Around the winter of 2007, a little more than a month after Ranbir Kapoor was launched in Bollywood, Pratik Gandhi was on his way to Goregaon, a suburb northwest of Mumbai. A Punjabi family wanted to celebrate their son’s 7th birthday and Gandhi had been called to organise and play games with the children. On his way to the house, sitting in an autorickshaw, he called up the friend who had put him onto this gig to learn some ‘kids’ games’. He memorised five of those which, the friend assured him, would easily see him through for 45 minutes. Then the kids would get restless, the family would cut the cake and he could be on his way out. Gandhi was nervous but Mumbai’s prohibitive rents meant that no gig was too big, no job too small.
At the party, he exhausted all the games in 15 minutes and started panicking. The kids, wearing bright, colourful outfits that were accessorised with eye-masks and paper crowns, looked at him listlessly with a “now what?” expression. Gandhi nervously said, “Now let’s play... Game No. 1… again!” with all the faux enthusiasm that he could muster. The kids weren’t having any of this. “New game, new game!” they demanded. Gandhi, trapped in a script without a convincing climax, needed a deus ex machina. So he scripted one.
“New game is called,” he flashed a smile, “Copy Me!!!”
He signalled the DJ to play Hrithik Roshan’s Dhoom Machale, a song that was omnipresent irrespective of where you went that year. “And then I danced the hell out,” Gandhi recalled. “I danced and I danced. And the kids. They looked at this guy with an electrifying energy with a blank expression at first and then joined in. The vibe picked up. Then the Bluffmaster song came, then the Jab We Met ones. And then the parents joined in. I genuinely ended up having fun.”
On his way back, Gandhi, who was working as both a mechanical engineer on a freelance basis and a sporadic actor in Mumbai’s hard-to-crack theatre circuit, felt a new confidence. “I knew that I had it in me.” Had what in me? “To be an entertainer. To connect with an audience. To engage with them without a script. To make them feel what I feel. Ultimately, it was a performance that saved me. I never forgot that.”
Thirteen years later, we’re sitting on the 24th floor of a Mumbai highrise.
From one of its bedrooms, the rest of the houses look like specks of suspended diamonds, glittering in the night sky with a defiant optimism. Gandhi, 40, fresh from the success of Hansal Mehta’s Sony LIV show, Scam 1992, scans the skyline, much like his character, stock broker Harshad Mehta, does in the show. His phone, this writer can verify, hasn’t stopped ringing. A well-known producer-director calls to say, “Aapne Nawaz-Rajkummar Rao ko bhi peeche chod diya. Kuch karte hain saath mein.” He beams. “Thank you, sir.” It feels like a scene straight out of Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance: a scene where you see a person’s destiny change in real time.
It’s everybody’s favourite story: the underdog outsider who defaulted on rent and slept in cars, only to beat all the odds and see his visage plastered on billboards at Marine Drive. It’s also the success story that closely mirrors—in terms of graph, ambition and community—that of Mehta himself.
“Oh, that was a big draw to do it,” Gandhi, now visibly leaner and without the moustache, smirks.
What was your favourite dialogue from the show, I ask. He looks at me and slips into character, “Success kya hai? Failure ke baad ka chapter.”
Born to a family of teachers in Surat, Gandhi was attracted to theatre from an early age. His first screen appearance was in Class 8, when a stage play that he did was televised by DD National. Gandhi was a popular kid in school, having excelled in plays and elocutions earlier, but for this particular play, the director, one Jaiyu Bhai who was popularly called ‘Natkhat Jaiyu’, groomed him professionally. The school had allotted the director an apartment on the campus and all the children who were selected for the part were living with him for a month’s time.
“It was the first time that I realised what I had intuitively known has a structure,” Gandhi recalled. “That there’s such a thing as voice modulation and pitch. That you need to control your breathing or tuck your tummy in to get a dialogue right. That acting, like any other skill, needs to be honed with utmost discipline.”
However, despite an active culture of arts and music at home—his father was trained in classical dance and the family encouraged the children to learn musical instruments—being an actor or musician wasn’t considered a reliable career choice. “There just wasn’t a precedence, a success story that could give one the courage to choose this full-time. It’s what you did as a hobby. You couldn’t earn a living doing it.”
After high school, Gandhi did his diploma in mechanical engineering but after a dreary job in the sales side of it, he quickly realised that he needed a degree to improve his job prospects, a quest that took him to Jalgaon in Maharashtra. “The sales job taught me that the career I’m more interested in—acting—would require a lot of pitching, a lot less of buying.”
His interest in theatre hadn’t dipped, though, and he became a regular fixture in the annual shows organised by Surat’s local civic body.
