My earliest memory of Sidharth Malhotra is of him getting down from a bike in Student Of The Year, while Kukkad Kamaal Da plays in the background. He plays this young, shy, and adorably handsome small-town boy entering the world of the ‘Ambanis’ in his debut film. The actor, who started working as a trainee assistant director to Karan Johar for his 2010 film My Name Is Khan, made a notable debut in SOTY, and became a bankable name in no time. A decade later, here he still is, winning hearts with his performances, and wowing the audience with his diverse choice of stories.
Malhotra has been away from the set life for some time, and the announcement of his war film, Shershaah, came as a surprise for his fans. The audience loves to see him play roles that are on the softer side, but they were excited to see how the actor steps into the shoes of Captain Vikram Batra, and tells one of the most iconic war stories of India. It is not like Malhotra hasn’t essayed gritty characters on screen before. His roles in films like Marjaavaan, Aiyaary, A Gentleman, and Ek Villain were quite a treat to watch, but seeing him essay the role of a martyr, that too in the genre that everyone loves, is exciting. The music of the film is doing really well too, and everyone who has watched the film is in favour of Malhotra’s performance. Shershaah is currently the talk of the town, and I was eager to know Malhotra’s side of the story — the training, the shooting, and the pros and cons of doing a war film.
Patriotic films are always loved by the audience, so that could be one reason why an actor would want to be a part of it. But apart from that, what made you say yes to this film?
I feel a good film is always loved. There are examples of patriotic films that have not worked. I won’t say that there’s any genre that’s a definite hit with the audience. As a film and a story, it has to be done well. For me, when I met Vishal Batra, Captain Vikram Batra’s twin brother, and Shabbir Boxwala, the producer, just knowing this common boy from Palampur, this lovable, good-hearted Punjabi boy exhibiting a lot of positive energy, was reason enough to say yes to the film. Going on the Kargil War at 24, doing the most difficult missions, and inspiring his troops, it was such a special story that I felt it needed to be told. We have heard enough about him or read about him in snippets or articles or some news channels, but the attempt was that it has to be made a certain way over a journey of five years. Different teams, different directors, different production houses, a lot of hands have been changed and luckily, I’ve been the only constant to have finally been able to arrive here at this point. I want this to be remembered in the correct light, with the correct intention.
You’ve shot some crazy action scenes, and training scenes. What was one of the most tiring se on the shoot?
The Kargil shoot. It was a 45-48 days schedule in Kargil. It is one of the toughest terrains in India. We were at 14,000 feet above sea level. The oxygen is less, wind speed is much stronger. The Kargil mountains do not have grass or trees to rest on. Everything in the film that you see in that portion, even if I’m resting against a rock with a gun, which actually is a real gun belonging to the Indian Army, is real. I have the helmet on, I am wearing the same boots that the Indian army used in 1999, and behind me is an actual rock that is poking me everywhere. It was difficult, it challenged our stamina, our physical fitness. I was okay with that because I practice physical fitness, and enjoy it. But I think it all kind of happened for a reason, it led to the rawness in the film. You know when the camera is there, the dust is real, the bullets are flying, they’re obviously fake but the smoke is real, and that’s what we wanted. We wanted the audience to see a war film being made like never before. And I think all those conditions really helped. All the difficulties, hopefully, paid off. But it also always reminds me that we, as actors, always have the luxury of another take, but the armed forces get no retakes. You only get that one attempt. So, it’s an ode to all the 527 martyrs that we lost during the Kargil War.
The prep for such a film is very crucial and draining. What was the best and the worst part of the training?
I loved even the worst parts that were physically challenging, because the Indian Army is an entity that I respect, and was aware of that from a very young age. My grandfather was in the Army. My grandmother has narrated so many stories of him being away at war, and what it feels like. But as an adult to really dive into it, into the etiquettes of it, into the culture of it, into the technical military aspect of it, that was a completely different experience. As a child, I loved receiving gifts from my father. He was in the merchant navy so he used to travel a lot. I used to ask him ki ek gun le aao na. And I don’t think guns are meant to be violent. It’s a fantasy world of a child where he is, maybe, trying to bring out that hero inside him, and feel good about himself, and I used to do that. Captain Vikram Batra, as a character, is more charming, and has an affable personality even when he was in uniform. His innocent, brash behaviour, always eager to know something or ask something was interesting to play because we have assumed that Army men are so serious, but that’s not true. They’re as normal as all of us but they do incredible work, especially in the war. I think that changes them a lot. So, it’s really interesting to play that boy, with the army training and everything. I loved it, and I did not mind the difficult bits.
Hearing about this experience is exciting, because I remember only reading about it in school…
I hope so. I mean not everyone’s aware of his journey or the small details that one might not pick up. Hopefully, you’ll understand what their mindset was, and how they stumbled upon these situations that they encountered. That’s an attempt for a generation that knows nothing. You still know something about it, but I think the younger generation will know nothing about Kargil, and we can assure you that we are not promoting war in any way. We’re just going to tell you the human side of this little boy who can do some amazing heroic stuff, which says that anybody who puts his mind and passion to something, can really succeed just like Captain Vikram Batra showed us how to.
