Sunil Grover and I spend two hours talking about life — aspirations, philosophy, motivations, the pandemic and loss included — before we wrap up this interview for The MAN. As we say our goodbyes, he asks me: “Do you want me to say something funny?” I laugh out loud. The actor is so accustomed to doling out jokes like currency notes, he isn’t sure if we’ve got our money’s worth without a few gags thrown in. “Everywhere I go, people expect me to make them laugh. It’s like I’m walking down the street, or even standing at a urinal (this has actually happened to me), and I’ll be asked to say something funny,” he confesses.
This is more a statement of fact than a complaint, because Sunil genuinely enjoys eliciting laughs. Only this isn’t that kind of interview.
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Grover was all of eight years old when he got up on stage for the first time. He was meant to hold a flag and recite a patriotic poem — which he repeats verbatim from memory several decades later. The microphone was set for a much taller person so, when he started to speak, no one could hear him. “My PT teacher came running to me and said, ‘Dat ja!’ which is Haryanvi for ‘Wait,’ while he adjusted the mic,” the actor recalls. Embarrassed for a moment, Sunil stuck out his tongue and everyone in the room started laughing. Accidental though it may have been, being able to make the audience laugh was an exhilarating experience for this first grader. Perhaps it was at that point that a perennial performer was born. When guests dropped by his home in Mandi Dabwali, a town in Sirsa, Haryana, Sunil would often be asked to mimic people. “I’d imitate relatives and everyone would laugh,” he recalls. Ironically, it is a relative who inspired Gutthi — the pigtailed character who boosted Sunil’s meteoric rise to global fame on Comedy Nights with Kapil. “Don’t make me tell you who it is, or she might make me pay her royalties,” says a grinning Grover.
From Gutthi and Rinku Bhabhi to Dr Mashoor Gulati, Sunil thrives at essaying these offbeat characters. Comedy comes naturally to him — a gift to be grateful for, considering it’s not an easy medium to master. Sunil is genuinely appreciative of every opportunity because — despite his tremendous talent — success hasn’t come easy.
“With all the elocution contests and fancy dress competitions I participated in, I was well-known in school. In college, my popularity grew. Between working for Jaspal Bhatti and hosting live shows, I always felt recognised and ‘famous’ in a sense. I was making decent money. Then I came to Mumbai and it was a great leveller. Lots of people trying to make it here had accomplished just as much, if not more. I lived in Juhu for a while with two roommates, but I couldn’t afford that lifestyle for too long. I remember days when I would buy a train ticket to a station that was one stop before mine, because the fare was a whole rupee cheaper.”
Looking back, Sunil also recalls a time when he worked on a TV show for two days before being dropped without proper notice: “I was with another actor who was part of the same show. We were travelling together. He was told his call time for the next day but no one told me what time I was required on set. I just kept waiting for that call. I was told, ‘We’ll let you know,’ but that was the end of it.”
Working through these lows, Sunil was fortunately making slow and steady progress as a voiceover artist. “At one point I used to charge about`3,500 for a single radio spot or TV commercial. Between travelling to the venue, getting home, travelling to collect the cheque and travelling to deposit it, I wasn’t saving too much,” he laughs. “One day I was called in for a job by a firm I hadn’t worked with before. I told them I would need my cheque on the day of the assignment and they agreed to my fee and terms. When I got to the venue — Famous Studios in Mahalaxmi — they asked me if I would give them a discount because they actually needed me to do voiceovers for eight films. I’m not great at maths (this is despite doing Commerce in college), but I figured that if they were paying Rs3,000 per film for eight films, I’d make Rs24,000. It was the quickest calculation of my life! I hesitated — as one would in a negotiation — but I didn’t carry the drama on for too long, because I didn’t want the guy to change his mind. I walked away with a cheque in hand on the same day and I can’t tell you what that felt like! That walk from Famous Studios to Mahalaxmi Station — my hand was on my pocket the whole time. I can never forget that walk. That part of my journey. That one cheque meant that I could stay in Bombay for another six months. That single cheque was my entry from a practical world, to a world of magic. If you ask me, that is exactly where the magic started.”
For close to a decade, Sunil continued working as a vocal talent. He had a popular spot on radio — as RJ Sud — and, eventually, acting offers followed. "Chala Lallan Hero Banne was the first,” he recalls. From bit parts to bigger roles, Sunil advanced into Comedy Nights with Kapil and the rest, as they say, is history. Fame and success, in their full, unabashed glory, had come to stay.
I compare Sunil’s tryst — and subsequent ‘breakup’ — with Kapil Sharma to the Jennifer Aniston-Brad Pitt romance, or to the clamour for a Friends reunion. Sunil laughs, though he acknowledges that, even today, fans are rooting for their reconciliation. So, will there be a reunion after that infamous mid-air fallout? Sunil responds with an emphatic, “No,” but softens the blow by saying even a Friends reunion was 20 years in the making.
Without a job in hand when he quit the show on principle in 2017, the actor has come a long way. His recent outing as Gurpal Chauhan on Amazon Prime Video’s Tandav proved Sunil’s acting chops extend to far beyond the funnies. “It’s not like I was looking for a role to prove that I could be more than a comedian. I am perfectly happy doing comedy. I just want to play good characters, whatever the genre,” says Sunil, who loves nothing more than being able to please an audience.
