Ashwath Bhatt in a still from Raazi.
Till late in the night, Ashwath Bhatt is answering messages and phone calls about Raazi, a film that released on Friday and features him as an officer in the Pakistan Army. “Let me be honest, if I am getting so much appreciation, the credit should go to Meghna Gulzar (the director). She sat with every actor and went into the nitty-gritty of acting,” he says.
A graduate from the National School of Drama, Delhi, in 2001, and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, in 2003, which he attended on an Inlaks Foundation Award, Bhatt was, for many years, known for clown theatre and the trust Theatre Garage Project. His foray into films have included Feast of Varanasi, Phantom and Haider. Excerpts from an interview:
One of the fundamental points of Raazi was the economy of words. Your character, Mehboob, barely spoke in the first part of the film. How do you perform when there is nothing to say?
Meghna is about economy. The word ‘stillness’ is close to her heart. Mehboob is one of those people who don’t speak at all but work in the background. He is persistent.
Meghna said, ‘Aankhein khuli hui hai hamesha but he doesn’t speak much’. In one scene, I was moving my eyes to show anger and she said, ‘You’re doing too much’. On the outside a lot of things disturb Mehboob, but he is still inside.
Did your personal backstory as a Kashmiri Pandit, who was forced to escape in 1990, influence your roles?
I wrote Lamhaa: The Untold Story of Kashmir, a film directed by Rahul Dholakia that released in 2010. I have played a Kashmiri in Haider. When I played a Pakistani Major in Raazi, my focus was to be true to the character. I have moved on from my trauma of 1991. Today, I can relate to what happened and ask why it happened and how it could have been avoided. I have met Pakistanis in England and I have visited Pakistan, including the cantonment, and Pakistanis have helped me many times. First, we have to be a good human being.
Theatre artists ask a lot of questions about characters and every turn of the plot. Did you carry this habit to the shoot of Raazi?
We had a lot of debates about a lot of things. I had questions about the border crossing and it turned out that, during the 1970s, when the film is set, it wasn’t as difficult to go across to Pakistan as it is today. I was recently talking to an ex militant and I wanted to know how he crossed over to Pakistan, and he spoke about going to a point and then he would meet a handler. After that it was like a mountain trek. I had a lot of questions about Ricin — how it works and how much time it took to kill. Meghna told me, ‘I have researched’ and I said, ‘I am not convinced’, but she had done her homework and managed to explain things to me.
How will you maintain the momentum you have generated with Raazi?
Manto is coming up, in which I play the prosecutor, Kazmi. The film, In the Shadows, where I play the younger brother of Manoj Bajpayee’s character, is doing the festival circuit and will release commercially soon. I recently saw promos for Tigers, which I had worked on many years ago. I think it is finally getting released. In 99 Songs, an AR Rahman production, I play a politician for the first time. The big release will be Kesri, where I play the antagonist opposite Akshay Kumar.
When will your documentary release?
The Other Half of Paradise is being edited at present. After 28 years of leaving the Valley, I feel it is my duty to understand why it happened. The documentary is about two Kashmiri boys, one who left the Valley in 1990, which is me, and one who stayed back, which is my friend. For any reconciliation in Kashmir, there has to be truth. People have lost family members and we have to discuss things in a very honest way. Another thing I am talking about in the film is empathy.
What about theatre?
I am making a play of the same name. I am not sure if it is a solo or cast production but I am working on it. There will be footage from the documentary that we will not use in the film.