Pratik Gandhi on playing Gandhi: My job is not to judge the character

Pratik Gandhi on playing Gandhi: My job is not to judge the character

The Scam 1992 actor on the importance of having physical similarities with a character, collaborating again with Hansal Mehta and how he chooses his projects

Actor Pratik Gandhi spring-boarded to fame with Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story (2020) owing to his energetic portrayal of the convicted fraudster, a performance built on the cusp of confidence and arrogance. Since then, it seems like Pratik’s uncanny ability to live a character has made him the natural choice for biopics. He will soon be seen in the role of MK Gandhi in Gandhi, a web series by his frequent collaborator Hansal Mehta. Also in the pipeline is Phule, a film by Anant Mahadevan in which Pratik will be essaying the role of the social reformer Jyotirao Phule.

We spoke to the actor, who is currently on set in England for Gandhi, on his portrayal of the freedom fighter, his preparation for the role and how he chooses his projects. 

Q

You are playing the titular role in Hansal Mehta's web series Gandhi. What is your process for getting into the mindscape of a character?

A

It just so happened that, unknowingly, I was preparing for this role over the last 10 years. I have been playing the young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on stage over the last decade in a play, and that has helped me a lot with this series because I had already read a lot of material about his early days and life. At that time, I had no clue that I would one day be playing the freedom fighter in a series. Secondly, Hansal Mehta's show is based on three books by Ramchandra Guha, including Gandhi Before India. So, the script in itself is very well researched and documented, which makes an actor’s work easier.

Q

Did you refer to any old speeches of Gandhi to formulate your character?  

A

I revisited a couple of speeches of Gandhi that I had heard earlier. Primarily, I find it important to know more about my character’s body of work, whether it is Gandhi or Phule.

Q

How did it help to have your Scam 1992 director Hansal Mehta at the helm?

A

Hansal sir did not give me any specific brief but we discussed a lot about the script, various anecdotes and, sometimes, points that were not even part of the script. That helps because you understand the character -- the kind of person he was and the way he used to think about certain issues even in his personal or social life. What should emerge is a layered portrayal of Gandhi, it cannot be one-note.

Hansal sir has never told me how to act, what to do, where to go or the kind of physicality you need. We have always discussed the character and then it is always ‘You create it your way’. During Scam…, his brief was very clear: Do not show me your effort. If I see the effort, it does not work. 

Q

When you are playing a real-life character how much emphasis do you put on creating a physical similarity?

A

Not too much actually. To the extent that it should merge with my physicality. It should not look forced and it should not overpower the character's emotions and his journey. As an actor, I feel that one should not get bogged down by completely looking like the character you perform or trying to create physical similarities. Getting into the mindscape of the person is more important.

Q

You are fortunate that you are already slim so you must not have had to work much to come close to Gandhi's look.

A

No, no, in fact, I had to lose a lot of weight. I was always slim but I had to lose muscles and become thinner.

Q

Is it easier to perform when you look like the character?

A

It definitely helps to create the overall impression for the audience. People have seen so many photographs of Gandhi; he's not a character like Harshad Mehta whom a lot of people have not even seen an image of. When you are playing a famous personality like Gandhi, you try to look as close to him as possible. But beyond a point, my face and body are different, so one should not overemphasize on the physicality. In theatre, we have learnt that an actor on-stage may not be sporting a moustache but he should perform in a manner that the audience believes that he has a moustache.

Q

There are those who claim that they know Gandhi through Richard Attenborough's Oscar winning 1982 film. Your series will have to go beyond that. 

A

(Laughs) I guess that is because it was the first film ever made on Gandhi. After that a lot of films have been made on him and many actors have played him. But we are starting from his early days as a young Mohandas Gandhi and continuing till the end of his life. The first season, which we're currently shooting for, is about his younger days and his struggles and achievements in South Africa. A project of this scale covered in one series is happening in India for the first time.

Q

Has being a Gujarati helped you play Gujarati men in Scam and Gandhi?

A

Of course. Gandhi's Gujarati was Kathiavadi Gujarati which is not the Gujarati I speak. But I have been doing Gujarati plays for a long time so I can speak almost all the Gujarati dialects.

Q

What is the interpretation you will be giving to Gandhi?

A

A lot of people think that certain decisions that he made were wrong and then there are a lot of people who think that he was right. My job is not to judge the character. I don't try to make him either the hero or the villain. It’s difficult because as actors you are portraying emotions. But if I tried to colour the character then the audience would not be able to explore him properly. 

Q

Unlike Hollywood which presents warts-and-all biopics, in India there are hagiographies which gloss over the subject's weaknesses. What is your take?

A

The difficulty is in taking permissions and approvals. You don't get the rights for the stories of people who are still alive and nobody is ready to show that side of themselves or their family members. Interestingly, Gandhi himself has written about all his mistakes and weaknesses. He himself put it on paper for the public. And that makes him superhuman.

Q

This year you've done comedy films like Madgaon Express and Do Aur Do Pyaar. In contrast, you will be seen in Ananth Mahadevan's Phule. What's your criterion for choosing films?

A

For me, the deciding factor has always been the script. I liked the way Anant sir narrated the script of Phule. I generally insist on the director narrating the script because the words they use tells me a lot about their clarity of purpose and the way they think about certain emotions and situations.

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