Armed with gumption and an AK-47, Sidharth Malhotra plays Kargil War hero Captain Vikram Batra with aplomb in the recently-released film Shershaah. In real life, the actor’s artillery includes a winning smile and genuine warmth that is enough to disarm any adversary.
Our Zoom meeting feels a little like a battlefield — being watched over by invisible generals and targeted for timeliness — but Malhotra navigates it like a champ. Ever so charming, he answers my questions with care and consideration; taking his time to think his responses through despite a ticking clock. From the capture of Point 5140 in Shershaah to Sid’s experiences navigating the often-treacherous terrain that defines Bollywood, we cover a gamut of subjects.
I come away convinced that there’s a lot more to this Mr. Malhotra than meets the eye. For one, he’s not your typical ‘chocolate boy’ and while he is well aware that his looks cause a flutter, he seems determined to be defined by anything but his biceps. He has been a passionate advocate for Shershaah — personally pushing this film towards fruition for five long years — because, I suspect, this is a performance that will establish him as a serious actor and not just a pretty face. Perhaps it was the same need — to prove that he is capable of more — that propelled him to set aside a successful career as a model, in exchange for the long and tiring hours of a low-paid and largely anonymous trainee assistant director. Ample is the irony in the fact that Captain Batra’s victory slogan rings true for Sid too: Yeh dil maange more.
Unlike many of our recent cover stars, Sid was never one to perform voluntarily for gatherings when guests visited his home in New Delhi during his early years. “I just wasn’t that kid,” he laughs, “I didn’t mimic people or tell stories. I was a sporty, regular child. I must have been four years old when I did my first photo-shoot, which also happened quite by chance. It was an ad for some toy that had stickers on it. We got paid around Rs150 and of course it wasn’t about the money! Somebody we knew said, ‘Iski photo kheechenge…’ and it went from there. I still have that picture somewhere.”
Sidharth’s next professional modelling assignment was for a mobile company poster. “It was my first real job and I remember it well. I think they paid me a few odd thousand; maybe Rs5,000. I didn’t know much about banking at the time — I was just about 18 years old — and so I gave the money to my mum to spend or put in the bank or whatever.”
With assignments coming in thick and fast, his modelling career had promise, but it never entirely fulfilled him. So, when an offer to act in a film landed at his doorstep, Sid moved — lock, stock and barrel — to Mumbai. “I gave eight years of prep and time to that film, but it never materialised. The director moved on with a bigger star,” Sidharth recalls with rue.
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If you believe in destiny, you might credit it for the way things panned out because Sidharth eventually got his dream debut with Karan Johar’s Student of the Year. “That’s all thanks to a friend of mine… We were in a rickshaw together and he was referring to an actor who cannot read in Hindi and I said, ‘How do you know?’ So he said that when he was an AD he would give him scripts in English… and I was like, ‘What’s an AD?!’ I was a Delhi boy who didn’t know the technicalities of movie-making, per se. I had auditioned for roles and stuff before, but I never knew that such a thing as an assistant director existed, or what that job involved. I remember this rickshaw ride very clearly because it struck me then, for the first time, that this was a great opportunity and way to be on a film set; to observe and to learn. I started spreading the word and that’s how I ended up on the sets of My Name is Khan. My services were free of cost at that time — what I earned was valuable insight — and I still feel that being on a set as an assistant is like being in one of the best film schools one could possibly go to,” says Sid.
Call it the class of MNIK 2010, but a handful of assistant directors who worked on this film graduated with honours. Both Sidharth and Varun Dhawan went on to debut in 2012’s Student of the Year, while Karan Malhotra and Abhishek Varman became directors (Karan even directed Sid in the 2015 movie Brothers). Sidharth clarifies that he auditioned for Student of the Year alongside “a lot of other boys,” adding: “Both Varun and I just happened to be those ADs who were together on MNIK who then got launched together. There was another film in the works after MNIK that I thought I may assist on, and I thought maybe my part would be behind the camera in the future. I just stumbled upon this audition (for Student of the Year) at Dharma Productions.”
