Updated: June 19, 2018 5:31:57 pm
Last month, Keval Arora, 61, was walking around with a face that resembled a political leader’s. “I have just come back from a shoot where my beard has been trimmed to resemble Narendra Modi’s,” he says. The student film, Ajeeb Budhi Aurat, in which he plays an ex-army man and a president of a housing colony’s RWA who styles himself after the Prime Minister, shows a Modi-kurta-clad Arora start a sentence with the now-familiar “mitron”. “It is an FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) graduate’s production,” he says.
A cult figure in Delhi’s theatre circuit, Arora’s students are spread across theatre, television and films. For more than 35 years, he has been the staff advisor to Kirori Mal College’s (KMC’s) dramatic society, The Players. Until recently, Arora had faced the camera only for graduate films. He made his Bollywood debut last month, playing father to Rajkummar Rao’s terrorist Omar Sheikh in Hansal Mehta’s Omertà. “If a request for a film had come five or 10 years ago, I would have said, ‘No, I have enough on my plate, theatre is full-time for me. Mujhe apne koney mein jeeney do (leave me to my corner)’,” he says.
Arora has often been asked about the difference in the acting methodology in theatre and films. His usual answer has been “Mujhe kya pata (How would I know)?”, but at a Shri Ram Centre course in 2014, he spoke about theatre from his personal experience and cinema from “imagined experience”. “When I was driving back home, I told myself, ‘I am such a hypocrite. I talked at length with some expertise about something in which I have no sustained experience’,” he says, adding, “I decided that the next time a film offer came, I would say ‘yes’.”
Before Omertà, a London Film School project, 5.20 in the Afternoon, in which Arora essays the role of a professor who is trying to kill himself, and actor John Abraham-produced Hindi film Banana, where he plays a boys’ school principal, gave him a taste of bigger productions. Banana introduced him to the way a Mumbai crew worked. For 5.20, there was no remuneration. “Instead, I told the director, ‘I want to sit and listen to all the conversations you have with your DoP (director of photography) and your First AD (assistant director), because for me, it is a learning space. I may take notes but I won’t disturb you,” he says.
In 2015, casting director Mukesh Chhabra called him up regarding a new Bollywood project. “Why did I say yes to Omertà? Because the name Hansal Mehta came with it,” says Arora, a fan of Shahid (2013) and Aligarh (2016).
The thespian turned novice for Omertà, leaving himself to be moulded by the director. Mehta’s working style is closer to theatre, in the way he allows actors to improvise. One of the most nuanced and sensitive scenes in the film has Saeed Sheikh (played by Arora) and Omar chatting on a sofa, when the son tells the father that he would be dropping out of the London School of Economics to fight for the cause.
His best scene, however, is when Saeed, walking with Rao’s Omar on a dry riverbed near a training camp, makes a final attempt at convincing Omar to return to normal life. “The first time we were improvising, I almost tripped on the dry pebbles and Rao, reaching out to hold me, spontaneously said “Abba’,” recalls Arora. Father and son hold hands and walk, while discussing Omar’s fight, until, finally, it is clear the two cannot see eye to eye on the subject. “It’s a place where Omar is getting angry with the father and the father is getting angry with the son,” he says. Recounting the scene, which did not make the final cut agitates Arora. “If there is one question I have for Hansal, it is, ‘What was the decision on the editing floor, because I want to learn.’”
The professor of English literature has always taught his students: “If the process is not right, the product won’t be right.” He is known to push students to critically analyse texts/performances and scrutinise the world around. In cinema, he saw “the kind of cheating that goes on” while in theatre, “you get used to the idea of building a character because you are always working with sequence. In films, scenes are often shot in random order, making it quite difficult to work on character progression,” he says.
Arora’s student Imran Khan, who works with children’s theatre, says, “Keval really tortured us, making us do one action five times. We worked through the night and learnt how to turn up looking fresh in the morning. I learnt the importance of working on the body.” In films, Arora says, “one can become lazy.”
Plays didn’t happen to Arora until he joined KMC as a student, where in his second year, he opted to help out with production and backstage. “One actor fell ill and I was called to take his place,” he says.
Arora cannot watch Omertà impersonally yet, without remembering how bits were shot. “I haven’t been able to let the film talk to me. I think I’ll have to watch Omertà more before I can come to a conclusion about it,” he says.