I’ve decided to divide Emraan Hashmi’s career into three phases. Part One is the Murder-Zeher-Gangster era, where practically everything he starred in was a hit. This was inexplicable, because none of these films had the greatest scripts or an A-list cast. They had great music, mostly forgettable female leads and then they had Emraan — who miraculously pulled off roles that I can’t imagine anyone from the current crop taking on without looking ridiculous. This is also the time the ‘Serial Kisser’ moniker came into being (regrettably, he came up with it himself, as his new book Kiss of Life reveals). Ever since, every new film he’s starred in is immediately scrutinized to check for the number of kissing scenes it contains. Thus, Part Two doesn’t come as a surprise.
Emraan decided it was finally time for more author-backed performances, for his acting chops to shine. Strong roles in Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai, The Dirty Picture and Shanghai (the film didn’t do too well, but his performance was widely appreciated) followed in quick succession. This phase ended too early, though, and Part Three began in 2012 – which is the last time I saw an Emraan Hashmi performance I genuinely enjoyed.
Four years later, he might be back with a film to end the drought. Azhar — a biopic of the tainted cricketer Mohammad Azharuddin — releases this month, and Emraan is very kicked about it. Parts of this movie were shot while his now-six-year-old son battled a rare form of paediatric cancer in Canada. His cure led to Emraan penning the aforementioned book, which largely serves as a guide for those whose loved ones are suffering from cancer, or who don’t have access to the amount and quality of medical information he did. The book’s success since its release last month has also inspired him to turn it into a documentary. Apart from this, the actor is also returning to his beloved “Bhatt camp” for the next part in the Raaz series, and is looking at a couple of other films. Is Part Four ready to kick off, then? It might well be.
Before filming, it would have been difficult to imagine you as Azhar, but you seem to have really gotten into the skin of the character. Take us through the process — the physical transformation, learning to play cricket and spending time with Azhar himself.
The only way an actor can look like someone else is if they have plastic surgery. No one would be able to look like Azhar. Our aim was to come as close in resemblance as we could go. Someone recently wrote about how Azhar is 6’1” tall and I’m only 5’8” — the height doesn’t match. What no one knows is that throughout the film, I’ve worn 4-inch heels. Our team took images — some unseen ones — dating back to the 1980s and ’90s and studied his dressing style, not just his jerseys, but also how he looked in suits or casuals. We got a lot of pictures of him at 21-22 years of age, when he was this young guy with his roots in Hyderabad. Using them, we went through a lot of look and screen tests, experimenting with hair, attire and so on.
My trainer, Pravin Tokas, gave me a great regime to lose weight. When Azhar came into the team, he was very lean, so I had to shed almost 5 kg to look the part. I stopped doing weights and did more freehand athletics. Azhar never picked up weights; his wrists were very flexible. There were a few shots I couldn’t play because my shoulders and arms had become very tight after weight training. Azhar trained me in cricket for three months in Mumbai. We would fly down from Hyderabad just to practice; it was gruelling. I’m not very good at it. Even if I was, there’s a slim chance I’d get close to this guy, with 30 years of experience, who dedicated his life to the sport. For me, it was about shadow practicing, incorporating his style and getting the nuances right.
Finally, to get to know Azhar better, I sat with him and asked him a lot of questions that I had formulated about his personal and professional life. In some ways, I relived what he went through. A lot of questions were uncomfortable ones, I guess, but he was pretty frank with me. Usually, it happens that you see yourself a certain way, and that’s how you describe yourself, but Azhar was very open about his flaws, and he’s okay talking about his fears, concerns and the dark phase in his life.
Why do you think Azhar wanted his story to be told? The general perception of the match fixing controversy, and the BCCI’s judgment, both painted a dark picture of him. Not many people are even aware that eventually, his ban was lifted in 2012. Is this film a way for him to clean up his tarnished image?
I don’t know if that’s a reflection of how the media carried the story. It’s as simple as this — when there’s an allegation and it is controversial, hundreds of stories are written about it. But the moment the person gets acquitted, there’s one story buried somewhere that gets overlooked and hence, it isn’t in the public consciousness. It is very sad that he fought the case for 12 years, won it, and even now, some critics may say he took the money.
