Raag Desh: Recreating History with Vijay Varma, Kunal Kapoor and Mohit Marwah
Tigmanshu Dhulia’s historical drama Raag Desh recreates the Red Fort Trials of 1945 and has at its centre three heroic soldiers played by Kunal Kapoor, Mohit Marwah and Amit Sadh. It was their innocence, elegance and integrity that made them a perfect match to portray these iconic characters.
While his character is not based on a real person, Vijay Varma represents the media of that time through his role as a truth seeking journalist. To add to that,, his character is a far cry from the typical jhola yielding journalist one would imagine.
We caught up with Vijay, Kunal and Mohit to know more about their journey to imbibe these characters and bring history to life.
You played the bad boy in Pink, and are now playing a truth seeking journalist in Raag Desh. Did you enjoy this shift to a positive character?
Pink was a one-off for me, I hadn’t played a negative character before that and I enjoyed the experience a lot.
Working with Tigmanshu sir on this particular film (Raag Desh) was like coming back home because I’d worked with him in his previous film Yaara, which is due to release in October. For me, a role is a role. I don’t really get affected by whether it is a positive or negative character. My only concern is that I should enjoy the story and enjoy my role. Since Raag Desh is a period film, I enjoyed getting myself into an era and a mindset which was very different from where we currently stand as people and as a society. It was a really good experience.
At that time, Urdu was very popular and people would say the biggest of things in two lines
Given that you’ve worked earlier with Tigmanshu and he has deeply researched this subject, how did he help you build your character?
It started with a funny incident. I received a call from Tigmanshu sir’s office to come for measurements. I was completely clueless, so I asked the assistant, “Measurements for what?” He too realized that I wasn’t aware of the situation. He asked me to come to the office. When I reached there, Tigmanshu sir said, “Mujhe laga maine tumko bata diya hai.” (I thought I’d told you) He then told me that he was making a film on Subhash Chandra Bose’s INA and there was a role that I had to do. So I asked him, “Sir are you asking me or telling me?” And he said, “I’m telling you.” (Laughs) That’s how we started.
Then I read the script and understood what was happening. I’d done a film called Chittagong, which was set in the 1930s. So I’d read about the freedom struggle from the 30s to when we actually got free. But I was not very aware about the INA. Tigmanshu sir spent over a year researching for the film so he knew a lot about it. He explained to me that my character wasn’t the typical ‘jholadhar patrakar’ (bag yielding journalist). He’s more like a spy, who investigates. But at that time, the British had imposed Censorship on what could and couldn’t be written in the news. As soon as the Censorship is lifted off, the character I play, Jamal Kidwai, gets on this journey to find out what exactly was going on in Singapore, Rangoon and so on.
While playing this role I realized how powerful journalism is. A lot of things keep happening around the world and if they weren’t reported, we would never even get an idea about what’s happening.
From your end what kind of research did you do to get into the character?
Jamal is one of the only fictional characters in the movie and so, I didn’t have any reference as such. I kind of represent the Indian media in the film. I went through a lot of pictures from those times and based the look accordingly. I had a free hand and came up with my interpretation. Then Tigmanshu sir and I worked together on the character.
Also, there are a few poets whose work has influenced my performance. At that time, Urdu was very popular and people would say the biggest of things in two lines. So I kept my pace with such shayari, which I’ve used in the film.
My character isn’t the typical ‘jholadhar patrakar’. He’s more like a spy, who investigates
Each film that you’ve done seems to showcase a new side of your personality as an actor. Has it been a planned decision or you’ve simply let good stories drive you?
I have said no to quite a lot of work after Pink. Either the scripts or the roles were not very fascinating. I didn’t want to do anything similar to what I did in Pink. For me, it’s the director who matters the most. Tigmanshu Dhulia was right on top of my priority list after Paan Singh Tomar. I saw the film and wanted to work with him. I know his sensibilities.
Therefore people like Shoojit (Sircar) da or Tigmanshu sir or the other filmmakers that I’m working with, are the directors I’ve always admired, and I’m very fortunate to get the kind of roles that they’re offering me. So it’s not a very conscious choice but I’m discarding stuff that is not going to help me grow as an actor.