“For just one show of one play, we’d practise for six months in a year,” Gandhi said. “The idea was to keep broadening your perspective, sharpening your acting skills. We’d see troupes from Bombay who’d stop by Surat for a show or two. Our eyes would widen. The finesse, the scale, the professionalism, we were no match.” After watching one such play, which featured television and stage stalwarts Apara Mehta and Feroz Bhagat, Gandhi made up his mind. “Bombay jaana hai”
In July of 2004, a year when Shah Rukh Khan could star in a blockbuster like Veer-Zaara without getting branded as ‘anti-national’, Gandhi arrived at Mumbai’s Andheri station. Somebody he knew knew somebody who knew somebody who was casting for a play. At the time, Gandhi didn’t have a job. And soon he’d realise that only romantics in movies survived on dreams, real life usually involved pesky landlords. When he finally met the person who was to put him in touch with the play director, he made his case.
This person, a well-wisher of his, put things into perspective for Gandhi, who had heard of the big Mumbai struggle but was yet to endure it.
“Do you know the number of people who stepped out of the same train as you did, with the same dreams as yours? A lot of people.”
Gandhi was to learn this for himself over the next few months. Not getting any chances, he left for Satara, where he was placed for an engineering job by the National Productivity Council. The days were dreary but the pay was good, Rs 15,000 a month, a respectable salary in 2005. This would be his life now, he thought.
And yet, when he returned to Mumbai next year, he got an offer to do a Gujarati play, Aa Paar Ke Pele Paar. He was called just 15 days before the play was to tour, so he didn’t have high hopes about the length of the part. It was a small but crucial role, one that required him to be on stage for a long period. An added incentive to take it up was the cast—Apara Mehta and Feroz Bhagat, actors he had admired for long, and another actor called Vipra Rawal.
The play was an instant success, covering over 250 shows in several cities, and it took him to his first international destination: Dubai. “I didn’t even have a passport before this.” He was paid Rs. 400 per show but on an average, they’d do about 25 shows a month.
However, Gandhi quickly realised that the struggle in commercial Gujarati theatre was arduous, the future bleak. Being in the circuit led to an encounter with theatre veteran, Manoj Shah, who took an instant liking to Gandhi after asking him to perform, well, aerobics as part of an audition for an ‘experimental’ play. Shah, known for long, one-man, biographical plays such as Hu Chandrakant Bakshi, Apurva Avsar and Mohan No Masalo, would go on to have several collaborations with Gandhi, who mastered the art of nailing two-and-a-half-hour-long monologues, a discipline that was key to tapping into the internal journey of his character, Harshad Mehta, years later.
All this while, Gandhi held on to contractual engineering jobs, taking a few breaks to act in between two assignments. Theatre was an outlet to channel his creative energy and hone his skills but didn’t quite cover the bills. “It was experimental theatre. On good days, you made Rs 300 a play, on bad ones it was just chai-samosa. But I had fun. I was busy. My day job covered Rs 7,500, which was the rent of my Parla east apartment.”
In one such experimental play, performed at the Prithvi Theatre Festival, Gandhi’s gaze met that of a young woman in the audience. It was a silent play, involving only aerobics. As Gandhi performed a 4-minute split, his eyes, he remembered, had broken the fourth wall. Minutes later, he found her backstage. Oh, she’s an actor too, he rejoiced, scripting a real-life romance at Prithvi, a place dedicated to fictional recitals.
After a few awkward dates at Andheri’s Barista, a coffee shop that has been a quiet witness to several heartbreaks and alliances around the Juhu-Andheri belt, Pratik Gandhi and Bhamini Oza got together and decided to marry in December 2008.
Not unlike Harshad Mehta in Scam 1992, Gandhi and his wife stayed in a modest one-room kitchen apartment with his parents and his brother in one of Vile Parle’s oldest housing societies. “I just didn’t have enough to put some money down and book a house. And I didn’t want to move out of Parla. This was home. It was small but koi cheez ki kami nahi thi. Bojh sirf khwahishon ka tha.”
This was the time when the actor, tired of hustling around as a compere at kitty parties, birthday celebrations and corporate shows, took a full-time job with Reliance Infrastructure, the offices of which were at Vashi in Navi Mumbai. Before this, he had sweated it out, supervising the installations of cellphone towers in Mumbai. He had auditioned for nearly every television show that was airing on Sony and Star and was rejected every single time.
A friend who saw him rush to an audition after hammering it out on an actual mobile-phone tower pointed out that this wasn’t a sustainable model. Working under the sun meant his overall appearance took a beating. “Quite unlike those fair, beefed-up men I’d meet at auditions, nearly all of whom would tell me that they’re doing a ‘lead part’ in a K-serial. I’d think, if you are a lead, why’re you still here? It was my first brush with the superficiality of this industry and how people created fake bubbles of reality,” Gandhi recalled.
