I did cheat in my Economics exams. I had an invigilator who let the entire class cheat. I am not proud of that,” says actor Emraan Hashmi with great candour. He is in the capital to promote his film, Why Cheat India, and unlike many from the fraternity who prefer to be politically correct, the 39-year-old’s no-holds-barred discussion is certainly welcome. Nothing is off limits, whether it is nepotism or his child’s battle with illness or even a political gaffe (deliberate or otherwise about one ‘Modi’ being the biggest cheater, which he later clarified as being Nirav) that he made at a recent press conference.
“I don’t mince words. Over the course of the year, I have learnt so much about what is wrong with education in the country that it enrages me. So much can be done and should have been done but is not being attended to,” he says and goes on to talk about how only a minuscule amount of the GDP, about 2-3 per cent, is being ploughed back into education as compared to other countries where it is as high as 25 per cent. He elaborates, “When you do not have enough money to pump into the education sector, you don’t get qualified teachers or good schools. Then at the University level, there are not enough seats and the justification that is given is that unless you get a 98 per cent you cannot get a seat in college. Even if you are a 90 per cent holder, you will still be a failure. But the reason is that there are not enough seats,” he says. It was while researching for the movie that he learnt how the cheating mafia in different states is eroding and eating the system. “As it is, there is 60 per cent reservation — 50 per cent for the lower caste and 10 per cent for the economically weak upper caste. Of the minuscule per cent left, the cheating mafia is spreading its net over that too. So where do the deserving students go? The systems promises that you can be what you want to be. If you work hard, you will get dividends. But you see jobless people and kids committing suicide,” says the actor.
It is not as if he is just critical. Emraan does have ideas on a system that could be more holistic and inclusive and enable a child to develop to his full potential. “Universities might move out of the brick and mortar building. They are now in the internet as one can get more information there rather than sitting for eight hours in the class where you are told facts that are of no use. Everything is a click away. In the school and college of the future, you can learn from the comfort of your home. And at the physical building, there can be case studies, projects and discussions rather than sitting like a robot in a classroom. Children need to learn things that have real world application — communication skills, emotions, responsibility, discipline, managing your mind that comes in the domain of spirituality. Do you know the average depression age is 15? It is alarming,” says the actor.
There is no hint of the swagger that was common in his earlier movies. Emraan comes across as an ordinary person who just happens to work on the big screen. Talking about his course of action, he elaborates further and says, “It is not necessary that I will only do socially-relevant films. But there is essentially a departure from the kind of things that I was doing. I have changed as an actor during the past 18 years that I have been in the industry because of life experiences, maturity and the evolution of my craft. From 10 kisses in a film, I am down to one and that is some progress,” he laughs hinting at the moniker of ‘kissing star” on account of the content of his films like Murder, Aashiq Banaya Aapne and more.
But there has been an attempt to break out of that image, he believes, successfully. “Once you do another genre, it is a step in the right direction. I couldn’t do that for the rest of my life. A 45-year-old snogging with a 20 something. How sick is that? Of course, I couldn’t do it overnight for it is a gradual process,” says the actor dressed in a tan jacket and matching shoes paired with jeans and black-rimmed glasses.
Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai was one of the seminal movies that set him on the path that he is trying to chart out. “It gave me what 10 blockbusters couldn’t even though it was not a hit. It gave me a perspective that I could play a characters in films rather than the star,” which was a revelation to him as at that point. He goes on to explain the difference between the two. “A star means that you change and adapt the script to suit your star quotient but an actor is someone who adapts to fit into the script. That is what the film did and it paid huge dividends. A huge section of the cinema-going audience, which was slightly more evolved, felt that he can act.”
The winds of change had started blowing and have come to a head. “There is a change in content which is helping everyone as one can engage with a lot more creative material than was done 10 years ago. You couldn’t have made Why Cheat India 10 years back because either it would not have been made or it would not be a box office success,” he says.
He feels that the film is like starting afresh even if it does not make big money. “I know that it will build on the fresh different persona of myself,” he says.
