After his impactful debut in 1996 with Gulzar’s Maachis, actor Jimmy Sheirgill set out in a completely new direction, taking up roles that had no connection with what he had previously done, resisting every attempt of filmmakers to typecast him. He speaks to Bulbul Sharma about how he managed to gain recognition in Bollywood without any backing, and how he is adapting to the changing landscape of India’s entertainment industry.
Q. Maachis was your first film and was very different from the kinds of films you did later in your career. As you look back, are you happy with your acting debut?
A. Absolutely. I have no regrets. Maachis was my first film, before which I hadn’t ever seen a film being shot. I hadn’t seen a camera on which a film was shot. Whatever I learnt at that point, I learnt it from Gulzar Sahab [who directed Maachis]. A lot of people asked me why I was doing a small role in this film. But there was something inside me telling me to go ahead with that movie. And I am so proud I did that film and started my career with it.
Q. Your debut happened in 1996. But it was your second film, Mohabbatein, released in 2000, that is considered your breakthrough in the industry. What happened in those years in between?
A. It is difficult if you don’t know anybody [in the industry] and have done only one film. You are back to looking your normal self and people don’t recognise you because they know you as some other person they had seen in a movie. People who wanted to work with me also wanted my look from Maachis and they were surprised to see me clean-shaved and in short hair. But my family supported me through that time, and for about three years it was difficult for me. I finally got Mohabbatein in 1999 and after that people started recognising me because my character in the film was exactly how I looked in real life.
Q. Despite being cast only in romantic roles in the beginning of your career, you went on to do some intense roles in films like A Wednesday!, Tanu Weds Manu and Bullett Raja among others. How did that happen?
A. It was a conscious decision. After Mohabbatein, the kind of films I was doing—films like Mere Yaar Ki Shaadi Hai , Dil Hai Tumhara —all had me playing a very chocolate-boy character. Apart from this, what was written about me also projected me as a lover boy. And something inside told me that this kind of image will not take me anywhere in the long run. Then I decided to take up some intense, meatier roles, where people would feel that this cannot be done by someone who has played the kind of characters I had in the past. That’s how movies like Haasil, Munna Bhai M.B.B.S., Yahaan, A Wednesday!, Saheb Biwi aur Gangster, Tanu Weds Manu and others happened. And this change in the image and choice of characters didn’t happen overnight. In the beginning, I might have been a little insecure then. But now, when I look back, I feel glad that I took that risk.
Q. You are a popular star in the Punjabi film industry as well. How did you begin your journey there?
A. I am from Patiala, Punjab. When I was doing Hindi movies, Manmohan Singh Ji, the cameraman and cinematographer of Maachis and Mohabbatein, moved to Punjab and started directing Punjabi films. He made a couple of films after he met me and asked me if I was interested in doing a Punjabi film. I did my first Punjabi film purely for Manmohan Singh Ji. He was a father figure, and such an ace cameraman who has worked with Yash Chopra and Yash Raj Films. He is the industry’s most respected cinematographer. I did my first Punjabi film, Yaaran Naal Baharan , with him and I had such a great time going back home and shooting for the film in Chandigarh and Himachal. I got back with great memories of the times when I was in university and of my friends. I went back to doing Hindi films after that. Then a few months later, when the film released, we saw that theatres were flooded with people and I thought that this could turn out to be a very big industry. Around that time, the idea was that people are not interested in watching Punjabi films in theatres and barely any Punjabi films were being made… But after experiencing the potential of the industry, I decided to do at least one Punjabi film every one or one-and-a-half years… And I am so glad today that the Punjabi industry is doing so well.
Q. Are you happy with how your career is panning out?
A. I am very happy. I am enjoying doing different kinds of things, and I am glad that I am not stuck doing anything particular and repetitive. You need to just keep experimenting and building your portfolio. I believe in just enjoying my work and want to continue doing different kinds of roles.
Q. How have things changed in the film industry since the time you started out to now, when you are about to complete 25 years here?
A. When I went to Mumbai, there were only three or four channels. There was Home TV, Sony, Zee and DD. Today, if you start surfing in the morning, you could go on till evening. There is space for everybody to be an actor and try different things. It is very fluid and flexible these days. There is a lot of space for talent. Back in our days, you had to spend almost half of your life to just get noticed… Today there is social media, you put one picture and it is seen by everybody. It is a different world today.
Q. Your latest release is Zee5’s web series Rangbaaz Phirse. What drew you to the show and to the character you play, the gangster Raju Thehat, in the series?
A. What I really like about Zee5 is the fact that they are going for a very original kind of content and not any remakes. Last year I had gone for a screening of Rangbaaz 1 and Saqib [Saleem, the protagonist in Rangbaaz 1] happens to be a friend, and it was Tigmanshu’s [Dhulia] debut. I had really liked how original the series was back then and I also liked the basic idea behind this—it is a story of people who were not meant to be criminals but ended up being one. They were people who could have had a very different life but they lost out to the system. The idea was very nice and I loved the first season… When the makers came to me with the second season and narrated the story, I took it up. I knew that Siddharth Mishra is a great writer and he had written the first season as well. His writing is so rooted in the subject he is writing about and the second season is also written by him. And Sachin [Pathak], who was directing it, is Nishikant Kamat’s associate, and I have worked in Madaari  with them. He is also an actor—he did one scene in Bullett Raja. I knew them very well. So when they came and narrated the whole script to me, I was convinced with the story; it is a good story. Then we started working on it. They told me to grow a thick beard for the present look and that they would shoot for some flashback portions with me wearing a moustache. They had everything planned. I like directors who, after narrating the story, also tell you how the background score is going to be like, how the dialogues are going to be and what would be the feel of the character. So they were very sorted. In a world where so many copyrights are being taken and then remade into Hindi series, it is commendable how people are still are investing in original content and we need to support them.
Q. The first season of Rangbaaz was well received by the audience. What are your expectations from its second season?
A. The audience knows what kind of world they are going into. But the idea this time was to get a bigger audience. The scale is bigger this time. It is a very different story and the first season continues to be among Zee5’s top three most-watched series. So the second season of Rangbaaz has to go beyond. I am expecting this season to do better than the first.
Q. What are your views on OTT platforms and web series?
A. It is a nice space for actors to live a particular character for about 70-80 days. Sometimes, you also do the same for a film, but to do this for a span of about nine episodes, which are about a minimum of 35-40 minutes each, is exciting. So doing one series is almost like doing three movies in one go… It is a great space to be in and I love it. It is a very new and enjoyable space.
Q. What’s next after Rangbaaz 2?
A. For now, it is Rangbaaz. We have been working on it for some time now. Since May, June we have been working on it; we started shooting it in July. After this, it will be my Punjabi film, which may release around March or April next year. We know about these two things as they are complete. We will know about the others as they complete and dates are finalised for them.