‘I was scared,’ says Randeep Hooda. ‘And apprehensive. Initially, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do that role.’
The role in question that the Bollywood star was worried about was of Sarabjit Singh, the protagonist in the biopic Sarbjit that tells the story of a 27-year-old Indian farmer in the north Indian state of Punjab who, reportedly accidentally, crossed over to neighbouring Pakistan. Charged with being a spy and was sentenced to death.
Languishing in a jail for 23 years, all that he wished for was to be reunited with his family, who only get to see him for the first time 18 years after the incident. ‘It was not easy essaying the character and I did think a lot before committing to the film,’ says Randeep.
While Omung Kumar, the director of the biopic, had claimed that 39-year-old Randeep took up the challenge to play Sarabjit the moment he mentioned it to the actor, the latter denies it. ‘I know Omung has been saying that I said yes to the role in 15 minutes. But the fact is, I was scared.
‘I’d liked the script, yes, but it was hard to commit simply because I take my commitments very seriously,’ says Randeep in a telephone interview from his home in Mumbai.
So the actor decided ‘to have a deep talk with myself before signing up for the movie’. Obviously his inner self told him to go ahead. And he did.
‘But I also had to remind myself that I would have to tolerate this guy Omung for the next few months,’ says the star, chuckling loudly.
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ he says quickly. ‘He’s a nice guy.’
Although Randeep is noted for his dark and brooding looks, the star has proved that he is more than just a handsome hunk.
Known for being a director’s actor able to portray with aplomb any role he is given – be it the infamous serial killer Charles Sobhraj in Main aur Charles (2015) or the 19th-century Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma in Rang Rasiya (2008), or even Vikram, a hotshot photographer in Murder 3 (2013), where his on-screen intimate scenes with both his heroines, Aditi Rao Hydari and Sara Loren, was talked about for months – Randeep says he chooses his roles only after he is fully convinced.
So was it difficult for the bachelor star to do that role in Murder 3?
‘Before and during the shoot, I went out with Aditi and Sara for lunches, dinners… just so that we would be more comfortable with each other and ensure the scenes were authentic,’ he says. ‘In the process we became friends and I made sure that they were able to relate to me as a co-worker who was going through the same thing as they were.
‘That’s probably how the intimate scenes and the emotions came across as so bold and amazing.’
While he had to go out on a lot of lunches and dinners for Murder 3, it was quite the reverse with Sarbjit.
‘I was a muscular 94kg when I was first offered the role,’ says the 1.8m tall actor. ‘I was expecting to shoot the portions when Sarabjit was a pahalwan [wrestler] in his village and then slowly shed weight for the scenes where he is jailed in Pakistan.’
However, director Omung had other ideas. ‘He wanted to shoot the jail sequences first, for which he wanted me to have a skeletal look.’ To take on the challenge, Randeep, who regularly participates professionally in equestrian sports such as polo and showjumping, went on a strict diet supervised by his sister Dr Anjali Hooda-Sangwan.
Proteins and greens constituted the major part of his diet. Anjali put him on a medically managed VLCD (very low-calorie diet), 500-600 calories per day for four to five weeks, with only a few cheat days in between.
‘At times, the lack of sugar in my body made me weak and almost drove me crazy. I was thinking about food all the time; there were days I was so hungry, I couldn’t sleep. Some days I was having only black coffee, which left me so weak I could barely walk.’ He says he craved foods such as parathas with butter and hot chocolate fudge. ‘I used to be so desperate that I often sketched them and dreamt about eating them.’
The changes Randeep underwent were more than just physical.
The star, who made his Bollywood debut with Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding in 2001 and had garnered praise for that performance, says Sarabjit’s character began to take over his mind from the moment he first heard that a movie was being made.
‘Then someone forwarded me an article in which Dalbir Kaur, Sarabjit’s sister, said that if a movie was being made, then I should portray Sarabjit.
‘When I read it I was like “Really!”. I then did more research, so by the time I met Omung a couple of months later, I knew Sarabjit very well’.
Once Omung signed Randeep, the film-maker provided him with Sarabjit’s letters, pictures and some video footage.
