Nuance is everything in film acting, even when playing clichés. In Vasan Bala’s recently-released Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, Gulshan Devaiah doubles up as drunken master Karate Mani and his psychotic twin Jimmy. Mani is the brooder, dishevelled and subdued; Jimmy’s flamboyance is cynically cheery. Mani is missing one leg and stands on a crutch; Jimmy is forever surrounded by henchmen.
As the duelling sons of deceased karate guru Michael Kamaraj, one brother grew up worshipping Kamal Hasaan, the other Rajinikanth. And much like the fans of the Tamil stars, both love a chance to put the other down: Jimmy makes fun of Mani’s cheap drinking habit; Mani blank-faces watching Jimmy crunch on banana chips.
It all sounds like a blast — an elevated fun gig in a director-friend’s second feature, with leading duties passed on to someone else — but Gulshan digs deeper than expected. On the surface, Mard is an action-comedy about a boy named Surya (debutant Abhimanyu Dassani), a martial arts enthusiast suffering from congenital insensitivity to pain. But underneath all the off-kilter set pieces and ironic humour, there’s a broader comment being made.
Mani and Jimmy represent opposing road signs in Surya’s juvenile mind: one points to the bitterness of failed idealism; the other warns of the apathy of succumbing to greed. Together, they signify a crucial choice that Surya will soon have to make, between childhood optimism and adult surrender. It’s here that Gulshan goes beyond surface detail and gives us two unforgettable characters, kicking and sashaying as the polar yin and yang in Surya’s karate-crazed mind.
We spoke to the actor about his long association with Vasan Bala, hispreparations for portraying Mani, and the analogy of Surya as an artist taking on the world. Excerpts from the conversation:
Mard is your second feature film after Peddlers (2012) with Vasan, and the first one to get a release. Tell us about your friendship over the years.
It may sound boastful, but I’m like his Robert De Niro and he’s my Scorsese. I met Vasan while working on That Girl In Yellow Boots. We got to know each other better at the Venice Film Festival premiere of that film.
I noticed many commonalities between us. He’s a South Indian from Mumbai; I’m a Kodava from Bengaluru. We are both only children raised in middle-class families. We’re both loners. In 2009, we worked on a short film called Talented, then teamed up for Peddlers. We share the same temperament towards cinema. Even if I don’t get his sensibilities sometimes, I trust him enough to go ahead with his vision.
You were recovering from a leg injury when Mard was offered to you. How did you manage to train for the action-heavy role of Karate Mani?
I had shattered a ligament on my right knee and had undergone surgery. My recovery was slow. I was determined to take a break for 8-10 months when Vasan offered me this film. He came and pulled me out of darkness, as friends do.
The physical preparation for Mani was hard. People like Jimmy more because he’s entertaining, but Mani is closer to my heart. During the training process, my body would just break down because of cramps. The doctors told me I couldn’t continue like that, so I had to cut back on training. On set though, I was much better. I’ve performed Kyokushin karate in the film. Mani’s fighting style is different from others, all hard blocks and hard strikes. I couldn’t do a full kata, so I’d do a half kata, or whatever I thought was a kata.
Many fans have interpreted Surya as an artist breaking free...
I wouldn’t limit that analogy to just artists, but all idealists. There’s a purity in Surya. He views the world in black and white. He represents the child in all of us. As we go through life, we lose that purity and become corrupt. That’s the takeaway of the film, to retain our purity as artists and human beings.
In Bollywood, it’s becoming increasingly hard to make and release a film. Business and art are not moving parallelly anymore. Smaller films are going straight to OTT. We can’t put the blame on anyone. We have to stand up and fight. Vasan Bala, Ronnie Screwvala, Anurag Kashyap — they’re all standing and fighting. It’s like cinema’s ‘100-man fight’.
What are your upcoming projects?
I am in Commando 3. It’s the complete opposite of the kind of work I usually do. Then there’s Hinterland, with Manoj Bajpayee. I’m also in a web-series with a major OTT platform.
Lastly, if you are Karate Mani, who would your Jimmy be?
He’d be a local MLA or a corporator standing for elections. And his suit-colour would also change to orange.