Not just in himself, he also wants a change in the way films are classified. “I firmly believe that films should not be slotted on the basis of budget but on the basis of the idea. The big films should be the ones which have the bigger ideas. This year a lot of big budget films did not do well,” he says, driving home the point.
The change is also evident in him turning producer with the film. “I have seen the process from its infancy, starting with the story, script, screenplay right to marketing. While it does not help in the craft of acting, it does give you a bird’s eye view of where the film is going. If it starts raining then we need to figure out how to finish the shoot within a given time. You are a part of the entire decision-making process and you are not limited to your performance on screen,” he says.
Having started the process, he has decided to start producing more films. Next one up is Father’s Day, which is starting in May, and another by the end of this year. He will also be seen in Body, directed by Jeethu Joseph, the director of Malayalam Drishyam, which co stars Rishi Kapoor and two fresh faces. He will also be seen in Bard of Blood, a Netflix show which should be out in August. It is based on on a book of the same name. “It is about an English literature teacher who teaches Shakespeare and is an ex spy. He is thrown back into the battlefield and goes to Balochistan to rescue agents,” he divulges.
Talking of web content, he agrees, “There is better content as the audience has evolved because of the many diverse influences. This keeps us on our toes and makes us test our creativity because we cannot take the audience for granted. There are a lot more options including cinema, OTT platforms, TV and YouTube. It has become a consumers’ market now. Films with stars crashed last year as mediocre content and shoddy stories don’t work,” he says.
For making better content and characters that are more evolved involves a lot more research than goes into playing a lover boy or an action hero. For Why Cheat India, he researched a lot as it factually based on a system. “I spoke on the phone to a lot of people who are a part of the cheating mafia to understand how it works and is organised. They refused to identify themselves but I tried to understand their take on education and if they are looking for a justification for doing what they were doing. I had to completely immerse myself,” he says.
He goes on to add that the tonality of the film is very realistic. “In that sense, it is a departure from my earlier work. It is like you have placed a camera in a home in Lucknow or in a college where you see these characters come alive. We will pull you into this world and hopefully teach you how cheating works,” he says.
Coming back to the film, it ran into trouble with its initial name of Cheat India. “I don’t look for logic. The Censor Board looks at the negative connotation without looking at the overall context of the movie and the perspective it has on scams and cheating. It is in a pathetic state. I often call it the ‘senseless censor board’”, he says.
Arguing his case further, he points to a film like Simmba which had a UA certification. “Children can watch this film which talks about rape and putting cocaine in a school child’s bag with parental supervision. A 13-year-old might understand it but a seven-year-old might not. Why can’t they make it more elaborate and change it with more grades,” he says, shrugs and adds, “But I don’t know if it is effective because what is PG 13 or PG 15 by their logic might not work.”
Talking about children, one can’t help but talk about Emraan’s boy who battled and successfully overcame cancer. “It is very tough. It is more palatable to hear that you have an illness but when you hear that a three year 10 month-old-kid has that illness, it shatters you,” he says. While they battled cancer as a family, there was learning involved. “It is close to five years. We lied to him as we had to take him to the hospital. We realised only when we took him for treatment to Canada that we should have told him that there is a monster in his body and that we need to fight it. We could have used that narrative and added a philosophical aspect to it,” he says. Emraan wrote a book, Kiss of Life about how to fight the disease effectively which he hopes would help anyone fighting cancer.
Talking of his child also brings us to the question of nepotism in the industry. He agrees that he would not have been in the industry had he not been related to Mahesh Bhatt. “On the flip side, you still have to work hard. The family can’t make you work as only the audience can. It is their acceptance that governs if you will be a star or you will be chucked out. It is that which makes or breaks you. On the other hand people expect a lot from actors who have successful fathers and if they can’t match up, they are overshadowed by legacy,” he says.
Emraan acted in about 20-25 advertisements as a child for brands like Goodnight Rasna, Bournvita and more in the eighties. “I was trying to get hold of the material to put on my website but it was all damaged. I got pushed into acting later and took it as a summer job and things happened. I was an accidental actor!” he says with a laugh and walks off.
(The film releases on January 18.)
Writer: Saimi Sattar
Courtesy: The Pioneer