I consciously refused as many as a dozen film offers – Gopal Datt
If you have watched TVF Pitchers, then you certainly cannot forget Rastogi. He is a popular face for TVF and AIB as well. Meet the powerhouse of talent, Gopal Datt. The actor is also a lyricist and has penned songs for films like Budhia Singh – Born To Run and David. His running plays are ‘Kaumudi’, ‘Stories in a Song’, ‘Park’ and ‘Ladies Sangeet’. Datt has also written several jingles for ad films. Having recently penned a web series for Y-Films, apart from the many other things that this multi-faceted artist does, he is enjoying this stage in life more than ever. He chats with Pandolin about his multitasking skills, his muse – theatre and his affair with films.
When did the (acting) bug bite you? Talk about your early years.
I was born and brought up in Nainital where I stayed till my graduation. Nainital had a very colonial hangover back then. People would stroll the mall road for evening constitutional. I am not sure whether that exists now or not. But it was an amazing place to meet people. One of my friends was never seen in those walks. So I casually asked him about why he never came for a walk. And he told me that he went for theatre rehearsals. I asked him if I could join for a session and he agreed.
As destiny would have it, one of the actors did not turn up that day. Randomly, the director asked me if I could read the part and be his proxy. I remember, the play was titled ‘Naatak Jaari Hai’ and was based on three plays by Bhartendu Harishchandra viz. ‘Andher Nagri’, ‘Vaidiki Hinsa Hinsa na Bhawati’ and ‘Bharat Durdasha’. I read the lines and the director quite liked it. And he asked me to join. I joined and got to know about this vast world of theatre. This group was called YugManch an I joined them in 1989. It is so amazing that since that day I haven’t given theatre a gap of even six months. I am addicted to the stage.
I did a lot of plays with them and then, during my graduation, I got to know that there is a place called National School of Drama (NSD) in Delhi. Many people from that group had been admitted to NSD. So, I thought that I should also take admission.
I am addicted to the stage
Tell us about your training at NSD. What do you think is the most important quality that the acting school taught you? Do you still refer to those notes?
The most important thing about the NSD training was that it opened up world literature, world theatre and its acting styles in front of me. The kind of exposure that the theatre school gives is absolutely brilliant. But what it really does is to present a platter in front of you. After that it is purely individual stride as to what to take and what not to. It has more to do with your personal attitude. But that exposure to the possible genres and styles was important and it helped a lot.
While I was at the institute, Sir John Russell Brown, a renowned scholar on Shakespeare, who has penned several books on him, came for a workshop. His books are part of the M.A English Literature in India. Our batch did classes, a workshop and a play production with him. These kinds of workshops opened up my way of thinking. Sanskrit to Greek drama, we did everything. But when you come to Mumbai, in the commercial space, you can’t apply that training directly. It is not a copy-paste mechanism. Nevertheless, knowledge has a strength of its own. At times, while performing, you realize that it is a certain aspect of your training at the drama school that is letting you explore in a certain way. For example, recently we have been working on comedy and there is an Italian style of Commedia dell’arte and we have the Parsi Theatre tradition. So, if you have knowledge of these styles, then you can borrow from them. So, that knowledge is always there in the back of the mind. It is certainly a big strength and a source of confidence.
When you came to Mumbai, how did you cope with days when there were no acting assignments. Was writing a revelation of this period?
When I came out of the Drama School, I had a clarity that I am not going to get work in Mumbai from the word go. This is because I did not fit the bill of a conventional good-looking person, which is a demand of this industry. So, I did two things. Firstly, I joined Theatre as soon as I came to this city. Secondly, I started writing. Writing was in fact a byproduct of the former. I started off my journey in the Mumbai theatre circuit with Atul Kumar. Later on I started working with lots of different people in Prithvi Theatre. In theatre, word of mouth publicity works a lot. A word about my writing skill started spreading and I wrote songs for different plays. This wasn’t new for me as I had the experience of writing songs for plays from my NSD days.
You have remained away from films. Is it a conscious decision? What kind of script can draw you towards a film?
When I landed in Mumbai I did films like Mujhe Kuch Kehna Hai and Tere Naam. In both these projects I played the character of the hero’s friend. Since Tere Naam was a blockbuster, I was bombarded with film offers with a similar dynamics of the hero’s friend. I consciously refused as many as a dozen film offers. I was clear about taking only those projects where I had some substantial work to do as an actor. I made an intelligent move of buying a flat from the two films that I did. This brought a carefree attitude in me. I could now pursue my theatre and writing with an ease. Then, when I got Filmistaan, I jumped into the project.
