The Game Changer: Praneet Bhat


The Game Changer: Praneet Bhat
In conversation with Ruchi Kak

I really enjoy interviewing people I have met earlier in my life. I think it broadens my perspective on life, and it’s always fun to see how someone’s life journey has evolved over time. Especially, when their dreams are far-fetched and seem too utopian to come true.

I distinctly remember the first time Praneet and I met in 1996. A prospective-engineering student, sitting across our living room in Bombay, enacting an intensely emotional scene from SRK’s Darr. I remember this moment vividly because he was not acting for an audience – he was acting for himself. And as a teenager myself, I couldn’t quite figure out if he was crazily talented or both crazy and talented.

Praneet Bhat became an overnight success playing the mythological mega-villain Mama Shakuni, for the world’s best known epic, Mahabharata, aired on Star Plus in 2013. He went on to win the covetous award for “Best Actor in a Negative Role” at the Indian Telly Awards, 2014. His every move on Big Boss 8, was followed by thousands of fans tuned into the reality TV contest. Forbes India Celebrity, listed him as a nominee within the top 100 TV stars of India, 2014. His popularity continues to soar with over 80,000 fans on Twitter.

He attributes his success to his family and more importantly his parents, Ratni & Ram Krishan Bhat, for giving him the best possible education and amenities in life, which were sometimes out of their reach. His friends call him Mahadev for his generosity and he says his belief in god carried him through the tough times of his life.

Listening to his life unfold from the time we interacted in Bombay, I realize that he had every reason to take up a conventional steady-income corporate job. Yet, he was bold enough to pursue his passion. Most people are oblivious to the psychological strength it takes, to make it in this industry; yet he clearly tamed the bull by its horns. He says, the one thing that he has learned from his journey is that “It is possible.” And as for me, there is no more figuring it out – the guy is crazily talented!

In conversation with Praneet:

How did you begin acting?

I have always wanted to be an actor. I wanted to pursue a degree in acting from the National School of Drama after high-school, but my mom said “engineering first, everything else later”. I pursued my degree in Mechanical Engineering from K.K. Wagh Engineering College in Nashik, Maharashtra. I took a gap year in the third year of college, backpacked around Maharashtra and tried to find myself. I modelled around a bit and realized acting was my calling. I came back to college, finished my degree and joined Wipro, Bombay in 2002. I worked during office hours at Wipro and visited film studios in Andheri during the evenings. I really enjoyed observing the details at a film shoot. I also auditioned a bit and got my first character role for a movie in Hyderabad. I showed my friends my signing bonus of Rs.500 and told them “shayad bhagwaan ney meri sunly.” Happily, I decided to quit my job with Wipro and pack my bags for the shoot in Hyderabad.

Do you have a memorable story to share about your early days in acting?

I was ready for my acting debut at the Ramoji Film City studio. I was under the impression that I was acting as one of the main supporting roles within the plot. However, it became clear to me that I was only being used as an “extra” filler. All my hopes of a true acting debut were crushed. I walked out of the set feeling dejected and saw a man sitting under a tree. In an instance, I realized this was the very famous Rajni Kanth. He was wearing a gunji and sitting outdoors in the hot summers of Hyderabad. I introduced myself to him and he wished me all the best. I genuinely asked him” Sir, is there no money in this profession?” He looked amused and asked me “Why I felt this way?”. I said “Why are you seated outside in such terrible heat – a great star such as yourself?” He laughed and explained that there was plenty of money in this field and he was only seated outside, so he could avoid shuffling between air-conditioned and hot air during shoots. I doubt I will ever forget my meeting with the great Rajni Kanth on my first day of shoot!

How did you sustain yourself in a fierce city like Bombay, during the early years?

After coming back from Hyderabad, I didn’t have any money and so I stayed in a chawl. I decided to pursue a career in acting and did not get back to my corporate job. I thought If I keep my feet in two boats, I will never cross the river. So, having chosen a career in acting, I decided to live within my means irrespective of it being a chawl or an apartment.

I eventually worked with a production house as an assistant trainee in 2004. I lived in their office and multi-tasked in all kinds of roles, including making tea for their guests. I really wanted to understand what acting was all about, and this gave me a great opportunity to network with the industry insiders. The project ended in a year and a half, and I was back to zero again. I didn’t have a career yet.

I went for auditions but didn’t hear back. I didn’t have a steady income, so I shared an apartment with friends and would pass my time in the apartment balcony, thinking about how I could become a better actor. I survived on a diet of boiled eggs or Rs.6.00 puree-baji plate at the local vendor. I was constantly being compared to my friends at Wipro who were now well-settled in their jobs.

