In the late ‘90s, Ashutosh Rana’s villainous portrayal in Dushman and Sangharsh scared the living daylights out of me. But, as we stepped into the new millennium, the character of the villain evolved, and Hindi cinema also started to change. Cut to 2013, In Vipul Shah’s film Commando – A One Man Army, Jaideep Ahlawat is cast in the role of AK-74. His menacing laugh, his opaque ‘white’ eyes, and unpredictable behaviour, reminded the audience of the ‘80s villains, who took pride in the role. While previous releases — Gangs of Wasseypur and Vishwaroopam — made the industry folks notice his talent, this role introduced Ahlawat to the masses.

But it was in 2018, when both the industry folks and the audience unanimously applauded his performance, in Raazi. Ahlawat says, “Raazi was like an explosion. It brought me into the limelight.” After the film, things began to change at a rapid speed for him. Ahlawat went on to work in various projects such as Lust Stories, Bard of Blood, and Baaghi 3. His latest web show, Paatal Lok, is garnering immense love across the board. People are already demanding its second season. In Paatal Lok, Ahlawat plays Hathiram Chaudhary, a Delhi cop assigned to bring four attempted murderers to justice. This is the first time he is playing the lead in a web show. “It’s a nice feeling. Usually, people offer you the same kind of roles that you’ve portrayed in the past. I also assumed that it will either be an important supporting role, or maybe the negative lead. But when I was told it’s the lead role and I’m the hero of the show, I was grinning from ear to ear. When I read the script, my approach was very different,” he laughs.

Elaborating on his role in Paatal Lok, Ahlawat feels it’s very close to him in his personal life. Every man waits for the right opportunity to change the course of his life for the better. Hathiram’s story is the story of every person who feels his potential has not been tapped to the fullest yet. “Hathiram is just another common man from a middle-class family, trying very hard to fulfill his dreams. Hathiram is like that one actor, who is waiting for his lead role. The character witnesses failure and rejection, but is hopeful that one day, he’ll get a chance to prove his mettle. The pain of waiting for the right opportunity affects you, your career and various other aspects of your life. Like Hathiram, Jaideep has also got his dream opportunity. It’s challenging, but you don’t leave any stone unturned, and come out triumphant,” he says.

In the past few years, OTT platforms have changed the way we consume content. Ahlawat’s career too, received a boost, courtesy Bard of Blood, Lust Stories and Paatal Lok. He believes web shows allow more exploration and character development thanks to the nature of seasons, as compared to a film. “The platform allows to you tell stories that can’t be put out on TV, that can’t be made into just a three-hour film. A show can have nine to ten episodes, which are like three three-hour movies, rolled into one season. I truly believe it is the best platform for writers. If they won’t create something new and different, actors won’t be able to showcase their versatility,” he states. Ahlawat reveals that his journey hasn’t exactly been smooth. There were plenty of moments of frustration and cynicism, but the only thing that kept him going was his passion for acting. He says, “I used to see a lot of people sitting on the same boat, feeling alone and lonely, like me. But you need to find some motivation to get through. You look at the actors who inspire you, and find a common thread, to stay hopeful. In those moments of disappointment, there was never a thought of going back. What would I do if I did go back? Acting is all I know. The only other job I could have done was in the Army, but that remained a dream.”

Bollywood has a certain image of how a hero, a heroine, and a villain should look. If you get typecast in any of these roles, it can be an uphill task to convince the industry that you are capable of portraying other roles as well. Ahlawat is tall and has a rugged look, which is not very conventional. It may be the reason that the roles he is offered, are dark and grey in nature. He doesn’t believe in this theory and explains, “In the beginning when you do a certain kind of role, people do offer you the same kind of roles. For instance, in Bard of Blood, my character works as Pakistan’s ISI agent, and his job is to do things that are beneficial for his government, which may spell doom for India. According to him, he is a hero and a patriot. I was not trying to play Tanveer Shehzad as a villain. It is the audience’s perspective that makes a character a hero or a villain.” He continues, “If looks would defined everything, then Irrfan bhai wouldn’t have been a hero after Haasil, or Nawaz bhai after Gangs of Wasseypur Part 2. Everything depends on the vision of the director. Looks can be deceptive. If you only believe what you see or read, then you might as well be a follower of WhatsApp University. You need to look beyond the physical appearance to learn the truth about the character.”

As Walt Disney once said, “If you can dream it, you can do it”. And every actor has a dream role that, they feel, will unleash their potential. Does he have a dream role? He states, “There are many. Hathiram is one such role. The thing is once you are done with your dream role, you begin to have a new dream role, and another one after that. There’s no end to your dreams. I hope that some day, I get to play a comedic role, like Angoor. It is my favourite film. It would be fun to work in a situational comedy where the character’s life is tragic but it’s comedic for the audience. If I can be a romantic hero in a Karan Johar directorial, that’ll be another tick on my wishlist (laughs). I also hope to direct, in the future,” he adds. No conversation with an actor can be complete without asking which actors inspire them. One prominent name that always comes up, is Irrfan Khan. Ahlawat says, “He left a void that no one will ever be able to fill. I had the fortune of meeting him, followed by some small and lone conversations. Woh jitne udaar (large-hearted) insaan the, utne hi udaar kalakaar bhi the. He will always live in our memories and hearts.”

During the lockdown, the actor has found the time to catch up on movies that he missed, especially thrillers. He prefers to watch shows that have layered stories and characters, as it gets boring if characters and situations are simply black or white. One show that caught his attention is Lucifer, based on DC Comics’ Vertigo. Ahlawat’s next project is a short film with Fatima Sana Shaikh, directed by Shashank Kaitan, and Ali Abbas Zafar’s production Khali Peeli with Ishaan Khatter and Ananya Panday.