One of the casting directors told him, “You don’t have it, man. It’s hard to make you look posh or rich or sophisticated. You aren’t a hero-type.” Another friend said that no Gujarati star had managed to break into Bollywood since Sanjeev Kumar.
“There were comments on my appearances all the time. I just had to develop a thick skin and not let it get to me. The kind of rejections that actors face, that can break you. You’ve to fortify yourself in a way that you don’t allow it to affect you. Neither can you live in an illusion that you’re the best. Self-awareness is everything in this industry.”
There were criticisms that Gandhi took in his stride too. “So when somebody pointed out that I was too stiff or my dialogue too stilted, I worked on it. I turned criticism into self-improvement. I’d always ask myself: how much of what this person is saying is true? How much of it can I change?”
For his wife, though, things were looking bright. In 2011, Bhamini, Gandhi’s wife, was finalised for a leading role in a popular show on Star Plus, a potentially career-changing gig that the couple had pinned their hopes on. The contracts were finalised, the shoot dates locked. But a few weeks before that, Bhamini began hearing a buzzing sound in her ear and at times, tripped while negotiating a staircase. Gandhi would laugh it off, call her a ’din wali bevdi’ but a family doctor said that it was worth running an MRI.
While Gandhi was delivering a presentation in Vashi on setting up a plant in the North, a close family relative, also a doctor, called to say that his wife had developed a brain tumour. The young couple’s world came crashing down. Over the next few months, Bhamini fortunately made a quick recovery and got back to work but by then, Star had found a replacement.
By any stretch of imagination, if you lived in Malad and worked in Vashi, the daily grind and the serpentine commute would be enough to drain you out. However, after taking up the job at Reliance as an engineer, Gandhi, despite many advising him against it, didn’t abandon the stage.
His day would begin at 5.30 am. He’d head to a play rehearsal in Borivali by 6.30 am, finish it off, rush to work at 9.30 am (“if i reached after 9.45 am, half a day would count as leave”), wrap up project reports and PowerPoint presentations by 5 pm and dash off to Santacruz for another play rehearsal at 6 pm, where he would practise Sunil Shanbag’s Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon. By the time the curtains would come down on his day, it’d be close to midnight.
His wife, Bhamini, felt neglected and alone during this time, but was supportive, says Gandhi. “I was being too self-centred. I could easily come home, watch a daily soap, have a nice dinner and go to bed. But that wouldn’t make me happy. As crazy as it sounds now, this kept me going. And it’s not like I hated my daily job. I genuinely loved what I did there. I introduced new tech in a business run by old players.”
The engineering job paid the bills but it was his commitment to the stage that actually paid off. Abhishek Jain, who would direct Gandhi in Bey Yaar, one of the most commercially successful Gujarati films, met the actor at Prithvi and asked for 22 days of his time for the shoot.
“To which, my wife went: we are expecting a baby, we’re homeless presently (they were in the middle of shifting houses) and you want to do a film. Great.”
Gandhi applied for leaves at work and left for the nearly month-long shoot. In between shots, he’d rush to his laptop and reply to pending emails from company veterans who couldn’t figure out how to use the matrix organisational structure that he had introduced into the system. He had assured his office team that he’d “always be available.” The film was a coming-of-age comedy that revolved around the authenticity of an MF Hussain painting and the many hands that it shifts, before landing exactly where it belonged. It was the first Gujarati film to be screened at the New York Indian Film Festival and release in international territories such as Australia.
“I was learning, I was enjoying myself, I was on a movie set!”
Abhishek Jain, the director of Bey Yaar, told HuffPost India, ”“I am not surprised at the response to his performance and the show itself. I knew, it was a matter of time before he explodes on the scene. On the sets of Bey Yaar, he’d be running to his laptop to respond to work emails. But once in character, he stayed true to it. I don’t know how he does it but there’s some mad discipline and hard work there.”
While Gandhi says he’s more of a spontaneous actor, his co-actor, Divyang Thakkar (director of the upcoming Ranveer Singh-starrer Jayeshbhai Jordaar), was a ‘film school type’ who had a detailed process. Since they were sharing a hotel room, Gandhi saw Thakkar prep in the room, honing his method. “I used to get worried seeing him prep so hard. I felt there’s another way of doing it which I was unaware of.”
The film became a cultural milestone in Gujarati cinema and changed many things for Gandhi, who was flooded with offers. People from theatre started writing author-backed roles for him. Other directors offered shows saying they’d make it whenever he was available. His father insisted that he quit the job and dive into acting full-time.
