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Being wooed by fame

Pawan Malhotra may not have chased stardom, but his 25-year-old career and a retrospective on it in Delhi, is proof that it’s long overdue

"It was the 70s, and Delhi theatre was at its peak. Plays like Begum Ka Takiya and Mukhyamantri were being staged and names like Pankaj Kapoor were acting," says Pawan Malhotra, recalling that his acting career began on the stage. "I acted in a play called Father, and there was a line printed in a newspaper that said ‘Pawan Malhotra is impressive as an orderly’. I read it again and again for an entire week." Today, over three decades later, Delhi’s India International Centre’s Film Club is organising a retrospective on Malhotra’s 25-year journey in films from January 11 to 21.

Actor Pawan Malhotra
Actor Pawan Malhotra

If you don’t know of Malhotra’s National Award-winning movies like Bagh Bahadur (where he plays a man who paints himself as a tiger and dances in rural Bengal), or Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (where he plays an angry roadside underworld don), you will know him at least for the more commercial roles like Black Friday, Jab We Met, Don and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag. And, of course, you will remember him as Hari from that seminal TV show, Nukkad.

Actor Pawan Malhotra

As a part of the retrospective, six movies, including Bagh Bahadur, Children of War, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and Brothers in Trouble will be shown. There will also be a seminar, titled Unmasking Pawan, which is a session with Saeed Mirza, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Amit Rai, Mrityunjay Devvrat, Rakyesh Omprakash Mehra, Faisal Alkazi and Khalid Mohamed talking about the actor’s journey and the characters he has made immortal.

He describes his journey as a quiet one, only because he says he was so busy doing his work that he forgot to market himself. "Lots of people have told me that there’s a reason it’s called show business. After all, it is about selling yourself, making money. But, I feel I just did my job, and never wooed the press. If they talk about me, they would be doing their job."

The son of a successful machine tools businessman, Malhotra was expected to join the family business after he graduated from Delhi University’s Hansraj College. "I was doing theatre in college but never thought of taking it up as a profession. One day my father told me to come to the factory and learn the ropes," says the 57-year-old, adding, "and around the same time a friend asked me to work in the costume department of the movie Gandhi. I told my dad ‘this one last time’ and off I went. When the crew shifted to Mumbai, so did I, and then I never looked back."

He followed it up with working on costumes for Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, and then started working as a production assistant. His first big acting role, as Hari in Nukkad, was also a fluke. "The camera guys have to check sync of the dialogue and mics. So, they need a person to talk to continuously for one minute and they asked me. I started talking about Mumbai, which director Saeed Akhtar Mirza saw. He told me ‘you are an actor’. I didn't even audition for Hari, but for some other small role in Nukkad. But, the actor who had to play Hari didn’t like his role, and so I got it." The role made him a household name, and when he bagged Salim’s role in Mirza’s Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989), about the Hindutatva movement in Mumbai and the lives of underworld goons, he shouldn't have been surprised. "But, I was. I asked him, ‘are you sure?’ He said, ‘start working on your character, Mr Malhotra’. So I took fellow actor Makrand Deshpande and we went to places like Dongri and Chor Bazar for a ride. We based our characters, small-time goons, on people we saw there. We all had droopy moustaches and were cocky. The smaller you were, the cockier you were."

This brought him his other landmark movie, Bagh Bahadur, directed and written by Buddhadev Dasgupta, where a man paints himself as a tiger and dances in a village in Bengal. "Buddhadev saw me on the cover of a magazine and said, 'I loved your eyes'. I had to learn Chaau dance. It was a hard role. At the end of the day I would be rubbed down with kerosene, and my back ached all the time thanks to the dance," he says, and then pauses, "I guess what's worked for me is that I have no set mannerisms or way of talking. I can be any one. As a part of the retrospective, they have made a 17-minute film that has clips of all my movies, and I realised that my mannerisms and way of talking change with every scene. But, sometimes I think a star is only one who can be mimicked, right?"

In Childern of War (2014), which was about the Bangladesh Liberation War, he plays a tyrant who thinks Pakistani soldiers raping Bangaldeshi women is justified. "After a screening, a woman told me that she was scared of me, but had still told her daughter to watch the film for me." He also released Punjab 1984, about the insurgency’s impact on social life. Right now though, he is on a high with his retrospective.

"People have been telling me it’s taken too long to come." But he sees it as an honour. "For a retrospective, you need a body of work, and a body of different kind of work. I don’t have lakhs of people running after me, but I know there is an audience that enjoys my work. That’s enough for me. I have enjoyed this immensely."

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