The chameleon actor, who completes 40 years in cinema this year, has taken his first steps into the web space in 2021, creating a brand new fan base with his nuanced performance in Grahan and Tabbar

Pavan Malhotra finds it amusing to be called an underrated actor. “I think journalists these days love the sound of the word,” the actor chuckles. “I have had over a dozen interviews mentioning that I am underrated or underutilised and that ‘Pavan Malhotra didn’t get his due’. But honestly, I am happy with my journey,” says the 63-year-old who made his OTT debut last year with Grahan, a sensitively-handled period drama dealing with the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and its aftermath, and followed it up with Tabbar, the shockingly dark and visceral crime thriller that is touted as one of the best web series of 2021. Both as Grahan’s Gursevak and as Tabbar’s Omkar Singh, Pavan Malhotra is on point, and aces every single frame. 

Pavan Malhotra

Although both see him portraying middle-aged beleaguered Sikh fathers grappling with a sense of guilt in their own distinct way, even the most discerning eyes can’t spot any trace of the first in the second. “I find it strange that just because these are two Sikh characters and wear a turban people assume that they are similar. Salim in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and Tiger Memon in Black Friday were both gangsters, but you don’t find them similar, do you? The Sardar in Grahan, Tabbar, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Mubarakan, Jab We Met, are all very different characters; precisely why I had taken each one up. Each time it is a new script, and a new character, and each time you start from scratch,” says the actor, whose very first two movies, Saeed Akhtar Mirza-directed Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and Buddhadev Dasgupta-directed Bagh Bahadur, saw him play two very different roles. Both went on to win National Awards in 1989. 

For this theatre actor from Delhi whose first job at a film set was that of a wardrobe assistant in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi way back in 1982, this has been a journey he could have never predicted.

 Tabbar 

Gandhi came out of the blue. I was doing a bit of theatre in Delhi. I come from a business family; we were into machine tools, and my dad wanted me to leave theatre, as it had no money, and join him,” he recalls. He had even agreed to do so, but destiny had other plans. “Just a few days later, a friend called me to inform me that they have enlisted my name as an assistant on the sets of Gandhi, and the shoot is at Jallianwala Bagh. I had never seen a film shoot before, let alone being a part of it. The only times I had faced the camera was while doing sketches and plays for Doordarshan. It was for a week, and I somehow got permission from my father. But they didn’t ask me to leave after one week, and I stayed back for the entire shoot. travelling with the film. It was such a mind-blowing experience. I had hardly seen any Hollywood movies till then, and whatever few I had watched I could hardly understand the accents, I hardly knew English back then. I understood Taxi Driver by watching the images. Apart from that ‘you talking to me’ monologue, I couldn’t understand a thing. I had no clue that Martin Sheen, who was playing Vince Walker, a fictional journalist in the movie, was such a huge star. We used to chat a lot,” reminisces Malhotra.

Although he did some small roles in movies he was working in, his first proper acting job happened by chance with Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s Nukkad. “The actor playing Hari had dropped out, and Saeed offered it to me. It was initially a small role. But then the love triangle started working, people started loving my character, and it kept growing. The serial kept getting extensions as well.” 

 Nukkad

His first movie debut was again another stroke of luck, and again, another Saeed Mirza project. “Saeed had written the character with Naseer in mind. I never thought I would get the role even when the narration happened. I later got to know that things changed because one of the dialogue writers told Saeed that the way the script has shaped up, they needed a younger guy to play the character. Then he suggested my name.” 

The rest is history. Malhotra would go on to work with directors like Shyam Benegal, Buddhadev Dasgupta, Deepa Mehta, Vishal Bhardwaj,  Anurag Kashyap, Farhan Akhtar, Imtiaz Ali, Anees Bazmi, David Dhawan, Subhash Ghai, among others. 

Malhotra feels proud that his work has always spoken for him.  “I didn’t know any of the directors I have worked with, except Saeed Mirza. My work got me more work. You will get whatever is meant for you. But it might be god or your destiny that will drop that apple in front of you, but it is for you to chew it well.”

Grahan(

The actor definitely knew how to chew it well. The characters that he has played are diverse, be the lead or doing a character role, he has never failed to impress.  “Ek Thi Daayan was a rather passive role, but I did it. I told myself, ‘Pavan Malhotra, this is the test for you as an actor. Can you stand out in such a passive role?’ As an actor one has to try different things. There is nothing like a comfort zone.”

But for Malhotra, it’s about the script. “The script is, in fact, the seed. It depends on the actor whether he sees that seed as a bush or a tree or a jungle. Often critics write that an actor did a good job, but couldn’t go beyond the script. There is nothing beyond the script. If you are going beyond the script, you are not doing the job right.

“I pick up the characters from the script. Hum apne ghar se kuch le kar nahi jaate hai (We don’t take anything from home). I don’t have a fixed style of mannerisms. It is all according to the character I am playing, and each character, along with its mannerisms, style of talking, voice fabric, is born out of the script and dies with the script. I leave the character once the movie is over,” points out the actor, who since making his acting debut as the lovable cycle repair guy, Hari, in the 1986 television serial Nukkad, has played some iconic characters like Ghunuram, a quarry worker who doubles up as a bahurupi and performs as a tiger in Bagh Bahadur; or the eponymous hero who is a small-time ruffian dreaming to make it big in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro; or Hawaldar Gurudev Singh, the loving but strict coach of Milkha Singh in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag; or Sharafat Ali, SRK’s quiet but supportive friend and band member in Pardes, or Prem Dhillon, the hot-blooded, over-the-top Punjabi uncle of Geet in Jab We Met, or of course, the iconic Tiger Memon in Black Friday.

Bhaag Milkha Bhaag

“An actor can’t be judged through one performance. It is the body of work that decides that. Someone who is trying myriad different characters can also go wrong sometimes. For example, Amjad Khan was not a great actor just because he did Sholay; it is because after doing Gabbar, he could also play the effeminate thumri singing Wajid Ali Shah in Shatranj Ke Khiladi, and then he did films like Kurbani, Love Story, etc,” he adds. 

When not in front of the camera, Malhotra is 100 per cent himself — a Punjabi from Delhi. But when he’s playing a character, he is exactly just that, and not himself. 

Therefore, if a lot of people don’t know Pavan Malhotra by his name, the actor has only himself to blame.  “There are many people who, till date, don’t know my name, but they know the characters I have played.  One such incident happened a few days back at a Bandra restaurant. There were these young guys who wanted a selfie — one of them actually told me that they get so engrossed in the characters I play that the name of my characters stick with them instead of my real name,” he laughs.

Tabbar

However, the actor admits that he would definitely love to be known by his own name as well. “Of course, I would like people to know my name,” he guffaws.  So, then is the media entirely off the mark calling him an ‘under-appreciated’ actor? “There are two ways of looking at this, and depending on your mood,” the actor chortles. “Sometimes, you feel that I was better than so many people, I have delivered every time, but at the same, I never expected that I would get so much love and respect, that there would be retrospectives of my films. Yes, I didn’t get a National Award for Bagh Bahadur or Salim Langda, but I eventually got it for Fakir. I have got an award in France, I have got awards for my work in Punjabi cinema, but I have never got any award in Bombay.  Awards aren’t important but this is also a fact. I have never gone to people to lobby for any award. If you have to ask for an award then what is the point of that award?” he signs off. Let’s call him by his name, now. Pavan Malhotra it is.