The Underdog

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Jimmy Shergill has not given up just yet. His acclaimed performances in Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster I and II and Bullett Raja may revive his Hindi cinema career—or so he hopes
Somebody recently asked Jimmy Shergill why he wears sunglasses at night and went on to suggest that he should do away with them entirely. “Aap ki aankhein toh main hain (your eyes are the main thing),” the man argued. Before Jimmy could mumble his defence—“Kya hai na sir, woh poora din kaam karke aankhen thaki hui lagti hain, laal ho jaati hain (the thing is, sir, after a day’s work my eyes look tired and red)”—the man floored him with a compliment: “Aap ki aankhon se lagta hai ke aapne duniya dekhi hai (it seems from your eyes that you’ve seen the world).”

And yet director Tigmanshu Dhulia had to make a herculean effort to haul him on board his 2011 film Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster in the title role of the devious, sharp-tongued overlord of a princely state—not everyone, it seems, was in favour of Jimmy as Saheb. Amid hushed protests, the question was: can the boyish-looking Jimmy—with a boyish-sounding name to boot—pull off the mature and authoritative Saheb? “Probably,” the actor speculates, with less bitterness than vindication, “they were wondering, ‘Jimmy toh baccha lagega (Jimmy will look like a kid).’ But Tishu [Dhulia] had faith in me. Those same people, when the film got completed, they came and said, ‘Sorry, we were wrong’.”

One thing has to be said about Jimmy—he still looks about the same age as he did back in 1996, the year he debuted in Gulzar’s Maachis. But it was Aditya Chopra’s Mohabbatein four years later that branded—and, in a way, unbranded—him. He assures you that Gulzar and Aditya Chopra are his mentors forever, but blithely confides, “Somewhere after Mohabbatein, Dil Vil Pyar Vyar and Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai, I think people started thinking of me as a chocolate boy. A bell rang in my head that, ‘Boss, I must not allow this image to get stuck.’” That explains why he turned to more realistic films like Haasil and ...Yahaan, both vastly under-appreciated efforts by debutant directors.

Of late, there’s been a similar epiphany: “At one point, I was wondering, why do solo leads [when] after two days people are going to forget the film anyway? Might as well do a film where I am playing a supporting role but at least it’s a powerful role in a film that’s going to be remembered.”

In the recent Bullett Raja, Saif Ali Khan’s character fondly calls him “mere Shashi Kapoor”. That’s dreadfully symbolic of Jimmy’s own position in the movies—a talented sidekick who’s too old to be The Matinee Idol (think Ranbir Kapoor) and too young or perhaps not accomplished enough to be The Actor (think Irrfan Khan). Luckily, films like Tanu Weds Manu, Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster I and II, Special 26 and Bullett Raja where he played a badass with delicious meanness, have kept him in the game.

He has certainly evolved as an actor. With genuine gratitude, he credits his directors and sharp writing for that, and regards last year’s Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns and Bullett Raja as a maturing stage in a career that has been long but not extraordinary.

There’s no doubting Jimmy’s ability as a tough opponent for any co-star, but he himself doesn’t see the point in jousting over screen space with co-stars. “Irrfan Khan is my favourite actor, but when we’re working together, we’re not in a race,” he says.

Irrfan is seen as a method actor; Jimmy is the very opposite. He’s wary, if not entirely dismissive, of the grand words associated with acting these days—internalising, incubating, immersing, improvising, etcetera. He’s the sort who goes with the flow, for whom the director’s word is gospel. “My idea of a workshop is sitting with the director and getting a sense of what the character is going to be like. For Saheb’s role, Tishu said, ‘Saheb is the kind of guy who when somebody calls out to him doesn’t turn his head instantly. He turns like this, slowly, very slowly.’ The moment Tishu said that, I nailed it.”

If the director insists on a physical transformation, Jimmy is always game. Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster and its sequel called for a Thakur-style moustache. So he grew one. “Tishu said, ‘Yaar, woh mooch rakhte hain UP ke Thakuron wali. Chipkayenge nahin yaar, ghumayenge’ (Let’s have a moustache like the Thakurs of UP. We won’t stick it on; we’ll twirl it),” says the otherwise clean-shaven actor, twirling an imaginary moustache.

