When I walk into the darkened studio where actor, Arshad Warsi, the comic flavour of the moment, is shooting for a pizza commercial, I spot his face on the small screen of a television placed strategically outside the set where a shot is in progress. I watch quietly, as dressed casually in beige trousers and a light coloured shirt, he stretches out his hand for his slice of pizza, jerks his wrist, makes eyes at the camera and mouths his lines with perfect timing that cannot but make you break into a smile….
Exactly 10 years in Tinseltown and movie buffs are talking about the actor who has made the character of ‘Circuit’ so real in the reels in Lage Raho Munna Bhai, one of the biggest hits of 2006. Incidentally, 38-year-old Warsi made an uncertain appearance in Hindi cinema with his first flick, Tere Mere Sapne. After a long line of performances and movies, many of them not remembered, he first hit bulls-eye as ‘Circuit’ in Munna Bhai MBBS…and when Lage Raho…opened to rave reviews this year, Warsi – in his second edition as the comic sidekick – almost stole the thunder from under the nose of the more senior and more macho ‘hero’, Sanjay Dutt.
Shot over, he walks out to meet me and we stroll across to his make-up van for snatches of conversation. Lighting up a cigarette, the actor flops down on a cushioned chair and we start talking about what has made him the icing on the proverbial cake – ‘Circuit’. I promptly discover that Warsi has a big chip on his shoulder, one that he does not hesitate to voice. “I am not a tapori. I have nothing in common with ‘Circuit’. I am paying the price for doing a good job,” he says. “He was just another character that I played and I made him so real for you. I could have worn proper, stylish clothes, made him a much smoother operator and you would have had a different ‘Circuit’. Don’t confuse me with him. I am a simple, normal kind of guy. ”
The actor who speaks fluent English resents being considered ‘downmarket’. “When ABCL signed me for Tere Mere Sapne, why did everyone think I had come from Bhendi Bazaar? I can still remember the day some visitors came to the sets and they talked to my co-star, Chandrachur Singh, in English and when they came up to me, they switched to Hindi. I would have laughed out loud if it had not hurt my sensibilities.”
I can almost hear the proverbial bees flapping in his bonnet as the actor, who’s assayed serious roles in Sehar (where he played a police officer who did not smile throughout the movie) continues: “I am not a permanent prankster. I cannot even tell a joke properly. Unlike other actors, I do not play tricks on anyone. Believe it or not, Jayaji (Bachchan) told me, ‘There is more to you than comedy. In reality you are a much more serious guy’.”
Warsi who has lived alone for the most part of his life, studied at Barnes School, Nasik. “Though not an outstanding student, I was a good kid…quite popular. I never ragged anyone nor did I pull pranks.”
A natural athlete and gymnast – “that dream soon bit the dust” – Warsi was inspired by the army presence in the area and for some time toyed with the idea of donning the military greens. But soon after school, he lost his parents, one after the other and despite the presence of siblings, he lived alone and was left to fend for himself in a hostile world. “There was a lot of money in the family which soon vanished. I never saw any of it. You can say I brought myself up…but I never dived into drugs or got into bad company. I always took life very seriously and started earning when I was 15. I was a freak case and once out of school, I wanted to get on with life. I had to be really strong for myself. Today, everything that I have is my own. I bought my first cycle with my own money.”
The initial years were hard and to survive, he took whatever work (was even an assistant director to Mahesh Bhatt) came his way. He sold cosmetics “that were so bad that I would not like to name them” and soon discovered a passion for choreography. Stints in theatre, where he dabbled in dance for theatre stalwarts, Bharat Dabholkar and Feroz Khan, were balm to his soul. “I was being paid to do what I loved…I took part in skits that were dance oriented but I could never be persuaded to speak on stage. I had never really thought of acting.”
Destiny plotted a different movement for the reluctant actor and so began Warsi’s day out on the big screen. “I had hosted a dinner for friends and director, Joy Augustine, saw me moving from group to group, making a variety of people feel comfortable.” And the film almost fell into his lap. “After I signed on, I was scared by the fear of failure. I did not want anyone saying, ‘Poor guy, he is the one who tried to act but flopped badly’.”
For a long time, his filmi innings went downhill, the result of many bad decisions. “I didn’t know the A, B, C of surviving in this industry,” he remembers. “I just did projects that I instinctively liked or what my secretary told me to do. I have sacked him subsequently. But I soon learnt that no one likes an outsider and if my films did not do well, I would be on my way out. And, then when I hit a rough patch, I realised that it was tougher to get back in.”
Compounded by his late start in Bollywood, Warsi almost reached a stalemate. “If I had wanted to be an actor, I would have started out much earlier,” he points out. “The bad times did not faze me too much though. I have a very strong mind and can keep my head on my shoulder. If I was broke, I took up a show…. My major support was my wife, Maria (Goretti). We had married soon after I started acting. Close friends throughout what we have experienced, we have remained pillars of strength for each other.”
The hard times continued…. For almost three years in between, Warsi was without any major work. “It was the perfect opportunity to take time out and Maria and I travelled a lot – we went to America, Europe, stayed with friends…. I did not despair for all along, I knew that if I was meant to be a successful actor, then somehow I would become one. Though not really religious, I know there is a God up there who is looking out for me. Whenever my bank balance has hit rock bottom, some way of making money has always cropped up.” Films like Salaam Namaste, Hulchul, Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part II, Chocolate, Golmaal ensured that he remained in the eye of the people…and more importantly, the producers.
Even as the second lead in multi-starrers or in guest appearances, Warsi has got noticed. This is one actor who has no illusions about his grand status. “I would love to play solo hero movies but right now I know I do not have a viable market. That is why I cleverly do films where the main hero can pull in the crowds, while I do my job, get noticed and knock them on the head with my performances.”
And today, post Lage Raho… Warsi, you can say, is having the loudest laugh. Awaiting the release of some of his big projects in the making, Kabul Express for one, he has seamlessly spanned the great divide between the big and the small screen by signing on for the reality show, Bigg Boss. “Most actors do television only when their careers are on a downhill,” he ripostes when I ask him about this unexpected move. “I am doing it when my career is looking up, after such a long time. I do not look down at anything that is done well. And, I am not one of the participants, I am anchoring the show. So, it does not take up too much of my time. On TV I can get to be myself…in the movies, I play different characters. I have the best of both the worlds.”
The best for him is yet to come…something that he is looking forward to and will definitely cherish. “I am still making my life…pushing the limits so that I can reach up there. I want to save up so that Maria and my son, Zeke Zidaan, have all that I did not,” says Warsi. He adds, “Zeke is the centre of our lives. Whenever I leave the house he cries. The other day, he came to one of my shoots and when he saw me on the screen he ran towards it. But my son will not get everything on a platter. He will have to work hard like I did. I would not like him to be a typical actor’s child.”
It is time for him to reach out for his slice of pizza again. Just before leaving, I jokingly ask him if he had ever considered changing his surname to Khan – considering that it is the Khans who rule Bollywood. Arshad replies matter-of-factly, “My real name is Arshad Ali Khan! My father changed our surname to Warsi after he met a holy person…. But, what’s in a name? There are so many Khans in the world who are not doing anything.”