When you’re working on a film like Shershaah, you have to look and act a certain, serious manner. What were the fun parts of shooting for the film?
Definitely, the love story parts that we shot in Chandigarh with Kiara Advani. We went to actual locations. We went to Punjab University, where he studied. We went to the Rock Garden in Chandigarh. That was the most fun part, and also a space for the character where I could play around with it. I think the Chandigarh love story part has softer moments where you see this slightly chummy, fun guy, a different side of Captain Vikram Batra.
Talking about Kiara Advani, your chemistry with her is crackling. In general, too, you always have good chemistry with your co-stars. What’s your secret?
The secret behind our chemistry? Well, why can’t people just give credit to my performance? (laughs). I don’t think any actor could know what the audience would possibly feel as chemistry. I think it is being receptive and it is being in that moment, and giving the co-actor that kind of respect and space. We needed something that is extremely honest, and gives you that very genuine, earnest feel. Even his love story is rare, and I think Advani brings that out with utmost ease, and has that sincerity on the camera. I think that makes it really easy to give those starey-dewy eyes. I have so much love to give that I’ll give it to all my co-stars. Even Akshay Kumar, I have given so much love to him in my film and I love him very dearly. Maybe it is my Punjabi lovable side (laughs).
Shershaah is opting for the OTT route rather than going into the cinemas. How do you feel about that?
Right now, it is good. It is the only way. Obviously from the inception of the film, whenever people were going to see it, they would have seen the way we have shot it, the way we have conceptualised it where Vishnuvardhan, our director, Kamaljeet Negi, our DOP, or our action directors — Stefan Richter and Sunil Rodrigues — and this whole massive team spent two months in Kargil, creating a vision as to how the film will look. They were always visualising that the canvas will look like this, the audience will see picturesque landscapes, mountains, we would shoot at night, we would shoot at day, this explosion, that will come, etc. It was all planned for an amazing experience of sound and visuals for a theatre. But having said that, we were ready last year with a theatrical release date, and we were ready this year as well. As an actor, I am a die-hard fan of Hindi movie theatres, the dark room experience. That discipline will never be exchanged or changed by anything else. But at present, the world is going through a pandemic. We are just about getting out of it. It is very difficult for people to be confident to get out and watch the film safely, and we would have never gotten the amount of reach that we are getting from an OTT release. So maybe the experience is different, but the emotions will remain the same.
With OTT platforms like Amazon Prime Video, which has such a wide reach, the reaction to the film will also be quite instantaneous. Are you nervous?
Definitely. Every time a film of mine releases, I feel nervous. But I have been told by Amazon Prime Video that it is something that stays on for longer. It is not so concentrated, like two weeks or three weeks, because of the medium that the film comes out on, and it is also worldwide, so I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know if this is a Friday feeling or not. This is my first film to release on OTT directly, so I will experience this, and hopefully, we will talk about it the next time.
Vishnuvardhan is also making his Hindi directorial debut. Are you a director’s actor?
We were very fortunate to have an experienced director like him, who has made enough movies in Tamil, work with us. He knows the technicalities, the narrative, the experience. That was a big advantage because we needed a strong hand. I think Vishnuvardhan is an extremely enthusiastic director as you need somebody behind that camera to always charge you up. He himself has never done a biopic, he was intrigued to work on a biopic like this. He is technically very sound. He has been a cameraman, and he knows the technicalities well. He, along with Negi, gave a really amazing look to the film. He prepped a lot. He was always focused and concentrated. I think a director’s half the job is done when he knows how to manage energies on the sets, and he did that beautifully. We had the most difficult outdoor shoots possible, but he never let me feel the stress. I had a wonderful time working with him. This is a special film which can only be made by a special team. So, I am so happy that we all came together to make this incredible story.
You are coming back on the screen after two years, and that too, with an OTT release. How does the anticipation feel?
The two-year gap has been for obvious reasons. No one was releasing their movies. Anticipation wise, this is by far the only project that I feel most passionate about. I feel extremely attached to this film. I really want the audience to see the film for the film that it is, for the heroic story we are trying to tell, for the inspirational story we are trying to tell. I want people to appreciate all the armed forces who are giving their lives right now for the freedom that we have. So, the anticipation is more to see if they get the point we’re trying to put across.
What was your fitness regime like when you were training for Shershaah?
We were mostly in Kargil, so we did not have a gym. I had an empty room, so I just used to collect a few weights and work out. It was pretty natural. I remember putting up a rope. It took me two days to ask the hotel people if I could tie one rope. They did not allow it. Then we found a pillar right at the back of some alley, so I wanted to do rope climbing, which is one of the best exercises for the upper body, and I did that in the alley. It was pretty much all weight training. We were running so much on the sets so that did the cardio for us.
Which was the last film you watched on Amazon and liked?
It is not a film but a show. Family Man 2. I think Raj and DK, and Manoj (Bajpayee) sir have done an amazingly fabulous job and the show is so engaging. They have made a superb Season 2.