Getting Filmistaan also has a story to it. Long ago, I had done a short film with Nitin Kakkar (Director, Filmistaan) titled Black Freedom. It was based on stories by Saadat Hasan Manto. It was an international award-winning short and Nitin’s first attempt at filmmaking. Then he went on to work in the television industry and called me a couple of times for several projects. Since none of them interested me, I kept on refusing. But when Filmistaan was offered to me, I just grabbed it. When an interesting role is offered, everything else becomes secondary for me. The problem with this industry is that people are hellbent on stereotyping you in a certain role that you have already played. And I try not to repeat my roles. So, refusing scripts is an essential part of my journey.
The problem with this industry is that people are hellbent on stereotyping you in a certain role that you have already played
You have been in the acting field for almost a decade now. How has it changed over time? What is the growth you’ve seen in terms of talent?
I have seen, especially in the television space, many of the powerful directors turn powerless. One doesn’t know who are the directors of television shows. And each show has three to four directors. Back then, when I was new, there used to be very powerful directors. One of my starting serials, called Drishtaant, was directed by Pankaj Kapoor. I did a couple of episodes with him. Later on with the advent of production houses, the ball game changed completely.
Talent-wise a change for good happened with the coming of players like TVF in the web space. These guys have freshness of ideas and content and have young directors. They are able to break the clutter and that is what excites me about the changing times. And this is precisely the reason why I started working in the web space so extensively. When I started off in this medium, there was no money involved. But the amount of novelty in the content amazed me and pulled me towards it. Nidhi Bisht was doing theatre with me and she exposed me to this medium. She showed me a couple of videos and I got intrigued and expressed my desire of working in this medium. I also knew Ashish Shakya of AIB. They also called me. From there on it just flowed.
I have seen, especially in the television space, many of the powerful directors turn powerless
Please talk about the Theatre scene in India. How can one work towards getting more finance into this form of entertainment? Also, though we have some fine actors from the theatre background in films, the ratio isn’t as much as one would like. Your thoughts?
The way I look at it, it is better to keep theatre away from money. It is a laboratory to work in for polishing your craft. As soon as money gets involved, everything becomes money-driven. The whole approach gets corrupted. This is one of the major reasons why I enjoy going to Bangalore and working with Abhishek Mazumdar more than mindless money minting here in Mumbai. From my experience, I know for a fact that once money steps in, exploration take a back seat for theatre practitioners. This is so because whoever (Individual or corporation) invests a certain amount, will expect a return for his money. In my view, the government should support new writing and experimental theatre more than what it is doing at present. Or the bigger corporates should do it as a part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). It should be devoid of malice of getting direct return from the investment because then a fear to experiment will seep in.
As far as theatre actors not entering films is concerned, I can only speak about myself, which I have reasoned. Similarly, others have their own preferences to go by. Theatre is a demanding field and it requires you to be present with all your heart and soul.
You are a web icon now. How has the stint with this medium been? Tell us about your association with biggies like TVF and AIB and the avenues that opened up post that.
The medium has given me a lot of scope to explore. As I have already spoken, I love the energy of the people associated with the medium. They are willing to experiment. Talking about avenues that have opened, that again is choice-driven. I get lots of offers from the work that I do in the web space. But I choose only what interests me.
You ask me to write, I will write for you
Please talk about your experience and expertise in writing songs and jingles. Also talk about the web series that you have penned.
Writing songs (In theatre), as I mentioned earlier, is something which I have been doing from a very long time now. Mostly I did projects for Code Red Films, which is headed by Gajraj Rao. I wrote a public service film called Holi which was on Eye donation. The film won a Cannes Lion. Writing jingles in advertisements also worked on word of mouth publicity. People saw my work and called me to compose jingles for them. From one such connection I got Y-Films’ ‘Pappu and Papa’. I don’t write much of scripts. I am mostly into writing songs. But Anand Tiwari pressed me to develop his idea. I think it is working fine as of now (Smiles).
So, it mostly works like this, you ask me to write, I will write for you. It is not that I get inspiration to write something out of the blue or I go on a self-motivated writing spree. When people see potential in me and urge me to write for them, I do it.