It’s been a year since Scam 1992 released, and Pratik Gandhi became a star overnight. Well, almost — technically it was 14 years and a night. But how is the theatre veteran, who has made his Bollywood movie debut, coping with the newfound fame?

Pratik Gandhi, the breakout star of 2020, is on a roll. In October last year, he grabbed eyeballs with his stunning performance as the controversial Harshad Mehta — the madcap wheeler-dealer who became the ‘Big Bull’ of Mumbai’s Dalal Street — in Hansal Mehta’s critically acclaimed 10 episode series, Scam 1992. Gandhi’s first Bollywood movie as a lead, Bhavai, released in October. His next, Dedh Bigha Zameen, another collaboration with his Scam director Hansal Mehta, is almost ready, and he is prepping for Roy Kapur films’ Woh Ladki Hai Kahan?, which will see him share screen space with Tapsee Pannu.

“People often tell me that it’s an overnight success. But if that is so, then my night must have lasted for 14 years, because it has taken me 14 years to reach this point,” smiles Gandhi, as we settle down for this interview. The actor, a popular name in Gujarati theatre and cinema, started his career in 2005, and saw his first commercial success with the 2014 Gujarati film, Bey Yaar. Two years later came Wrong Side Raju, another Gujarati film that went on to bag a National Award. However, the Scam star has no qualms about getting such recognition this late in his career. “I feel extremely lucky that it took me so much time. It taught me, helped me evolve as an actor, and prepared me for this day,” says Gandhi, who had come to Mumbai in 2004, armed with an engineering degree and a few years of solid acting experience in Gujarati theatre. “I had a twin aim — to get a job and to do theatre,” he quips.

In Mumbai, he started working as a freelance consultant, and in 2008, he landed a full-time job. “I took up that job because I had to pay my bills. I was also doing experimental theatre on the side,” he recounts.

Becoming a full-time actor was still not the plan. Coming from a family of academicians, it was not a career option he had envisioned. “Our family was always into arts but it was more of a spiritual pursuit. Nobody ever thought of earning through it. My uncle still teaches music free of cost to the kids in our neighbouring villages,” says Gandhi, who had nurtured a love for theatre right from his school days, and later, it was at the behest of his dad that he joined a theatre group in Surat.

However, Gandhi wasn’t ever a filmy kid acting out Bollywood movie scenes in front of the mirror. “I never missed an opportunity to get on to the stage — be it dance, elocution, fancy dress, I would do anything and everything.” And just on a whim, he took part in a contest at the Akash Vani, and got himself a show. “I would discuss various issues with youngsters, it was in Gujarati. I used to get Rs 250 per episode and the job lasted for two months,” he reminisces, adding that he would often take up such random gigs even after shifting to Mumbai. “Theatre work wasn’t continuous and the money was paltry anyway. If there’s a book launch event and they need someone to read a few poems, I would do that, I have also compered kids’ birthday parties,” he chuckles.

The ‘odd jobs’ got odder. “I have sold fan control systems for cooling towers, I have sold cockroach killing paste, cleaned water tanks in housing societies, at one point I also took a contract of setting up mobile towers and was erecting cell sites across Mumbai. And I enjoyed all these jobs,” he says before recollecting how he had once gotten to know of an audition being held at Aram Nagar while he was installing one such tower.

“I landed up directly at the audition wearing the same sweat-drenched clothes. There were scores of struggling actors waiting to audition, all looking dapper with chiselled physiques. But once they started auditioning, I felt quite confident that they didn’t stand a chance in front of me in the acting department, and that I had it in the bag. It took me a few more of such auditions to realise that looks matter in this profession more than I would like to believe. I never got selected in any of those,” he guffaws. But he has no regrets. “I truly believe that I am the blessed one. When I eventually got Scam, I had so many years of theatre experience that I could get the nuances of the character right.”

Indeed, it wasn’t an overnight success, but an organic growth. “I had no expectations. Bollywood was just a bigger platform for me. From a local theatre group in Surat to a professional theatre in Bombay to Gujarati cinema, then further onto smaller roles in Hindi cinema, and finally Scam that changed my life and now lead roles in Bollywood movies, it all happened step by step. At each step of the way I knew if I move higher, things will change. My aim was always to widen my audience base. I was prepared for this as an actor,” he says.

That is not to say that he expected Scam to get this big, and catapult him into the first bonafide pan-India star of this decade. “I didn’t think I had done something exceptional; to me, it was the first time my work was reaching a wider audience,” he says.

Even when the reactions started to pour in, he took it with a pinch of salt. “Scam released amid the pandemic, and stuck inside the house, I didn’t really feel any change initially. Yes, my phone would not stop ringing and my social media was blowing up with praise for my work, but I usually consider those as echo chambers, and don’t take them too seriously. Then I got a call from Javed ji and Shabana ji saying that they have watched Scam, and really liked my work. That is when I realised that indeed something big has happened,” he laughs out loud.

Now, with offers now pouring in, how does he intend to protect the actor in him? Does he worry about getting jaded? “Not at all. If you count my Gujarati movies, this is my 16th film. Acting is like meditating — the more you do it, the better you get at it.”

However, what he was not prepared for were the peripherals that come bundled with fame today. His job description itself has evolved and apart from acting, the KRA now includes turning up at events and shows to promote his movies, to be papped at fancy places, and having a banging social media life. “I am now realising that Bollywood is not just about acting. It’s not only about knowing how to portray emotions or throw in dialogues, but also about whether I know how to promote and make a public impression. But I don’t take pressure,” says Gandhi who, although warming up to the ideas, still refuses to get fitted to a Procrustean bed.

Another huge part of being a celebrity these days is to deal with the trolls and controversies, and Gandhi has already got a taste of that. His very first Hindi film as a lead, then titled Ravan Leela, landed in hot water when it was slapped with a legal notice for hurting religious sentiments, which prompted the makers to change the title to Bhavai, but not before #ArrestPratikGandhi started trending on twitter. “The way you get reactions and overreactions without any fault of yours is heartbreaking, but it’s part of the game. I am an actor. I am the face. So I have to face these things,” he says.

Gandhi is well aware that today, being an actor is not just about showing off your acting chops. “When you come on a national platform, the audience doesn’t only expect acting from you, they expect anything and everything. They feel like you need to have an opinion about everything under the sun, and that opinion has to match with that of the masses. The moment I put out anything that isn’t in line with the popular opinion, I would be trolled and abused on social media. You can’t even respond, because then that also will blow up,” says Gandhi.

But just as his acting, he considers it as part of his job. “I can’t throw tantrums. Nobody had forced me into this. It is a job that I love, but I treat it as a job nonetheless. And these are all part of the job,” he realistically professes.