It is this clarity that has guided him through one chapter and into another, from an early age. No other member of his family had ever aspired for a career in showbiz before him. Yet Sunil knew this was his calling and opted for a master’s degree in theatre from Panjab University in the late 90s. “I topped my school with 59 per cent,” says Sunil in splits, “and that obviously wasn’t good enough for a college admission in Chandigarh, so I entered as a student in the Department of Correspondence. They would allow me to attend classes physically and I represented the college in so many competitions — and won so many trophies — that they eventually regularised me.”
All the reminiscing literally brings tears to his eyes: “We spend so much time moving forward, I can’t remember the last time I’ve looked back like this.”
With multiple BMWs in his garage, the days of trying to scrimp on train fare are certainly behind him. Though he indulges his fondness for designer togs — Louis Vuitton has been a bit of a weakness lately — Sunil has also spent the lockdown doing his share of the dishes. Like comedy, keeping it real seems to come naturally to him as well.
Son to a banker and homemaker, father to an 11-year-old boy and funnyman to the nation, Sunil is a prodigious talent we are going enjoy watching for years to come. Whether you recognise him as Gutthi, Rinku Bhabhi, Dr. Mashoor Gulati or Gurpal Chauhan, one things is clear. Sunil Grover is greater than the sum of his parts.
IMITATION IS THE SINCEREST FORM OF FLATTERY
Sunil has spent a large part of his career mimicking legends like Amitabh Bachchan, but he has also shared screen space with actors of significant calibre. In all seriousness, we ask him to pick traits he’d like to adopt from a handful of stars he has been privileged to work with
* Salman Khan: “I wish I had his discipline. He is religious about his workouts. I remember he had a broken rib and had been advised against exerting himself, so he did lower-body workouts for a few days and then got back to his regular regime — long before the doctor felt he’d be able to!”
* Katrina Kaif: “Her focus is enviable. She knows what she wants and is single-minded about achieving it.”
* Saif Ali Khan: “Despite everything he already has, and everything he has achieved, Saif is remarkably hard working. When we were filming Tandav, I was so impressed with his prep!”
* Kapil Sharma: “His comic timing is something one can only hope to have.”
LAUGHING ALL THE WAY TO THE BANK
From pranks that bombed to what he’s binge watching (and isn’t), Sunil Grover shares a few inside jokes
THE PERENNIAL PRANKSTER: I was always playing pranks on people and I often got into trouble for it. I remember going on a family holiday to Mount Abu — I must have been around 16 years old — and pretending my brother had gone missing. I would go up to strangers and cry about how I couldn’t find him anywhere. Meanwhile, my relatives — and my brother — would be standing at a distance and laughing. I pulled this prank on many people until one man, who was genuinely trying to help me, realised it was a joke. He shouted at me so sternly, I thought I might never play a prank like that on anyone ever again! Of course I still do, but I remember feeling very apologetic at the time.
READING BETWEEN THE LINES: I tend to buy books at the airport every time I’m travelling. I have so many books, it’s ridiculous. I have also started downloading things to read on a Kindle. The only problem is I never read more than a few lines or pages. I worry sometimes that I may write a book before I actually read a book — wouldn’t that be crazy!
THE TAIL THAT WAGS THE DOG: I like both cats and dogs, but I don’t have any pets. If I were to get one, it would probably be a dog. I had a dog when I was a child. Woh chala gaya iss duniya se.
A NUMBERS GAME: People should not contact me with business ideas unless they want to sink that business. I am not good at maths or business. I did Commerce in college, but from the music room (laughs).
CHANNEL SURFER: I don’t need to watch TV; I’m happy just to watch people. I don’t get bored easily. The only reason I watch stuff is because people give me a complex. ‘Oh, you haven’t seen Game of Thrones?’ they ask. ‘No, but I have the connection,’ I reply. Jaisa ki main entertainment industry se hoon hi nahi.
FILMY GYAN: I watch movies to understand various performances — to see how people are telling stories. I fall in love with films and then I watch them again and again. Forrest Gump is one of my favourites. I have seen that movie so many times and each time I cry. Interstellar is another. And I saw Into the Wild recently and loved it.
KEEPING UP WITH SUNIL GROVER: He sheepishly admits to buying far too many clothes and having a walk-in closet that puts wife Aarti’s wardrobe to shame, but that’s where his connection with the Kardashians ends. “My life is not an episode of Bigg Boss,” says Sunil, who simply cannot understand the “drama” that is social media today. Despite 4.3 million followers (as of late May 2021) on Instagram — under the cheeky handle ‘whosunilgrover’ — Sunil does not feel obligated to constantly post images of his family or share his private life. “I post a lot of other stuff, but some of my life is just my own. I know people who get genuinely upset when they lose followers. I don’t think it should matter so much.”
Photographer's assistant: Manisha Ratnani
Hair & Make-up: Kunal Purohit, Anshul Mishra
Artist reputation management: Shimmer Entertainment
Artist management: Shilpa Pandya