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‘Isa’s character not based on Dawood’

Saurabh Sachdeva, who has been an acting coach for about two decades, forayed into acting with Sacred Games – and there has been no looking back since then

What’s common between actors Frieda Pinto, Jacqueline Fernandez, Vani Kapoor, Varun Dhawan, Arjun Kapoor, Richa Chadda, Harshvardhan Rane and Rana Daggubati? They have all been taught by the acting coach Saurabh Sachdeva at one time or another.

After working mostly behind the scenes for about two decades, Sachdeva suddenly found overnight fame while playing the character of a gangster named Sulaiman Isa in the Netflix series Sacred Games, based on Vikram Chandra’s novel of the same name. He subsequently went on to play the part of an Amritsar-based matchmaker in Anurag Kashypap’s Manmarziyaan. He is currently shooting for Bejoy Nambiar’s Taish.

In this interview, he talks about his work as a professional acting coach with Barry John, newly found recognition as an actor, the challenge of acting for different mediums, and his early struggle in Delhi.

Excerpts:

 Your character Sulaiman Isa in Sacred Games has a very important arc. It becomes even more important in the second season. How do you interpret it? Also tell us about your association with the project.

I think the key is that I never approached the character Sulaiman Isa as a complex one. For me Isa is a calm and composed person and I played the same on screen. I remember I got a call from Mukesh Chhabra for an audition in 2017. I had no idea that it was supposed to be a Netflix series, as it was very new in India at that time. Anurag Kashyap told me about the series and the role he wanted me to play in it.

 The character of Isa is speculated to be based on Dawood Ibrahim. What were your references while preparing for the character?

Isa is a fictional character and has no relation with any gangster like Dawood, as per my knowledge. I was provided with some references by Anurag’s team while preparing for the character but they just served as a starting point and then I made my own choices for the character which Anurag approved. While we were filming in Dharavi, he offered me another role in his next film Manmarziyan.

 You play a matchmaker named Kaka Ji in Manmarziyaan. What makes the character memorable is its inherent humorous nature. How did you approach the character?

I was told that my character in Manmarziyaan would limp while walking and speak Punjabi. I was given a knee guard by Anurag which I wore 24×7 in order to get the body language of the character. It was Kanika Dhillon’s dialogues which made the character of Kaka Ji sound humorous and I was just playing it as per the script. But I made a constant effort to not play it over the top, so that it didn’t end up looking like a caricature.

 You are a well known acting coach in the Mumbai film industry. But for some reason you avoided taking any major roles in films for a long time. Also, how different  is acting from coaching ? Do they complement each other?

I worked 15 years with Barry John and then 2.5 years with my own institute, and the journey so far has been nothing less than a magical story. I was happy teaching actors and was also somewhere scared of getting into the industry. There was always a doubt whether I would be accepted or not. And the moment I stepped out of my classroom, I was well accepted and I am thankful to the audience for that.

The roles of an acting coach and an actor are completely different. The former is similar to any game coach. It’s like one is staying outside the field — preparing and guiding players for the game as opposed to running on the field as a player and facing the challenges of a real-time game. And, at the same time, the two roles definitely complement each other; the experience of teaching thousands of actors, conducting hundreds of workshops involve constant learning for all people involved and I personally gained immensely from it.

You have been shooting for Bejoy Nambiar’s Taish in London alongside Harshwardhan Rane, Jim Sarbh and Zoa Morani. Tell us about your experience. Also, what can we expect from you this time?

Bijoy called me after watching Manmarziyaan. He narrated me the story and explained the character. My association with Harsh goes back to the days when he was my student in Barry John and then recently he was in my class at The Actor’s Truth. He wasn’t aware that I was cast in the same film. He was really excited when I told him about my association with the Taish and the best part is I am playing a close associate of his character in the film. Also, Zoa has been my student and only recently we shot for another web series in Kolkata which is still in the making. I met Jim for the first time on the sets and we got along very well during the filming process. He is very humble and usually quite relaxed as an actor. With Taish, you can expect the unpredictable — as always.

What was your journey like before you became an acting coach? Also, tell us about your influences and inspirations.

Born and raised in Delhi, I come from a business class Punjabi family. I wanted to create something of my own and so I started an export business which eventually failed in a few years. Then I started modeling which I didn’t like and then I saw a Salman Khan film which gave me the idea that if I have to be famous and rich then I have to be an actor. I then came across the Barry John school in Noida and joined the classes. Within a week, I realised that I don’t want to be famous and rich but I just want to be in the classroom and on the stage and then I started enjoying the craft of acting which became my life.

Motivational speakers and leaders influence me a lot such as Tony Robbings, Eckhart Tolle and Gary Vaynerchuk. I really like to connect with people, students, actors, their journeys and life stories, and if I can bring some positive change to their lives or guide them during my workshops, it brings me great joy.

 As an actor and an acting coach, how do you see the art of acting for the different mediums — cinema, theatre, television and web?

The biggest difference between acting for stage versus acting for screen is the location of the audience. In a theatre, the audience is right in front of the actor and so the actor needs to exaggerate his/her facial expressions as well as the voice and gestures so that even the audience in the last row can see them.  But when acting for screen, be it for cinema or the web/OTT platform, the camera can get extremely close to the actor, which closes the gap between the audience and the actors. Because of the close-up perspective, actors on film use more subtle, controlled natural expressions and gestures. Large, exaggerated “stage acting” can look awkward and silly on screen. Since I haven’t watched anything on TV during the last one decade I can’t really comment on it.

 What are your upcoming projects?

I have just finished the first schedule of Taish in London and second schedule will soon start in Mumbai. Immediately after this I have to finish a web series based out of Kolkata. My upcoming film Gwalior with Sanjay Mishra and Neena Gupta is in the post production process and I am eagerly looking forward to its release. Currently, I am in conversation with a few production houses. Also, I am going through scripts. I will make the announcement as soon as anything gets finalised. I have to take out time for my acting workshops also. This year we are also expanding our theatre group Antarang and so I will be busy with that too.