A 'scam'. That’s what it took to propel this award-winning actor into the big league. Like Harshad Mehta, the man he portrays with panache on the Sony LIV web series Scam 1992, Pratik Gandhi comes from humble beginnings. Born in Mumbai, but raised in Surat, his is the quintessential ‘rags to riches’ story — albeit with a twist. Pratik shuns clichés. If he has one thing to say about himself, it is that he doesn’t believe in ‘boxes’ and stereotypes.
Educated to be a mechanical engineer, obsessed with spread sheets and crazy about the Kaizen process, you’d never think Pratik’s enduring passion is performing. But acting is the one thing he was always unable to tear himself away from, no matter how pressing his other commitments may have been. “I was in Grade 4 when I set foot on stage for the first time,” Pratik recalls. “My school had this beautiful culture where there was a monthly gathering — called a ‘sammelan’ — and you would have to perform something. I decided to do a small skit based on a story I used to hear from my nani and my mother. They used to tell me the tale of a man who used to do strictly whatever was told to him. He would follow verbal instructions and never apply his brain for logic. So, if he was told, ‘The milk is on the stove, watch it,’ he would keep watching it, even while it boiled over. He wouldn’t turn the gas off, because that wasn’t part of what he was told (laughs). I used to find this story really funny and so I based my skit on it. We didn’t even have a script and it was just a four or five minute performance, but everybody loved it! People laughed. They clapped. It was so much fun.”
So vivid and meaningful is this memory, Pratik recounts it without a pause. “What stayed with me for a long time, after this experience, was the fact that I could create something and that people would relate to it. There was some magic in the creation process. Being able to transport an audience from reality to a make-believe world was endlessly fascinating for me,” he confesses. After this, Pratik was always encouraged to participate in school events — whether it was elocution, a dance or a group singing competition.
“I am actually quite besura but I didn’t have a problem singing in a group. I had no stage fright at all,” he laughs.
With this preface in place, you might think Pratik followed a straight and narrow road — blinkers on — directly into the world of cinema. However life, and Pratik himself, had other plans. “I come from a family of teachers,” he says, perhaps trying to explain why arming himself with degrees meant so much to him. “I was never a class topper,” he says with candour, “but being first was never my motivation for anything.” Whether it was extracurricular activities or the curriculum itself, it was always about participating and never about the prize. After school, Pratik acquired a diploma and began working on a part-time basis. His first job, aged all of 19, was as a salesman for industrial energy savings products — cooling tower fan control systems, to be precise. “I had a diploma in mechanicals. At first I wondered why I was opting to work as a salesman, but then I started to enjoy it.” Still, it wasn’t long before Pratik moved on. “I felt that a diploma was a career full stop. I wanted to do a degree. The credibility that comes after a degree is different,” he says. Was it peer pressure that propelled him, or familial pressure, perhaps? He mulls over it for a moment and responds, “There may have been some peer pressure, but I feel like I mostly put pressure on myself.”
The subject leads us to family — his father, foremost among them. “Despite being a teacher, my father never pressurised me about my grades. The decision to pursue a degree was mine — he never pushed me. ‘Unless you enjoy it, there’s no fun,’ he would say.” Adamant about achieving certain life goals, Pratik worked his way into a job with the National Productivity Council. “The days were long back then, but I’ve always found it impossible to sit still. I’d come home at night and want something more to fill my days with,” Pratik recalls. “It was my father who suggested I take up theatre again and that is how I joined a theatre group in Surat.” Juggling two passions became par for the course and when Pratik moved to Mumbai, his tryst with theatre continued alongside a corporate job with Reliance Cement. There were never enough hours in a day to do everything, but Pratik persisted. He opted for experimental theatre so that he would not have to travel too much but, as his acting assignments multiplied, matters came to a head.
“My father used to say, ‘Leave your job. Your heart lies with acting. What’s the worst that will happen? You will live in a rented house. You will own a small car. But you will be happy.’ And I would tell him that’s not how life works,” Pratik recounts. Financial stability isn’t just a catchphrase when you live in a rental ‘one-room kitchen’ in Mumbai, as Pratik did for almost a decade. The need for a stable income defined many of his choices. “There was a point at which we had to move out of the house we had rented and I didn’t have enough money to put down a deposit on another rental,” he recalls. “I sent my parents back to Surat, my brother moved in with a cousin, and my wife — who was pregnant at the time — moved back in with her parents. My company agreed to give me accommodation but nothing was available immediately, so I spent this interim period taking on as many tours as possible. I packed my belongings into my car and even slept in the car on occasion.”
While the problem of accommodation resolved itself in time for the arrival of his first born, another life changing curveball followed. “One day before my daughter Miraya was born, my father was diagnosed with cancer,” he confesses softly. His first Gujarati film, Bey Yaar, was also being released around this time and the experience was overwhelming.
