrance, a curly-haired boy was talking to a fellow journalist. He had a shy smile, and looked rather out of place. As I passed them by, I heard the journalist address him as MC Sher. What? I was supposed to say that in my head, but the voice was loud enough to startle the duo. The blushing young guy standing next to me looked nothing like the raw and rugged rapper I had just watched on screen. As we begin this interview, I recount the incident to Chaturvedi. “I am nothing like Zain either. I don’t cheat and lie,” he chuckles.
The three-film-young actor is currently the toast of the town, owing to his subtle and nuanced portrayal of a suave and brooding businessman with questionable morals in Shakun Batra’s genre-defying film, Gehraiyaan, that released on Amazon Prime Video last month. With an arc that goes from the charming to the conniving, it is not an easy character to slip into. But Chaturvedi wears it like his own skin; he lives and breathes Zain. It is his eerily realistic portrayal of Mr Promiscuous Pro Max that makes the movie, especially the climax, so delicious, even cathartic.
But the actor had already proved his mettle in his very first big-screen outing. He had made a roaring debut as the alpha male feminist MC Sher in Gully Boy, Zoya Akhtar’s coming-of-age Slumdog Millionaire-meets-8 Mile saga that was instrumental in turning the underground hip-hop sub-culture into a mainstream movement. He played the rapper with such conviction, imbuing him with machismo and charisma, that not only many mistook him as a real rapper, but also made fervent demands of an MC Sher spin-off on social media.
The actor has three more releases coming up. While Yudhra, where he plays the lead opposite Malavika Mohanan, is an action drama, Phone Booth, which also stars Katrina Kaif and Ishaan Khatter, is a horror-comedy. And the actor is again teaming up with Gully Boy writers Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti for the Ananya Pandey-Adarsh Gourav starrer Kho Gaye Hum Kahan. To say that this middle-class Goregaon lad has arrived will be an understatement.
His life changed course after he won The Times of India’s Fresh Face collegiate pageant in 2013, while he prepped to become a chartered accountant like his father. The newly-crowned college heart-throb wanted to be a ‘Bollywood star’. But he had not factored in the long audition queues and heartbreaks along the way, during which his dream to become a hero had evolved to that of becoming an actor. When he eventually got a break, it was not for a movie, but for a sitcom. Life Sahi Hai (2016), a coming-of-age comedy about four youngsters, was produced by Luv Ranjan, and was released on YouTube. His next was Karan Anshuman’s International Emmy-nominated series, Inside Edge (2017). The young actor impressed the OTT audience with his turn as Prashant Kanaujia; it is now part of Bollywood urban legends how he was spotted by Zoya Akhtar at the success party of the series, and almost danced his way into the shoes of MC Sher.
His is the classic ‘outsider’ journey that Bollywood needs, and the magazines love to celebrate, and it is a story Chaturvedi is yet to get tired of repeating. But there is more to this 28-year-old than his ‘from Balia to Bollywood’ tale. Meet the other Siddhant, the survivor, the dreamer, the hustler, the game changer, and the poet — glimpses of which an astute stalker (read journalist) finds on his Instagram.
We were wild
but we weren’t free.
We weren’t the people
we were supposed to be.
Unchained within walls,
caged beyond the window sill.
We were wild!
and nobody could see.
Maybe we weren’t real,
we escaped reality.
(Chaturvedi’ s Instagram)
Although you claim you are nothing like Zain, you seem to be relishing living his life and thoughts vicariously. What is this Zain’s diary?
With Gully Boy, because it was about rap and poetry, I had written a lot of stuff, and had performed a few of those during the events. Those made many people think that I am a rapper in real life. I was just writing, learning them, and spitting them out. Even for Bunty Aur Babli, I had written a long monologue while reading the script.
I want to hear the character’s voice in my head when I read the script. To do so, I maintain a diary where I write as the character. Then I read it out and record it. That’s my way of prepping. When I start shooting, sometimes I go back to those voice notes, which not only sum up the feel and voice of the character, but also my thoughts on the character. It helps me understand the world and inhabit it better. Once I dive into that world, I start thinking like the character. This is my way of making the acting look and feel effortless. Also, in movies, we don’t shoot chronologically. Sometimes you begin abruptly. This is my way of keeping track of the character as well.
How did you get into writing? Did it all happen just as prep work to aid your acting?
I started writing when I was struggling to find work in the industry. My friends had gotten busy with their respective careers, and mine was not going anywhere, I was just sitting at home. I felt rather lonely, and down at times. And then I would write down my thoughts. Even now, if I am going through a rough patch, going back to old writings often helps.
Also, I was bullied a lot in school for my appearance, but I couldn’t find the voice to retaliate. I couldn’t even tell my parents what was going on. I was scared; I could not stand up or speak up. Writing became my outlet and coping mechanism, it became my therapy.
For your appearance? For the same thing that fans today swoon over you?
