In his 13-year-long career, Jaideep Ahlawat has made a habit of playing men who are somewhat uncomfortable in their own skin. Whether it is Kuber, the deadbeat traffic policeman with an expensive girlfriend in SonyLIV's new miniseries Tryst With Destiny; Sudhir, the adulterous friend caught between an assertive woman and her embarrassed husband in Netflix's Lust Stories (2018) in the segment directed by Dibakar Banerji; or Hathi Ram Chaudhary, the loser police officer who finally earns his own self-respect in 2020's breakout streaming hit, Paatal Lok, Ahlawat, 41, is always in the middle of some self-detonation.
It's a tentative masculinity that is at odds with his physicality. It is what makes Ahlawat such a joy to watch on screen. His characters never do or behave in the fashion expected of them. Take his Babloo in the Netflix anthology Ajeeb Dastaans (2021).
The mofussil monarch
Here is a man who seems aggressive, tough, every inch the mofussil monarch. Yet, it's not his seductive wife he covets, but the man she is seducing. Or his enigmatic spy in Meghna Gulzar's Raazi (2018). Is he a good guy or a bad guy?
Says Gulzar: "Khalid Mir needed to be a chameleon. He was gentle. And he was ruthless. But you should never be able to guess what he's feeling or thinking. Khalid Mir needed to be nondescript. Jaideep's (Ahlawat) name came up in team discussions. I was very excited at the prospect as I admired his craft. Plus, we needed someone who didn't have too much previous character identification."
Gulzar says she casts her characters instinctively. The actor needs to visually suit the character, first and foremost. She met Ahlawat and instantly felt he was the perfect fit.
"When we began our look and costume trials, I pondered over his moustache. He had rarely been seen without it. We decided to experiment. We'd make him shave his moustache as a test, well before the shoot. So that if it didn't work, he'd have enough time to grow it back. Jaideep changed into a costume and went into the restroom to shave. And Khalid Mir came out," she adds.
A method actor
Such elements are things Ahlawat brings to his character. It could be the one-shoulder slumped walk he borrowed from his father for Hathi Ram or the habit he has of furtively looking around in Tryst with Destiny. Palomi Ghosh, his co-star in the segment, 1BHK, says few co-actors are so completely present in the scene and so giving of themselves. She thoroughly enjoyed playing the ambitious girlfriend to his ordinary traffic policeman who clearly wants more than he can earn.
Boyhood dream thwarted
Ahlawat couldn't make it to the Indian Army, a boyhood dream, and ended up with a postgraduate degree in English literature from Maharshi Dayanand University, Rohtak, Haryana, where he developed a love of theatre and from where he landed up in the acting course at Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, where among his classmates were actors Rajkummar Rao and Vijay Verma. FTII opened his mind and heart to world cinema and the rest of his education was with Anurag Kashyap who cast him as Shahid Khan in Gang of Wasseypur (2012) after bit roles that included playing Ranbir Kapoor's brother in Imtiaz Ali's Rockstar.
"FTII showed me a path to walk on, to realise what is right or what is wrong. I always find a solution in the basics. it's like going back to the NCERT (National Council of Educational Research and Training) textbooks while preparing for the civil service examination," he says.
True to his craft
Ahlawat remains true to his craft, as he has been in the years he was out of work as well, learning, reading, preparing: "The struggle is when you know the job and then land the job. Nobody put a gun to your head and asked you to join the film industry. It's cutthroat. You signed up for it. You have to keep yourself motivated and keep learning your craft. There's nothing that is out of syllabus for an actor," he says.
So, who is he in real life? "I'm vulnerable to the people I know, like Hathi Ram, otherwise if you don't know me, I'm Khalid Mir," he says. Dilip Kumar, Sanjeev Kumar, Anupam Kher, Naseeruddin Shah are his inspirations as an actor and Irrfan Khan and Manoj Bajpayee are his all-time favourites.
"To find the actor within me and to be more aware of yourself and your feelings. The art in cinema is between action and cut. Otherwise, it is pure hardcore business," he adds.
A business he is increasingly getting at.
The author is a senior journalist and author, most recently of The Three Khans and the Emergence of New India.
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