Sidharth Malhotra began his career as the typical non-bollywood family outsider, but his ascent in the popularity charts has been swift, and the real work begins now. The actor tells Shweta Mehta Sen about coming up the hard way, learning the importance of building friendships in the industry and why, hereon, only good performances will keep his career afloat.
As much as Sidharth Malhotra tries to play things down or convince you that he hasn’t made it in Bollywood, you’re going to assume he’s just being modest.
I know that this is a debate that may follow — the fact that “making it” is a relative term; also that, unfortunately, it has less to do with one’s acting chops than it should. This is not to say he’s a bad actor, but I, for one, think that Malhotra has to make further strides in that department.
On the one hand, you’ve got to give it to the guy. In his five years in the industry, he’s done nine films, has two more up for release and a few others in the pipeline. For an “outsider” to enjoy this kind of success in the industry — especially when his films so far haven’t exactly been money-spinners — must mean that Malhotra’s doing something right.
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But on the other hand, are any of his films memorable, or distinct? Malhotra’s generation has a bunch of actors who are unique in their own ways — Varun Dhawan has great comic timing and a raw, mass appeal that works for him; Ranveer Singh is as charismatic and energetic in the flesh as he’s magnetic on celluloid; Ayushmann Khurrana is another darling of the masses; Ranbir Kapoor and Shahid Kapoor have both, from time to time, delivered phenomenal performances that stop them from being written off every time a film tanks. With Malhotra, though, can you think of a reason why film-makers would write a role with him specifically in mind? What does he bring to the table that others can’t? What’s his USP?
Malhotra pauses to think for a second when I ask him this question. I think he’s a little taken aback. “I’m the only youngster over six feet tall and with this deep a voice — these physical attributes do help you get certain roles, you know,” he says with a chuckle. “But OK, seriously, on a more creative level, I don’t think a USP is something you can plan, right? It takes time to build.”
He gives me the example of Ek Villain, which did fairly well at the box office and prompted people to tell him that he should do more action films and take up intense roles. He took the advice and signed up for Brothers, which bombed, but at the same time, he also took up a softer character in Kapoor and Sons, which got him good feedback. The advice had changed to, “please do more love stories”’
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“I now know that I’ve been accepted and liked in both zones, so now I think it’s up to me to pick roles that live beyond me. Personally, I grew up watching hero films — my family likes them. Fun, action films that are larger than life excite me and that’s the direction I might take in the future. I like the idea of characters that have something heroic about them,” he says, with genuine excitement in his voice.
As Malhotra puts it, he’s been around long enough to have a connect with his viewers, but it’s up to him now to deliver performances that will keep the offers coming, and more importantly, have roles written with him in mind. He is, after all, the proverbial outsider. If his films stop making money and the offers dry up, it’s not like his father’s going to produce his big comeback vehicle.
The actor is well aware of this — as well as the other handicaps he started off with, compared to his colleagues from illustrious film families — but that can no longer be an excuse, he tells me. “Now, it’s the performance phase — I need to ensure that my films are getting box-office numbers, and that I choose the right characters to portray, which I will be remembered for. This is something every actor faces, irrespective of their background — it’s more to do with our script choices than our families. We’re all working hard; I don’t know anyone who is taking it easy because of their background.”
Jumper by Polo Ralph Lauren; trousers by Ted Baker
Malhotra’s a tough cookie, clearly. And USP or no USP, he’s going to stick around for a while, because he’s started from the bottom, worked his way steadily to the top, and in doing so, he’s picked up some handy tricks of the trade that he tells me about.
I Googled you, and apparently, you’re in some eight movies. That can’t be true.
(Laughs) At the moment, there are just two. I’m doing a film with Balaji, tentatively titled Shotgun Shaadi. They might change the name at some point. There’s also the Vikram Batra biopic, which I have been a part of for two years now. His family approached me to make a film on their son’s life. I didn’t know them personally, but they felt that I would suit the role. It has taken us some time, like all biopics do, because it involves getting the rights to the story, putting the correct team together and more. Finally, Dharma Productions came on board. I’ve signed some other projects as well, but it’s too early to talk about them.
Do you ever Google yourself?
No, I don’t. We have social media for that — I just have to open Twitter to be able to see everything that’s been written about me.
How important is that feedback on social media, though?
I think it’s all very temporary. Today, there’s such an influx of information that within an hour, things change. You come to realize that it’s all passé — nothing is permanent. It’s the same with films that don’t do well. Of course, every actor is attached to how a film performs. No one will do a movie and not want it to be received well. But it’s not really in our control. If at all there is a trick, I haven’t figured it out yet. When things don’t go the way you want them to, it just teaches you to let go and work harder.
Have you figured some sort of a way to select one script over another?
I’m actually pretty clueless in that sense — if someone has a script, please give it to me, I will definitely look at it. Eventually, what I have come to realize over the years is that all we have at our disposal, as actors, is our instinct.
So we hear a script, read a story or just listen to a director talk about their vision — if it inspires or excites you, then you feel like it’s a story that needs to be told and you want to be a part of it. I came into this industry as a complete amateur, so to begin with, I just did what I thought was right. Some things worked out well; others didn’t.