Bey Yaar, however, was a resounding success. Further acclaim followed with Wrong Side Raju in 2016 and it became clear that juggling two careers was no longer possible. Two years before his father succumbed to cancer, Pratik made a commitment to acting full-time. “My father was my biggest fan. He used to keep track of anything and everything that I did. In fact, Scam was the last project I ever discussed with him; he was already in hospital by then. Sadly he never got to see it…” Pratik trails off.
Directed by Hansal Mehta, Scam 1992 renders the rise and fall of India’s most infamous stockbroker. It also offers blue chip actor Pratik Gandhi his first truly national platform. Rejection, stereotyping, stigma — all the pitfalls that come with opting for a career as a performer — have dotted his journey, but failed to deter him. Instinctive and untrained, his talent — now amplified by this recognition — paves the way for a spectacular bull run.
An actor prepares
Instinct: “Instinct helps you think laterally. You have to be ready to receive it. To reciprocate it. You can’t plan every pause. You have to be open to instinct. Otherwise acting would be too robotic.”
Ego: “You have to put your ego aside and be open to new ideas. Even on the 50th show of a play, new things occur to me. I am always learning.”
Planning: “I do a lot of planning and then I miss most of it (laughs). I make checklists. I am very good with Excel sheets. I want to analyse trends. I am constantly looking for patterns. I try to analyse my own patterns and then break them. I do this so that each and every character I play can truly be different. I can’t change myself completely, but whatever I can change, I want to change it — for every character.”
Observation: “I observe a lot of people and that’s why I love travelling by local trains in Mumbai. You see so many people. You can observe people and read their story. My mind is constantly questioning everything and finding answers; sometimes for national and international problems too (laughs). I recognise that over-processing is a problem, which you can’t afford to do in any industry. I know when I have to stop.”
Also read: Abhishek Bachchan: Play your A-game
Gaining weight, rising stature
Addicted to exercising, Pratik was asked to gain 18 kilos for his role in Scam 1992. Eating rasgullas and drinking beer was part of his prep for the part
Did you audition for Scam 1992? How did you land the part?
I did audition but I didn’t know what part I was auditioning for. The funny thing is that Hansal sir has watched both my Gujarati films and one of my plays, but hasn’t seen my audition till date.
What was it like to transform your body for this role?
I was asked to put on 18 kilos and that was tough! I have always been into martial arts and body weight workouts. If I am addicted to anything, it is to exercise. I agreed to the weight gain for the role, but I couldn’t figure out how I would do it (laughs). I started eating everything that I used to avoid earlier. I have always had a sweet tooth but I never indulged it too much. I was told to eat 10 rasgullas a day and drink beer — that helped! It took me almost 9 months to gain the weight. We finished shooting on March 5, 2020. By March 20, I started working out and, through the lockdown, I kept at it for 60 days. I lost 12 kilos and 8 inches.
What kind of workouts are you partial to?
I take workout breaks like people take cigarette breaks: 3 minutes, 2 minutes, 5 minutes (laughs). If I am sitting to have my makeup done, I will do a wrist workout. I do a lot of mixed martial arts. I don’t go to the gym. I can’t remember the last time I have been inside a gym. I love working out in the kids play area at the park. I am constantly innovating my own workout. I love cycling. I am planning to buy a cycle for my birthday — unless I am able to convince my wife or my mother to buy one for me (laughs).
Are you binge-watching anything at the moment?
I hardly watch any television. I try to read, but even that happens in a very fragmented way.
Do you dance?
I can perform in an Indian ballet. I can certainly be a troupe member. I used to do a lot of western dance. I’ve done some choreography as well.
Has this level of success changed your aspirations?
This is the first phase in my life that I don’t really have to think twice before buying something, but I don’t have a wish list.
Rich man, Poor man
Over the years, Pratik has auditioned for more roles than he can remember. Rejection isn’t unusual in this line of work, but the actor recalls one barb in particular that really stung. “I was told, ‘It will be very hard to portray you as a rich man.’ I simply did not know how to react to that. Recently I saw another audition call that read: ‘Required upmarket-looking 40-year-old father.’ What does this even mean? There’s been a lot said about my skin and my colour. But this goes beyond our national obsession with fair skin. It’s disturbing.”
All the world's a stage
Pratik has no formal training in acting. “Frankly, I had no clue that acting could be learnt!” he confesses. “My co-star on my first film was a trained actor and it was only when I met him that I heard about things like the Meisner method. For me, everything comes from a feeling. My training is all from theatre, where we didn’t have tags or names for the techniques we learnt. But, as an actor, I believe there is no mathematics to this. You cannot put it into a formula. You have to remove the maths and the science from it, so you can recreate pure emotion. To become an actor, I don’t need to know the terminology. Beyond terminology is emotion. I don’t deny that having knowledge helps, but I have never missed it.”