Amazon Prime Video's Paatal Lok has become a crowd favourite because of its intelligent writing, its honest look at India's dark, gritty, underbelly, and for penning a protagonist who everyone rooted for, despite his obvious flaws.
The reason Hathi Ram Chaudhary's journey, from a down-on-luck cop to a man intent on unraveling a murder conspiracy, hooked people was because of Jaideep Ahlawat's flawless performance.
In conversation with ScoopWhoop, Jaideep Ahlawat talked about preparing for the role of Hathi Ram Chaudhary, the decision to be an actor, and the journey to stardom.
Despite being in the industry for almost a decade, Ahlawat--who briefly rose to fame with Raazi in 2018--has finally shot to widespread fame with Pataal Lok.
Bahut acha feel hota hai. Bahut time se kuch kar rahe hote hain, aur field mein hote ho, aapko lagta hai potential hai. And then kaam poora karte ho aur audience tak jab pahunchta hai, audience appreciate karti hai, toh bahut acha lagta hai. Der aaye durust aaye. Matlab time lag gaya par koi nahi, part of life.
Of course, to present a cop like Hathi Ram Chaudhary, who is the polar opposite of the cop characters that Bollywood panders in succession, was no easy task.
And yet Hathi Ram Chaudhary struck a chord with everyone. Because, as Ahlawat puts it, he is one of us.
Characters hum dekh rahe hote hain (in our life) but observe karna bhul jate hain. Hathi Ram Chaudhary sab mein hain. Hum sab ke andar yeh hai - ek mauka to prove yourself. The thought ki better kar sakte hain life mein. Haan, Hathi Ram ke looks ke liye weight badhaya, mannerism pakda, vaisa walk, woh posture maintain karna, woh alag taiyaari hai. But the challenging part was to get in the psyche of him. He is an introvert, but extrovert bhi hai. Woh bolta bhi hai jo feel karta hai, express bhi karta hai. Show mein, from a sidelines guy, woh heroic banta hai, from within.
While Hathi Ram Chaudhary may have been a culmination of the 'characters' he's observed around his life, Jaideep Ahlawat is equally intrigued by Hathoda Tyagi - the character from Paatal Lok he would have played, if not Hathi Ram Chaudhary.
Sabhi characters bahut interesting hain, but a difficult character was Hathoda. There was no dialogue, par ek aura, ek sense hona chahiye to say the story without words.
Clearly, there is no denying Jaideep's interest in challenging roles. And yet, acting wasn't a childhood dream.
However, a love for the stage, and unequivocal support from parents, pushed him to pursue acting.
Mujhe stage pe rehne ka shauk humesha se tha, par acting ka nahi. Attachment tha, towards the stage. Ma-baap teachers the, toh literature padhne ki aadat thi bachpan se. But graduation tak actor ban ne ka nahi socha tha. Theatre kiya graduation ke baad, aur realize hua ki main bore nahi hota, chahe 24 ghante karta rahun. Aur family supportive rahi. Naukri peshe mein the, toh as such responsibility nahi thi mere upar. Toh I could take a chance. And my father never said no to try a new career. He said, “Karo, bilkul karo. Nahi hua toh vapas aa jana."
Though he had his family's support, it was only when Jaideep's first dream, to join the army, didn't materialize that he decided to pursue acting.
That's when FTII became his learning ground, and he started learning the craft while taking inspiration from various actors.
Uss waqt (growing up) toh entertainment tha, bas entertainment ke liye dekhta tha (movies). Aur Army ke liye prepare kar raha tha toh itna nahi dekha. Sports aur army prep mein zyada dhyan rehta tha. You get inspired when you want to be one (actor), I didn’t want to be one. But when I joined FTII and revisited films, then I learned about an actor's process. Dilip Kumar, Balraj Sahni, Naseer ji, Om Puri sir, Irrfan sir, one of my favourites. Aur phir toh bahut hain (inspirations).
Though FTII helped him learn the ropes of professional acting, he still had a long way ahead - a struggle of nearly 2 years, before he landed his debut role.
