Emraan Hashmi is coming out of a hypnotic trance. I watch him on the camera monitor as he lies inert on a chaise longue, then slowly opens his eyes, stirs a little and gets up groggily. The shot is okayed after a couple of takes.
I am marking time on the sets of Daayan in Mumbai’s Film City, waiting for Bollywood’s unlikely hottie du jour, Emraan Hashmi, to meet me. As it happens, it’s a surprisingly short wait. I heave a sigh of relief because Hashmi has been somewhat elusive before this. Once he gets talking, though, he displays no starry airs. On the contrary, he is relaxed and friendly and seems like an utterly regular guy who just happens to act in films. And, oh, who’s been making quite a splash recently with his spectacular run of hits.
We sit chatting in his air-conditioned vanity van: outside, Mumbai’s scorching afternoon sun beats down on the dusty expanse of Film City. Inside, the upholstery is a severe black and everything is devilishly neat. Hashmi too is dressed in black today and looks lithe and urbane in his sharp black shirt and trousers. He is between shots, but he unzips his shoes, slips them off and sits cross-legged on the settee. It’s Emraan Hashmi letting his hair down, and it sure is kinda cool.
Hashmi has had hits before, of course. His very second film, Mahesh Bhatt’s erotic thriller Murder (2004), was a huge commercial success. Since then he has played the flawed, overreaching anti-hero who may or may not self-destruct, in a number of gritty, sex-on-the-side, and mostly successful, small-budget thrillers like Jannat, Zeher, Raaz: The Mystery Continues, Gangster and so on. On the way, he has picked up critical acclaim for his performance in films like Once Upon a Time in Mumbai. And he’s also picked up cheesy epithets like “serial kisser”, one whose smooching prowess is inextricably linked with his star cred.
But if there was a whiff of the smalltime actor about Hashmi at any stage, his recent spate of hits — Murder 2, Jannat 2 and The Dirty Picture — seems to have dispelled it completely. It’s almost as if his years in the film industry have suddenly reached critical mass. Once the protégé of uncles Mahesh and Mukesh Bhatt, Hashmi has now been signed on by a biggie like Karan Johar and is reportedly being eyed by Yash Raj Films as well. Clearly, the 33-year-old actor, who sports a distinctly unheroic, been-there-seen-that stubble and is as far from a chocolate boy hero as his films are from feel-good popcorn romances, seems poised to take his career to the next level.
“I’ve got a lot of offers post Jannat 2 and The Dirty Picture,” he admits with a smile. “But as always, I look at the role and the story and not the production house.”
Although he is now essaying a range of roles — he played an artsy, angsty film director in The Dirty Picture, and acts as a small town hick who’s a journalist by day and a porn video maker by night in Dibakar Banerjee’s just-released Shanghai — Hashmi says that he draws the line at playing the traditional romantic hero.
“I won’t play the good guy ever,” he avers. “In fact, I think the traditional romantic hero is being phased out. Gone are the days when a hero had to be completely good and squeaky clean. Everyone knows now that you have to be slightly devious to get ahead, you have to make moral and ethical choices. You may realise later that the choice was not morally correct. My characters reflect this reality, they reflect our flaws, the things we regret doing. They touch the emotions we feel — jealousy, greed, lust…”
Indeed, Hashmi is astonishingly articulate when he talks about the kind of characters he has played and would like to play in future. It’s evident that he is a thinking actor, one who knows where he’s at and has a pretty shrewd idea about where he’s going. “I shall always play characters who have shades of grey, who are complex and who you don’t fully understand. I like this space — and I’d rather monopolise it,” he says mildly, but you know he is dead serious about what he’s saying.
Hashmi did not always have such a razor-sharp grasp over his goal and purpose. In fact, he almost stumbled into acting. Although his family had links to the film world — his grandmother Purnima Verma was a yesteryear actress and Mahesh Bhatt and Mukesh Bhatt are his uncles — he never aspired to be an actor. Growing up on a steady diet of Hollywood horror films, mostly rented from the neighbourhood video cassette library at 10 bucks a pop, the Bombay film industry was nowhere in his scheme of things throughout school and college.
