Pratik Gandhi sees the irony dogging his forthcoming release, Bhavai. Previously titled Raavan Leela, Hardik Gajjar's film follows two Ramleela performers in love. Their onstage characters - they portray Ravana and Sita in folk Bhavai plays, an old theatre form in Gujarat - give cause for a local outrage driven by blind faith and communal politics.
But the film didn't have to wait till release day to make its point. A satire on separating life from art, Bhavai fell prey to a loud trolling campaign when its trailer dropped on September 9. A defamation notice was sent to the makers for allegedly hurting religious sentiments and glorifying the figure of Ravana in a dialogue (it has since been removed).
Pratik, making his Hindi feature debut after Scam 1992, took the most heat. Everything from his Gandhi surname to his artistic integrity was mocked online.
"Our film has a simple message," Pratik says, noting our difficulty to distinguish between fiction and life. "(The trolls) are already proving it." Here, the actor reflects on growing intolerance towards the arts and the pitfalls of success.
How did you feel when the film’s trailer was attacked over a month before release?
It was quite disturbing, disheartening. Without watching a film, some people were misunderstanding it. The trolls are not in anybody’s control. They write behind anonymous IDs. You can’t have a discussion with them.
Everything I say or tweet, it will be taken in a different light. The kind of filthy language they use… we don’t have any laws for that. My own family has been suffering because of that. I don't even know if the trolls are real people or bots. It could be that the whole thing was taken as an opportunity for people with some other agenda.
Were you consulted when the makers decided to change the title and delete a contentious dialogue?
It was not a consultation but yes, it was discussed. I was not in Mumbai when this happened. I was shooting and travelling. Furthermore, I’m the newcomer in this scenario. My director and producers are much more experienced people. I’m sure they know well what to do with the film.
We have had a tradition of satirical films like PK and OMG: Oh My God! becoming popular hits. Do you think something has changed in the last few years?
Something has changed dramatically for sure. It is difficult to understand and digest beyond a point. I can’t say what it is but I agree that something has.
Coming from Gujarati theatre, were you familiar with the world of Bhavai troupes?
I was quite familiar, yes. It is a popular theatre form in my state. It traditionally has two narrators, male and female, who take you through the story. It's a musical form and is close to ramleela. In theatre, I had been in lots of mythological and costume dramas. The film shows you the whole life of these actors, how they live, stay, what are their conflicts…
The film has been accused of misinterpreting the Ramayana.
There are some 30-odd interpretations of the Ramayana around the world. Ours is not a literal film about Ram or Ravana. It's about the actors who perform these characters. It's a simple musical love story with ramleela as the backdrop.
Also, as someone playing Ravana onstage, I will have to perform certain lines. Ravana has never said Jai Shree Ram. He was against Ram. How can people blame me for saying a dialogue when it is Ravana saying it? In Mahabharata, too, wherever there is Krishna someone will have to perform Kansa.
You went from playing the most loved anti-hero of last year (stockbroker Harshad Mehta) to the most hated anti-hero of Indian mythology. Has the experience taught you something about the nature of success?
For sure. Nothing is permanent in life is what I have learnt. Somebody who loves you for your work may not like your work someday, and that's fine. I have no issues with that. If you don't like a film or performance, and you communicate that honestly, it’s only fair. But the personal judgment and use of dirty language are what worries me.
Tell us something about your upcoming web series Six Suspects.
It is based on the book by Vikas Swarup. It's a crime drama. I am playing a character I have never attempted - —another flawed one perhaps. It is being directed by Tigmanshu Dhulia, someone I really wanted to work with. It also has Richa Chadha with me.
Has the experience of Bhavai scared you to not attempt such projects again?
I am still thinking about the answer to this question. My family keeps telling me, 'Be careful…' But I don’t know what can offend whom. How will I ever be able to judge? Perhaps all scripts should first be censored by the audience before we shoot them. Our film received a 'U' certificate from the CBFC. We should at least trust that process. So I really don’t know.