For Ishwak Singh, who played an understated but riveting Ansari in Amazon Prime Video’s superhit series Pataal Lok, it’s all about cool fashion at a time when things are heating up pretty fast. He talks to THE MAN in this exclusive interview.
How did you prep for Ansari?
I went to police stations and saw the same chaos, the same issues, the high crime rate, the same issues Hathi Ram (his senior police officer in Pataal Lok) faced. There I bonded with the police officers, young boys who talked of their cases. I spent he day with a newly wedded young cop. When I returned the following morning, he was still there, he had worked through the night, doing his job with dedication, going on a round of hospitals, and other places to complete police procedures. I saw the human side of the police force. I went there to understand the techniques of interrogation and found a world in itself. They talked of the Hathi Rams, their mentors in their lives. Policing is a human story; I saw the emotion in them for their mentors and as between Hathi Ram and Ansari, sometimes one is the mentor sometimes the other.
Good acting is not about a small facial expression, there’s so much else; you have understand the reason for a reaction, the psyche of the person, the psyche of a criminal. Realism comes from my search for cultures, my journey into other worlds as to the police stations for this role. You can study Method Acting, but if you do the same thing over and over again, you will find a method to it. So, it’s really about finding what works for you.
What got you into acting?
I studied architecture but was always interested in the performing arts; I just wanted to get on stage and act. I looked at theatre seriously because it seemed a solid place to start and learn. I joined Asmita and was with them for eight years, and over time, became one of their important actors and did a lot of work with them. As my work got noticed, I began to get auditions in the middle of my theatre career and started to make trips to Mumbai. I got a role in Aligarh; Mohavalayam, a Malayalam film, Anubhav Sinha’s Tum Bin 2, Veere di Wedding. Soon after I got Pataal Lok.
The uncertainty makes families object to the profession...
It was difficult to step away from architecture. There is fear because it’s uncertain. So many years down the line and I still have to justify what I do to friends and acquaintances. But think about it, even in the legal profession, no one is going to give important cases to a beginner. You’re not going become a Harish Salve right in the beginning and go straight to the Supreme Court. You have to work and reach a certain point to get there. This is a highly competitive place. The important thing is to make your space.
First theatre play?
I was part of an Asmita weekend workshop, which is a very big deal. Asmita works with good content, there’s a lot of socio political theatre. So, my first was Kharashein by Gulzar based on stories of Partition.
What is special about theatre?
Doing theatre introduced me to literature, art and so much else. Now I can tell at a glance if I’m doing (a script) or not; I can spot good writing. It’s like looking at a grain and being able to tell if it’s ripe or not. That’s all thanks to my experience with theatre. Theatre doesn’t sustain you and provide you with an adequate income, that’s why I call it a great training ground.
How did Pataal Lok happen?
When you’re on the acting circuit in Mumbai, and on their data base, you get called for auditions all the time for any sort of role, big or small. This was one of those good solid auditions for which I worked very hard. I shut myself away and worked hard to get it all right. Soon I got a call for a meeting and was so excited about how I would do the role.
Did you never consider TV?
There were offers but I was doing theatre and enjoying myself. I was addicted to the level of acting and the quality of content. Films were coming my way: I worked in Aligarh and Mohavalayam a Malayalam film. When Ek Mamooli Aadmi, a theatre project and a big TV one came at the same time, I chose theatre.
There is no difference, the craft is the same. The difference is the space, if I’m doing a street play on the ghats in Haridwar I can move about freely, versus on a small stage, so, obviously I will move my body differently. These are the differences but the character and the emotions remain the same.
Plays you found powerful that left an impression on you
30 Days in September by Mahesh Dattani: A play on child abuse and the importance of bringing about awareness in kids that needs to be addressed. It’s disturbing and difficult. The first time I did it, I felt sick.
Ambedkar vs Gandhi: I played Ambedkar. It taught me about the history of Indian politics and the plight of the downtrodden and Gandhi’s perspective on it. He was a key figure in keeping people together and achieving a larger goal. I’m extremely inspired by them. If they could do so much, then why can’t we.
Final Solutions by Mahesh Dattani: A play on communal riots. The speeches are powerful. You make gods out of role models, but they are human with frailties. The characters make confessions and admit to what they did – where the victims show up as having a dark past as well.
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Court Martial by Swadesh Deepak: This is a play I have performed the most. It addresses caste in the armed forces. There’s an aspect of ‘othering’ in an institution where there shouldn’t be. It’s about an orderly who is traumatised by his seniors and ends up shooting his Captain.
The Last Salute by Rajesh Kumar: A docu-drama about the Iraqi perspective of the war on terror (Iraq War), about the shoe throwing incident that is a symbol of protest. It’s political play and looks at whether it was weapons of mass destruction or something else that triggered the war. None were found, so what was it? It’s about western politics, and the business and politics of war.