His Own Man
Generally, when Ram Gopal Varma’s production house, The Factory, introduces those rough-hewn, tough-talking guys from its underworld assembly line, the jungle drums begin to roll months in advance. You will catch smoke signals in the air; snippets of information will crackle in from the grapevine. Sometimes they will even let drop a red-hot scandal. It is only when curiosity touches danger levels that ‘K Sera Sera Productions Ltd’ will unravel its saga of the Dons.
With D, producer-director, Ram Gopal Varma (of Company, Satya, Shool fame), did nothing of the sort. Maybe, Dawood’s elevation from India’s ‘Most Wanted’ to ‘Global Terrorist’ made him nervous, but uncharacteristically, ‘Ramu’ just pulled the pin off the ticking grenade, lobbed it into our laps and ducked. But there was an explosion. It was the film’s leading man. He looked nothing like the fat ’n’ frumpy Dawood (even though they declared that he was ‘D’ for Deshu.) Here was smouldering coiled cougar aggression. Add to that a palpable sense of self. Who’s that guy behind those midnight blue shades? The Industry wanted to know. A couple of weeks later, he answered. He shaved, slapped on cologne and appeared for a big time premiere with Sushmita Sen on his arm!
To the critics panning the film, Ramu had mumbled feebly about his new find, “You ain’t seen nothing yet…” but when Ms Sen seemed to endorse that view, it was, well, big news.
So, it is, that I’m riding down Juhu Tara Road, in search of Randeep Hooda. It is a perilous ride. The road has more curves than Ms Sen. It snakes through what was once the heartland of Bollywood. All the Greats lived here. B R Chopra, Kishore Kumar, Asha Parekh…. And many a classic was shot in the sprawling bungalows that once lined it. But all that’s given way to a brave new world. And today, I’m looking for an entity called Vie Lounge.
I find the lounge bar doing a Kate Winslet over the Arabian Sea. Dressed appropriately, in black leather, it is keeling dangerously over the frothing monsoon surf. The raging waters held back by just a deck of glass. The horizon cups the bubbling grey waters like champagne in a goblet. Quite appropriately, because it is celebration time for Hooda. Who is inside, being photographed by an all-girl team from Verve. There’s a photographer, dress designer and a visualiser…. “He’s a nice guy,” they whisper, as I enter, “No attitude.”
I can see what they mean. They make him sit on crates in gravity defying poses, take him out into the screaming gale to virtually do a shirshasan, tell him to smile, grimace, give Attitude and when he gets it right, the three ask him to hold it and race behind the viewfinder to confabulate – at some leisure – on just where they’re going to crop the picture for the layouts. Amazingly, like a Da Vinci fresco on a wall, he holds very still. Finally, having run through the whole gamut of expressions, the photographer directs him charmingly, “Now, just be yourself….”
And that trips him.
“Who am I?” he asks dramatically. “As an actor you have to be so many different people that eventually you begin to lose sight of who you really are.”
For one, he’s a man who’s never stood still. At six he was the centre of his Nani’s (maternal grandmother’s) universe. It was a bear hug of a life. At eight, Dad, a surgeon who lived abroad, decided Hooda had to be a man, so he was packed off to boarding school in Haryana. The place had been founded expressly with a view to tame the wayward sons of Jat farmers. So the hormone levels ran real high. And Nani’s little bachcha got pulvurised.
“I was an ill-at-ease backbencher who craved invisibility,” he recalls. But even then, throw him before a large audience, in a play – whether it was a gig in which he wore a little skirt and played Charlie’s Aunt or donned a lion’s skin and roared…he felt at home. Being another felt good.
A couple of years later, still at the mercy of the flying Ninjas, he decided he’d had enough. “I slammed the class bully’s head into a wall and he fell unconscious. Suddenly, I’d earned my stripes.” In time, he picked up the swearing and the swagger…“but because it’s not really you, it kind of bruises your soul,” ruminates Hooda.
By 2000, he reckoned he’d had enough of the Australian adventure. There was a niggling feeling that something was waiting for him back home…he didn’t know what. Yet.
Followed some months of serious drifting. He’d do plays, some ramp modelling and print ads. It was the waiting game. Then he landed up doing a screen test for a lady called Mira Nair whom he had never heard of. He went because a lot of other guys from his theatre group were going. Despite his casual air, the director took him on as a part of her large ensemble cast…for a film called Monsoon Wedding.