But that’s unfair, if you have any faith in the judicial system of our country. Give him a fair chance. You haven’t followed the case for 12 years; you don’t know the details of what happened. You might even have a bias against him, but you have to accept the court’s verdict.
Azhar coming on board to share his story is not just a white-washing exercise. He said no to us three times, but eventually, when he saw the final draft, he was okay with it, because it’s a great script and he saw that. We’re not trying to sway people or tell his critics he’s not wrong. You might walk out of the theatre still thinking that he took the money. Our film is just a message to the audience, saying this is how it played out. You can think what you want, but only God can judge Azhar.
You’ve managed to churn out at least two films a year, and that’s worthy of mention in the last few years especially, because your son was battling cancer. How difficult was the work-life balance at that time?
I was working on three films at that time, while my family was in Canada. I was here for 100 days by myself. In a way, it was therapeutic to be on the sets, because you tend to lose yourself once the camera is switched on. Those few minutes are like a numbing agent. I was in constant touch with them over Skype, because it’s not only about chemotherapy or popping a few pills for the cancer to go. There are lots of side effects. We had family and friends there, thankfully. So there was a lot of support — a house, transportation and my wife Parveen’s brother, who would take a day off every time there was a session of chemotherapy.
That experience also inspired you to write Kiss Of Life. What were you trying to convey through the book?
I wanted to get across to people, because when we went through this incident, we were obviously shaken up. You never know how it will play out, so if you can speak to someone who has been through the same experience, you’re better equipped to deal with it. I started reading up on a lot of case studies and speaking to several oncologists, but a lot of people don’t have that kind of access, so I wanted to help others who don’t. There are ways of fighting cancer, and most paediatric cancers can be defeated. Even people who don’t have it should know how to reduce the chances of contracting it, because 90 per cent of cancers are lifestyle-related. Genes make you slightly more susceptible, but you will get it only if you badger your body. My son’s cancer was a genetic malfunction. He got a very rare tumour, of which doctors haven’t been able to point to a cause. But I did a lot of reading, and one of the books I picked up was The Emperor of All Maladies. It stated that kidney cancers among kids were among the first to have a cure. That was really heartening to find out.
With such a positive response to the book, would you want to explore more writing — perhaps a script?
In fact, Hussain Zaidi, who helped me with the book, just messaged me saying our book has reached number four in all-time book sale records in India, and that he was tempted to tell me to write another one. I said I won’t be able to write it unless I have an experience — it doesn’t have to be one of this sort. What I want to do – and have started working on — is to extend this book to a documentary. I’d like to make it by the end of the year. It needs to be informative. The thing is that if you go to meet an MD or an oncologist, they come from a certain world and will completely negate alternative and holistic treatments. I think it has to be a synergy of things. If you ask an oncologist about how sugar feeds a tumour and makes it bigger, he will never answer you because he doesn’t know. Not many patients or their families have that awareness.
Your son is now cancer-free and has resumed his regular life. That gives you a lot of time as well, to focus on your upcoming films. After a string of flops, do you have a strategy to get back on track?
The strategy is the same as it was five years ago. You don’t know what will work, so you just do all your films with conviction — some will work and some won’t. There was no grand plan I had when I signed Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai or The Dirty Picture. I just hoped they would do well. When I signed Hamari Adhuri Kahani or Mr X, it was the same logic, but the films didn’t work out the way they should have. The thing is, if I like something, I do it. I don’t think too much about it.
Also, I don’t bother much with numbers. When I make a film, I don’t know which way it is headed. When it releases, variables such as how the audience takes it on that Friday and how it holds by Monday can drive you mad. I’d much rather just hope for the best. I can deal with pressure very well. Flops don’t scare me, and I don’t regret any of them.
But don’t bad box-office numbers also affect the quality of offers coming in?
They do, to a certain extent. You don’t get as many offers as you would have gotten if you were riding high on the back of a few successes — but it’s not like the offers stop coming. There are a handful of actors in the industry and everyone’s stock keeps changing on a Friday. The industry is fair game. People understand that things keep changing. I’ve got enough successes behind me to prove that if someone makes a good film with me, it will work. That’s why people put their money on me.