Besides losing weight, Randeep also started learning Punjabi, and began wearing a tooth mould to show tooth decay. ‘I would wear it regularly and speak with it on so I was comfortable with it,’ he says.
Randeep says the letters Sarabjit wrote to his family and sister (played by Aishwarya) helped him the most.
Randeep also started reading and rereading the letters Sarabjit had written to his family ‘to get into the mind of the man. ‘I made his thoughts mine, I made his words mine. You know, I used to sit at home in chains – like Sarabjit reportedly did in jail – and lie on the floor of my bathroom for a long time and write letters to Omung, just like Sarabjit used to write to his sister Dalbir. I, of course, did not send them to Omung; I never will because now when I read them I think they’re way too personal. I did all the things that were necessary to play Sarabjit. I got the opportunity to overhaul my personality.’ While the film crew and his family were shocked by Randeep’s transformation for the part – he was totally unrecognisable by the end of it, skinny and with bones sticking out from his skin – for Randeep it was the emotional and mental changes that were far more challenging and difficult to portray.
‘Physical transformation is a small thing and not too difficult. But expressing the mental or emotional state of a character… that is far more difficult.
‘Imagine being far away from your loved ones, locked in a dark, dingy cell, in chains, being called by a wrong name, accused of a crime you have not done, being convicted, having no one to hug you, love you or comfort you, being racked by regret of having made a silly mistake [of trespassing into a foreign country]... all these emotional experiences and feelings were far more difficult to portray,’ says the star, his voice taking on an emotional tone.
So which was the most challenging scene for him to act?
‘Meeting the entire family after 18 years,’ says Randeep, without pausing for a moment. ‘That and the torture scenes in the prison.’
Randeep’s physical transformation shocked even the film crew, but he says the emotional scenes were way worse.
Although he had some audiovisual footage to help him recreate the scene, ‘photographs and most importantly the letters were what helped me to prepare for my role,’ he says. He also met with Sarabjit’s wife Sukhpreet before enacting the scenes where he interacts with Richa Chadha, who portrays the role of his wife in the movie.
‘I have only two scenes with Richa, but I wanted it to be true to the character. So I spoke to Sukhpreet, who is generally very reticent, but she opened up and spoke to me at length, giving me a lot of insights into Sarabjit’s character and personality. She told me that he liked photography and would occasionally sing as well. So I have incorporated all that in my performance,’ says Randeep.
Is it worth taking so much effort for a single role?
‘Well, if I did not do it, I guess somebody would have to step into this role. I honestly don’t care if I get recognition or not. I believe this is my journey,’ says Randeep, who began his career in theatre before starring in a series of critically and commercially successful films including Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai (2010), Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster (2011) and Highway (2014).
Randeep’s versatility has helped him find comfort in both mainstream as well as offbeat cinema. ‘I’m fortunate, I am getting to do different genres of cinema and roles. I don’t think there are a lot of actors enjoying as much as I currently am. I’m really blessed,’ he says.
Having done a few biopics including Main aur Charles and Rang Rasiya, does he prefer portraying real-life characters on screen?
‘Whether the character is fictional or real, you have to be within the limits of the script. To a certain extent, portraying real-life characters can limit you. Playing fictional characters allows you more freedom.
‘But in both cases, the challenges are the same – truthfulness, emotions…’
What does it feel like to be acting with an actress such as Aishwarya Rai Bachchan? ‘All that I knew was that Aishwarya was my screen sister. I look at nothing beyond that. If I keep wondering about others I won’t be able to do my part.
‘To be honest, I’m never excited about other actors unless it’s Salman Khan. He is one person with whom I share a very different camaraderie.’
Randeep has always been tight-lipped about his personal life but recently, on Mother’s Day, he shared a slice of his life while talking about his childhood and how he would go to his mother if he wanted anything. ‘There is still an unfulfilled wish my mum has. There is this whole thing of “get married”.
‘She keeps sending me pictures of prospective brides. She wants me to get married and have children.’
So when will he fulfil her wish? The question instantly makes him uncomfortable. ‘I think the interview has come to an end,’ he guffaws. ‘Ya, well, my mum wants a lot of things in life…’ he laughs aloud. And goes back to doing what he is best at – avoiding questions he feels are too personal.