I’m super kicked about my OTT debut, shares Suniel Shetty
Longevity in any career boils down to one’s understanding of their strengths and limitations in their arena and being pragmatic about their choices. Suniel Shetty’s first brush with cinema was with the 1992 release Balwaan and over his 28-year-journey in the tinsel town, the Mangaluru-born has never claimed himself to be a powerhouse of acting mettle but has channelised the criticism that came his way to hone his craft. He had chalked out his path – within comedy, action and lightweight dramas – and has been a diligent student of the medium through his career. Ably straddling his film stint with a flourishing career as a restaurateur and a startup investor, Suniel Shetty has been measured and graceful about his highs and lows in an industry where fortunes fluctuate every Friday. In a chat with LetsOTT.com, the Hera Pheri actor looks back at his choices, handing failure, offering his take on the ever-raging nepotism debate and the silver lining to the pandemic…
Nearly three decades in films across multiple languages and you’ve surprisingly not let success get to your head…
I only feel blessed. Being a simple South Indian guy, I never dreamt of being in the film industry or seeing myself on the big screen. I came from a family of restauranteurs; one that’s not even remotely connected to the industry and didn’t even watch films religiously. I didn’t grow up watching films but got an opportunity to star in them. I saw myself more as an entrepreneur, pursuing a course in hotel management and trying to do something new within my space. The industry gave me the reach, the goodwill and the branding that was necessary to fulfil my other passion too. I’m happy with the way it has gone so far and don't have any complaints at all. God’s been kind.
What if a career in films hadn’t worked?
I would have probably remained a full-time entrepreneur, an enterprising one at that, trying my hand in different things. As a person, I have always looked for more and am never easily satisfied. People still give me credit as an entrepreneur today for the 10 successes I may have had, but they need to realise I had also failed 90 times to learn my lessons. I am always willing to try. I also harboured ambitions of playing cricket for the country. I wasn’t good enough I guess and it was certainly a dream shattered. But I took things in my stride and got the opportunity to entertain the country.
Did the foregrounding in entrepreneurship make you look at the profession any differently?
When I knew I had an opportunity in films, I grabbed it with both hands. Because I had no background in films, I was extremely hardworking and humble. I was never embarrassed to try and learn from my mistakes. They called me wooden when I did my first film (Balwaan). I knew I had mastered hotel management and not acting, and was only trying to make a mark in an alien space. I felt I had no right to complain when someone’s written me off. The entrepreneur and the hotelier in me gave me the killer instinct to work hard. Even when the food’s good in hotels, some customers claim it isn’t (good), some call it extraordinary and a few lap it up with an extra pinch of salt. Experiences like these toughened me up. I took the criticism with a smile, like a shot in the chin. When I was growing up hoping for a career in sports, I had this obsession to maintain my physique, gain strength, speed and power to get my ambition on track – it was traits like these that helped me redefine action in Bollywood films much later.
What helped you handle your lows?
I think I would boil it down to growing up in a stable, resilient family. My parents were always by my side and I got married the moment I signed my first film. My family felt that I had to master the craft to survive in cinema; I was good at the action segments and initially chose films that could reflect my strengths and people appreciated me for it. I may have failed now and then, but I made it a point to discuss my failures back home and analysed the reasons behind them. Films were ultimately an unasked opportunity and fell in my lap when I least expected it to. Somewhere down the line, I was content and yet confident; that’s what builds character.
Was it the same thing you told your children too (Ahaan and Athiya Shetty) when they expressed their interest to act?
I knew they’d be able to handle success, but I cautioned that Fridays shouldn’t scare them. If they are successful with a film, they had to do something as good or even better the next time around; with failure, they have no choice but to better themselves. I didn’t want them to fear failure and told them to use it to progress ahead. Mastering the craft remains the key; if you don’t do it, you don’t belong there (film industry). I tell them to stay away from the toxic side to social media and not take comments too seriously. All said and done, those who comment against me, my friends or children may not have a face and could be anonymous people who’re abusing; it says a lot about them than us. The need to stay connected to the real world is something that today’s generation needs to be reminded about. ‘Connect with the real people, they’ll like and love you and then move onto the virtual space.’ Even if someone comments that one’s looking great on social media, it may not be the true version of one’s personality and one may not even know the number of filters the person behind the profile may have used.
Would you want aspirant actors to have an alternate career that could act as a cushion if things didn’t work their way?
Absolutely, but I would also remind them to be single-minded about their work as long as they’re in the industry. I may have sailed in two boats when I began my career but it was a different world back then. Youngsters need to give themselves a time limit and focus in their acting careers. If they feel they can’t make it any further, they can pursue something else within the film industry or another career they could be passionate about. I built my physique and health only because of the industry and now it has become my passion and an extension of my business. (he’s invested in a fitness startup Fittr recently) It’s a reason why I feel my biological age and the calendar age may not be the same. Even on social media, I post stuff that’s not superhuman, it’s more on the lines of ‘If I can do it, so can you’. I’m turning 60 next year and you may be in your 20s now. You’re obviously at an advantage, but make it count.
It took 27 years for you to act in a film in your mother tongue…!!
(Laughs) Somewhere down the line, I am to blame for that. I didn’t want to get distracted too much. Then, I was on a four-year sabbatical, dad was unwell and while getting back, I thought that I had forgotten my craft. When something had come up in my mother tongue, I wanted to give it a shot. Films in my mother tongue have grown and grown vast. It was like testing news waters and it has worked like magic because every second film is being released in multiple languages; the lingual barrier ceases to exist. Content matters now.
Was it a sudden decision (to take a sabbatical)?
