In Ivan Ayr's Milestone, Ghalib (played by Suvinder Vicky) is a fascinating contradiction. In a seemingly chaotic environment, where fingers stained with engine oil, toxic fumes and tattered tyres are the norm, Ghalib appears to be absolutely still. While everything from the truck's musical horn or the Punjabi pop playing in it appear to be drowning out the deathly silence in his life, Ghalib's voice has a calmness as he addresses anyone - irrespective of whether they're 'above' or 'below' him in the social hierarchy. Punjabi actor, Suvinder Vicky, who played supporting parts in high-profile projects like Akshay Kumar-starrer, Kesari and Abhishek Chaubey's Udta Punjab, is entrusted with shouldering the responsibility of a Hindi film for the first time. And he more than delivers. Channelling Ghalib's lostness, Vicky effectively captures the spirit of a man trying to fight for a place in a world where everything seems to be changing.
For those who remember Gurvinder Singh's Chauthi Koot, it's not the first time Vicky has offered a compelling central performance. When I reach out to Singh for a comment on Vicky, he seems mildly annoyed by the fact that such a piece is being written only after Vicky has appeared in a Hindi film. However, he follows that up with an anecdote about his lead actor's unwavering commitment to the scene. "In Chauthi Koot, there's a scene where a militant places a gun on his chest. We did multiple takes and I wanted the actor playing the militant to poke the rifle really hard into his chest, so that it actually hurt Suvinder. He bore it calmly till a point he could not take the pain. Then he told me he has a pacemaker in his heart. That's his level of commitment," Singh says.
Having carved a niche for himself playing the 'villain' in the commercial Punjabi films, and starring in 35-40 music videos, one might be tempted to slot Vicky as a 'frivolous' actor. However, as his work in both Chauthi Koot and Milestone seem to indicate, there's more to him. We spoke to him about his journey from Chandigarh's theatre scene to headlining a high-profile Hindi film. Edited excerpts:
Have you seen any noticeable difference in your life, in the last few days?
We're going through a time where even the tiny bits of good news are welcome. We've all been dealing with this confined existence for more than a year, some of us are facing financial hurdles, some of us are grieving, so at a time like this I think I really want to savour this moment. The appreciation almost makes me feel like I've won the war against the constant grind. At least, for now. Our shooting schedule was quite tense at 25-26 days, and Ghalib had to be present on all of the shoot days. So, I guess the fatigue began to show on my face, lending authenticity to the part.
Now that you mention it, I think you're practically in every scene in the film...
I think there's a scene where the tyre bursts, and that's the only scene where I cannot be seen. But yes, I think I'm there in nearly all scenes in the final film. That's something I joke about with Ivan (Ayr), that he didn't tell me that I wouldn't have an off day through the entire schedule. And he says something to the effect of 'we wanted it to be a surprise!' (laughs). But it was a great experience, overall.
Can you tell me a little about your early years, how did you get into acting?
I was born in Sirsa in 1973. My early schooling happened under the trees, like it usually happens in the villages. In 1980, my father was transferred to Chandigarh, which is when I got admitted into an actual school. I did my graduation in the Arts, and then I went on to do my Masters in Theatre from Punjabi University (Patiala) in 1997. I was bitten by the acting bug during my undergraduate studies, when I was participating in youth festivals. That's when I went around and did a lot of theatre in Chandigarh with veterans like Rani Balbir Kaur and Umesh Kant. By the time I finished my undergraduate course, I'd made up my mind that I wanted to pursue my higher studies in this (theatre). The options were the Diploma at NSD, which was three years, or an MA at Punjabi University, which would take two years. I'd missed out on the deadline for the NSD applications that year, so I chose to get admitted for the MA. Any way, it's not like whether we do the Diploma or a Master's that we leave the institutions as 'actors', it's just that for the future prospects people look at you and see that you've at least studied the craft, and hopefully know what to aspire for.
What kind of films and acting did you grow up admiring?
Growing up in the 70s and 80s, we obviously grew up in the middle of the Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra mania. My brother and I used to pick our roles, we used to enact the dishoom dishoom scenes with each other. I think I was well into college, when my life's goal was to become a 'hero'. I had a knack of wearing these tadkeela-bhadkeela shirts inspired by Govinda and Mithunda for Chandigarh's youth festivals, and my collar was always erect. I used to wear my hair like Amitabh ji, and the goal (at the time) was to work in commercial films. Only after we entered post-graduation, is when I got some maturity. It's a time when you're actually studying Brecht and Stanislavski, along with Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani. One of our teachers Balraj Pandit ji, was an alumnus of NSD. I think he was a junior of Naseer sahab, and that's where we would learn about the likes of Naseer sahab and Om Puri ji. There are so many avenues that open up to us while studying: do we wish to work on films, do we want to remain on stage, do we want to teach in drama schools, or do we want to start our own troupe. This is when our mind really started opening up about what we wish to do. Touch wood, the day I decided to become an actor-for-hire, not once have I had second thoughts about it. It's been almost 25 years. It's never been like that I've wanted to write or direct, bettering my craft as an actor has always had my complete focus.
I read somewhere that you did around 35-40 music videos, did plenty of commercial Punjabi films in the 2000s. How did Chauthi Koot come to you?