So, you eventually competed in an acting contest for MTV. What was the experience like?

By 2005, it had been three and a half years since I finished college and I still didn’t have anything to show for. Sometimes, I would get modelling assignments which would help me to get by. I didn’t consider these as substantial steps towards a career in acting.

In 2005, MTV held a contest for aspiring actors. My sister, Madhu, coaxed me to compete in this contest. I promised her I would go for the auditions. When I reached the auditions, I saw a long line of about 3000 people waiting to audition. I decided to walk away knowing my chances were already slim. As I walked away, I heard a watch-man call out to me. He said in Marathi “wait a minute boy, where are you going?”, so I told him about my slim chance of auditioning, and he said “you can enter from this door and skip the line.” He let me into the audition hall. I auditioned for the contest, didn’t think I would make it and went back home. After a few days, I heard loud knocking on my door early in the morning. The MTV team barged into our apartment and declared that I had been selected as one of the final contestants and was one of the winners. We would start working with the Balaji Telefilms productions and act in TV serials. I felt confident, yet in my head, I still felt I didn’t understand the craft of acting. At the shoots, I wasn’t able to understand why I couldn’t really act despite being given an opportunity to act. I would come home and cry. As a result, I couldn’t perform as per their expectations and slowly I faded out of the character-roles that were offered to me in their TV serials. The show eventually flopped because of low-TRPs but the loss was mine. All of my peers were given lead-character roles in other serials produced by Balaji, and I was worse than where I had started. Back to zero, no roles, no career, no money and this time my confidence was shattered.

How did you get your initial lead-roles on TV?

I thought acting was not my cup of tea and I started looking for creative director roles. I worked for some time with Ramanand Sagar’s production house, Sagar Arts. Shortly, there was a flood and we lost everything.

I would come back home and cry. In hindsight crying made me more expressive. I felt some great power was training me as an actor. I got a short-film and worked with the team for 10 days. Everyone was very happy with my performance. The producer of the movie, Manish Goswami, really appreciated my work and was interested in working with me. I got the lead role of a Crime TV reporter, for Kitu Sab Janti Hai for Sahara One. I was shooting 20 days in a month. Meanwhile, I also starred as a villain for Antarisksh, for Star Plus. I felt elated. I thought “this is it boss, I know my job, my craft. I am acting as a villain and a hero. I have arrived.” After these two shows wrapped up , again no one gave me any work.

What contributed to enriching your acting skills?

I watched a Romeo and Juliet production at Prithvi theaters in Mumbai, 2007. That is the day I understood the craft of acting. I was mesmerized by the lead-actor. I watched the actor and the audience’s engagement to the scenes. I finally understood what was missing in my craft. I put the links together and auditioned for the lead-parallel role (based on Ruskin Bond’s stories) at Prithvi. I got selected and acted in 65 house-full shows. It was a super-hit and I was the star of the show. Theatre gave my soul the freedom to act but I missed being a cinematic actor. Theatre didn’t pay enough to take care of my expenses, so I decided to move on. I was offered the lead-role in the first fantasy show of India, Arslaan, aired on Sony. I felt more confident facing the camera as a result of my work in theater. We shot for 18 episodes in heritage sites across Gujrat. I got trained in Marshall arts and played the dream-role of a fantasy super-hero. The Production house had put a lot of money in this show. Unfortunately, it was way ahead of its times and I was out of work again in 2009. All of my industry friends (Gurmeet, Karan, Barkha and Mansi) had moved onto greener pastures and I was yet again back to the starting point of my career.

Can you tell us about a challenge you faced in life? And how did you overcome it?

I have faced many challenges in my life, so it is tough to choose just one! I was out of work again in 2009, post Arslaan. I felt like things never worked out for me and after every wave of success, came a crashing wave of destruction. I was given the opportunity to star in a big show on a prominent channel, and I was excited about this new phase of life. Shortly thereafter the channel announced a new head, and this man is known in the industry for hiring actors through the casting couch. He had previously made me an offer to sleep with him, which I had outright rejected. I told him “I am a Kashmiri Pundit and we believe in goddess Sarasvati”. If I was destined to act, I would do it on my own merit and not through the casting-couch. As the channel head, he ensured that I lost the lead-character role in this TV serial and sent a message for me to “see what Sarasvati could do” for me. I went back to his office and told him that the world did not start and end with him, and that he was not god. I subsequently parted ways with the channel.

What kept you going through these difficult times in life?

