People thought I was mad to refuse lead roles and do a Munna Bhai MBBS: Jimmy Sheirgill
The actor, along with the makers of his latest Netflix series Choona, talks about being typecast, the stale storytelling format of early 2000s Bollywood and if he believes in luck
Jimmy Sheirgill was getting weary of playing villains. He has played the moustachioed strongman time and again with the Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster films, Mukkabaaz (2017) and recently Aazam (2023). “Whenever a director approaches me with an antagonist role, I get a bit apprehensive,” says the 52-year-old actor. “My first thought is, ‘fir se wahi na ho’ (Not the same thing again).”
Initially skeptical, he, however, agreed to play the heavy in Netflix’s heist thriller series Choona. “Once in a while comes in a director who can convince you,” he shares. “When I spoke to Pushpendra (Nath Mishra, the creator and director), I realized that the only similarity between Shukla ji (his character from the series) and all the villains that I had played before was that they were all very strong characters.”
“No two villains can be the same, they can only have similar shades,” adds Pushpendra. “The mechanics of my world are different from say like that of a Tigmanshu Dhulia film. I was clear that there will be no overlapping.”
In the series, Jimmy sports bandhgalas and plays Avinash Shukla, a local politician with a penchant for astrology. His ‘grah’ (planets) start going haywire when he rubs some of his subordinates the wrong way. They, ultimately, form a team to loot Shukla in order to make him pay. “To me, the premise felt very fresh,” says Jimmy. “I liked how the show was rooted but still somehow had an international feel to it.” An ensemble, the series also features actors Vikram Kochhar, Monika Panwar, Chandan Roy and Aashim Gulati, who plays Yakub Ansari, a goon, eager to earn some political clout. When asked what his take was after reading the script, Aashim revealed he wasn’t given the entire screenplay. “A calculated decision by my director,” he says. Pushpendra explains, “I feel actors tend to mould their performances in order to suit the narrative. Like for Aashim, he plays a character called Ansari. Now Ansari only knows about his life and not what is happening with other characters. If he gets to know everything about Jimmy’s Shukla ji, he will start acting on the basis of that knowledge. So, what the character doesn’t know, why should I tell that to the actor?”
Only Jimmy, Pushpendra reveals, was given the entire script. “Now, Shukla ji had to know what was being cooked behind him,” he quips.
This is the third decade for Jimmy in the industry. He started off with Gulzar’s Maachis (1996), a poignant tale of the militancy in Punjab after Operation Blue Star and former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s subsequent assassination. After such an explosive debut, except Mohabbatein (2000), the actor dabbled with a lot of middling rom-coms in the early 2000s like Yeh Zindagi Ka Safar (2001), Dil Vil Pyar Vyar (2002) and Kehtaa hai Dil Baar Baar (2002).
“After working for three-four years, I was done with the Bollywood format of storytelling,” he says. “You know, it was all about those songs which involve actors dancing around trees, that sort of stuff. It had become repetitive and I was like ‘jaana hain, karna hain, yahi hain jo hain’ (I have to go to work, do it, this is what it is)’. But soon I realized I had to break out of this format and do something interesting. Something that lasts, because I knew these songs and dances will soon fade away.”
And then you decided to do Haasil (2003)? “Frankly, my need to do more meaningful roles came after Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (2003). All of a sudden everybody started saying that I had turned mad and am refusing lead roles for small supporting ones. But by then I was on a different path. I did the Tanu Weds Manu series and the Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster films. Now, when I look back at my filmography, I feel pride,” he adds.
Since we were on the topic of an actor’s journey and Choona has themes of destiny and alignment of the stars, we couldn’t help but ask the makers if they believe in the concept of luck. Pushpendra turned philosophical. “I think people only believe in luck when they go through a tough time. But, as the saying goes, in order to win the lottery, you have to make money to buy the ticket.” Aashim keeps it light. “I mean you have to work. You can’t just sit at home and eat aloo paratha with abandon.”
“Sitting at home and eating aloo paratha?” says Jimmy. “Now what can be luckier than that.”