What was it about this film that excited you to say yes?
I heard the narration of the film and was immediately excited to do it. It is a story that has so much drama in it and it represents the fight for India’s independence. Moreover, it is such an important story, but not too many people know about it. The story is a contribution to society; a story that needs to be told and people need to be aware about it. It was a great story with a great director. Tigmanshu (Dhulia) is one of the finest we have, he writes amazing scripts and directs amazing films. Everything was on point, so I had to be part of this film.
Since this is a period drama, from the look to understanding the character, what kind of preparation went into it?
There were aspects of Prem Sahgal that I couldn’t relate to, but there were some characteristics that I could connect with. For instance, he is not an intense guy, but has a charming personality. For the aspects that I couldn’t relate to, I consciously worked on them. I also researched about that time period, watched documentaries and read a lot.
The look of the character is very important in a period film. We had to look at the nitty-gritty of the appearance, from the body language to the attire; everything was important. We had an Army personnel on the set who was constantly giving us suggestions and guiding us. If something did not look accurate or convincing, he would point it out.
The story is a contribution to society; a story that needs to be told and people need to be aware about it
How would you describe Tigmanshu Dhulia as a director, how did he help you get under the skin of the character?
Tigmanshu was a big help. There was a lot of research that was done before I got on board, which he shared with me. We discussed every detail about the character, about what Prem Sahgal did and how he was. My character comes from an influential family; Prem Sahgal’s father is a judge in the High Court so we decided to use a little English and Punjabi. I have an accent in the film and there were discussions about certain words and their pronunciation. There was a lot of detailing that went into creating the character, and Tigmanshu would discuss it with me and we would take decisions together.
What did you find most intriguing about this story?
I was intrigued by the story, I found it surprising that it hadn’t been made into a film yet. I felt that this was a story that was made for the big screen. It has everything that you can want in a good script – it is a war film, there is court room drama, the movie has emotions and romance, moreover, it is about the bond that these three characters form.
I found Shah Nawaz Khan quite intriguing as well. He was from an affluent background and grew up in a family where everybody was in the British Indian Army. He was a topper in the British Army College and despite that, he decided to join the Indian National Army knowing very well that there could come a time when he might have to shoot his own cousins or even kill his own brother. The cause was of greater importance to him. I found this very fascinating, in fact, among all the characters that I have played till now, Shah Nawaz Khan is the most fascinating one.
The way the two characters (from Rang De Basanti and Raag Desh) think and view the world is completely different
Was it difficult to relate to this character in a setting which is so different from your real life?
I wouldn’t say it was difficult, it was exciting because I enjoyed the preparation as much as the shooting. In all my films, I enjoy preparing. As an actor, it is a privilege to get a chance to live a completely different life, look at it from a different point of view, and you should make the most of that privilege. Shah Nawaz Khan’s life was very different from mine, but that is the exciting thing about being an actor.
But then how does one prepare for a character that is so different from yourself?
There is an autobiography on Shah Nawaz Khan, which gives you in-depth information about him. I also got a chance to meet his family and his grandson. His grandson also sent me some photographs of Shah Nawaz and a family album that was a huge help. Sometimes, when you look at a picture, it tells you a lot about the person.
Other than that, I had to work a lot on the body language, so, I looked at pictures of my own grandparents and other people from the 1930s and 40s. I looked at how they would dress, stand and walk.
The character also has an accent, which is a combination of Punjabi and Urdu. For this, I heard a lot of accents from the area that Shah Nawaz Khan belonged to. I found one accent which I thought was the correct one and started working on it.
Among all the characters that I have played till now, Shah Nawaz Khan is the most fascinating one
Rang De Basanti also had you play a character from history, how different was this experience?
Though the era is similar, the characters and their motivations are different. The way the two characters think and view the world is completely different. Therefore, I never felt like I was doing something similar to Rang De Basanti.
There was only one experience that I thought was common between the two films. Every person who was working on the films had this energy and passion. During both the films, the entire team knew that we are telling a good story, a story about a very important event. When you get a chance to be part of such a film, everyone works with passion. I saw this passion when I was working in Rang De Basanti and Raag Desh.
-With Inputs from Esha Verma