I can’t necessarily say that I know better now, but I do have a clearer image of how a film translates from the written script to the big screen. In the last few years, there has been a lot of learning for me. This includes knowing how to deal with certain people, not having things go your way or trying something new and seeing it fail. However, in such a scenario, I tell myself that nothing is permanent, and it’s all part of a learning curve. It’s so much better than not learning at all.
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Do you find it easier to work with friends, in a familiar space, or do a new director and crew challenge you more?
I think people tend to confuse banners with the people that I work with. My second film (Hasee Toh Phasee) had a first-time director, a relatively new cast and was produced by Phantom. Dharma were the co-producers and they weren’t involved in the actual filming. Again, with Baar Baar Dekho, Excel produced the film. I come from Delhi, and I don’t have that many familiar people in Mumbai, so I don’t have apprehensions when it comes to working with new people. Also, I don’t have the luxury to choose. I’ve had to start from scratch and chase directors whose work I liked, and the scripts that I found interesting.
Karan Johar launched you and continues to be a friend and colleague. Has his role in your career changed over time?
True; he is the reason I was launched and why I’m talking to you. What’s great is that, with his experience and knowledge, eventually he also realizes that all of us have to make our own creative choices, which we have after Student Of The Year (2012). Varun (Dhawan) and I knew him before the film because we worked as assistant directors with him, and the kind of relationship he always wants with his team is very casual, personal and interactive, which is great. Someone that senior nurturing you, yet leaving you to make your own important decisions — that is what he has become for me over the years. Whenever I feel the need to consult him, he’s there, but he never guides me into a particular kind of zone. I have immense respect for him and owe my career to him. From here, it’s on me to shape it the way I want.
A lot has been written about the advantage of being a star kid. Do you see any advantages in the opposite scenario — coming in as a complete outsider?
I think it would be that maybe I don’t feel obligated to do a certain project. It’s not that big an advantage, though, because a few years down the line, it’s really up to you what choices you make and who you want to work with. I tell myself to bear in mind that I should have a good balance of films that cater to a pan-India audience, and those that appeal to a niche audience. The other advantage, I guess, is that I had a very regular, middle class upbringing and it’s easier for me to channel that in some of the roles that come my way. On the flipside, some of my contemporaries come into the job with more awareness — they know how the business works, and they are also familiar with not just the directors and co-stars, but even certain technicians, which helps a lot.
“In the last few years, there has been a lot of learning for me. This includes knowing how to deal with certain people, not having things go your way or trying something new and seeing it fail. However, in such a scenario, I tell myself that nothing is permanent.”
Starting off, it’s understandable that as an outsider, you would have the insecurity of not knowing if you’ll still get work if your first few films fail to do well. While you’re safely past that phase, are there still any challenges that you have to face?
I think even if you’re from a film family, eventually it’s a very performance-based profession. You can’t drive an audience to a theatre based on your family — either people accept you or they don’t. I think I can say that after working in this industry for a few years, the accepting phase is over. Now, it’s the performance phase — I need to ensure that my films are getting box-office numbers, and that I choose the right characters to portray, which I will be remembered for. This is something every actor faces, irrespective of their background — it’s more to do with our script choices than our families. We’re all working hard; I don’t know anyone who is taking it easy because of their background.
‘Relationships matter more than talent in Bollywood’. Does that hold true at all for you?
It’s an industry where people do like working with people they have an equation with. But that’s true for any creative field, or even a sport where a coach will play two footballers who link up well together. It’s only natural to want to work together again if you have given a hit film together, and rightfully so.
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If you think back to where you began, you would have come in as an outsider with some notions about the industry. Are there any myths about Bollywood that have been dispelled, or things you’ve learnt that you didn’t imagine would be true?
I have realized that networking and getting to know people personally really helps. I’ve come across so many people whom I didn’t know earlier, and they would have jumped to conclusions about my real life after reading an interview I’ve given, or judged me by the way I played a certain character. Even now, when I meet new people, they are like, “We thought you would be this way…”. So yeah, it’s important to create these equations to give people the correct impression of you. In this industry, people find comfort in working with someone whom they have known for years.
“You can’t drive an audience to a theatre based on your family – either people accept you or they don’t. I think I can say that after working in this industry for a few years, the accepting phase is over.”
If you were to write a guide to surviving in this industry as an outsider, what would the first point be?
I’m still figuring it out! Five years is nothing in this industry. I think to keep it simple, I would just say, work on your craft. There are some wonderful actors who have come from the outside in the last few years, and they are proof of the industry being performance-based. If you connect with the audience, you’ll get cast again. Also, as Karan Johar says, dressing up always helps. Keep your fashion quotient up so that if you get papped, get papped correctly. Jokes apart, just work hard, that’s all.
Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
Producing, hopefully, or at least playing a bigger role in the films I choose to be a part of. On the personal front, as much as my mother would love it if I settled down, marriage isn’t a priority for me. A relationship, or companionship — sure.
Photographer: Arjun Mark | Art Director: Amit Naik | Stylist: Neelangana Vasudeva | Hair :Team Hakim Alim |Makeup : Rizwan Shaikh | Wardrobe : The Collective |