FTII helped me in understanding and doing cinema. Becoming an actor, iski journey shuru hui. Aur woh ab tak chal rahi hai, saari umr chalegi. Par haan ek-dedh saal laga to find the role. Shuru mein pata nahi chalta, kisko bolna hai, kiske paas jana hai, naye sheher mein. I only gave auditions for movies, not ads. So aur chances kam hue. But Aakrosh sabse pehle mili aur uske set pe hi, mera kaam dekh ke, Khatta Meetha mili, jo meri first film hui.
However, for an 'outsider', in more cases than not, the struggle isn't just about landing that first role, but about continuing to find more roles. And for Ahlawat both the struggles are equally difficult, but also, equally important for any actor.
Dono hi difficult hai. Pehla role koi kyun dega, bina trust karke. You take that seriously, jaise maine kiya with Aakrosh - koi bahut bada role nahi tha, but still. And (starting mein) you are desperate to get work toh roles dhundne padte hain. Yes, struggle hai ki kaam milta rahe, and you be in that zone. Raazi ke baad recognition hua, but tab bhi similar script aai. Ab Paatal Lok will be that project, maybe, jiske baad lagatar prove na karne pade that I am a good actor.
There is no denying the fact that Hathi Ram Chaudhary would rank top in his list of notable characters.
But, long before Paatal Lok, or even Raazi, it was his role in Gangs of Wasseypur that had people sit up and take note of his talent. And naturally, Ahlawat has fond memories of the film.
I'm lucky to have been a part of Gangs of Wasseypur. Woh sabke kaam aai hai film, chahe aapka tees minute ka role tha ya lead role. Jis jisne bhi woh film kari, chahe assistant director, chahe writer, sabke kaam aai. Landmark hai woh film. And from my side, it was the first knock to the industry ki an actor is around. But uske baad same role mile toh I had to stay away from them. So, uske baad seedha Commando ki, kyunki woh different role tha. Aur phir Raazi ke baad ignore kam hua main.
He definitely caught the eye of the audience and the industry after his portrayal of the stoic army agent Khalid Mir in Raazi.
Perhaps one would breakdown the success of Khalid Mir and mark it as Ahlawat's realization of his lost-dream to join the Army. But that would be taking away from Ahlawat's acting prowess and talent.
And if you ask him, he believes Raazi's success was crucial but, at the same time, it was all about things finally falling in place.
If things are happening in the right sense, then everything falls into place. Raazi mein, production (house) ki wajah se, logon ke paas zyada pahunchi movie toh logon ko zyada pata chala. Kaam acha hota hai, but reach bhi honi chahiye taaki log dekhein kaam kya hai. Raazi mein woh reach thi. Raazi ka success hona bahut zaruri tha.
Anurag Kashyap gave him his first breakthrough and Meghna Gulzar gave him the role that justified his years of struggle. Perhaps this is why, when you ask him to chose a favourite director, he's picking them all.
Agar choose karna hai, toh both of them. They both have an amazing sense of storytelling. Aise maine Rockstar mein bhi ek role kia tha, chota sa, blink karoge and you'll miss it. But Imtiaz as a storyteller is brilliant. Aise hi Vishal Bhardwaj, Raju Hirani,--kaise badi si cheez itni simply keh dete hain--Zoya Akhtar, the way they tell stories is amazing.
For him, it's not about the 'female gaze' of 'male sensibilities' of a director, but rather, about the power of storytelling all the way.
Maine directors ko as male or female nahi dekha, it depends on the story you're telling. Meghna se better nahi direct kar sakta tha Raazi koi. Jaise she told an emotional story, aur koi nahi kar sakta tha. Aise hi, jaise Zoya did in Luck By Chance. It was brilliant. Or what Anurag did in Gangs of Wasseypur, no one else can make it like that. So, it depends on the story.
Much like his answer about his favourite director, is his response to a favourite character, other than his own.
Yeh toh list bahut badi hai. Actors bahut swarthi hote hain. Toh koi ek character nahi hai. Jo bhi acha nikal jata hai, woh lagta hai karlo.
Perhaps it's this belief in storytelling and honest, great performances that allows Ahlawat to imbibe a sense of realism in each role, and carve a space for himself in the minds of the audience.
Ahlawat will next be seen in Khaali Peeli.
All images from Prime Video, unless specified otherwise.