The Dark Horse
It is all Johnny Walker’s fault. And the Rain God’s. Why else do I find myself on a windy, rainy evening (twilight, actually) inside a horse’s paddock, trying to engage Randeep Hooda in conversation, while he raves on about how adorable this four-legged winner really is?
Well, there is always a first time for everything, but this is not what I have bargained for. And I’m not just talking about the five (yes, five) champion horses that I have to vie with for Hooda’s attention. And they of course, have a rather unfair advantage, having been responsible for Hooda’s best performance ever at the National Equestrian Championship that began on March 11 at Delhi.
And, watching Highway does not prepare me for this suave, articulate, Greek-God-looking dude with the aquiline nose – totally Marlboro-Man-esque. (He loves the iconic cowboy flick The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, right? He’d give Clint Eastwood a run for his money!) The only saving grace for me is that AR Rahman did not recognise him at the film’s premiere either. Whew.
But now, back to Johnny Walker, who is getting all the attention for being responsible for Hooda winning two golds that morning. His dependable Man Friday rushes across to show the medals to me, which he has collected for Hooda at the award ceremony, since his master was at a shoot. Incidentally, the three-day event has resulted in Hooda juggling Show Jumping and Dressage practice (from 4 am), the actual Championship and shooting in Chandni Chowk for Sajid Nadiadwala’s directorial debut Kick which stars Salman Khan.
“Care to share a beer,” he asks, graciously. He is celebrating. I am tempted, but reality kicks in – the next day’s 8.30 am meeting. So we have sweet masala tea instead. Which, given the weather, hits the spot.
While Hooda reassures me that Johnny Walker is the friendliest horse ever, I am a bit apprehensive about having straw being eaten out of my designer handbag and continuing a normal conversation with this huge fellow nuzzling my notebook. By which time the rain and wind has turned into a full-fledged gale. Ah well.
It is more than obvious that Hooda loves animals and thrives on the time spent with them. There is a dog that he picked up five years ago at an airport that seems to have taken over his life too. “My nana used to ride,” he reminisces. “In boarding school, I moved from swimming to riding.”
He also seems to have moved eons away from openly talking about his love interest and being labelled as one with the ‘attitude’. So, now, there is no way I can get him to speak of anyone special in his life; I try. “I was tagged as Sushmita’s (Sen) boyfriend. I was okay with it at the time, but my own identity almost got lost.”
And he frankly admits to his days of ‘attitude’ as just bad behaviour. “One does not have to behave like a cad to be a star.” Finally, his days in Australia proved to be his ‘Life Education’. “Being a taxi-driver for three years really gave me insights into human behaviour. People don’t even notice you are there.”
He now lets his work do the talking. “I want to be a star,” he says reflectively, as he supervises the horse hands cover the horses with blankets. “I’m getting there, I think. I am working hard to get back on track – 24 x 7. After all, I am an actor before all else.” Highway has helped big time. Even though he now says that he’ll never do another film like that. “I got so involved. I went into a shell. I did not realise what the role would entail when I read the script. I got so into the character, more so because it was shot in one schedule. I did not even talk to Alia (Bhatt) for the first 25 days of the shoot.”
The director, Imtiaz Ali, heard him howling one night and came across to talk him out of the depression he had got into. “Imtiaz had only seen Monsoon Wedding and Waiting for Godot, probably. And he cast me. As for Mira Nair, what do I say? She gave me my first big break. She messaged me about my ‘stupendous’ performance in Highway. Coming from her, you can imagine how much it meant to me,” he says, as he gesticulates with a ‘Hats off’.
He is full of admiration for his co-star, Alia. Even though he is the older of the two, he feels she actually is – with the right attitude, ambition and much smarter than he is in the ways of Bollywood. “She has got it all figured out. Her PR is perfect. The problem with me is that I was looking up to all the wrong idols. Thinking it was so cool to be drinking too much, eating all the wrong stuff, not looking after my skin, working out regularly; all the necessary things an actor should do. But changing bad habits is tough. I’m trying but it is very tough,” Hooda admits, pointing to his wind-blown hair.
He is thrilled with all the praise and adulation that is coming his way post Highway, but he is never going to take that for granted again. He has never been busier at work. He fills whatever little spare time he has with riding and theatre. At the Amateur Riders’ Club in Mumbai and with Naseeruddin Shah; whom he credits for being very crucial to his journey – along with Sajid Nadiadwala.
His family keeps him grounded – father, mother and sister. “I have a thing about ‘have-nots’. My father, who is a doctor, came up the hard way. I now lead a slightly lonely existence, going to parties only once in a way. I am too busy and I find that I tend to unburden my hassles on the ones I meet there! Not done!” he says sheepishly. “While I have no problem getting into character for a film, it becomes a problem in real life. There is an inconsistency, which people find difficult to understand.”
Hooda has a lot to look forward to in the coming year – probably six film releases (Shooter, Ungli, Main Aur Charles I and more), one of them an Id release, which he is very excited about, for he knows what a big deal that is. He is also excited with the meaty part that he plays in Kick, the largest canvas that he has been a part of. And he is already working on his character for his next film for which he starts shooting in June.
“I have to. I just have to crack this role!” he emphasises. “People say I was very ‘intense’ in Highway. I’d like to say I was ‘involved’. Meticulous. The director does not care how I get into my role as long as he gets the shot he is looking for.”
He hints, but will not confirm that he has another new film coming up for which he has to change his accent. I guess that it must be an English film, but I cannot get anything more out of him. Topic closed.
I ask Hooda for one thing that his audience does not know about him. He is foxed, not expecting that. “I can be very child-like,” he says, finally. “All creative people are. My mother can be too. And, I have a problem turning in.” He is always sleep-deprived, he laments. But going by how fresh and rested he looks, he could have really fooled me.
He smiles at an SMS he receives while cajoling Johnny Walker to move away from my handbag yet again. “A special spa treatment,” he answers to my quizzical look. “Courtesy Sajidji.” Ah, just one of the perks of stardom.
PS: For the all-girl team from Verve who met him years ago and declared that he was a ‘nice guy’ with ‘no attitude’, rest assured, he has not changed at all.
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