A light-hearted romantic or humorous story works on the relatability of characters and the treatment of their equations. However, a serious flick that is set in minimal locations hinges on the dialogues and the performance of the actors. Imagine Richard Linklater’s “Before Trilogy” with a less sincere effort from Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, or Shawshank Redemption without Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman’s silent chemistry, and you would know the difference. My actors may not be Delpy and Freeman, and I am definitely no Linklater, but it was as important for us as it was for those stalwarts. While I worked on the screenplay and the dialogues, and guided them through the shoot as much as I could, it was eventually upon the actors to make it believable and help the story reach out to a larger number of people. And I can proudly say that they have hit all the right buttons through their performances. In this post, I bring you the characters and the actors who portrayed the roles.
There are characters which you write and feel proud in retrospect, because of the underlying layers and their uniqueness. For me, the character of Akansh Kulkarni is definitely going to be a highlight as long as I keep making films, hopefully long enough. From a happily married man to a diabolical monster, from a bereaved alcoholic to a police officer consumed by revenge – Akansh is a celebration of writing. I wish I had the skill of someone like Tarantino; it would have taken the character of Akansh to a new level. As much as I would like to flatter myself thinking I did a good job, the joy of watching Akansh on screen cannot be just my doing.
And this is what Abhishek Pandey has done – taken Akansh’s character beyond what I had on paper. His pain, his anger, his hatred, his despair – everything is so palpable that you are bound to get affected. Abhishek does theatre with K. K. Raina and Ila Arun, runs a sound-design studio with Biswadeep Chatterjee (Piku, Bajirao Mastani etc), does voice-over for adverts etc. However, he was also one of the last ones to come on board. After an actor who was selected through auditions dropped out because of other commitments, I just didn’t have enough options to pick from. Thanks to Sethu Sir for recommending Abhishek’s name. However, in a tad confessional mode, let me say that though I liked Abhishek’s audition, I was not bowled over and he was just the best option at that point. Therefore, what he has brought on-screen is way beyond my first impression, and it would have been criminal if I had hesitated taking him. I am not exaggerating when I say that given the right opportunities, he can be what a Nawaazuddin Siddiqui or a Kay Kay Menon have been.
TANMAY RAWAT / Actor: Sushant Shetty
I would like to believe that most writers sketch one of the principal characters on themselves. It is not unknown that a lot of famous detective stories have been written from the point of view of the friend who tags along – from Ajit Bandopadhyay in Byomkesh Bakshi to Dr John Watson in Sherlock Holmes. And, though Ranjish is not a detective whodunit, Tanmay Rawat is my Ajit or Watson. He is the moral force of the story, the character who makes us see the events the way they are. If we had seen through Salma or Riyaaz’s eyes, we would have found Akansh as just a monster; if we saw through Priyani’s eyes, we would see Akansh as a loving husband – but it is Tanmay who presents Akansh in the latter’s complete range of emotions. As a journalist who is loyal to his friend but wants to save the couple who are being victimised by the same friend – Tanmay is, in a way, us – the audience, taking part in the proceedings.
If I were a better actor and more competent director, I would have tried to act as Tanmay. But, because I am a bad actor with zero screen presence, we had to find someone else. In fact, when I decided to make RANJISH, I was absolutely certain to cast a dear friend, Raj Seluja, in that role. Raj was equally keen but the shoot dates got postponed and Raj couldn’t adjust the dates of his dance school’s celebration. And in came Sushant Shetty, the guy whom I knew as Hanuman in Ayan and the hapless friend in Vighna Bharta (two short films Sushant had acted). You could guess my first reaction. ‘That guy?’ I told Abhishek Gautam, the associate producer. ‘He is so young and frivolous.’ In his usual pseudo zen-like manner, Gautam said, ‘Check his audition.’ I was still not fully convinced after checking the audition, but went ahead with Gautam’s instinct. And for a good part of the shoot, I remained unsure of the selection. Not because Sushant was bad, but I kept feeling ‘He doesn’t look mature enough… He is not being dramatic enough… Akansh will chew up the scene and he will just be a sidekick.’ But, now that I see the final output, I believe that Sushant understood Tanmay more than I did. That’s what a good actor can do. Prima facie, he may look too subtle but a repeat viewing will make you realise that it’s his subtlety that makes Akansh work. If Shahid Kapur’s Aditya were an equally flamboyant character as Kareena Kapoor’s Geet in Jab We Met, we would not have enjoyed Geet as much. Maybe while the shoot I forgot that Tanmay had to be the inconspicuous friend, he had to be us – the audience. But Sushant knew. And in that one scene in the 3rd episode where he had to be strong and dramatic, Sushant walked down the pitch and hit the ball over the boundary.
Salma is the darling of RANJISH – not just her husband’s but everyone who watches the series. Though both Riyaaz and Salma face the horror of Akansh’s wrath, she makes our guts wrench and limbs tremble. Salma embodies everything that we want in a girlfriend / wife – free-spirited, allows her husband to take his decisions (I know that’s funny), pragmatic about monetary and family issues, and loves her husband to death. If not for anyone else in the film, we don’t want Akansh to metamorphose into a fiend for Salma’s sake. And when her requests and tears fail to melt the cop’s heart, our hearts sink as she sits on her knees and folds her hands behind her head.
