There’s a special joy that comes with interviewing someone in person. It’s past noon on a weekday but the suburban café is packed to the brim: The tables are mostly occupied by people glued to their laptop screens, some talking animatedly on zoom calls, while at one corner I see a popular television couple having a lazy afternoon with their cute dog. Although Mumbaikars are famous for their nonchalance when it comes to spotting celebs, I am still a bit apprehensive about the location. But our man of the moment, Dhairya Karwa, walks in as unnoticed as a 6’4 tall person can. Yes, the first thing you notice about this 31-year-old is his towering height, but get talking, and the ‘Gehraiyaan’ guy stuns you with the depth of his thoughts.

Dhairya Karwa was last seen playing the lead opposite Deepika Padukone, but he is no overnight success. He is yet to get mobbed by the fans on the streets or get papped during every outing. The three-film-new actor is not delusional when it comes to fame. There is one thing he’s sure of though — he’s here for the long haul. 

Dhairya Karwa

“Fame is a big part of what we do, and of course, one wants to become famous. But first, one needs to have a career; fame and money will follow eventually. I wanted the work opportunities to open up and that is happening. I started off doing smaller parts in an interesting project, Gehraiyaan was a bigger role, and now I am in talks on a project where I might be playing the central character. So, the trajectory is going well. Gehraiyaan was a big step in the right direction,” he smiles. 

He adds that money and success are important, even in ways one doesn’t really associate these words with. “Success provides you with resources. When you have that, you can outsource jobs. More than success, that’s what money does. It gives you freedom, the liberty to do or not do stuff. The Bombay journey is so different if you have a running house. For people like me, I have to make sure I have paid the bills, there are adequate vegetables in the fridge for the next meal, and then you have your work, my time would get divided in running the house. Now I have a team around me, I can hire people to take care of these chores and focus just on work and allocate my time judiciously. When I went through my body transformation for Uri, I did everything on my own. But now when I am doing it, I have a nutritionist, a physio, a cook, every aspect has an expert overseeing it,” he adds, with a surprising modesty.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation with Dhairya Karwa:

Dhairya Karwa

You made your debut with Uri. Was it a concern to make a debut with such a small role?

The thought behind me picking my films so far has been quality over quantity. I wanted to be part of good, compelling narratives. Maybe in my first two films, Uri and 83, the contributions of my character were a little less in the narrative, but those were great stories. A brand is created through its history. So, filmography is important. I am lucky that I had the luxury to say ‘no’. I have extremely supportive parents. In this industry, it is extremely difficult to reject work, especially when you are coming from a totally different background, and have no connections in the industry. To say ‘no,’ it is important that you have financial backing. At the end of the month, you have to pay rent. A lot of actors are often forced to take up subpar work because they have to pay their bills. I didn’t have that tension. Although I didn’t think of a plan B, subconsciously, it was always there that I could go back and resume my career, or do my MBA. A career in the film industry was my desire, not my need. Maybe that played a role in the projects I have picked.

Dhairya Karwa

Having said that, everyone dreams of a Kaho Naa…Pyaar Hai kind of a debut, where you become a superstar overnight. But in reality, those opportunities don’t come to you, especially if you are a total outsider. I knew no one in this industry. When I got Uri, it was a difficult decision, because in your mind, you had built up your debut as this big launch, and here, I had an offer to do a film where I am barely there, and I didn’t even look like myself. What made me take it up is that it was a relevant and interesting story, and I wanted to be part of it. Also, I believed in the kind of work Vicky (Kaushal) was doing. So, his being part of the project helped in the decision. It was a credible project with credible people. 

Also, I thought to myself, I’ve to start somewhere; else I will keep waiting for that one role which might never come my way. I had to start somewhere. Of course, I had also wanted a big Dharma debut. Maybe if you look at it like that, I got one with Gehraiyaan. I feel I needed this trajectory to do a character like Karan. Had I not had the experience of Uri or 83, I would not have had the confidence to do something like a Gehraiyaan. If this was my debut, I would have definitely screwed it up.

Dhairya Karwa

You played Ravi Shastri in 83. How challenging is it to play a real character, that to a world-class celebrity, on-screen?

The few seconds clip that you see took a year of rigorous practice and hard work. It helped that I played a lot of cricket in school but apart from being a left-arm bowler, he had a unique style of bowling that took me time to get a hang of.

Be it a fictional character or a real-life one, it has to hit a chord with the audience. The idea here was to create a world that is believable, rather than to mimic the people. Ravi Shastri had a long innings in cricket — first as a player, then as a broadcaster, and then as the coach. But what fascinated me was how as a 21-year-old, he was playing world cricket and facing a team like the West Indies. I met him for the first time at the screening. My research was based on what is in the public domain, and my conversations with his teammates.

The biggest pay-off was his and his family’s reaction. His wife told me that I reminded her of his younger days, and what can be a better compliment than that? It was satisfying. That was my biggest validation.

Dhairya Karwa

How did you crack the audition? You hardly look anything like him.

I had gone to the casting director’s office to audition for something else. They were also the ones auditioning for 83. I requested them to audition me for the movie as well. This guy in the office looked at me, and said tu Ravi Shastri ke liye audition de de. He was 6’3 and I am 6’4, so the height factor helped (laughs).

It was a big challenge, as well as a huge responsibility. He had/has a very public life. There is so much footage of him out there, people know him, many people have grown up watching him, and people are well-aware of his mannerisms. For me, the first and the biggest challenge was that he was a left-arm bowler. I had 10 days to prep for the audition, and I got my security guard on net practice duty. I would practise my bowling with him every evening. Also, I listened to his audio interviews in a loop. I wanted to get a sense of his voice. And it became a crucial part in me clinching the deal. I was told that Kabir Khan actually heard the audio of my audition, and finalised me for the job.

