With 2020 came new movies, web series, and of course, new crushes. But the guy who stole the show with his innocent, boy-next-door charm and nuanced performance, has to be Ishwak Singh aka Imran Ansari from Amazon Prime Video’s Paatal Lok. 

Singh, whose acting journey began with the stage, is an architect-turned-actor. After a series of blink-and-miss roles in movies like AligarhRaanjhana, Tamasha, Veere Di Wedding, etc., it was Paatal Lok where his layered performance caught everyone’s attention. 

In conversation with ScoopWhoop, Ishwak talked about the unexpected attention after Paatal Lok, ditching architecture for acting, and the love(s) of his life. 

Though Ishwak was ‘pushed’ towards architecture because his family was in the business, he ended up liking the course. But his first love remained cinema, prompting him to finish his education and turn his weekend theatre sessions into a full-time profession: 

I always wanted to act, but I found studying architecture was pretty amazing, I had that kind of skill and knack for it. I was, of course, motivated and pushed into this direction by a family who is in that business. But while I was working, I got into theatre, started doing plays. One thing led to another… I started getting cast into films and then Paatal Lok happened much later. So it was an organic journey. It wasn’t like shutting shop and moving. 

While his family was decidedly concerned over his decision to pick an ‘unconventional’ career, the success that theatre brought to Ishwak helped alleviate their fears. And for Ishwak himself, the transition felt seamless because the change was gradual. 

Or in his words, architecture was the foundation, and getting into theatre was like ‘going into a specialization’. 

I knew that it was going to be very difficult, almost next to impossible (to get a break into the movies). It was going to be a very serious battle, but because you’re giving it all, the struggle seemed okayish. Every step, every stage, for me, wasn’t a means to an end. It’s always been learning the art – whether I was doing a street play or one of the most iconic plays on stage in the Hindi theatre circuit. And the excitement that comes with a big show or a film, it was always the same. 

From working with the Asmita Theatre to landing his first acting role and ultimately winning over the audience with his debut web series, it has definitely been a long but rewarding ride where the journey has been more important than the destination. 

On stage, I started with being in the background. The first play that I saw that really impressed me was Ambedkar and Gandhi. It took me 7 years from upstage to downstage and I played Ambedkar. Since you’re aware of the journey and you know why it took that long, it’s not disheartening if it takes time in front of the camera too. I know what the process is not just for the actor but also for the guy who’s giving you the job. I probably deserved the kind of thing I was capable of delivering at that time, as in smaller roles. I just kept picking up things and getting prepared for bigger parts, as I went along. 

Ask him about the wait before the fame, and he is quick to respond that he got distracted by his art, which kept him ‘insulated’ from excessive pressure about his career and overthinking his decisions while keeping alive his eagerness and nervousness for upcoming work.

Perhaps it’s this same approach that helped him prepare for and nail the intricacies of a character like Imran Ansari, who essentially, holds a mirror to the widespread prejudice that still forms a part of our society.

All the characters are within. How a character becomes your own is if you’ve experienced some of that, you’ve seen it, read about it, or there are people around you in that situation. Unless you empathize and internalize certain things, you can never make it (the character) your own. From that sense, I kind of widened the horizon and saw it as an issue of being marginalized. Rather than it being about a particular community or a particular ethnicity or profession, while all of that was there too. I found myself reading books about the conversations going on about Indian Muslims at this time, about the recent history. I also found myself interacting with a lot of cops and got to know what the world is. When you widen the horizon you realize that we’ve all been marginalized at some point. It could be because of the colour of your skin, the clothes that you’re wearing. Doesn’t have to be because of bigger things like caste, class, gender, sexuality, and all that people get categorized in. It became very relatable. I also have to say, it was written in such a way that made it easier for me to understand his emotions. 

While Ishwak expected the character to be appreciated, he never expected it to receive as much love and affection as it did. For that matter, as he shares, no one from the team expected the show to become so popular. But what he learned from the process is the mantra of what makes a character a hit. 