Imagine Priyanka Chopra told Sanjay Leela Bhansali ‘The story is not about Kashibai, I am doing an American TV-series, and I can’t do Bajirao Mastani.’ We would not have had what’s possibly the best thing about the film. But that’s exactly what an actress, who acted in one of 2015’s more critically acclaimed but barely watched films, told Abhishek Gautam when he asked her to be on board as Salma. Though we delayed Ruchi’s selection because of that reason, I had zero qualms then and I have no complaints now. Hers was one audition that blew me away – hands down, it is one of the best auditions I have ever seen. And Ruchi who made me feel afraid with her aversion to rehearsals didn’t let me down even in one shot. I still remember the last shot on the 3rd day – both Priyanka, the cinematographer, and I knew that it was almost futile to start a mammoth chunk with sunlight almost peeping out of the clouds, but we decided to just give it a shot anyway. With our two-camera setup pointing at Akansh on one side and Riyaaz & Salma on the other, we started. And when the shot ended and I said “Cut”, Priyanka said ‘Now that I have seen Salma, I have started to believe in the story.’ Everyone was wonderful in that shot, but my faith in Ruchi just cemented forever.
Imagine Gabbar’s horror without Thakur’s grit to defeat him; imagine Mogambo’s devilish smile without believing that Mr India will save us. Yes, that’s the point – there’s nothing more to look forward to. And if Akansh’s unstoppable force did not meet an immovable object in Riyaaz, we would not even have a story. Here is a man with a strong mind, who loves his wife crazily but doesn’t get emotionally talked into something, who wants her to remain safe from a police officer but won’t get cowed down by injustice. His feisty nature is not bereft of empathy for what the cop suffered in his life, but that cannot be Riyaaz’s excuse to face humiliation. He will give it back in words and action. In a way, Riyaaz is the hero to Akansh’s anti-hero portrayal, and it is their tussle that takes centre-stage for a dominant chunk.
In 2012, I was auditioning guys for the role of Shashank in a short film called “Stranger”, when one of them was so perfect that I almost immediately sent others home. My AD on the project, Aniruddha Mokashi, was surprised and asked ‘You don’t want that guy to try another variation?’ and I said ‘No, he was perfect’. I have known Divyeshu since then and I have always believed that he is a rather fine actor. Post “Stranger”, Divyeshu and I have discussed working together for a few times, but nothing materialised. Primarily because I did nothing except a short film. When we started auditioning, Divyeshu was invited for the role of Riyaaz. Though there was a very close call between him and another guy (coincidentally another actor from Stranger), the role eventually fell into his lap.
However, Divyeshu got busy with his theatre shows when I was dubbing and couldn’t take out time for a long while. So, there was no option but to get someone to do the dub. It’s possibly all a matter of destiny that the same eventually went to Nirmohi. Earlier in 2015, I made a short film called FRATERNAL, which had Nirmohi as one of the two characters. Nirmohi is a brilliant actor and had also auditioned for Riyaaz, but things didn’t work out unfortunately. And I must appreciate Nirmohi for the painstaking effort he took to dub for Riyaaz’s voice, because Nirmohi inherently speaks slower than Divyeshu. He dubbed the entire thing almost twice, and there are many points in the series where even I cannot say whose voice it is. I asked the sound designer a few times – is it Divyeshu’s voice or Nirmohi’s? And it is the actor in Nirmohi which ensures what we hear doesn’t just sync but even resonates the character’s emotions perfectly.
I am not a big fan of Mohabbatein, but I have never found Aishwarya more beautiful, and saying that about someone as ravishing as Aishwarya Rai is a lot. The two best things about that film were the fierce battle of words between Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, and the pristine romance between SRK and Aishwarya. Priyani is to Akansh what Megha is to Raj Aryan in that film, albeit the way the men took to the memories is very different. Raj Aryan uses his loss as inspiration to spread love and construct other lives, while Akansh takes to his loss with far more bitterness and uses it to destruct himself and others around him. Though Priyani has the least screen time in the series, it’s her memory that acts as the driving force for most things Akansh does. The day her memories finally fade away from Akansh’s mind will also be the day he will stop existing.
There’s a bit of Tanya Chopra in every big thing I do. She was the cover girl for my first novel. Now, she is Priyani in my first web-series. There are people who think she is my muse; there are those who think I am in love with her – I get tired explaining that I just find her a pretty face :D. Jokes apart, Tanya brought in the exact grace and poise I wanted to see in Priyani. As Priyanka Singh, my DOP, texted me once, ‘If I were a man and married to Tanya, and she died, even I would turn crazy.’ I laughed hysterically at the comment but I also realised that my purpose of casting Tanya was solved.
I must also thank Hira Mehta for entertaining my last minute request to do a cameo in RANJISH. I have never seen someone as ebullient as Hira Aunty, and I hope she stays like that forever.
RANJISH releases on 26 January, 2016, on the YouTube channel of HUMARAMOVIE. Hopefully, you will watch it and enjoy it.