Becoming Telgi: Actor Gagan Dev Riar On Playing An On-Screen Baddie
Becoming Telgi: Actor Gagan Dev Riar On Playing An On-Screen Baddie

Clearly, he’s mastering the craft

The story goes that Gagan Dev Riar’s father, Devender Singh, was an aspiring actor himself. Unlike many fathers who do not approve of their children’s showbiz dreams, Riar’s father actually encouraged him to become an actor. How does Riar think his father, who passed away in 2010, would feel if he saw the 43-year-old’s success as the protagonist of Hansal Mehta’s web series, Scam 2003 – The Telgi Story, we ask the actor and he responds with a smile, “I don’t know about that but I am sure he would be dancing somewhere in heaven now!”   


Indeed, Riar’s performance as stamp paper kingpin, Abdul Karim Telgi, in the Sony LIV show directed by Tushar Hiranandani with Mehta as the show runner, has had success written all over it.. Riar is immensely watchable as Telgi, the Muslim migrant from Karnataka who went on to sell counterfeit stamp paper worth thousands of crores of rupees.   


With a solid background in theatre – Riar is a META award-winning stage actor – he has been able to take a deep dive into the character’s psyche and imbibe his body language as well. The shirt buttons threatening to pop owing to the pot-belly, the lopsided grin when his schemes fall in place, and the carefully combed hair could have easily given way to caricature, but Riar keeps it real. 


Though it is a given for an actor not to judge the character he or she is portraying on screen, it does not necessarily come easily. Given that Telgi was a real person who committed such a huge fraud, how challenging was it for Riar not to judge the person he was playing on screen?  


“I would firstly want to credit our showrunner Hansal Mehta, who never judges a person or a book by its cover. He was very clear in his instructions to me that I cannot look at Telgi from society’s point of view, else I might end up being a caricature. I, too, believe that we are no one to judge another because we have done our share of good and bad things ourselves. There are higher authorities who are there to pass judgement. That was the only way I could play the role with honesty and humanity,” he says. 



The script was his Bible and the only other things Riar turned to were the documented interviews and photographs of Telgi that he could find online. “I asked for the script much in advance, and kept reading and thinking about the character’s actions and his thought process,” he recalls.  


Riar also visited Khanapur in Karnataka to speak to the locals and understand the tone of the language spoken there. Bit by bit, the actor worked on getting these nuances right, whether it was the language which is a mix of Dakhini and Hindi or the way in which Telgi walked. The result is for all to see, with one prominent film critic calling the actor an “uncut diamond” in his review. 


None of this would have been possible he believes, had he not imbibed the learnings and discipline from the stage, which has been his training ground for more than 15 years. Everything he has learnt about the craft of acting and creating characters has been the result of working with theatre stalwarts like Satyadev Dubey, Om Katare, Sunil Shanbag, Purva Naresh, Trishla Patel, Atul Kumar and Mira Nair, with whom he worked in the Broadway show Monsoon Wedding: The Musical. “Whenever I get a chance, I keep going back to theatre because that is where you learn things from scratch. Success can make you lose your way at times and there is no better place than theatre to begin afresh,” he states. 


It is well-known by now how Hansal Mehta’s Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story changed the life of actor Pratik Gandhi who played the protagonist, turning him into a star with producers queuing up to sign him. Riar admits that the thought, naturally, crossed his mind, too, when he was approached for the subject. “As an actor, you desire to be appreciated and want people to admire your work, but even I was not prepared for the overwhelming response I have been receiving since the day of the release. It is yet to sink in,” he shares. 


The actor is in no hurry to start signing new projects either. For the moment, he is enjoying the fruits of his labour and basking in the glory as accolades keep coming his way. “My mind doesn’t work if I have to do more than one thing at a time, so I take it real slow. I take my time to understand things and then do something, else it gets too much for my brain. Unlike Telgi, I am a really slow person,” he laughs. 

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