Decoding Manav Kaul — an actor, a playwright, a published author, a poet, a traveller, a charmer, and the sapiosexual dreamboat for the millennials

Main bahot pehle thokar khaa kar gir chuka tha…  Jo baad mein uthkar bhaaga woh main nahi tha (I had stumbled and fallen down long back, The one who got up and ran after, wasn’t me) — Reads Manav Kaul’s Instagram bio. His ‘other’  Instagram bio. In fact, it seems the actor is more interesting in his otherness. He thrives on discovering his other-selves in the characters he plays on screen, and it is the ‘other’ folder on his computer that has turned him into a published author, Yes, for the uninitiated, Manav Kaul has so far gotten seven books to his credit, has judiciously used the lockdowns to write two novels, and has just published his first book of poetry Karta Na Karm Se. “I was doing a lot of theatre at that point, and it was the only medium I understood then. So, I started writing plays. 

Manav Kaul

But while I was writing those, I would have brief periods when I would get stuck as a writer. And that would happen a lot as I was also experimenting with the form. During those phases, to divert my mind a bit, I would write something else. I would have a folder on my laptop, which was (very innovatively) called the ‘Other Folder’, where I would dump these ‘something else’,” he laughs.

According to him, he started writing out of boredom. “There was a phase in my life, it lasted for a good 12
to 13 years, when I had stopped acting, I was bored of it, I was bored of everything. I was in Mumbai, living
with my friends, and not doing anything worthwhile. I was reading a lot of fiction, and then I started writing. I realised that I can create the world I want to be in, in my fiction. I used to do theatre, so I started writing plays. In retrospect, I realise how much hunger I had in me to churn out stories, to write,” says Kaul, who is today considered one of the most interesting playwrights of contemporary experimental Hindi theatre, and is the founder of Aranya theatre group.

A still from Nail Polish
A still from Nail Polish

And it is this pursuit of ‘other’ that is also the driving force behind Manav Kaul, the actor. You might not find Kaul in Bittu Joshi (Kai Po Che!), Ashok Dubey (Tumhari Sulu), Babloo Pandey (Jai Gangaajal) and Kabir (Ajeeb Daastaans), but these are all manifestations of his ‘otherness’. “I love living as someone else. If I am playing a character that is very close to me or is known to me, it becomes boring. Kabir was, in a way, someone I never thought I could be. He is a happy, loving, charming, forgiving guy. But, to my surprise, Kabir was somewhere there within me. I love the idea of discovering someone within me that was not there before,” says the dapper actor known for his range and versatility, which, the actor insists, is only because there is no fun playing ‘Manav’ on screen.

A still from Ghoul
A still from Ghoul

“Life is rather mundane and boring. If I am playing a character that is very close to me or is known to me, it becomes boring. It is the way I see my writing as well. If I am writing about myself, it would be such a boring book,” he guffaws.

However, given the life, this break dance teacher-turned- book club founder-turned-goli biscuit seller-turned-kite shop owner-turned-national-level swimmer has lived before becoming the Manav Kaul we know, or we think we do, it would take considerable talent to turn it into a boring book. Born in a Kashmiri Pandit family in Baramulla, he had to leave his ancestral house as a kid when the family relocated to Hoshangabad, Madhya Pradesh. “Hoshangabad was like a huge mela in my head. It was a small town where everyone knew everyone. It was a roller coaster ride. There were Ram Leelas happening, my friends were becoming gods. There was zero pressure to do anything. And I did a lot of things. The motivation was always the same — to impress people,” he laughs, while reminiscing.

Kaul in Saina
Kaul in Saina

But instead, he became a state-level swimmer, and landed at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) campus
in Bhopal. “We used to dive into the river and collect money, and buy kachoris with that. One day there was a competition and I participated, and one year later, I was at the SAI hostel in Bhopal,” recollects Kaul. He talks about life in retrospect, almost as a fiction he is reading.

Point it out, and he agrees. “I live in a very fictional world in my head. I prefer to stay in my head instead of confronting reality.” The actor prefers the life-like over life, realistic over the real, and fiction over facts. For him, life is not a drug, but a nice, tall drink of fiction and reality. “When I was travelling in Europe and writing my first travelogue, Bohot dur kitna dur hota hai, I purposefully wrote in the prologue that it is a fiction. Life, in retrospect, is fiction. What is happening now is the only real, honest thing. The moment you write about it, it is fiction. When I am writing about the Prague I think I have visited, that Prague isn’t there anymore, it does not exist at this moment. I am writing my version of the place. When you write this interview, it will be a piece of fiction as well,” he explains.

A still from Madam Chief Minister
A still from Madam Chief Minister

Meanwhile, it was at the SAI campus that he discovered theatre, and dived into that world head first. And it was through theatre that he got introduced to world literature, and his love affair with the written words began. Although, like most love stories, it started off as an infatuation. “When I started doing theatre, I suddenly came across names like Mayakovsky, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, Brecht, and the likes. I found the sound of these names rather exotic. Then I bought a few of their books, the Russian ones were cheap and I was mostly buying these for effect, to impress girls. I started reading poems also with the same motivation,” he chuckles.

It took some time for his relationship with literature to turn serious. “I had shifted to Mumbai on a whim. I was staying in a chawl where I shared the accommodation with five other guys. One would call that period the ‘struggling period’ for an actor. But, I was not at all struggling. On the contrary, I was mesmerised by what was going on around me. It was as if I was living inside a story. It is during this time that I started reading Vinod Kumar Shukla, Nirmal Verma, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, and I was not reading them to impress anyone. For the first time, I was actually discovering literature. The worlds they were creating in my head became my escape from the dingy chawl where we were all waiting for some miracle to happen,” he says. It is probably his ability to transport himself into a fictional world, to create a fiction out of mundane realities that is his bulwark against all the unpleasantness life throws at him. “Maybe it is my survival instinct,” he ponders.

The Verdict - State Vs Nanavati
The Verdict – State Vs Nanavati

But the version in which he comes closest to his personal identity, is possibly Kaul the traveller. He lives his life with the spirit of one, passing through it wide-eyed, but with a certain sense of detachment. Also, it is during his travels that he is most prolific as a writer. “Travel makes me feel lighter. When you are backpacking and travelling for months, you start realising how little you need to survive. The moment I come back, I realise how much unnecessary stuff I have been hoarding in my house. And it is similar to the emotional baggage you carry. You shed and get lighter,” says Manav.

A still from Tumhari Sulu
A still from Tumhari Sulu

Talking about emotions, what about romance? How does the real Kaul compare to the Kabirs, Ashoks, and Sudheers (Chuhal), the charming romantic leads he plays in fiction? “I think I spoil my relationships looking for a new turn in the story. And whenever there is one, I let it happen. Even if it is a wrong turn, I want to see where it goes, because in my head, it is also a story,” he rues. But he points out that he is indeed very much single. “I stay away from love because I fall in love very easily, and it messes up my entire system. I am inherently a shy person. I am often told that I am not half as romantic as the characters I write,” he laughs, adding that although in his head he is excited about the idea of “this new dating app’, these days he mostly finds himself sitting in front of the computer the entire day, typing away. For according to him, romances work best in fiction.

A still from Ajeeb Daastaans
A still from Ajeeb Daastaans

As he writes his, in my fiction, I am already romancing him in his fiction. Good part, fiction doesn’t need the consent of a right swipe. He says: “A writer’s mind is a bizarre space.” I concur.