I was not the ‘pretty boy’ while growing up — I was too fair, I had curly hair, my eyes were too small. I remember shutting myself in the washroom for hours, trying to straighten my hair with water. It was the era of Shah Rukh Khan; I didn’t have the silky, straight hair that would fall on my forehead when the wind blew. Curly hair was definitely not cool back then. I would try all kinds of shampoos; I would keep vigorously combing my hair in the vain attempt to make them straight, ke mere baal bhi Shah Rukh Khan ki tarah ho jaye. In fact, I would not even get ads because I was not the ‘conventional looking’ guy. But now with cinema changing, the unconventional is the new cool. I look different than the rest and that is working in my favour, I am even considered handsome now.
So, in a way, writing became your weapon of choice to fight bullying as a child?
I would actually take this opportunity to thank the bullies. I was a very average kid, and I didn’t have any drive to excel in anything. But between Class 8 and Class 10, the bullying started. That’s when I started putting effort into my studies, sports, cultural events, everything. I wanted to shut them up with my actions, and not words. Their politics and the way they would cut me down at every step also gave me an idea of how the world is going to be. I stopped viewing things through rose-tinted glasses. It prepared me for the tough journey that is life. After Fresh Face, many of those guys congratulated me and now they are actually happy for me.
Talking about bullying, celebrities are often mercilessly trolled on social media. How do you navigate that space?
This is why I don’t get scared by trolls, those are also bullies. It is cyberbullying. I don’t retaliate or engage in a fight. Theek hai, kaam se dikhayenge. That has always been my way to take down the bullies. But I want to hear all kinds of feedback. I feel as an actor, I am servicing people, and they have the right to review the quality of it. I have empathy for them because I come from there. I have switched over to this side very recently. I was one of them even a few years back. And when you are an audience, you would post if you find an actor doing something lame. But when the stars don’t acknowledge that feedback, it really disconnects you from them. And I don’t want to be that person. I try to make sense of the hate also. I only feel bad when it is just hate for hate’s sake. I will not let them dictate my life, but these are the people who have made me what I am today. I didn’t have any godfather in the industry, how can I now dismiss their voices as mere noise?
After making a debut with Excel Entertainment and Tiger Baby Films, you have followed it up with Dharma and YRF. Sheer luck?
The harder I work, the luckier I get. The only ‘luck’ part was me being at the same party as Zoya, and her noticing me. Then, my performance in Gully Boy spoke. But I took my time to pick my next project. I had waited so long to break into the industry that when I finally managed to do it, I wanted to fulfill the dream of the 19-year-old who wanted to work in YRF and Dharma movies, who wanted to be a hero, wanted to do action, and romance the top heroines. I have always dreamt big. Even when I had nothing, I had never auditioned for a second lead or random ads. I always went for premium things, but I never used to get those back then. But my dad had always told me to never compromise on my dreams. So, I waited. I waited even after Gully Boy. I didn’t want to short-sell myself.
You have spoken about the insider v/s outsider divide in Bollywood. But how bad is it, really?
Everybody has their own journey. It is not a debate. What I said at Rajiv Masand’s newcomers’ roundtable was that jahan humare sapne poore hote hai wahan inka struggle shuru hota hai. The statement was misconstrued. What I meant was that while our struggle is to get work, theirs is to get acceptance. Even after they give a great performance, they are often dismissed because they have got it easy. The nepotism debate is always on. There are hardships on both sides, the struggle is different.
We don’t get the kickstart that they do. Rejections do take a toll on you. There was self-doubt; I was unable to find a path — do I even reach those big production houses or even the casting directors? There was a lot of favouritism. But you have to soldier on.
Now you have an action drama and a horror-comedy coming up. It seems you have a well-thought-out ‘to do’ list.
Not a checklist, but these are the things I always wanted to do. I am a huge fan of action films, and romantic movies — because, Shah Rukh Khan. I want to do different things. I am not here to play it safe; then I would have stuck to my CA course. I am in this profession because I want to challenge myself. I want to surprise myself and my audience. For the next five years, that is the plan. To let people know what I can do.
Does this also include OTT content?
I am from that generation of actors where OTTs are not a fall-back option. I started off from OTT. It is not like a big movie star stepping down to do OTT. The game is on; I want to play test cricket, ODI and T20. I want to keep my options open and play in every format. I know I can play, and I know I can play well. So why not reach the maximum number of audiences?
Describe your style in three words.
Comfort, trendy, fun
Three essentials you don’t step out without?
Watch, sneakers, and my key card, of course
A gadget you aspire to own?
A phone jammer, especially when hanging out with friends
Which is your go-to watch for every occasion?
Ulysse Nardin Classico
If you were to pick one outfit to wear for the rest of your life, what would it be?
An oversized tee and a pair of baggy denims
What was your last luxury purchase?
My bike. Harley-Davidson Sportster
Pick one style: prints or head-to-toe black?
If you were to drive one luxury car brand all your life, which would it be?