Dubai: Bollywood actor Vidyut Jammwal talks up the ancient art of Kalaripayattu
The action hero tells us how his desire to revive the ancient Indian martial art has defined him as an actor.
The actor, known for his performances in action-thrillers like the Commando trilogy and Force, is equally famous for helming the ‘action hero’ tag of the Bollywood film industry, one he wears as a badge of honour. In an industry that isn’t particularly known for pushing the buttons, when it comes to exploring the physicality of the human body, Vidyut Jammwal has carved a niche for himself, bringing martial arts to the forefront of Hindi cinema and performing head-turning action sequences and self-choreographed stunts, ignited by his desire to revive the dying martial art of Indian origin, Kalaripayattu.
Besides his acting persona and ‘gram-famous love for martial arts, Jammwal also thrives in challenging the conventions, offering unadulterated perspectives on fitness in the modern age, an idea too often convoluted by the obsession of aesthetics and extravagant fitness routines. The actor, who has recently finished filming a schedule of his next release, Sanak, confesses that the onset of the pandemic has enabled him to tour Dubai in a way that he never got a chance to before, while club-hopping to promote upcoming movies. We get together with the man himself, who celebrates 10 action-packed years in the film industry today, to reminisce about his journey and uncover the vulnerabilities behind the fearless exterior.
What brings you to Dubai?
I just finished shooting for Sanak and Mumbai was going into lockdown. So, I thought this would be the perfect place for a break and also, to spend some time with myself. I’ve been to Dubai many times to promote my films but this visit has been special. I’ve got to experience the city for what it is — it’s like a mini world in itself. Normally, I’d go to all the promotional places but I don’t think you can get to know a city like Dubai just through its night clubs. It’s like people who go to India and say “I’ve been to Delhi and Mumbai”, that’s not where the country is. The country is in Hrishikesh, in Manali. The country is also in Goa. But I’m loving it here. I keep postponing my flight back!
You are completing 10 years in the film industry. How do you feel when you look back on your journey?
Honestly, I got to know this only about three months back, when my fan pages started putting up posts. And in my head, it wasn’t a big deal. This is just how I think. I tend not to attach too many emotions to these things. I’ve actually been celebrating these 10 years all along — all the small things, which at the time were very big for me. I come from a very different background, so things like buying my first television when I moved to Mumbai, or paying my rent in the city for the first time, felt like far greater celebrations. It’s not easy to pay your rent in a city like Mumbai and once you do it on your own, it becomes a celebration. For me, it’s all about acknowledging the not-so-big moments. So in a way, I’ve been celebrating all along these 10 years.
You’ve created a niche for yourself when it comes to performing action sequences and stunts, was that a conscious choice?
When I came to Mumbai, the only thing I knew was martial arts. And I knew I was good at it, I had been doing it since the age of three. So, my greatest ambition was for everyone in the world to know what Kalaripayattu was. Every time I told someone I was a martial artist, they’d ask if I did Kung Fu or Karate and when I’d say I practise Kalaripayattu, they’d glare at me with confusion. So, I’m grateful that the industry has been a place for me to showcase this martial art. Receiving the Jackie Chan Award for Kalaripayattu, a few years ago, meant the world to me. It felt bigger than an Oscar for me. I felt like I had revived a dead, ancient art of India and brought it to the forefront.
You’ve mentioned that a Kalaripayattu artist starts with healing the body. In a day and age, when fitness equates to expensive gym memberships and an upgrade in aesthetics, do you think this concept of ‘healing the body’ is often ignored?
For me, aesthetics is not important at all. When I see people, I don’t see how fit they are, how tall or slim they are. I judge a person by how happy they look to me. And that is what Kalaripayattu teaches you, to look at the person as a whole. You see the person from within. It teaches you first, to heal, then to harm. If you know how to harm, you should also know how to heal. So, I don’t see people how people are trained to be seen. We must train ourselves for this. Ask yourself, “what do I really like?” It’s more important to figure that out rather than asking, “what am I supposed to be like?” Healing isn’t only for people that are unwell. Healing means to be happy. I’ve been modelling for a while and I’ve been around some of the fittest girls and most of them have been unhappy. So, I changed the perspective of aesthetics long ago. If you’re overweight, but you’re happy and you make people around you happy, I love you.
Has becoming a vegetarian and then a vegan impacted your fitness levels?
I used to be a hard-core meat eater and then I saw myself become a hard-core vegan. Throughout this journey, I kept a note on the changes I experienced. My aggression levels went down. I became happier. My skin quality and body improved tremendously. I’m not saying that eating meat is a bad thing but there’s a difference for sure. There’s a cognitive growth that happens only with being a vegetarian and I’ve seen that for myself. So, I don’t believe in listening to people. I find the whole idea of ‘cheat meals’ ridiculous. Are you telling people they should be cheaters? And if you can cheat on yourself, you can cheat on anyone. People think it’s a cool thing to say. Why not give yourself a reward instead? Best thing is to find your own way, it might take you longer but it’ll be worth it. I’ve trained myself very hard to not listen to people. I control everything in my life. Nobody can make me feel anything I don’t want to feel. And this is not arrogance, this is my self-respect.
Has martial arts played a role in getting to this level of self-assurance and self-control?
Any art could play a role. The key factor is discipline and getting to know your worth. Honing these skills or an art form allows you to build your self-confidence. I encourage people to pick up any art form, it could be anything from making food, to painting, but if you’re the best at it, you become an evolved version of yourself.
How did you keep yourself motivated when the pandemic hit?
Before last year, I’ve never had so much time with myself. Yeah, I didn’t do the regular things but I got a chance to help the community. I started doing healing sessions and undertook some initiatives, to help people that have been suffering due to the pandemic. But last year was tough on many people. So, giving up is not a bad thing. If you think you’re not enjoying something, please give it up. This whole thing of ‘do not give up’ is making us into military men. You’re not fighting a battle in this world. This whole thing about being so fastidious about doing things is messing up people’s lives. I do a lot of crazy things. For example, I don’t put a warning out with my actions stunts. And I get into trouble for it but if it’s something I believe in, why would I tell others not to do it? People shouldn’t be limiting others. If someone says you can’t do something, they’re not your well-wishers. This whole thing of protecting people, is actually trying to limit them.
With each stunt of yours, the viewer gets a rush of adrenaline. Do you ever feel fear?
I live in fear all the time. Fear is my favourite friend. People who say they don’t fear anything are lying. Fear is great, it makes you do things, it gives your life momentum. When I jump from one building to another, I am full of fear. And now, since I’m known for what I do, there’s even more fear, of failing or messing up. So, I think of all the things that can possibly go wrong. The fear guides me to safety; that is why I love fear. It’s always besides me. Fear can guide you but don’t let it control you.
Lastly, can we expect to see you playing non-action related characters going forward?
Khuda Haafiz, which came out during the pandemic, changed my life. Everyone always used to tell me that I should try roles outside of action thrillers, but when you love what you do so much, you hardly ever feel like you’ve had enough. But with this film, I realised that apart from action, I also love digging deep into human emotion. There’s so much inside every human being. And then I did Sanak, where I got to tap into that space further. So, now I definitely want to do more stories that involve love. The guy should not only be fighting for the nation, but also for love!