Actors Adil Hussain and Rajesh Tailang talk to Reuters about portraying policemen during the December 2012 gang rape investigation in a new Netflix series "Delhi Crime", safety in Delhi and the time when they were mugged.
Q: Tell me about your role in Delhi Crime and why you decided to do it?
Rajesh: This is my fourth project with Richie Mehta. The December 2012 incident happened soon after he and I had finished working on 'Siddharth'. We were out at night and a candle-light march was happening at Jantar Mantar. We have been talking about this project since then.
I know he handles projects with sensitivity and this was evident in the script. The role I play is of Bhupendra - an STF (Special Task Force) inspector. Vartika (Shefali Shah) calls him to be a part of the team she sets up. I've played a cop many times, but they are either super heroes or corrupt. Here I could see the human aspect of a cop.
I live in Delhi. We were all very outraged, angry, and there was a desire for instant justice. This character feels that way too. Like I had my limitations and within those I could go to protests and whatever little I could do to contribute. Bhupendra too has limitations since he must function within the boundaries of law.
Adil: I too have known Richie for a long time. I live with my family in Delhi and got a chance to be at home more often since it was shot in Delhi. The story is extremely sensitive.
The crime, when it happened, shook all our consciences. I wanted to be a part of the telling of this story as an actor and as a citizen. And I knew how uniquely Richie would handle this.
I tried to stick to the essence of the story, to retain the human quality of the person, his position, and his team of cops who are working day and night, rather than it being a showing act for Adil Hussain.
Q: Do you feel safe in Delhi? How has the city changed since December 2012?
Rajesh: I feel things have improved a bit, but there is still a long way to go so long as crimes against women and their safety are concerned… What would make a difference depends on what we teach our children, specially how we raise our boys.
I do feel unsafe in Delhi sometimes. Once an auto rickshaw driver attacked me. When I was a student I was attacked with a knife in a bus. Around 2001, when mobile phones were still a novelty, someone snatched my phone. I caught the guy, he attacked me with a knife and got off the bus. Delhi needs more extensive policing. It’s not like the crimes have stopped.
Adil: A fundamental change should happen in the education process and how we bring up our children. What kind of values we give them. Cosmetic changes help a little… like getting cameras installed, women’s cells in the police department, having access to female officers when reporting issues related to women, female officer’s presence while questioning women are things that help, sure.
When my wife goes out in the evening to meet a friend I’m a little less worried now. As a man, do I feel scared? Well a similar incident happened with me. Someone took my cellphone out of my pocket while I was in an auto rickshaw. Another incident that happened with my wife was there was an argument between the owner of a car in front of my wife’s car and two other cars. And this guy got out and took out a gun.
Q: For your roles, as cops in different hierarchies, what kind of research was needed?
Rajesh: I met a few cops. I kept a few of them in focus for this character. I spent time to understand how STF is different from a normal thana. I’ve spent time with policemen for a while now because of my work. I read the case verdict and files available in public domain. I tried to capture the human aspect of Bhupendra more than just a dutiful cop.
Adil: I have been playing Jasoos Vijay since 2001. I have done many such roles. I have a lot of friends who are cops - my school, college friends. I didn't need to do a specific research. Unless the director instructs otherwise I follow the director's instructions to a T.
Q: Was working on this show disturbing for you?
Rajesh: Everyone has been emotionally very disturbed since this happened. We already have that anger within us. It has stayed in our memory and we must keep it alive. People have not forgotten. If via this show people are spurred into thinking, and we put our thoughts towards long term prevention of crimes against women, then that would be worth the while.
Adil: There is no way that it didn’t disturb me, and anybody who has a certain amount of humanity left in them will be disturbed.
Q: Both of you studied at NSD and have an extensive theatre background. How does theatre training help in building a character for screen?
Adil: The kind of theatre that we have done, Rajesh and I, at National School of Drama and like most theatre practices in the world, you prepare, you analyse, explore the script, learn the lines, get to the core of it and slowly the character appears. For any actor in the world, to build a character, one needs to do it in a way that the actor doesn’t become more important than the character.
Rajesh: I feel that my way of analysing the script and the role, and empathising with the character helps me, particularly due to a theatre training.
Q: At what point did you decide that you will be an actor professionally, considering in India it is hard to survive just being a theatre actor?
Rajesh: I started theatre very early, at the age of 13-14. It has been a part of me. When I was in school, my brother put me in a children’s workshop at NSD. Later when I joined NSD after graduation, at that point I decided this is what I am going to do for the rest of my life. But the question of survival still crops its head many times. People at home often say…
Adil: “Earn some money, they say, what are you doing with your life!”
Rajesh: I have stopped thinking about that. People will say anything.
Adil: I did my first play in 1971, at the age of 9 I think. In hindsight, it was the thrill I got. I knew I was going to be an actor when I was 13. And there was nothing else that came to my mind… In Guwahati I did radio shows, street plays etc. Every form of performance you can imagine I have done it.
Then I joined NSD. I don’t want to glorify the economic struggle but it did feel at various points ‘bloody hell there should be some money!’ I often get asked if I weren’t an actor what would I be. I would have been a cook! I could have been a very good driver, maybe a car rally driver.
Q: How difficult is it for an actor to make your way through an entertainment industry that glorifies a certain kind of male hero. The roles you play are close to people we meet in real life. Would you rather be a glorified macho-male?
Adil: (laughs) Rajesh would you like to be a glorified macho male?
Rajesh: Not at all! I like to portray the vulnerabilities of human nature. As an actor, I try to meet similar kind of people who make films that I’d like to be a part of. I approach people who create characters like these.
Platforms like Netflix have given a lot of power to actors like me, owing to their format, where shows attempt to talk about the joy and sadness of characters who are not protagonists. Sub-plots are detailed. The format gives me greater scope towards the kind of work I want to do.
Adil: I remember one of my teachers in England where I studied after NSD, classified actors into three categories. Personality actor, character actor and demonstrative actor… I grew up watching personality actors like Mr. Bachchan, Shatrughan Sinha building the characters according to their personality.
Then I saw a movie called 'Papillon' with Dustin Hoffman and Steve McQueen. That film changed my perception about acting. It seemed like these are real people, picked up from the street and dropped back on the street.
Upon asking a professor I realised these were professional actors! I grew up in a small Assamese town called Goalpara. In a place like that you don’t have access to many things. After watching ‘Papillon’ I realised that I would like to be an actor like this… who can shift shape.
(Edited by Robert MacMillan. This story is web-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.)