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Sidharth Malhotra: The accidental celebrity

Sidharth Malhotra's acting career has been equal parts deliberate decisions and pure happenstance

Published: Nov 12, 2016 06:53:28 AM IST
Updated: Nov 21, 2016 04:50:42 PM IST

Image: Joshua Navalkar

The Mumbai rain is playing hide and seek. The gloomy weather, however, fails to deter children engrossed in a game of cricket on the road leading up to a five-star hotel in Mumbai’s Bandra-Kurla Complex on a Sunday afternoon in July. The hotel’s lobby, too, is a hive of activity. The energy moves on up to a 12th floor suite where, in a room strewn all over with DVDs, a make-up kit and bags of designer clothes, actor Sidharth Malhotra, 31, is wrapping up a photo shoot.

A small coterie of stylists and publicists waits patiently in the suite’s parlour. We’re led into the bedroom to meet him. Malhotra’s dressed in a stark white shirt and coffee brown trousers, and is sporting an overgrown stubble. He greets us with a firm handshake and we settle in beside a large window and start talking about his journey in the film world thus far. Five years and five films after making his acting debut with Student of The Year (2012), the Delhi boy who came to Mumbai nearly a decade ago is seeing his persistence and hard work pay off. His first film of 2016, Kapoor & Sons (Since 1921), was widely appreciated. And though his recently released Baar Baar Dekho received indifferent reviews, with a similarly tepid response at the box-office, there is little doubt that Malhotra is now part of Bollywood’s big league.

However, recognition for his acting talents hasn’t come easy for Malhotra, the son of a former merchant navy captain and a homemaker. His good looks and modelling background may have set him up for a career in films, but those traits also came in the way of him being taken seriously as an actor. There has been a perception shift with Kapoor & Sons, though, which provided audiences with a glimpse of his acting potential. “It is one of my endeavours to change that impression… [to ensure] people go beyond my looks,” he tells ForbesLife India, running his fingers through his hair.

Getting people to look beyond his appearance is perhaps easier said than done for the 6 foot-1 inch-tall actor. After all, it was his looks that brought him to Mumbai. Malhotra began modelling in Delhi towards the end of his academic years at Shaheed Bhagat Singh College. Discovered by Elite Modelling Agency at a party then, he was sent to Mumbai for auditions. Subsequently, Malhotra was shortlisted for a film by director Anubhav Sinha, one that was eventually never made. But that experience made the then 21-year-old realise how unprepared he was for a career in films. Malhotra saw a movie camera for the first time at the trial test for the film and wondered if something was wrong when it made a “whrrr” sound. “I was so lost. I didn’t know anything… that embarrassing incident taught me that I had to learn something quickly,” he says.

He continued to model to make ends meet in Mumbai, but it was during an autorickshaw ride with a friend that he got a clearer picture of what he ought to do if he wanted to make it big in films. His friend casually told him how a particular actor read his scripts only in Hindi. A curious Malhotra asked him how he knew that, to which his friend replied that he was an assistant director (AD) on the film with the actor. Malhotra had no clue what that meant and spent the rest of the ride enquiring about the profession. By the end of it, he had decided he wanted to be an AD too. “I understood that it’s a great place to be in [in order] to learn about filmmaking,” says Malhotra, who later got a job as an AD with Dharma Productions, the film production house helmed by his would-be mentor Karan Johar.

My Name Is Khan (2010) was Malhotra’s debut film as an assistant director. However, it took him a while to completely commit to the job. Malhotra says he would often lie to his First AD Karan Malhotra (who later directed the actor in Brothers, 2015), saying he was not well and, instead, go model for top menswear brands. “I would fly to Chennai for a one-day shoot and come back richer by Rs 50,000. I was the richest man then, at least in my flat [in Mumbai], and splurged with my friends. Three days later, I was back to being broke, but I had no regrets,” he says. But that period of struggle in Mumbai was “dark and depressing”, he admits.

At that point, he glances at the wet gloom outside, which seems to have intensified in solidarity. And that suddenly reminds him of how there were no blinds on the windows of the 1.5 BHK flat that he shared with others. His personal space would be the half bedroom. “That used to be difficult… to have some intimate dates,” he says with a laugh.

Malhotra moved to Mumbai for modelling auditions soon after graduating from college in Delhi

This was in contrast to the pampered life he’d led with his middle-class Punjabi family in Delhi. “I have changed about seven houses in the last five years in Mumbai and lived everywhere with strangers (who would go on to become friends)—from Malad to Andheri to Juhu to Bandra [in Mumbai’s western suburbs],” says Malhotra. The nomadic single life helped him grow up. “Staying by yourself, doing your laundry and other such things made me appreciate the smaller things in life,” he says. “Living alone makes you learn so much.”

