July 07 2020
Alauddin Khilji is an enfant terrible, says Ranveer Singh
07 February 2018

The actor on how he prepped to play the ferocious 14th-century ruler, his cinematic bond with Sanjay Leela Bhansali and diving into his next role as a rap artist

The man of the moment, Ranveer Singh, has little time to celebrate the success of his standout performance in the recent release Padmaavat. Critics and viewers both have agreed that amidst the airbrushed visuals, his interpretation of the unhinged evil incarnate character Alauddin Khilji is a sight for sore eyes. Dressed casually in a sweatshirt and track pants, Singh is lounging on the teal blue sofa in the dressing room assigned to him in Yash Raj Studios in Andheri. He has rushed to the venue after wrapping up the day’s shoot in Dharavi for filmmaker Zoya Akhtar’s upcoming rap-drama Gully Boy.

Pressed for time, and juggling a frantic schedule, Singh is not the livewire we are used to seeing, but all that changes in an instant when we begin the ten-minute chat we are allotted. “I am ready to spit fire, look at me, look at my eyes,” he says, roaring and turning into the tempestuous Sanjay Leela Bhansali thespian we have seen in the three films (Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela, Bajirao Mastani, Padmaavat) they have done together.

After playing a wide range of impassioned characters, is he not done with Bhansali-land? “Absolutely *insert expletive herenot,” he sits up, expounding on his cherished association with Bhansali. “I don’t think we have even got started yet. There is so much left to do. Look at the gamut of characters; you play a randy Romeo, you play a noble dignified warrior-king and a despicable, evil tyrant, so yes, we have explored very diverse characters together but every day I go on his film set I feel like we do something new, we discover something new together,” he emphasises.

Double trouble

Singh tacks it down to having found in his mentor-filmmaker Bhansali a common trait that binds them together. “We are both extremists, we are both attracted to heightened emotions. We both make very high-risk choices and it is the basis of our synergy,” he says.

His collaboration with Bhansali has made a strong impression on another filmmaker Aditya Chopra, who launched Singh in the 2010 romantic comedy Band Baaja Baaraat. Produced by Chopra, and directed by Maneesh Sharma, Singh’s appealing character Bittoo Sharma earned him a Filmfare Award. Chopra directed Singh in the 2016 romantic comedy Befikre. Singh says when Chopra saw Padmaavat he congratulated Singh on his unique tuning with Bhansali. “He [Chopra] said there was something very special in our partnership. I have seen it happen, and being a cinephile myself, I have seen when a filmmaker finds an actor and they work together to create a vast legacy. I am hoping that the same happens with Mr Bhansali and myself,” he says.

After a perfect three score Singh could jinx the association if he and Bhansali announced another project together. “No, I am not going to attach that stigma to it. Although this thought does cross my mind now and then. My desire to be on a film set with him trumps this superstition,” he says.

In playing the menacing character of Khilji, Singh also fleshes out his infantilism, adding a layer of buffoonery that is the hallmark of all the great villains we have seen in such characters as Gabbar (Sholay), and Mogambo (Mr India). Was the part written to be equally scary and clownish? “This layer was not in the script. I brought it in and Mr Bhansali encouraged it because he understood that it makes for some entertaining viewing,” he says, elaborating, “I would not use the word buffoon for it, but definitely the [phrase] enfant terrible.”


Actor Ranveer Singh as Alauddin Khilji in a poster from ‘Padmavati’. Source: Twitter/@RanveerOfficial  


Acting method

To prepare for the part, Singh drew inspiration from two people. One is his best friend whom he describes as an, “Inappropriate person, a habitual line crosser, unapologetic, unabashed and the most entertaining person on earth.” The other person who inspired the performance was the director Bhansali himself. “So much of Alauddin Khilji is him because it is one of his favourite characters, and he came with so many ideas, I did everything he said,” he says.

Recalling how he erupts with joy in the scene where his eunuch-slave Malik Kafur (a stellar Jim Sarbh) is introduced, Singh says, “That was my improvisation. I checked with Mr Bhansali, telling him I wanted to clap in the scene. He indulges me a lot. He flipped on it, and loved it, when I did that.”

As Singh is recounting the episode, the interview is interrupted by a phone call from his best friend celebrating a bet he has won in a cricket match. “See, habitual line crosser,” Singh’s enthusiasm mimics his on-screen antics when the said friend requests us not to put his name in the article. Singh jokes that his friend wants a commission out of his earnings from Padmaavat. Singh continues, “The spontaneous stuff, the improvised stuff, is the stuff that most people remember the most. Of the three films, this is the most fun I have had making a film with Bhansali.”

A full house

But is the film the version that Bhansali intended to show? Embroiled in controversy from its start and with the Central Board of Film Certification’s demands over its name change from Padmavati to Padmaavat, including the initial chatter for 300 censor cuts later reduced to five modifications, the film looks patchy. “Hopefully someday he [Bhansali] will make a director’s cut and you will get to see it in all its glory and it will probably run into four hours. But the edit was very crisp,” says Singh defending the final version.

The film is also a first for the mainstream actor Singh who portrays Khilji as a despot with no regard for women, and romances his eunuch slave Kafur more than his queen Mehrunisa (Aditi Rao Hydari). A bathing scene involving Khilji and Kafur bears a striking resemblance to the bathtub sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus.

We asked Singh if there was a choice to go camp or to play down Kafur and Khilji’s relationship. The word camp perplexed Singh. He checked his phone for its meaning and read out the synonyms of a camp person: “Effeminate, effete, foppish, affected, a ponce, a pansy, a queen, a fag,” underlining everything Sarbh’s effective character was not. “I think Jim made some special choices in portraying the character. In fact when I saw his work in Neerja, I thought he was fantastic and recommended his name for Malik Kafur’s character and that is how he got the part,” he says. “He enriched my performance. He is one of the biggest takeaways of the film. A lot of the film has been cut out, and a lot of that was about Khilji and Malik but it still has the impact. Jim gets full credit for it,” he adds, returning to the idea that perhaps the final version of Padmaavat is a heavily compromised one.

Fruits of labour

Acting and is a trajectory that Singh always wanted to embark on, from the time the 32-year old actor was a tyro in a short film project Rupert Grimfront's Omniverse in Miniature (2005), while pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree at Public Ivy Indiana University in Bloomington, U.S. “I was still exploring, [though] acting was a far-fetched idea. I could have settled for a technical job on a film set,” he reminisces.

“It all changed when I came back to Mumbai and started assisting on an ad-film set. I was in Bhaidas Hall, at 7 a.m.. The ad was directed by Shaad Ali, and it featured Boman Irani, Paresh Rawal, and Kirron Kher, and I was the assistant director. I remember entering the shooting space and wondering what do I want to do here? And then I saw the spot marked for the actors to stand, where the lights were focused, and boom, that’s where I wanted to be,” he says.

The culmination of that dream was five years later with Band Baaja Baaraat. True to his growth as an actor Singh chooses Padmaavat over his previous release Befikre, as the film that’s the feather in his colourfully-plumed cap since his debut. But like his introductory scene in Padmaavat, where he is asked to fetch an ostrich feather and brings home the flighty bird instead, his is a head that is uneasy with a crown. Singh is now busy diving into the slums of Dharavi to showcase cool desi rap. “It is so real that you can smell Dharavi in Gully Rap,” he signs off, descending from his throne to wade through the gutters.



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