In fact, his first brush with acting did not end on a promising note. As a child he did some ad films. “The first one was a commercial for Good Knight mosquito repellent. I was six then and I got a pay cheque of Rs 2,500,” he grins. He did quite a few commercials after that. But by the time he was nine he suddenly became very conscious of the camera. “I felt that I was being watched. I started crying and never did an ad again.”
It was while he was drifting purposelessly after college — he studied business administration at Sydenham College and “spent five years just faffing around because I have zilch business sense” — that Mukesh Bhatt asked him to join Vishesh Films, the production house run by Brothers Bhatt. Hashmi, then 21, did just that, though he had no idea what he would do there.
“I tried my hand at editing. Then I tried to get involved with scripting. My cousin Mohit Suri was also with me. He was very focused and hardworking. I, on the other hand, was definitely the worst, the laziest assistant director around,” Hashmi recalls with a laugh.
Then one day Mahesh Bhatt suggested that he become an actor. “I don’t know why Bhatt Saab said that. Probably because he saw that I was completely useless in everything else,” he chuckles.
Does he always call his uncle “Bhatt Saab”, I ask him.
“Well, I call him “Mahesh Mama” when I want something from him,” he twinkles. “Otherwise, at a professional level, he is always Bhatt Saab.”
He still remembers his first shot in the first film he was cast — Footpath (2003). “I kept muffing my lines and it went into 40 retakes. I just couldn’t do it. It was a disastrous first day.”
He barely slept that night. “I recited the lines 400-500 times. When I turned up for the shoot the next evening, I got it right almost straightaway. That’s when I knew I could do it. The film didn’t do well, but I was noticed.”
Hashmi brings the same can-do spirit to his roles even today. For the character of Jogi Parmar in Shanghai, for instance, he says he had to unlearn and relearn a lot of things as he had never played a small town guy before. He also put on nine kilos to get into the skin of the paunchy, insecure and slightly repulsive character he was playing.
What was it like putting on all that weight?
“Oh, it was great fun,” Hashmi laughs. “I was eating all the time. My wife got really pissed off because I used to eat up everything in the fridge. But it was hell losing it,” he says and makes a face.
I ask him about his famous “serial kisser” tag, wryly noting a large bottle of Listerine on a shelf.
Isn’t he tired of the label?
“Oh, you have no idea,” he sighs. He tells me how he got the moniker in the first place. Once when he was shooting in Mauritius for a film called Jawaani Dewaani, a friend bought a T-shirt with “Serial Kisser” emblazoned on it. “I told him if anyone should be wearing that T-shirt it ought to be me because that’s what I do in my films,” says Hashmi. “I asked him for the shirt. He refused. Then I actually stole it from his suitcase and wore it to a promo event for the film! That’s how the name stuck. And my friend, who has never worn that T-shirt again, keeps threatening to put it up for sale on eBay!”
Hashmi says that he was quite comfortable doing those sex and kissing scenes, because having been exposed mostly to Hollywood films, he simply didn’t know that they would be considered “bold” in Bollywood. But then he is rarely squeamish about going off the beaten track. “I’d rather fail at doing something different than succeed at doing something conventional,” he says.
Even his taste in movies is somewhat different from the run-of-the-mill. “I like films that are slightly dark. I don’t like sun-drenched films. My favourite screen characters are those like Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs or the Joker in The Dark Knight — characters who are twisted and quirky,” he says.
Is he slightly quirky himself? “I don’t know,” he grins.
What does his wife Parveen say?
“Oh, she would probably agree,” he says, laughing.
Hashmi, who has a two-and-a-half-year old son, likes to keep his family and professional life scrupulously apart. “I am not one of those people who eats films, breathes films and s***s films,” he says. “I love being an actor, but it’s not everything I am. After 12 hours of doing this every day, there’s got to be a life other than this.”
He is also clear-eyed about what signifies “success” to him. “At the end of the day, the box office is my only barometer of success. To me what’s important is the verdict of the person who spends his hard-earned money to come and watch me in a film. I would like to beat my every earlier opening with every passing film.”
And right now, Emraan Hashmi, who’s gone from being “serial kisser” to “serial hit man” looks like he may do just that.