I met Gurvinder ji through my senior, Samuel John, and at that time he was looking to cast for his first feature film, Anhe Ghode Da Daan. I remember we were reading for a play, when I was told that Gurvinder Singh was around. I was asked to audition, where he asked me to pretend that I was going about my job, when someone from the police comes to my house and intimidates me. I did it, and that was that. Two years passed, Anhe Ghode Da Daan was completed and I also got busy with theatre and I was also doing a couple of TV shows. Then, one day I got a call from Gurvinder ji, and that's when he told me that he was starting work on Chauthi Koot. That's when I realised that the script was in his head, and he was getting me to enact the scene when the paramilitary comes to my house. It's not like he had seen any of my work, or someone had recommended me.
How did the conversation about Milestone begin? Had you seen Ivan's first film?
One of the biggest reasons behind me getting this opportunity to work on Milestone, is Chauthi Koot. After Gurvinder ji's film went to Cannes, and it won the National Award, my work was appreciated in the film. I think Ivan saw me in that, and I think for the part of Ghalib, one needed the know-how about what kind of cinema we were trying to make. Like our Punjabi community is inherently a little loud, and if you're going from theatre to a feature film, you're somewhere also catering to someone sitting in the last row. One needs to be aware of the different styles, like even when our limbs would involuntarily start moving in front of the camera. Then you learn about a close-up, and a tight close-up, frames in which even the subtlest movements of the eye are captured. I think that's why I was chosen for the part, that he needed someone who was familiar with this type of cinema. Like when you need to speak, without speaking. I had done something similar with Chauthi Koot, where Gurvinder told me in the beginning that 'I don't need to act'. One day I promptly asked him why he had chosen me, if he didn't need me to 'act'. He said, "Paaji, just say the lines"
Was it a conscious choice to shatter every stereotype one has of a "truck driver" in the Hindi cinema realm?
I think what Milestone has done is, that it has made me a little more empathetic towards their lives. Usually, how we've seen truck drivers being played on screen, they're loud, they're the twirling-moustache kind, who announce their arrival in a dhaba with an order of 'roti-shoti' " which is something we often hear in Punjab. But it was more of a challenge to play Ghalib, without having the crutch of these things, and I think that's what made the performance more distinct. I don't think I can take any credit for this, it's all Ivan's sensibility and his cinematic language that probably imagined a truck driver like Ghalib, without necessarily indulging in the usual 'types'.
How did you prepare for the physical challenges of playing a truck driver?
One of the major points in terms of preparation for this role was driving the truck. I didn't know how to drive a truck before this. I'm supposed to be playing someone who has been doing this for nearly 30 years. So, when he climbs the truck and gets down from it, it should almost seem like second nature to him. I asked Ivan about how much of driving will be required? He told me to devote a fortnight to learning the basics. The more we sat down for workshops, the more familiar I became with scenes where I would be required to drive while doing dialogues. I met this gentleman called Azhar from Noida, and I filmed him getting up and down from the truck. He was, what one might imagine, as the typical paan-chewing truck driver, and he showed me the ropes. Ivan was very particular about the truck he wanted. It wasn't one with power steering, or modern gears, Ivan insisted that it should look like the truck had completed 500000 kms. It was one of those vehicles that if you've not held tightly in control, the entire truck keeps vibrating, and you need to be able to say your lines in the midst of all this. It was quite something. So Lakshvir (the boy who plays Pash in the film) and I would take turns to drive, and we would go over our lines.
Milestone tells us how replaceable we are as individuals, whatever vocation we might be in. Being an actor for nearly two decades did you identify with Ghalib's insecurity?
I've been doing this (acting in films) for 18-19 years, so I think I'm past that phase where I would live under the fear of being replaced. Even though that's something I did face in the early part of my career. Having said that, one is still insecure about a project until it gets on the floors. And it's also a matter of age I guess, that beyond a point, you certainly come to accept everything, warts and all. There's an active choice of either holding on to a grudge, hurling abuses about how one has been denied... or one could move on to the next thing.
There's so much of Ghalib's past written on his face. Was that something you spent time thinking about, how you would bring it on screen?
We would do scene breakdowns with Ivan, where we would determine the metre of the performance. Especially, in those early days. Like when I remove a black cloth from inside the truck in the first scene of the film, it's only the first scene of the film. The character has presumably been doing this for 15 years before the film even began. The film just happens to begin at the flag-end of his work life, and that's something I kept in mind while doing those scenes. It's my routine, I've been coming here for longer than a decade, I'm parking it at this very place. The labour union strike happened last year too, probably even three years before that. The body has gradually taken a beating after being up for thousands of nights on state highways. When we would be shooting inside the house, I would imagine why my late wife and I might have been fighting, I would invent reasons. I would imagine her in the living room, while doing this. All this might not be a part of the script, I think it's my job as an actor to come up with some sort of a backstory and the arc for the character from the start to the end of the film.
I imagine different surs for different projects - whether it is a Milestone, Pataal Lok or a film like Kesari. Is that something you've unlocked? Do you struggle with it? Is there one kind of project that you prefer?
I think it's the job of a professional actor to find these different surs immediately, and without making a show of it. Obviously, all kind of films and roles come with their own kind of challenges. One might even do a small, insignificant role in a big film for which you're barely there on screen, but you get paid a lot of money for it, but ultimately acting is a creative pursuit. So, any actor worth their salt, wants to be challenged. Like in the case of Ghalib, I lived his life for several weeks, and I carried forward his grief for several days into my normal life. In fact, I was attending a wedding right after we finished shooting, and one can almost see my pained smile in those wedding videos, and I'm amazed that I look more like Ghalib in those videos than Suvinder Vicky. I think I'm still carrying Ghalib's backache, I guess it has become a part of my life.