Another place where he evolved was “AD-ing” on the sets of My Name Is Khan. Observing Shah Rukh Khan opened his eyes to the effort required for every scene. “I wasn’t prepared for the hard work behind the camera because I never saw it,” says Malhotra. Once, while the film was being shot in Los Angeles, and Malhotra was waiting for instructions from the director on his walkie-talkie, Khan began talking to him about acting, much to Malhotra’s surprise. “He told me how one should come early on the sets and use the props and locations. He was giving me tips!” says Malhotra, who believes that without “AD-ing” he would not have become an actor.

The transition to before-the-camera, when it happened, was seamless. Immediately after My Name is Khan, Johar launched Malhotra and two other actors—Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt—in Student of The Year. “It was an awesome moment to be launched by a director like Karan. It’s our best-looking film to date, in terms of scale and glamour,” Malhotra says. After getting the signing amount of Rs 1.1 lakh, he took five of his friends out for a party and spent Rs 50,000 without realising that his credit card limit was only Rs 20,000. “It got a bit embarrassing because we had to borrow money from people and repay them. But if I had to do it all over again, I’d do it the same way. I had that confidence in myself that I will do something worthwhile in life and money will come.”

This sense of security holds him in good stead on the sets too, earning him the goodwill of his colleagues. “Sidharth is an extremely warm and affectionate human being, and that carries forward into his work,” says actor Ratna Pathak-Shah, who played Malhotra’s mother in Kapoor & Sons. “He is willing to rehearse as much as you want; he’s focussed and doesn’t fool around on the set. He’s very happy to experiment and bring his own ideas to the table… and what’s really nice is that he does not insist that all his ideas have to be followed. A lot of young actors tend to be extremely self-involved. He’s not, and I really appreciate that.” The movie’s director Shakun Batra concurs. “When I met him, I found him to be very sensible; he had the right things to ask about the film. I thought he was very clued in.”

Malhotra says he likes being involved in the screenplay aspect of filmmaking as long as the director does not have a problem. “Without imposing anything, I question a lot. I feel [that when] an actor gets more involved, it’s not a negative thing.” However, it is only now, he points out, that he can give inputs. Earlier, for instance, he did not even go back to the monitor to see his shots while filming for Hasee Toh Phasee (2014), Ek Villain (2014) and Brothers. With each film, though, he changed his look and “broke down the physical aspect of the character which is the easier thing and what every actor should do”.

Malhotra, now firmly entrenched in the A-list of Bollywood, says it took him a while to understand the importance of networking, especially for a rank ‘outsider’ like him. But he isn’t losing sleep over sustaining himself here. “Survival is not the issue; it’s to better yourself,” he says. Despite being a late entrant—he made his acting debut at 27—Malhotra is happy with the pace at which he’s going. “I am not racing with anything or anyone; it’s all about quality. I would like to do this for the longest possible time. As long as I make movies which are good enough to be remembered in the years to come, it doesn’t matter what year I came in.”

Pathak-Shah, too, notes Malhotra’s quiet confidence. “He was happy to admit that he didn’t know what he didn’t know and he was happy to bring what he knew to the table,” she says.  

This attitude has helped him land top-tier projects, but Batra feels it’s too early to judge him.

Malhotra himself agrees there’s still a long way to go. “A certain level is achieved only after a repertoire of work,” he says. “There’s so much more to learn, to experience, so much more for me to give. I hope the peak never comes.”

The give-and-take also happens with his fans: He often conducts ‘Ask Sid’ sessions on Twitter to connect with his fans. “It’s something I feel obligated to do. It’s important for all of us to interact with our fans,” says Malhotra.

Though acting takes up most of his time, the actor is obsessed with fitness and sport. Having played rugby as a teenager, he would be happy to endorse any sport apart from cricket. “We cannot possibly be a country of 1 billion people and only play cricket,” he says ruefully. Besides, he also wants to create some “interesting” training places for people in India. “There’s great scope for people to get fit than by just lifting weights in the gym.” His garden gym is an example. He’s set it up himself, complete with a hammer slant, tyres (for flipping) and a climbing rope. He also enjoys football and regularly represents the All Stars Football Club—a team comprising celebrities that practises every Sunday. Besides sports, he watches a lot of TV shows and is currently hooked to Game of Thrones. But it’s the freedom to travel across continents that truly thrills him: “I feel I am lucky enough to afford it now, so why not?”

His ambitions, however, ensure movies are never off the radar. He’s excited about the third installment of Aashiqui and has high expectations from the remake of Ittefaq (1969), a murder mystery, apart from an action film with director Krishna DK. “I am glad to be working in an era where content comes first because it only leads to better stories,” he says.

But all the work—and play—is a poor substitute for his family that still lives in Delhi. “I have come to an age where I enjoy their company a lot. It keeps you level-headed.”

At the same time, he’s happy that Mumbai has made him feel at home and given him friends for life.

From living in half a bedroom, Malhotra is now housed in a sea-facing apartment in tony Bandra. And this time, he points out, the windows have blinds.

(This story appears in the Sep-Oct 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)