My ex-girlfriend broke-up with me during 2009. It was a difficult time in my life. I had no work, no money and no love. The reality of my life had come crashing down on me, I felt broken on the inside. I would survive on Rs.6.00 puree-bajee plates for the entire day. It was on one such day at the food stall, that I felt my heart beat really fast and felt very dizzy. I thought I was going to die and so prayed to god asking for life, because I felt I had received all of this love from my parents and sister and had done nothing for them in return. I rushed to the closest medical center where they treated me for a panic-attack. That evening my sister, Madhu and brother-in-law Dev Ji, arrived from Pune, to take me back to their house. My parents also arrived shortly at my sister’s house in Pune, and it was for the first time in my life that I witnessed my father being really angry. It had been 9 years since I had completed my engineering and I had nothing to show for. In fact, now I was a burden on my sister. I had a complete mental break down. My mom asked me to take some time over the next three days and really think about “what I was good at?”. I thought hard over the next few days and went back to her and said “I am really good at acting.” My sister and brother-in-law gave me a lot of love, and their core message was hang in there, something will work out! I was depressed but no one was ready to see it, they all felt I just needed a little time off and all would be well again. So, they planned a trip to Agra. I still felt that I was mentally disturbed and that I was finished in terms of a career and had failed drastically as an actor. I would just keep to myself. My family didn’t think so and from Agra, they planned a yatra to a Mata Ka Mandir in Rajasthan. They wanted all of us to fit in one car for the road-trip and decided that I would be driving. In my mind, I was thinking I am mentally disturbed and my family is asking me to drive! What should I do? I made the decision to drive. As soon as I sat behind the steering wheel, I told myself to be a man and take back all control over my life. I started to audition again in Mumbai and soon after got the lead-character role for Geet, for Star One.

What was the turning point of your life?

Meeting my spouse, Kanchan Sharma. She is the anchor to my boat. I saw her for the first time, under the bright light of a lamp-post at a Dandiya dance. I thanked goddess Durga and co-incidentally winked at her. Her first impression of me wasn’t positive. It took a while for me to convince her of my good intentions. We moved in and eventually got married in 2015. She was the turning point of my life.

How did you think of the one-eye closed look for Mama Shakuni’s role?

After a year of rehearsing for the Mama Shakuni role, I was ready for the very first shoot. I delivered my act with heart-breaking conviction, to a loud applause and tears from everyone in the room but the producer. I knew something wasn’t right and he summoned me for a walk. He said something along the lines of “this isn’t Amitabh Bachchan crying about his sister’s misfortune, it is Shakuni the embodiment of all evil, who is crying over his sister’s misfortunes.” So, I went back home and spoke to Kanchan about it and showed her the clip. She said the problem was that I looked “too cute” and not really villainous.

I already had the beard and the blackened teeth. I went back to the shoot, re-enacted the scene with one-eye closed and Shakuni the villain was born.

I became an overnight star and along with it came tremendous amounts of money, fame and respect.

What advice do you have for young actors?

Keep your patience, especially when fighting the tide and remind yourself it’s not your time yet. Be like the athlete that wakes up at 4 am every day to jog in the morning, only to win the gold medal a decade later. Acting is an art improved through training. Actors aren’t born, they are trained. Struggles make you evolve into a better version of yourself. The one lesson, I learned in my life is that “It is possible, but it needs strict discipline and training.”

What inspires you to keep going?

I was really moved when Salman Khan, introduced me to his mother and she wanted to take a photo with me. I also took my entire family to the Indian Telly awards when I received the award for the “Best Actor in a Negative Role” in 2014. And to hear my grandmother, tell Salman Khan that “You will be a big actor someday” was priceless. I still don’t consider myself to be a commercial actor yet. I aspire to see myself on the big screen when people buy a ticket in my name.

What’s your favorite childhood memory of Kashmir and will we ever see you acting in Kashmiri?

My family moved out of Kashmir in 1989. I have never visited Kashmir post the exodus of Kashmiri Pundit’s. I mentor many Kashmiri actor’s seeking guidance. All Kashmiri’s should know that Kashmir has always been a part of India, and always will remain a part of India. India is at the forefront of economic development, trade and technology and so it is easy for anyone to make a wise decision and choose India. The Sufi culture has always been associated with Kashmir and so we don’t need to look far for values of peace and unity. I believe that the way forward, is through education and peace. I would love to act in a Kashmiri film!

What are your future plans?

I am only interested in roles in which I use all of my capabilities and all of my 16 cylinders! I just completed working on a Marathi film “Aa la re ala” and a Punjabi film “He-man”. I also signed up for the role of a Persian emperor Darius, in the much-awaited periodical drama, Porus, which captures the history of India prior to 500 BC. I have also launched my own production house to produce TV shows, plays and films. I believe there is some design which makes things work out automatically. After having seen all of my successes and failures, I go with the flow and try to stay happy.