How is it living in these vastly different worlds, as a cricketer and an army officer, even if it is for playing a character?

I can take retirement from cricket; I have done it all (laughs). I have played in Lords and Oval, lifted the actual 83 World Cup, and apart from the legends of Indian cricket, I have met the likes of Sir Viv Richards, Wasim Akram, Malcolm Marshall, Misbah-ul-Haq. In fact, the day we were shooting the trophy lifting scene at the balcony of Lords, Sir Clive Lloyd had walked in, and jokingly said: “I will not stand here and watch India lift that trophy a second time!” It is in such moments you realise how extraordinary all this is; as an actor, you not only get to live other people’s lives, but you also get to be part of such unique experiences.

Such opportunities don’t come every day even in an actor’s life. I already consider myself damn lucky. Even with Uri, I got to train with the Indian Army at Cuffe Parade. There was a Sikh Regiment stationed there. Also, we trained with an Army personnel who was here specifically to train us, and I trained to be a soldier for a good three to four months. I learned Punjabi for Uri, and now I only listen to Punjabi music. My uncle is in the army and I have been to army cantts, but if not for the film, I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to talk to the soldiers or pick their brains. If I had gone as per my plans and done an MBA, I would be doing a 9-to-5 job, and wouldn’t have had the opportunity to experience any of this.

Dhairya Karwa

So, what was your initial career plan? How did you land up in Bollywood?

After completing my B.Com, I started working as a data analyst at a firm in Gurgaon. After two years, I quit that job. Then the plan was to get a good GMAT score and go abroad to do my MBA. While all of this was happening, deep down somewhere I had this calling; I wanted to try out modeling. It was something I thought I could do. I would look at pictures of models, and think that this could be me, I can be this. My friends and family members were all very encouraging. In fact, it was a friend who had introduced me to a photographer. I got some pictures clicked, sent them out, and started getting work. My first paid job was for Vistara Airlines; they were launching, and I did a campaign for them. Then, a few more brands followed. I also started doing editorial shoots, fashion weeks followed. Since I was already doing almost everything one can as a model, I thought of moving to Mumbai, and giving this career a more serious shot. That’s how I landed in the city. I approached two modeling agencies, and one of them signed me up on the spot. I had come here to test the waters but I moved here for good. I began going for auditions, these were mostly auditions for commercials as back in 2016 web shows weren’t still this big, and movie auditions were rare. I have auditioned for everything — from deo ads to South Indian films. Along the way I realised that I had a knack for acting, but I need to learn the craft; I need to put my head down and work.

Although there is so much conversation about the journey of the outsiders vis-à-vis star kids, most of the big stars, be it a Shah Rukh Khan or an Amitabh Bachchan or a Deepika Padukone, are actually outsiders. How do you see this based on your experience?

The castings have become much more streamlined, the system is more structured, there is more connectivity, and you don’t have to go door-to-door with your portfolio. But the number of aspiring actors is growing. It is never going to get easier. As for the insider-outsider debate, both are different journeys with their own share of challenges. If you think of it, if given the option, why wouldn’t a person take the path that has an advantage, where you straight away get a break, an opportunity, you have all eyes on you, now all you need to do is get the craft right and you are an established actor. On the other path, you will take years to find that one opportunity and once you do, you have to hit the bull’s eye, the odds are stacked against you. But yes, when you go through the second route and make it, you have truly earned it and the audience would be more appreciative of you. For star kids, the challenge is that they have to work twice as hard to get accepted by the audience. For an outsider, the opportunity a star kid might get whenever they enter the industry might take a decade to land even when you are deserving. All these are facts that you can’t change. But it is on your perspective how you want to look at it. If you try to victimise yourself, then you are making it harder for yourself. You knew the rules of the game before entering it. I wanted to play the game. I came to Mumbai, and decided to be part of this industry, knowing how it works. Nobody forced me. Now I can’t complain. Make peace with it.

Dhairya Karwa

Is OTT changing the game? Is it creating more opportunities? Or is adding to the competition?

The lines are definitely blurring between OTT and film, especially with all the big stars now doing OTT projects. The opportunities are definitely more now. It is a great time to be an artist, both in front and behind the camera. There is a lot of great and diverse work happening.

But the competition will always be the same or get fiercer. But you can’t focus on competition. I follow this thumb rule that someone else’s success should not make me jealous and someone else’s downfall should not make me happy. My focus is on myself. You can’t shift the focus from yourself to someone else, whose journey you can’t control. Then you have got the entire thing wrong. Yes, if you are my co-actor and we are sharing the screen space, then you deserve all my attention. Once the cameras are off, the focus is back on myself. This is a journey full of obstacles and speed bumps, why would I create an extra hurdle for myself by focusing on someone else’s journey? You give your best shot, because that’s the only thing in your hand.

What is your advice to actors trying to break into this industry?

Don’t get bogged down by rejections because that’s the inherent nature of the job. Forget math; the numbers can crush you. In all these years, I have just got four positive nods out of the thousand auditions I have given. But does that matter? You don’t need 10 directors queuing up outside your door; you just need one to put his/her faith in you. Here, work gets you work. Although I got all my roles through elaborate auditions, Shakun checked with my 83 editor about my acting credentials, and the editor of Uri was initially part of Gehraiyaan

In this industry, one opportunity can change your life. It is great if you have 10 jobs at hand, but all you really need is one job, and that can be the game changer.

(All Image Credits: Celio, Watch Courtesy: Tissot)