People are just too kind to sort of give that love and validation. None of us thought actually. I am very grateful to the audience. I knew that it would receive appreciation because you get a sense about well it’s written. And I do sort of read, I’ve done plays, worked on ‘good scripts’ as they call. So you have a sense of good writing. When I read it, I knew it was a very special script, but you can’t predict the popularity aspect of it. You don’t know how well it’s going to be received. It’s the earnestness of the character people related to. It made me realize it isn’t only about how fancy you’re looking, it’s the simplicity, honesty (of the character) that people really appreciate. 

Relatable though it might be, no one can deny that Ansari’s simplicity and cordiality were in direct contrast to Hathiram’s rugged, cantankerous demeanor. And yet, their chemistry was undeniable. Perhaps because, much like their characters, Ishwak and Jaideep’s style of acting was also contrastingly complimentary. 

That’s where the magic happens because when you’re with him (Jaideep), who is so good with his work. While his way of doing things, purely technically, acting-wise, is very different from how I do a scene. (But) seeing two completely different art forms coming together, and you don’t know, it’s unpredictable how it’s going to pan out, and it worked out fine. 

While he finds himself relating to a lot of characters in general, he’s never given considerable thought to a character he’d choose over Ansari from Paatal Lok. Perhaps that also explains, not just his view on the insider vs. outsider gap in the industry, but also the actors he looks up to for inspiration. 

I never applied my mind to it. You’re aware of certain realities. So why I went to a theatre group was one, of course, to get my feet wet. But once you’re aware of things and you know what kind of work is going on and there are certain actors you look up to, Irrfan, Naseer saab, and you see their journey and to be in that group. I love this whole process of going through casting and sort of competing. I’ve been a sportsman and that sportsman spirit of ‘let the best man win’ – I’ve always enjoyed that. I’ve immense faith in the industry. I’ve never felt cheated. I’ve always felt I got what I deserved at that point of time. Chota role mila toh shayad utna hi deserve karta tha. 

Perhaps it’s this ‘personal motivation’, as Ishwak puts it, that has led him to work with a director like Nikhil Advani, (for the film The Apartment, a part of the Amazon Prime Original’s anthology Unpaused), who he always wanted to work with. 

To work with Nikhil Advani and to get that kind of pat on the back from a director like him is so encouraging. You feel like that this thing that I go out and do, it works. You get appreciated by doing an assignment, and when the big guys like your work, that’s how you build your conviction. 

While his dream of working with Nikhil Advani may have come true, there is a desire that is destined to remain unfulfilled – to work with Irrfan Khan, the actor whose work he was most inspired by. 

Been inspired by the Khans, by Mr. Bachchan… when I was in my theatre, I followed Naseer saab very closely. Or the newer generation like Pankaj Tripathi or the people who came just before me, Iike Jaideep is great, Vijay is doing great work, Raj is amazing. But the thing is, I was always very open to work with Irrfan sir but that’s something that… his movies have inspired me like probably none other. 

While cinema and Mumbai may be his life now, it wasn’t always so. He grew up in Delhi, and the joy in his voice when he talks about his childhood is impossible to miss. Because while Mumbai may have always had a soft corner in his heart, it’s Delhi that is his heart… and apparently, also the ‘love’ of his life.   

Delhi is my place. The good, old Dehli – I have so many hang out spots. I actually find myself going to Khan Market so often, just one of those cafes, read a book and chill there. Or go to my school, Modern School… great times growing up, Connaught Place, South Delhi, all these markets. Or the coffee shop my Dad used to take me to after school. It’s like reliving your childhood and I had a great childhood growing up in Delhi. Still not bad. But mostly I’ve lived in Delhi, and it’s a very special place… Mujhe Maqbool ki woh line yaad aati hai, sabse meri favourite line and I’m going to quote that, “Delhi meri mashuqa hai, isko chhodke hum kahi nahi jaate.” Halan ki Pankaj Kapur, another favourite actor, ne shayad Mumbai bola tha. 

Ishwak Singh’s latest release, Unpaused, is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video. 

All images from the Instagram account of Ishwak Singh, unless specified otherwise.