For Saqib Saleem, becoming an actor wasn’t a conscious decision. It is, as he says, what happened merely by chance when he had moved to Mumbai to try and work out his relationship with his then-girlfriend. While the relationship hadn’t worked out in his favour, his acting career had started to take shape.When I met Saqib a few days before the release of his web series Rangbaaz, he had confided in me that as a middle-class Delhi boy, he never thought that anyone would pay money to watch him on screen. Well… money was paid and that too around Rs. 160 crores if you are taking his last release Race 3 into account. But unfortunately for him, the movie sticks out like a sore thumb among the usually good performances he’s given in the last 8 years. And, Saqib seems to agree too.
I’ll be very honest, in the last 2 -3 years, I don’t think I have acted well. I have done some good work in the beginning of my career, I started out with films people liked. I did Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge, Mere Dad Ki Maruti and Bombay Talkies. Then I did a film Dobaara which nobody wanted to watch dobaara and most recently I did Race 3.
While doing Race 3, did you realize this is not panning out the way you pictured it?
No, actors are not scientists. Actors are people who thrive on confidence. If you are going to tell me I am a good actor, it’s going to make me work better. If at any time I feel like I’m not doing it right, then I will go into a shell and not be able to perform. I went all out for Race 3. I thought it was a film where I have to look good. It was a commercial, masala entertainer. It didn’t entertain people so much but that’s when I say we’re all slaves of the audience. Some things work, some things don’t. I really enjoyed myself on the sets of the film, I got to work with legends. I have grown up watching films with these people, it was surreal! Like Mr. India, Soldier, Prem they were all right there in front of me and I was like, “Somebody pinch me.”I was a fanboy on set. I was like sir woh dialogue bol ke dikhao. So, as an experience it was fantastic. But the outcome of it, not so much.
Are you someone who reads reviews and takes them seriously?
Yes, every comment. Yeh joh Viral Bhayani aur Manav Manglani ki comments hoti hai na, I love to read those. We actors are alienated from the world. The only time we get to know what the audience thinks is by reading reviews or by what people say online.
You’ve been very open about how depressed you were after all the negative reviews that came your way for Race 3. How did you get out of it?
At that point, my confidence level as an actor was zero and I got to a point at which I started questioning if I even knew how to act. When you get targeted and trolled, it just gets really bad and negative. I still remember Anupama Chopra had written a review. She didn’t say anything nice about me, she used these words: She said the usually reliable Saqib Saleem underperforms and hams and adds bro after every dialogue. You know what I felt happy about? The ‘usually reliable’.
I told myself there are 2 ways to look at it. You can be under a quilt and keep crying or you can just get up and think of it as a lesson. I am okay with committing new mistakes but let’s just not walk through a part. As an actor, it is my job to make it my most honest work between action and cut. I felt like I wasn’t in that film (Race 3) and I am very critical about my work. My father also told me this, “Beta hamesha tareef hogi toh kabhi better nahi hoga. Kabhi thoda failure bhi dekho.” So I think I failed as an actor doing Race 3. I could have done better because I felt like there was no namak in the character I was playing. I am talking about Race at length because this is the time I can tell people I agree I had lost my focus in terms of performance. I was getting complacent as an actor and I think this wake-up call was necessary.
But looks like Saqib has a promising performance in store for us with his new web series in which he plays a 25-year-old man Shiv Prakash Shukla who becomes one of the deadliest gangsters of Uttar Pradesh.
The actor looks and sounds nothing like himself in the trailer and he takes that as a compliment.
Talking about his prep for the role he said,I started prepping a month before shooting started. I started working on the dialect. I went and stayed in Lucknow for about 10 days before we went on floors. I had grown that mustache so half the people weren’t recognizing me. Initially, I used to feel bad thinking after Race nobody is recognizing me, but later I took it as a good sign. This allowed me to blend in and observe people. As an actor, I had to get the dialect right, that is my responsibility. My body language and mannerisms are very city like because I’m a Delhi boy living in Bandra. This, I had to break. I didn’t want to go on set and call for a retake because of my dialect. I hung out with a few people from Allahabad and observed their little mannerisms – as to how they sit, conduct themselves or talk. The last part was my look- the mustache helped me get into my character a lot. I insisted on growing the mustache even though the director warned me of continuity shots and the different phases of his life we had to portray. But, I’m so glad I did that, because not only did people start looking at me differently, I started feeling different. I started feeling like Shiv Prakash Shukla. I started sitting, talking and looking at people differently.
How would you switch back and forth between Shiv Prakash the brutal gangster to Saqib? Was that difficult?
I don’t think I was Saqib for those 45 days of shooting, I don’t think it was me. The way I would react to things was so different. I had become very short tempered. It wasn’t the happiest time of my life because this guy had many phases in his life. So when I was shooting the happy phase, I was extremely happy. Once we started getting intense and his story became darker, it just got into a different space for me altogether. I think the mental psyche of the guy, his right and wrong to align with that was extremely difficult for me. As for the switching back and forth, I am still figuring. I am walking into a public space. Not carrying a gun, not abusing anybody. I think I’m doing fine.
The actor doesn’t even mind his show being compared to some recent gangster drama web series like Sacred Games and Mirzapur. In fact, not only is he a fan of all these shows, but he also tells me how Rangbaaz is different in its approach. It lacks, he says, abuse in every line or sex in every scene but makes up for it with its subtlety. It shows the human side of the story than the gangster side of things.
Talking about your filmography, you’ve had the chance to play quite a few interesting roles and not get boxed. Did that take conscious effort?
I wouldn’t know how to do the same kind of role twice because I would sleepwalk through it. I’d like to say it is intentional because you should do something different and put an effort into what you’re doing. And to be very honest, I have chosen films from scripts that have been offered to me. People saw me differently. Going forward, I want to just stick to doing great content now, whatever the medium is. I want to be doing good stories because I feel like people want to know good stories. As an actor, I am not going to do crap anymore. I am not going to do things that I don’t believe in. This is a promise, this is my new year resolution. The movie should be good. When the movie is good everything else is good. If it is a bad movie, even if you give an award-winning performance nobody cares. You have to find the right script. The script is bigger than anything else.
With the reactions to his new show being warm and positive, Saqib’s New year resolution is definitely going in the right direction and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
In case, you’re looking for enough reasons to watch Rangbaaz, here they are.