Gulshan Grover on Cash, Sooryavanshi, Indian 2 and having ‘no opinions’
The veteran actor talks money, representation, and reuniting with Kamal Haasan
Gulshan Grover sounds chipper on a Monday afternoon. “Do you know there’s an aphrodisiac on your name?” he asks me. Embarrassed, I tell him it’s a common enough Bengali name. He nods but has his own thoughts on the matter. He breaks into an anecdote. “Back in the day, outside Film City, they used to sell ‘shilajit’. They said it’s good for the knees but it was also an aphrodisiac.” We share a laugh as he retreats to praising my name. “It’s quite unique, interesting.”
This is typical Gulshan. The 66-year-old actor never gives offence, never talks ill. It’s a disposition dramatically opposite to the churlish villains he plays. His latest creation, in a goatee and shades, is Gautam Acharya, a moneyman and the antagonist of the Disney+ Hotstar film Cash. The film, set in Mumbai, sees a bunch of kids form a money-laundering gang, after the 2016 Indian banknote demonetisation.
I ask Gulshan if he has memories of demonetisation night. He ducks it forthwith. “Honestly, I don’t have any emotional memory of this particular happening. I was relying completely on how the makers wanted to portray the subject.”
Here, unprompted, he furnishes another anecdote, from the 2006 film Casino Royale where he lost out a Bond villain role to Mads Mikkelsen. “There was a scene where a bullet was stuck in my neck and I had to say something like, ‘I’m feeling no pain.’ There was no memory I could bring to that. I’ve gotten used to building characters from the material itself.”
I marvel a little. Gulshan’s expansive career flashes before my eyes. The actor started out in the 70s but got his break in 1980, with Hum Paanch. Beyond four decades of iconic Bollywood work—playing characters named ‘Chhappan Tikli’, ‘Kesariya Vilayati’, ‘King Don’ and ‘Raja Babusha’—he’s been in British, American, German, Iranian and Malaysian films. His 2019 biography, Bad Man, lists Sooryavanshi as his 500th Bollywood film (only Shakti Kapoor and Aruna Irani seem to figure in that league).
Currently storming the theatres, Sooryavanshi has brought cheer to industry stakeholders. It has also fazed critics, with its slotting of Indian Muslims into ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ camps.
Gulshan, who’s played extremists of all stripes, says he trusts matters of representation to his directors. “I’m an entertainer,” he declares. “I have no opinion on a character’s background or what others feel. Similarly, I have no views on various social issues because I’m incapable of it. I’m not qualified enough. My only mission on set is that my director is satisfied and so are my viewers.”
We return to Cash, and I ask Gulshan about the significance of money in his life. On the internet, there’s a viral video of Jackie Shroff musing on the subject, saying money isn’t the primary aim of life. “Dress well, keep your teeth clean, smile,” he recommends youngsters. Does Gulshan share this Shroffian philosophy?
“The significance of money changes at various stages,” he says, getting reflective. “For instance, the pandemic has shown that all of us feel our homes are small. ‘I wish it had an extra work space, an extra terrace, a gym…’ So many of us did not earn in the last one-and-a-half years. So yes, money is important, but not the most important thing in life.”
Before the lockdown, Gulshan shot portions for Shankar’s Indian 2. The film reunites him with Kamal Haasan, his co-star from Sadma (1983) and Yeh Desh (1984). In Bad Man, he narrates a funny incident of bumping into Kamal in Mumbai. The two have stayed friends over the years.
“Kamal Haasan is one of the finest actors in India,” Gulshan enthuses. “He goes really deep into his roles.” While holding back details on his character, Gulshan says that he has a lavish song sequence in Indian 2. “It’s among the most expensive songs ever shot on a villain, in multiple foreign locations with models and singers and dancers…”
There’s also an Indo-Polish film he has completed. Titled No Means No, it’s the first such venture between the countries. What’s more, it’s one of those rare ‘good man’ roles he’s been cast in. “It’s an emotional character that people will connect with,” he says.
A small mystery clings to Gulshan’s vast career. The actor, who has worked with everyone from Yash Chopra to Deepa Mehta, has never confessed an interest in directing. His son, Sanjay Grover, a producer and executive at MGM Studios, will be making his directorial debut soon. He’d have his blessings. As for Gulshan, the creator’s chair holds little appeal.
“It’s too much of a love affair with one script,” he says. “Mine is mostly a one-month stand.”