And the rest, as they say, is history.
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Malhotra’s growing bond with Dharma Productions — from clapper-boy to leading man — has played a pivotal role in many of his personal milestones, including bringing Shershaah to screens via Amazon Prime Video.
Slow and steady seems his race, and we laugh about it in another context too. “I have moved from rented apartments in Goregaon East, Malad East and Andheri to Juhu and Bandra,” Sidharth confesses, insisting that he still cannot afford a house in Maximum City. Seeing as he has scaled great heights — and not just with this incredible story from the Kargil War — I am loath to believe it.
With every step up the ladder, Sidharth’s aspirations and goals evolve. “When I was modelling, it was about wanting to make enough pocket money. Landing my first ad film in Mumbai was like a big thing back then. Obviously, Student of the Year was a huge milestone. And it never stops. Today, feeling that sense of validation for a film like Shershaah is an incredible high. This is the most valuable thing that I have at the moment. It’s like gold to me. This is the feeling that motivates me when things are challenging. You just cannot buy this emotion… this sense of achievement and validation,” he says.
To the victor, the spoils. If Malhotra feels triumphant today, it is well-deserved. Clearly, there are other spoils to claim in his future — both in front of and behind the camera, we suspect. To his legion of loyal fans, Shershaah’s victory cry rings out yet again, but this time for the film’s shining star: Yeh dil maange more.
On pretence, patriotism and playing his part
“My grandfather served in the Indian Army and my father almost signed up as well (before opting for a career in the Merchant Navy), so I also feel really connected to the Army personally. That’s one reason why I am very attached to this story. Captain Batra’s mindset left me in awe. Fear is the biggest obstacle that we all face and here was a man with the most incredible response to fear. I’m sure he must have felt fear, but his approach was so confident, that he would inspire people in the most extraordinary way. The more I interacted with his family, the more I felt I had to do justice to this real-life hero.”
THE PATRIOT ACT
“It is one thing to read articles and see snippets on the news about our armed forces, but it’s another thing altogether to go to those mountains and actually see the conditions in which they function. Most of our borders are in areas where the conditions are severe — it could be dry and desert-like, or high on top of a freezing mountain. These are not easy posts to man or maintain and they do it fearlessly and relentlessly, day in and day out. It’s a very difficult job and when you see that, it really brings home a newfound appreciation for the freedom that we have today.”
THE IRONY OF AUTHENTICITY
“As soon as you tell people that you are an actor in Bollywood, they just have to Google you and you lose that sense of discovery and connection. I’d rather have a very natural conversation with a person, so he will talk to me without any preconceived notions… so, yes, I have on occasion pretended not to be an actor. Of course I can only do this when I am travelling internationally. When I have done it, I have pretended to have a job similar to my brother, who is a banker. It would just be a passing mention and then we can go back to talking about places to see and restaurant recommendations and that sort of thing. So my pretence is only to keep the authenticity alive.”
THE GOOD LIFE
“I don’t regret or miss anything. I can’t complain (about where I am in life). If I were forced to, I would say I miss being the observer. People-watching is a major part of being an actor — you get to pick certain things from reality — but now I am the observed (laughs). It’s a very weird feeling because first you want to get noticed and then, when you have that, you realise that it hampers you sometimes. For me, travelling helps to strike a balance. Plus, my personal life is very normal. Because I don’t have family in Mumbai, it is only me setting the tone on how I want to live. So, when I am not working or attending events, my life is as regular as it gets.”
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IN THE LINE OF DUTY
“Shershaah is not a commercial film for Captain Vikram Batra’s family. It is a very personal experience for them; something that they lived and still live. I was acutely aware of this throughout. Knowing that you are playing a real person, and not a scripted character, gives you an extra sense of responsibility and I think that helped me put my best foot forward. I kept saying that the family’s review is the only review I am worried about and their response has meant the world to me,” says Sidharth.
Styling team: Mayuri Nivekar
Make-up: Rizwan Shaikh
Hair: Ali Rizvi
Managed by: Parminder Relan