AMIT BEHL : THE COMPLETE PACKAGE
Posted by Vivek on February 1, 2013 | No Comments
There are those who become actors over time and those who probably never, despite time. But then there are those, who even if they come for a minute on the screen, in whichever role and in whatever the medium, film, television, or stage, leave their mark. For some it is their pure acting chops, for others their voice, for still others their presence and finally there are those like Amit, who are the complete package. He swears by his training and loves to become better at his craft. Here is talking to the Bio Medical Electronic Engineer turned one of India’s finest actors:
An Engineer (whose peers are all in the US,) decides to foray into television and theater.
Yes I am an Engineer in Bio Medical Electronics and also have a MBA. But theater has been something I have been passionate about right from my school days and continuing onto college. Also growing up in Mumbai, our family was very culturally oriented and we used to often have folks like Harivanshrai Bachchan, Narendra Sharma, Harindernath Chatopadhyay dropping by, since my mother was head of the Hindi department in Bhavan’s college and also very prominent in the local cultural activity scene. Also having gone to school in Jamnabhai Nursery in Juhu, the film bug was always there since that school has many of its alumni in the film industry. Having said that, I was not sure myself if acting was what I wanted to pursue. So Engineering and a Corporate Job followed, but all this while I followed the “hobby” of theater and writing on the side. Then the job took me to Delhi, since my parents felt that away from the “bad influence of Mumbai theater” I would keep away from the financial insecurities. But fortunately or unfortunately, in Delhi, I came into contact with Mr Ibrahim Alkazi, the founding director of the National School of Drama and one of the towering figures of theater, and the man who gave us Om Puri, Pankaj Kapur, etc. I joined Alkazi’s academy and that is when life changed. He convinced me that if I continue with two courses in life, it won’t work out and that I should take the plunge and my educational qualifications will never go waste. And that is what I have now been doing for the last 18 years.
You can be fit into any slot, did it bother you that you were not being cast always as a lead?
Obviously like a lot of my generation, growing up, I have been inspired by Dilip Kumar and Amitabh. However, during my formative years, for some reason, my inspiration were people like Om, Naseer, Pankaj Kapur, Satish Kaushik, Paresh Rawal, Kamalhassan, people who had taken their stagecraft and gone on to do wonderful things in cinema. Probably it was my education which made me very aware, but I would actually consider a lot of the stars to be very frivolous. The first person I met after I formally joined the industry was Govind Nihalani and he told me that “I don’t work with faces like you, I need someone such as Ashish Vidyarthi.” Govind was making Dhrokaal at that time. So he sent me to David Dhawan. David told me upfront, “Amit I only work with Stars.” So here I was, where do I go now? Then adding to the dilemma, coming that I was from theater, I was trained and used to playing, any cast but the question was where do I go from here? That’s when Television stepped in, with India’s first daily soap, Shanti, and my career took off and I also found my space. So now the same Directors who had told me that they can’t work with me, called me to work with them.
Fast forward to today. Has Cinema and the Audience, in India, really changed?
See the Stars, the Dabang’s etc will always be there. Has cinema changed, for sure, but are there suddenly more opportunities for actors like me or for technicians etc, that has not yet transpired. Yes, on the one hand, contemporaries of mine who were struggling to do cinema, are now doing cinema, people like Anurag Basu, Anurag Kashyap, Sagar Bellary, Rajat Kapoor. So while the Star system is there, amidst that , is coming out films like Paan Singh, Vicky Donor, Barfi, etc. And in this space I am very happy to exist, cause they appreciate that here is a trained actor who can fit into any role, has dabbled in cinema, theater, television, commercials and equally comfortable in all, who can work equally comfortably with a ‘star’, trained and untrained actors. Today when I walk into any set, however, big the star, the look I get from them is one of “guarded respect,” as in here is a guy whose work they have seen and one who is going to deliver in whatever is assigned to him. This is also what makes me hold a special appeal to new directors. Hence, on the one hand, I am dabbling in the very commercial, Singh Saheb The Great, with the Deols and directed by Anil Sharma, on the other hand I am on a small comic film directed by Kabir Sadanand and featuring Kunal Roy Kapoor and Vir Das.
In a perfect world, Theater, Films or Television?
Theater and only theater. Someone like Naseer even today says that the process of rehearsals for a play, is the most exciting for an actor. Everyday is a new day, the performance is different and the audience is different.
In the current scenario it is third. But when we started Television, approx 17-18 years ago, it was right there on top. There was good writing, direction amazing acting. People would look forward, that now once a week a show is going to come and we are going to watch it. Now it has digressed and which is sad as now the audience has become much bigger. I mean all of my batchmates, except for Shankar Mahadevan and myself, are all in your part of the world and all watch television coming out of India. A lot of my family is in the US and they hate what they are watching from Indian Television, but at the same time they are hooked on to it, cause there is nothing better. Yes it pays the EMI’s and gives you the visual presence that you are around, but any actor true to their job, would probably say first theater, then cinema and then television.
Glory days of Indian Television will make a comeback?
They will. They absolutely will cause we need to exist in the same space as the world over. Mega series, mini series and daily soaps all exist in the same channel in India. Unfortunately in India, the shooting pattern for all has become the same. The writing pattern has become the same. Once the differentiation comes back, it should up its quality. Once the myopic view of the channel heads changes and they realize the demarcation and differentiation of the different kinds of software, then things should come back up. As an example now Mini Series are coming back. Star and the show I do for Doordarshan, Upanishad Ganga, is now the number one rated show across the country, because it is being shot like cinema. You have trained actors working on it, with some great performances, location and scripts. I mean we are talking about actors like Ila Arun, KK Raina, Vrijesh Hirjee, etc. This is existing amidst all the daily soaps. So the optimist in me feels that we are getting there slowly. Mini series also have a shelf life.
Any plans to get into Direction or Production?
Approximately a decade ago my wife and I started Ashtavinayak which eventually grew into one of India’s biggest production houses. We were the creative people behind it, but the people putting in the money had a different foresight from our’s, so we left the company a year and a half after setting it up. Now I definitely want to get into production, but am waiting for the scenario to clear up. By that I mean the channel and marketing people knowing what they want, what the audience wants and when I am very sure that this is what I want to make, then I will definitely get into production. Apart form that I also teach on Art, Culture, Theater, Acting and Entertainment at various institutes and that really keeps me invigorated. I love interacting with students. I am a visiting lecturer in approx 7-8 institutes. I would love to eventually set up my own theater and production house, but I do want to keep enough time for myself so I can focus on my acting.
Does it ever bother you that you are in the midst, sometime, of the not very intellectual?
When in Rome do as the Romans. Are there moments when my awareness, upbringing and education make me question where I am, sure, but I suppress them with the thought, that even in my time in the Corporate world, you met you share of folks who were not the most invigorating. I met idiots who despite being General Managers, would behave like Salesmen. Also I take comfort in the thought that I am doing what I enjoy, but this is not my real life. Once I pack up I go back to my laptop, my books. Tomorrow I will teach a class. Tomorrow will be another day, I will watch a good film, a good play, do a great voiceover, read a passage and enact it for myself. Where I am thankful for my education is that I can assess people and situations and be at peace with that situation.