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Ranveer Singh defends Alauddin Khilji in ‘Padmaavat’

Bollywood superstar talks about playing one of his career’s most agonising roles and how he survived to tell the traumatic tale

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Ranveer Singh couldn’t wait to purge Alauddin Khilji from his life, even though the artist in him rejoiced at the prospect of playing an antagonist in this year’s most polarising film, Padmaavat.

“It’s not easy to harbour Alauddin Khilji’s spirit in you,” said Singh in an exclusive telephone interview with Gulf News tabloid!.

“It’s quite a dark zone to be in. So, after the shoot we cut a cake, rejoiced and I was so done with him. I let him go immediately. Other characters that I have played in the past has stayed on with me like Bittoo Sharma [Band Baaja Baaraat] and Peshwa Bajirao [Bajirao Mastani], but this guy [Khilji] I just let him go as soon as I was done. It took so much out of me. I was anxious to go back to myself,” he added.

Terms such as going “mental” and “deep down the rabbit hole” are a part of Singh’s lexicon when it comes to the role in his highest grossing film so far; the movie has made more than Rs2 billion (Dh114 million).

In Padmaavat, a fictional tale based on a poem by Malik Mohammad Jayasi about Muslim emperor Alauddin Khilji’s conquest of Chittor and his supposed obsession with Queen Padmini of Chittor (played by Deepika Padukone), Singh is portrayed as a barbaric master manipulator. His depiction has drawn extreme reactions, with many praising his acting prowess and others questioning the vilification of a Muslim ruler, who despite all his flaws was a great strategist who saved India from the Mongols. But in director Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s epic, there was little to admire about Khilji.

Singh defends his cackling, monstrous nemesis. He claims that it’s unfair to judge roles based on one’s own personal moral compass.

“I wanted him to be more evil, much more of an animal that he actually was onscreen. I wanted him to be more repulsive and I wanted his actions to be nastier. But Mr Bhansali had to temper that and reel me in,” said Singh.

His mantra is simple. This may be his last villainous role in his career and he has no qualms about going all in.

“This role required me to go into some real depths of darkness within me... But bolder, braver choices would make for an entertaining movie. I am very happy, pleased, fulfilled and relieved at the response that the film got and the praise [and] love that’s coming for my character,” Singh added.

While questions regarding protests by Hindu caste groups against Padmaavat were off the table, Singh, who is now working on Gully Boy, 83 and Simmbaa, was game for everything else.

Excerpts from the interview.

Congratulations Ranveer, you seem to Rs2 billion richer this week…

Not me girl, maybe Viacom 18 [producers of Padmaavat] are. It’s my biggest opener, my highest grosser in my career and I am happy for my producers as it’s good from a trade point of view because I am ultimately an artist who works in a commercial art form. For a film like Padmaavat, which we have worked so hard, such kind of commercial success is a great thing. But I don’t attach much importance to numbers. I am happy about it, but the things that give me fulfilment are not box-office numbers. For me, the joy came from the shooting process and it came from audience feedback. Padmaavat had unprecedented pre-release hype, but it didn’t mean that the audiences will like what they see. What is giving me happiness right now is that they are coming out and saying such wonderful things about it, showering it with such love and praise. I have always maintained that the memory that a film carries, the legacy that a film leaves and the life of a film is more important than any box-office success. I secretly watched Padmaavat at a multiplex in Mumbai recently and they were cheering at my character’s entry, dialogues. I saw them dancing, screaming when I came on and I felt this rush in my whole body. Witnessing the audience’s reactions live is the real deal.

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Your character Alauddin Khilji in Padmaavat was pure, unadulterated evil. Have you snapped out of the dark zone?

Due to the delay in the filming process [due to protests by Rajput groups who feared that their caste was wrongly depicted in the film], the bulk of my work fell in the last leg of the shooting schedule. Time was running out and I was shooting for 40-plus days in a costume drama which is unheard of in cinema. Shoots for such films require a great deal of emotional and physical energy and the performers need breaks to recover and recuperate. But since I was shooting at a stretch, it was a difficult process for me and it took a toll on me physically. I waited with bated breath for the call of wrap for my character.

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Did you feel any resistance to play such a dark character or did you tell Bhansali to tone it down at some point when you felt you didn’t identify with your character’s bestial tendencies?

Oh, no. It was an interesting sequence of events. Initially when I read my part, I was fascinated by it. But I don’t know how to do things half-arsed. That is just not me. If I commit to do something, I go the whole hog. Keeping that in mind, I understood from the material that if I were to commit to his, I will have to go into a whole new dark zone and go very deep into that rabbit hole. I was never prepared to do it at that time as I could see myself going mental. I felt I wasn’t ready for the part. I was scared. But he [Bhansali] convinced me to explore my darkness and the rest is history. You cannot say ‘no’ to him. Not that I didn’t have a degree of excitement as an actor, but I was excited and apprehensive. I knew that if I am going to play an antagonist, this may probably be my first and last time that I will do it. So I thought, let me do it with Mr Bhansali with whom I have such deep respect and admiration. Once he was able to convince me, I was ready to plummet to darker shades within me.

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So you weren’t disturbed by how repulsive Khilji turned out to be…

Mr Bhansali never wanted to create a villain who is repulsive. He wanted to create an attractive villain. In a strange animalistic way, he [Khilji] was very attractive. Mr Bhansali made him less of a barbarian. In my interpretation, he was more barbaric and he had to temper that down. I created the foundation for the character under his directive and quite frankly I just took that foundation to the film sets and allowed Mr Bhansali to freak out with it. He had so many nuances and layers to Khilji. We created a memorable character and I am very fulfilled by that entire process. I hope to do more films with him and create a vast legacy.

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There were several scenes that were disturbing. Was there a need for such overt bestiality and to paint him as a depraved soul?

Once I commit to a part, I play it with all honesty. If he’s a bad person, then I am going to play that person in a manner where’s he is as bad as he possibly can be. But if I speak about Khilji as Ranveer and pass judgement on his character, then I don’t think he was a good person. But if I am playing Alauddin, then the choices I make are a reflection of that character. If he is evil, he has to be unabashedly evil and that’s what my audiences loved. There was a great conviction and honesty in being that person on-screen. I was making choices for my on-screen character that were not bound by my conventional moral construct. I took what was in the written material, developed it and what we were able to create was an unforgettable enfant terrible. He was a monster of a person, but that’s not to say he didn’t have things that one could admire about him. Khilji was a great strategist, great statesman and a great fighter. He was a patron of art, an effective rule and a winner. But playing him took a lot out of me.


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Padmaavat is currently showing in the UAE.