It happened naturally, not that I was getting great work either. I was at an age where I needed to play the father and other meaningful roles. Apparently, with my physique, I was neither here (as a lead) nor there. I was getting good lead roles, but I was also getting tired of them. My father was ailing and things weren’t working well mentally. I was irritated as I was working, I always wanted to go back home and spend time with him. The sabbatical was a result of that and it lasted till he passed away. The break from the industry was cathartic in more ways than one, I don’t regret it all and I got to spend quality time with dad and family. Two months after his death, I was back on sets and never had to look back again.
Investing in startups, planning programs to help the dabbawallahs in Mumbai resume work, a lot has been on your plate this lockdown. How do you look at this phase and what has kept you going?
There are two ways of looking at it. A man/woman may have transformed and lost many kilos, eating carefully, feeling good about themselves and appreciating the fact that life matters. Another lot is one that has put on weight, complaining, worried and haven’t taken this phase in the right spirit. People those who’re willing to adapt have evolved. The change had to come because COVID-19 has been a leveller. It taught us to give, to share a lot. Going ahead, I would probably want to carry the scar of COVID as a medal on my chest (to be reminded of the tough times we went through and that we sailed out of it also).
How do you foresee life after the pandemic ends?
People will look at life from a far different perspective. The family would be looked at differently. One will look forward to their ‘me time’, relax on the weekends and realise that the world didn’t move just because they didn’t work. There will be a good balance of the old and new – admin setup of the old-world (there won’t be 15 heads in each department in offices), those who work have to really put in efforts. The additional focus on hygiene, proper eating habits would mean fewer visits to the doctor; common cold and cough have more or less disappeared. We’re trying to keep ourselves healthy and build our immunity in the process.
Is there a danger that the OTT boom could only a temporary reality (that is filling in the gap before the theatres open)?
OTT is here to stay and it’s another channel through which producers can make money and for promising talent to get work. Movies can never be replaced. The experience of going to the theatres, watching people whistle, taking the action, throwing coins on the screen; it can never be taken away from India. It’s an experience we’ll always want but eventually, there will be a lot of storytelling avenues – the Apple’s, Google’s will look forward to hosting our content and our industry will only grow from here.
And finally, you’ve entered the digital space after much speculation (with the series based on Veerappan’s life) …
I truly believe the digital medium is something that’s up my alley. Both the web series that I’m working on, has me sporting a uniform – one has to do with the national force and the other, I play a police officer. It’s exciting to be part of two unbelievable stories. I’m super kicked about it and it’ll hopefully balance the bridge between cinema and webspace. The digital space has only enhanced and built my character in several forms.
You live in an industry where many try to earn media attention through the causes they stand up for. It’s heartening that you never tried to milk your efforts to rescue sex-trafficking victims return to their home in Nepal back in 1996…
It was genuinely not about me alone. Even in other instances or causes, the media is equally eager to write whenever a celebrity is willing to talk about it. There were many people involved in this rescue-act in 1996; it was the combined effort of the NGOs, my mother-in-law, the honest cops, influential people who kept the underworld at bay and also the girls (survivors) who remained silent for a week to ensure safety. It’s unfair to take credit for it and my response (silence) was only natural. My parents have always taught to me that ‘when credit is due, you’ll get it’.
Your approach to fame earned through your films has been similar…
I have never gone on top of the roof to make any tall claims about my film career. I have handled success and failure with poise. I didn’t create any lobby of directors and worked with most filmmakers who came to me with scripts. It’s a reason why the generalisation of nepotism hurts me a lot. I have worked with hundreds of young artists and tried to give opportunities to new talents with my every film. I run my own digital platform (ftctalent.com) bringing in new talent. The platform has over 2,70,000 kids in it and they’re all like Athiyaa and Ahaan to me. Why point fingers in general?
I feel blessed that my social media presence hasn’t invited much negativity. Even on rare occasions where they associate me with nepotism, it doesn’t feel right because I don’t think that way. Who doesn’t want the best for their children? If one really wants to talk about nepotism, it begins right at the school level. You do anything in your capacity to get your children to the right school and a good house to live under. What is that all about then? It’s unfortunate when we’re singled out as an industry. I was an outsider when I came into films and am still one. Which lobby have I been a part of? Today theatre chains, production houses have lobbies. My son may get one film today; if it doesn’t work, he’s on his own. Even if he’s successful, the comparisons between them and their parents never end.
From your understanding and experience of moulding so many careers through your talent platform, what holds the key for an aspirant actor to succeed in cinema?
Luck, luck and luck matters. Seeing the talent today, you only wonder how did Suniel Shetty survive all these years? It is all about being in the right place at the right time and grabbing the opportunity. Of course, hard work, right role are other factors too but everything materialises only with an opportunity. I repeat, being talented in your craft is a must.
You’ve had some memorable comedy films in your career but they belonged to an era when comedy wasn’t always viewed as serious/great piece of cinema. Are you happy that comedy films are finally getting their due now?
Humour was looked upon like caricaturing then. With people having read, seen and being exposed to several forms of literature and storytelling media, they realise the value of old-day humour now. It’s a strong reason for which I had always appreciated Priyadarshan as a director – his humour is understated but unbelievable. My film Hera Pheri is looked like a cult film today because of its characters, I believe his film (which I produced and starred in) Yeh Tera Ghar, Yeh Mera Ghar was one of my best works too. Everyone believed crude language, nudity was comedy in those times but I never belonged to that school. However, I am so glad that quality humour is getting it's due today.
LetsOTT.com wishes Suniel Shetty the best for his OTT debut.