And yet, nothing really came in from Bollywood. Gandhi had come close to being homeless once before. It was his company that had bailed him out by providing accommodation. He wasn’t risking it again. It might appear that the cruelties of everyday reality had tamed his spirit but Gandhi was just erring on the side of caution. After all, he had made no money from Bey Yaar. How would he pay the EMIs of the house he had only recently booked?
After Bey Yaar, the next film that he chose was Wrong Side Raju (2016), a story inspired by a real-life hit-and-run case that had rocked Ahmedabad in 2013. The film, which was co-produced by Phantom, gave Gandhi a great chance to display his acting abilities. He goes from being an affable young hustler, who runs a travel agency by the day and supplies liquor by the night, to a troubled man who finds himself in the middle of a complicated police case.
Even for this film, he took leaves from work to finish the month-long shoot. The success of Wrong Side Raju finally gave him the push to give his resignation to Reliance. “At this point in my life, I knew if my acting career tanks, I can always come back to engineering. But if I gave up acting, I’ll never be able to find my way back.”
When director Hansal Mehta watched Wrong Side Raju and Bey Yaar, he immediately knew that Gandhi could make a great Harshad Mehta. A call went from him and Gandhi was summoned for an audition at casting director Mukesh Chhabra’s office in Juhu. The audition involved enacting the scene where Harshad is finding his way inside the BSE as a jobber but is rudely told off by the watchman. “It’s the first time you see Mehta charming his way in.” Off-screen, it was Gandhi who was doing the same.
In many ways, Gandhi’s performance in Scam 1992 is a culmination of the early mornings and the late nights spent in rehearsal halls, talking to a sparse audience, diligently delivering his monologues.
As Harshad Mehta, Gandhi rips into the character, invents new mannerisms and offers little touches, and manages to convey through his gaze that while his body might be in the present, his mind is a spinning top, racing ahead, thinking, scheming, planning. The show in itself is beautifully mounted and has an ensemble of excellent actors. It paints an empathetic picture of Harshad Mehta but is unsparing in its moral condemnation. Like the character, the show is about insatiable greed in a city made of it but it’s also about something else: of a rank outsider breaking the monopoly of a few power elites and claiming his share of a (mostly) illegal pie. They—his rivals—go after him not because of what he was doing, but because of who he was and where he came from.
It’s a struggle, glimpses of which Gandhi has seen at close quarters throughout his career, so when Hansal Mehta asked him to think about the role, his immediate reaction was, “What’s there to think? I’m in!” To which Mehta replied, “Cool, so I’ll talk to your manager?” “No, sir, it’s just me.” His one brief: gain weight. Gandhi gained nearly 18 kilos for the part.
He connected the role of Harshad Mehta with that of Chandrakant Bakshi, the monologue he had performed on stage. “That was a guy who was all about his ego. But the brief that I was given was to perform it endearingly. I went back to that thought process.”
Although he watched a bunch of Harshad Mehta’s interviews, Gandhi was conscious of trying not to mimic him. “I had to imbibe the characteristics, not his public character. A lot of that is internal: self-pride, over-ambitious, casual condescension. I had to make that mindset my own. I made sure I was always acting with my body. If you see, either his feet or his finger or his face, there’s always a little movement there. It’s never still.”
Was Mehta directing him closely? “Not at all. He told me ‘do what you want to. It shouldn’t look forced’.” Throughout the shoot, Gandhi told himself: ‘don’t judge the character. Understand him’.
Did that risk glorifying the character? There are many moments in the show where you feel like rooting for him to get away.
“It’s from his point of view so it’s a very human thing to feel empathy. But nowhere are his actions justified. And since I’m playing him, I’ve to believe what he, in all likelihood, believed: that he’s right.”
Gandhi was walking a delicate line with the dialogue, some of which do have an over-the-top theatrical quality to them. “Oh, no, totally. It could have easily gone the Dabangg way,” he said, delivering a dialogue from the show, Salman Khan style. “It’s the pitch. To retain realism, you’ve to say those lines matter-of-factly. And not draw attention to them.”
As we wrap up, Gandhi looks at his phone, which had been on flight mode throughout the interview. Like the stock market bell, it starts buzzing again. He gets up and makes polite conversation while directing an old friend who’s in the room to scribble some notes. I peek in and see a list that has names of some of the most well-established filmmakers. A frenetic energy engulfs the room as I quietly slip out, knowing I took more time than I was promised. As I’m about to leave, one last question crosses my mind.
Gandhi is standing on the balcony, staring into the night.
Mumbai is smiling back.
“What about Harshad Mehta did you relate most closely to?”
“His desire to belong.”
This article originally appeared on HuffPost India and has been updated.