Jimmy and Tigmanshu are both from Uttar Pradesh and have been close friends and a winning team since the latter’s first film, Haasil, in 2003. Jimmy was raised partially in Punjab, and retains a native’s command over Hindi and Punjabi. “The director tells you ki ‘bhai woh typical Lucknow wali chhodo yahan par, samjhe? Yeh uss zone ka hai: ‘Abe hato yaar’.’ Itna kahoge toh ek UP wala aadmi kyun nahin samjhega? (The director tells you, ‘do a typical Lucknow dialect here, okay? The character is from that zone.’ If you say it like that, a person from UP will get it).”

Jimmy recalls his childhood as one of bucolic pleasures and the freedom of having “the entire house to yourself”.

“I was born in Gorakhpur. We had a big farm... at the centre of which was a big house. Poora khula maidan (wide open grounds). Most of my memories are of meadows, haystacks and rural festivals. I learnt to ride bicycle there and later, truck and tractor. I was maybe six or seven when I started ploughing fields on my tractor. My parents used to be between Gorakhpur and Patiala. There were times I had the entire house [to] myself.”

That is not to say that he kept himself away from the charms of city life. As a teenager, he recounts driving from Gorakhpur to Delhi overnight and calling his shocked parents to say he wouldn’t come home that day because he was in Delhi. “Humnein sheher bhi dekhe hain aur parents Shimla wagerah le jaate the toh hill stations bhi dekha hai, aur, of course, Dilli bhi gaye hain (We’ve seen the city and, when parents took us to Shimla, the hill stations, and, of course, we’ve been to Delhi). When we came to college, wahan badmashi bhi dekhi hai, logon ko peeta bhi hai, college aur university ke baap-gundon se bhi paala pada hai (we’ve made mischief, beaten people up, and got embroiled with the bullies of college and university too).”

The relish and accent with which he speaks reminds you of Tanu Weds Manu’s Bholenath-swearing brute Raja. He has channelled his experiences— or ‘zone’, as he describes it—into his characters. Here is his one-line assessment of acting: “You can play any character well if you know that character well.” By that he means, “Suddenly, if somebody tells me to play some atrangi type, someone who has grown up abroad, I’ll have to get into that zone before I can play him.”

Jimmy was discovered by Gulzar—or rather, Jimmy sought the great man out. After a crash course in acting in the mid-90s, Jimmy was frantically looking for work. He knew of friends who were going through their own struggles and weren’t getting anywhere near a film set. “I didn’t want to wait outside the producer’s office. Neither did I want to go into depression just because of a bloody film,” he says.

One day, he found out from a relative that “Gulzar uncle” is making a film with newcomers. Why not give it a go? That film was Maachis.

The meeting with Gulzar went beyond his expectations, in that the poet-filmmaker stumped him with his legendary politesse: “Inmein se kaunsa role aapko pasand hai (Which of these roles would you prefer)?” A puzzled Jimmy was reminded of the phrase ‘Beggars can’t be choosers.’ Simultaneously overjoyed and nervous, he nodded his head, indicating his desire to play the baby-faced rebel named Jimmy. That was already his nickname and he thought of his role as nothing more than a happy coincidence. “Toh phir jao. Daadhi badhao (Go on then. Grow out your beard),” Gulzar ordered from behind his writing desk. And Jimmy’s career got off the ground.

Currently, in Punjab, that very nickname is a major draw, with its 43-year-old bearer being hailed as the new Dharmendra of Punjabi movies. Jimmy did his first Punjabi film in 2005 and has since appeared in half a dozen more.

Mujhe maza aa raha hai (I’m having fun),” he says, referring to the excitement and fun to be had in rural Punjab. “Shooting pe purane dost aa jaate hain kabhi. Mausam bahut achcha hota hai aur khana bhi bahut achcha hota hai (Sometimes old friends show up to shoots. The weather is great and the food is also great),” he says, making it sound like a picnic. Maybe it is.

His growing interest in Punjabi films has given rise to a misconception in Bollywood that Jimmy has moved to Chandigarh, which he is keen to dispel. “Here I was ill and bedridden for close to a year and people were speculating that I had moved to Punjab,” he says.

He assures us that a lot of work is to be done, and that he has a string of ‘badhiya’ Hindi films lined up.

Abhi toh maamla baaki hai, bhai (it’s not over yet, my friend),” he signs off, voicing both confidence and vulnerability.