He welcomes you with a big smile. Once into the interview, he looks down at your recorder, closes his eyes, frowns and carefully answers every question. He is eccentric, keeps you guessing and interested in him. He is Ranveer Singh, and no wonder he was Padmaavat’s Alauddin Khilji.
As his controversy-ridden epic Padmaavat hits theaters this week, Ranveer sat down with indianexpress.com to talk about the risk and struggle of playing Khilji, his ever-growing relationship with director Sanjay Leela Bhansali and why the incessant protests against the film made him angry, but not disillusioned.
Padmaavat has finally released. How are you feeling right now?
I am very happy with the reaction to my performance. I am relieved actually because it was a very big risk for me to take. A part like this at this stage of my career, and especially with people advising me against it. They said it was too big a risk to play a villain, a negative shade at this point in my career. In our country, if they love the character, they love the actor and the opposite could happen. But I am very happy that I put my faith in the evolution of the audience that they will be able to recognise my performance and recognise that I am an actor, who chooses to do things a bit differently. The kind of appreciation that is pouring in is extremely heartening. But mostly I am relieved that my gamble paid off.
But then you also can’t say no to Sanjay Leela Bhansali due to the kind of rapport you share with him.
Yeah. I was apprehensive for one reason only. Yes, the part was very exciting but what I did understand after reading the part was that it would need me to go to a very dark space. So, I wasn’t prepared to do it. I didn’t want to do it at the stage it was offered to me. But like you said, I can’t say no to Bhansali. He has given me two of my biggest hits. He has shaped me as an artiste. He has contributed more than anyone else to my growth as an actor. So, I really can’t say no to him. He is my guru. I will pretty much do anything for him.
How did you get into the skin of Khilji? Wasn’t it difficult to gain sanity once the director called cut?
Well, it all started in the prep. I took 21 days and locked myself up in my Goregaon house. I was completely isolated. I used that place as my workshop and that’s where I stayed for the duration of the film because our set was Filmcity. I kind of isolated myself, marinated into the character because I can’t relate to Alaudin Khilji, I can’t relate to that level of manipulativeness, greed and ambition. I had to tap into dark experiences but his world view is not something I can relate to also.
I had to do a lot of hard work to generate that conviction in me. I kept working on my physique, my voice and the gait. I built a sort of foundation that I took with myself to the set and once I was on set, I allowed Bhansali to free flow with my character. I just gave him the foundation.
He is as much a creator of this character as I am. All credit to him. His is the most amount of direction I have taken from across these three films. He just knew what he wanted to do with Alaudin Khilji and was having so much fun doing it. I am really happy that our chemistry as actor-director has gotten better. I really feel there’s something special between us. You have seen it. Overtime a director finds his/her muse and they go on to create a vast legacy together. I believe that about Bhansali and myself.
Perhaps Khilji was meant to happen for you to address those times and move on from them.
I believe so too. Now that you are saying, I think I will look up on it as that.
What were those spaces that you invoked?
I have had some life experiences that were quite dark. I can’t reveal too much because it is too personal but it is the stuff I have brushed under the carpet so to speak. Stuff that I have buried in my conscience, that I had to dig out in order to play this character. And it was not always pretty, which validates my apprehension. I knew how deep I had to go into this rabid hole. I would have had to go into this dark, black space. This abyss that could be dangerous for me. And it was.
There was a time during the film when I was breaking down. Fortunately, with the help of my friends and family, I was able to neutralise myself. But it took a toll on me. But to see the film released and the love and appreciation pouring in for the work, it feels very fulfilling.
Were these dark times before you entered the film industry?
Ummm, some and some not. There are enough of them where you can draw from. But I feel like I have tapped into that darkness, to those negative experiences and I have addressed them. I have used it as catharsis and I have come out feeling much lighter. With the appreciation that’s coming in for the performance, I am filled with gratitude and out of it is just born more love, affection and kindness for people. I feel I have become a better person by playing the worst character, ironically!
The jauhar scene is undoubtedly the most powerful sequence in the film. Tell me how difficult was it to film the jauhar scene.
The challenges for me were more physical, not just in that scene but throughout the film. The shooting process went in a way that I was under a lot of pressure to be doing too many things. There was a time, like during those action sequences with Shahid and during “Khali Bali” dance scene, I would sometimes not be able to feel my legs. After the cut would be called, I would vomit. I remember shooting those running sequences in the jauhar scene. It was May. In Filmcity, it was 45-degree heat and I was wearing a 12-kilogram leather and prosthetic armour and there were burning tyres everywhere. So, after the cut was called, my whole vision would become hazy and I would collapse. Then I would have to be resuscitated and given some water to go into the next take. I use to vomit my guts out and go for the next take.
It has been quite a struggle shooting for this film. I would lose my voice every other day. I had a bad throat for a year and a half because the voice I had created for Alauddin Khilji was very bad for the throat. That created a condition, which I am still suffering from. There were enough struggles throughout the shooting of the film that I had to encounter. But what I did discover about myself is that I have extra gears. I had to dig deeper in my reserves in order to deliver and it taught me something about myself. I had to kick in gears, which even I didn’t know I had. So, I learned a lot about my own capacity.
Jauhar is not something to be glorified. So, when you were offered the film, did you have a conversation with Bhansali about the scene regarding how unacceptable it will be to the audience?
Not at all. I understood all too well what his intention was. He set out to make a tragedy and that’s what it is. The film is a tragedy and the only thing I told him after reading the script was, ‘If we get this right, this could be your best film ever.’ And I loved the film and I can’t always say about my own work but I personally loved Padmaavat. I was in tears and it really moved me. I think everyone on the film just killed it. I am very proud of Padmaavat.
The film nicely explored Khilji’s sexuality, which is also one of the highlights of the story. There’s openness about his bisexuality but enough is also left to audience’s imagination.
It was beautifully done. I saw Jim’s performance in Neerja and I told Sanjay sir that for Malik Kafur’s character, you must try this actor. Jim auditioned and he nailed it. I didn’t know him at all. I had just seen his performance. So, for Jim to be getting the kind of appreciation he is getting, it is extremely heartening because his is one of the most enriching co-actor experiences that I have had. He was so full of energy, ideas and passion. I understand it all too well, how much he contributed to my performance. He made me look good. I am really happy that people have come out with him as one of the takeaways from the film.
But talk about the bisexuality of Khilji. It is something not really seen before in Hindi cinema, that too with a historical character.
It (bisexuality) definitely added to his menace. In the film, he is pitted against people with very traditional moral compass and if you are the antagonist in their world, then it adds to your menace that the fact you are a complete antagonist, you have no boundaries, not even sexual. It really adds to that menace. The most dangerous people are the ones, who have nothing to lose. So, in that case, Alauddin Khilji presented a kind of shocking menace. I feel it (bisexuality) added to the character.
What was your head space like during months leading up to the film’s release? With the trial the film went through, did you, at any point, feel disillusioned about being in films?
Not at all. I was never disillusioned. I can never be because being in films is the greatest gift of my life. I only wanted to be one thing and that was a Hindi film hero. Here I am, an actor in mainstream cinema. I am living the dream. So, I am grateful every day for the opportunities I have had. Being an outsider, my chances of making it here were million to one and it happened. It is the most incredible thing that has happened to me.
Whatever happened definitely created a lot of angst in me but I chose not to act on it in a destructive manner. I chose to construct it. I chose to channelise that anger and fire into my performance. It has released and Padmaavat is there for everyone to experience.