Paatal Lok's Ishwak Singh on playing an 'outsider' in the hit series
Singh enacts rookie cop Imran Ansari in the Amazon series produced by Anushka Sharma
Essaying the role of a young Kashmiri Muslim police recruit in Paatal Lok, Ishwak Singh had a role that holds a moral mirror to a compromised establishment. The young actor, who has previously featured in Veere Di Wedding, Tamasha and Aligarh, tells City Times in a conversation over the phone from Mumbai, India, the fine nuances of playing a character who is constantly 'othered'.
Your character in Paatal Lok is an 'outsider' who wants to find his way through the system. How did you understand Ansari?
On the surface, he is an Indian Muslim from Kashmir, who wants to be an IPS officer. I followed the trail to discover him more organically, and it helped to read Saeed Naqvi's Being The Other, Feroze Rather's The Night of Broken Glass and Basharat Peer's Curfewed Night. This was just to understand the psyche of the character, but then there was the policing aspect too, for which I did visit police stations to understand the body language, day-to-day activities.
In the series, his loyalty towards Hathiram is unquestioning, to the point of being unrealistic. What explains this devotion?
He is not entirely unquestioning. It stems from the fact that he has this dedication for his job in excess. When I was visiting police stations to interact with cops, I did hear some of them talking rather passionately about their mentors. That, clubbed with the fact that he is almost a migrant, he needs someone to fall back on. When you live in a society that is divided on the lines of class, caste and religion, you do feel othered. And in these circumstances, when someone like Hathiram takes him under his wings, he feels gratitude. Hathiram is a father figure, friend and a mentor all rolled in one.
As someone whose identity is often invoked when he goes about doing his job, how does he retain a moral centre?
It's also just a job. While you can be passionate about it, there are moments even in a cop's life when he sees what he does as just a job. This characters plays it by the book. He believes in protocols and adheres to them. So, when he hears racial slurs being hurled at someone else from the community during an interrogation, he is definitely hurt, but he justifies it in his head thinking that these are also police tactics. What gives him strength perhaps is the knowledge that this is a strategy to get the work done. But he is also sad about it. He comes from a humane space.
Were you ever anxious about how the politics of the series would be perceived? Initial reviews also suggested it portrayed the majority in poor light.
Nothing is devoid of politics. I had to widen the horizon for the character and see the othering as part of him being an outsider to the city as well. It's a reality we see around us, people talk about it all the time. I think when you sensationalise something, people register their protest, but here, we were only empathising with the character. This is the only way you can address stereotypes.
It's never easy being an outsider. How does one deal with being one in Bollywood?
Well, it's also an industry that is accepting. OTT platforms are not eager either. How many shows have you watched that do not have any familiar faces. This requires a different kind of branding. I might not feel so othered now as I might have earlier.
Coming from a family of architects and being one yourself, how did you plunge into acting?`
As a kid, I would be on stage a lot and growing up, I developed an appetite for realistic cinema. I got into theatre after college. I would travel to small villages and cities with the theatre group. Once I was sure that acting is what I wanted to pursue, I reached out to casting directors who plugged me into the whole scene. I did a lot of auditions. For every 10, I would get called for one, which, by the way, is not a bad record. (laughs)