Manav Kaul’s your everyday guy, yet he’s effortlessly cool as he switches roles between being actor, director and playwright
There’s always a story behind a story that fewer people know about. When the casting director Karan Mally of Tumhari Sulu was scouting for a male lead opposite Vidya Balan, he accidentally scored gold with Manav Kaul. ‘Have we found the next Sanjeev Kumar?’ If you are too young to know, Sanjeev Kumar had no hands and no smile in Sholay. Very few remember him that way though. He was the guy next door, a naughty streak in his light smile, the actor who played characters closer to everyday life and charmed his way in to the memories of Indians in the Seventies and early Eighties. His life was cut short too early and with that, a connect with a relatable hero was lost for a while. The team of Tumhari Sulu think they’ve found the next Sanjeev Kumar in Manav Kaul, and I suspect it’s not just them who’ve come to this observation. Just off the post-release promotions and interviews of Tumhari Sulu, Manav met us at the Bond Studio in Pune for his photoshoot. His enthusiasm was infectious, the guy always had a smile on his face between shots, spent the whole day changing multiple outfits and after posing for all the fantastic pictures you see in this story, he then spent about an hour talking to me about his work and life like I’m the buddy he met on his evening jog. I shouldn’t have eaten that McDonalds burger today, shouldn’t eat burgers at all actually, he says with a naughty smile.
Actors these days have too much pressure to look like mannequins chiselled to perfection, and then there’s this regular guy who eats like we do and talks like we do. He’s got instant connect with his audience, on and off the silver screen, whether he eats his burgers or not still have a long way to go. It’s the way we perceive our girlfriends or wife or mother, we should give much more freedom to them. We shouldn’t even be entitled to the power of allowing them to live their life the way they want it. It’s their life and they should be able to do anything they want. Men in India are living the way they want to live. Why not women?” When we ask him about his experience while making the movie, Manav says, “It’s all because of Vidya Balan and Suresh Triveni. Initially, when we were going to start the shoot, he said one thing very clearly to everyone on the unit. He said “I want everyone to have a smile on their face all the time. That one line was so important that we had positivity all the time on the set. That really worked for us. Even Vidya is so amazing a person that the minute she would come on the set, the energy would change. Everyone would start laughing. She is the kind of actor who is a giver. She gives so much to the co-actor and I also come from the same school. Acting is about reacting. So eventually, I didn’t need to act at all. I was just reacting.”
“We finished the entire shoot in just 42 days and the song Ban Ja Rani was scheduled to be shot over an entire day but we wrapped it up in six hours.” What’s next in the pipeline? “After Tumhari Sulu, I want to do something I haven’t done before. I want to go out of my comfort zone all the time. That is a lot of fun to me.” It took him a year and a half to pick up Tumhari Sulu. To that he says, “I don’t do too much work, because I write a lot. I have two short stories published and one more coming up in January/February and I travel a lot. I have my own theatre company called Aranya which I love, so it’s not just acting for me. Although right now, I would want to concentrate more on acting.” On stopping acting in 2003, “I did a movie called Jajantaram Mamantaram in 2003 but after that, I completely stopped acting. I was bored, and I don’t do things that bore me. I started writing and directing plays after that and then I did Kai Po Che in 2013. I count it as my first film. In fact, before Jajantaram Mamantaram, I even acted as a junior artist in a few movies because I needed money. I come from a very humble background.” Theatre paid his bills? “Not at all. I don’t know but somehow I survived. I don’t conceive money in my head so I didn’t give it much thought at the time. (Except for those gigs as a junior artist) I didn’t do any work to make money.” On that last statement and his future pay cheques, “They will pay me. I mean to say that more than money, I seek excitement, I seek something that you can chew.
I’m very hungry and I need to eat good food. I always perform possibilities than just that role. My friends have told me that Ashok in Tumhari Sulu isn’t Manav Kaul at all, and that is acting. I love to perform something else and come back and say, oh I know Ashok very well now. Acting is therapeutic. It is the privilege of an actor to go and live someone else’s life.” Since he’s so much in awe of his characters, does he feel with the roles he plays that the character he portrays is more fun than who he actually is? To that, Manav says, “I like mountains. I love to travel and go to mountains, but in the back of my mind, I always know that Mumbai is my home. That’s your answer.” Even his adventures are related to his art. It’s not about bungee jumping or sky diving, Manav’s idea of an adventure is much different. He recalls, “I was in Korea for a month. In a writing residency and I was the only one who could speak English. I would just watch their work and write and that was one of my finest experiences because I couldn’t talk to anyone and I was just writing. I wrote two short stories and a play there. When in India, Manav travels a fair bit on his bike. He has ridden through Uttarakhand, Himachal, the Konkan belt and is planning a road trip to Kerala with his friends now. Everywhere he’s writing. It could be safe to say that he’s a writer first and then an actor. Since childhood, Manav was fond of the song 'Zara hatke, zara bach ke, yeh hai Bumbai meri jaan'. I used to tell my parents that one day I will go to Mumbai and then I won’t ever come back. I saw my first play in Bhopal when I was 18 and that’s when I decided that this is what I want to do. Before that I was a swimmer. I had third position under the sports authority of India in butterfly stroke.
There’s the Narmada river in Hoshangabad where I used to go for a swim. Someone someday said that he swims well, and soon I was swimming for Madhya Pradesh.” His idea of style? “Style to me comes from talent. If you are talented, whether you are wearing a dhoti or a suit doesn’t matter. You’ve got to be oozing with talent. Something nobody else has.” When asked about the future of Hindi web series in India, Manav the writer’s response comes before the actor in him. He says, “We don’t respect writers. We have to respect writers. Everything comes from the social scenario. We don’t see many young people carry novels in Hindi. In Marathi, a lot of new writing comes up. Colleges constantly have new plays and everywhere they respect writers. It is in their culture to watch plays all the time. If you don’t respect writers in your social environment then you don’t seed new content. What we are doing is that because web series are popular abroad and everyone is shifting focus to digital platforms, there is a shift towards it now, but where is the content? I get a call for a web series every three days, but the content isn’t rich enough.” His thoughts on politics, current affairs and activism are quite pointless. “I like fiction. The last time I read a newspaper was over a decade ago. I’m not interested in watching television. I love fiction writing and living in a fictional world. I find the real world very boring. I’m an atheist, I know that. I feel very strongly about that and I love it. In the film industry, people are very God fearing... “Yes, I don’t know why! They take it seriously. I respect everyone. You lead your life and I lead my life. I just don’t understand that so I don’t follow it.” Manav Kaul wants to perform. Whether as an actor or a writer or director for his plays, he wants to create art that’s from his heart. He rides a bike, he travels like a nomad, respects women and loves his job. He’s a common man living a happy life. He is 40 years old now, and maybe the Hindi film industry has discovered him a bit late as a lead actor. But better late than never, and if he’s typecast into a relatable Indian guy who can connect to the audiences, there are few better niches you could create in this industry.