“More realistic stories are told in films today”

Bollywood actor-writer Shashie Verma opens up about his long struggle before gaining prominence in the industry

Hailing from Sitamarhi, Bihar, Actor-Writer Shashie Verma never thought he had the patience and perseverance needed to establish himself as an actor in the Mumbai film industry. Even while doing theatre in Delhi, he consciously remained inclined towards writing and directing plays rather than acting. But, it is quite evident from his recent success while playing character actors in films (Bala, Gunjan Saxena) as well as series (Panchayat, Chacha Vidhayak Hain Hamare Season 2) that despite his initial reluctance he was never averse to acting.

In this interview, Verma talks about his journey, his recent success as a character actor following a long struggle, growing importance of content, rise of OTT, impact of Covid-19 on the entertainment industry, and his influences and inspirations as well as upcoming projects.

Excerpts:

Tell us about your acting journey. How did it all start?

It’s been a long struggle but I consider myself really fortunate to have made this far. Whatever hurdles that I came across I always took them as a challenge. To be frank, acting was never a part of my plan. What worked to my advantage was that I was an extrovert. I was always good at doing mimicry and hosting local programmes, but I never really thought of doing plays and acting in the films back then, especially hailing from a small place like Sitamarhi in Bihar. Later on when I moved to Patna, I got associated with theatre and I started doing plays. Subsequently, when I shifted to Delhi and got enrolled in a course at the Delhi University, I realised that there was great scope for extracurricular activities. The exposure gave me the confidence to enroll for a diploma course at Sri Ram Centre. After that at JNU, I got associated with a group of theatre activists. But, honestly speaking, I was always more inclined towards writing and directing plays than acting. Also, it was at the back of my mind that the struggle associated with acting in Mumbai would be well beyond my level of patience and perseverance.

So, as soon as I reached Mumbai, I started looking for technical work as from what I had heard it was much easier to survive in the technical line. And, fortunately, I soon got to work with Lekh Tandon Ji as his assistant on ad films and documentaries. Now, the first acting assignment that I got was pure happenstance. This was around the year 2001-02 when a production house was doing some auditions for CID. So, I along with my two actor friends went to apply for work there. When I applied for a technical post as always, one of the friends started teasing me saying that I was smart enough to stay away from the toils of acting as I wouldn’t have made it anyway. That somehow got my competitive juices going as I muster the courage to apply for an acting role. Next day, I was called for the audition. And, to my great surprise, I got selected while both the actor friends got rejected. So that’s how I got my first acting break (chuckles).

Following your initial struggle you have succeeded in establishing yourself as a character actor. How much of success can be attributed to the recent content driven approach adopted by the entertainment industry?

For me, the content matters; a character artist is not someone you look down upon. They are the ones who build the story and establish the world of the film along with the protagonists. And, yes, there is no denying that recently the context has changed. Gone are the days when films were made for a particular star, as the current scenario shows that content is the king and filmmakers are evolving into creating characters that help build their story and that leave an impact no matter how small.

Now, I have also declined a few roles as a character artist but only because I didn’t feel that I would be able to do justice to them. On the other hand, my choices to act as the doctor in the feature film Bala and as a school teacher in series Panchayat or a politician in Chacha Vidhayak Hain Hamare Season 2 have garnered a lot of appreciation because the audience felt like I fit in those roles well. So, basically, I just did what I felt was right.

You also wrote the screenplay for Shorgul. How important is writing in the creative process of making a film or series and how it has grown in significance in recent years?

Well, I didn’t write the screenplay for Shorgul from scratch. When I came onboard the material was already there. My job was to refine it and give it the finishing touch.

Writing is an extremely important part of creating a film or a series for sure. But, as I said above, the context has changed. We are in the midst of an evolution and it’s working out well for us. More realistic stories are being told today and one the reasons behind that is the importance that’s being given to writing.

We don’t write for stars anymore; we write stories that can make an artist a star. I am sure most of us didn’t know Vicky Kaushal before Masaan or Ayushyamann Khurana before Vicky Donor. Good writing is what got them to where they are and they seem to be paying their dues in return  by choosing to do films where the content is given importance even after seeking stardom.

What are your thoughts on the changes in the Indian entertainment space owing to the rise of OTT?

OTT platforms have definitely made a huge impact on how the industry functions. There is no more denying that we lead a fast paced life, and just like everything else, as the demand for “instant” entertainment opened up the space quickly got filled. But some creators have been misusing it by aesthetically presenting content that can best be described as salacious. Nevertheless, platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney Hotstar, among others have been coming up with a diverse collection of content that really seems to be boundless. The other beautiful thing about it is that now there is more space for a filmmaker or an artist to showcase their work / talent which wasn’t the case before. It has made creating and surviving a little bit easier than before.

How do you see the impact of Covid-19? How is the entertainment industry coping with it?

Well, it has definitely been a big blow on all our lives and not just the industry. Ironically though the entertainment industry is what everyone turned to when the lockdown hit. In a way it has helped people stay afloat during these challenging times. It is a huge hurdle that we all have to cross. Every day we face new challenges, new rules and curfews; it is taxing to work with it, being a creative industry who relies primarily on people but hopefully we will come out of this situation stronger.

Tell us about your inspirations and influences. Also tell us about your upcoming projects.

Well, I have always looked up to great political leaders in my life. But, when it comes to acting, some of my role models would be Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Pankaj Kapur, and Pankaj Tripathi.

I will be directing a film which will be going on floors hopefully this September. I have also been acting for a Netflix series. Also, I will be playing a journalist in a Hotstar series directed by Habib Faisal. Then I am also doing a film under Imtiaz Ali production directed by Mangesh Harawale. Other than that I am also working on the pre-production for a web series that I will be directing. It is an interesting, honest story that will be shot in Jharkhand. We plan to release it by the end of this year on a prominent OTT platform.

(Cover: Actor Shashie Verma)

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