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I am not an athlete with a number on my back, nor am I a telephone number'

Tollywood actor Jeet says he'd like to be directed by some of the new wave directors of Bengal. And, he tells Sharmistha Ghosal, he wants to turn his production company into a powerful movie production machine launching future superstars and producing 'meaningful' cinema

By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 19.10.14
Tete a Tete Tete a Tete

The milky white Audi Q7 parked in Lake Avenue has attracted a crowd of young boys. If the SUV is here, can its owner — the actor Jeet — be far behind?

Actually, he is right there — in his office on the second floor of a residential apartment. I had imagined a long wait for him, but to my surprise find him waiting for me instead. The actor looks like he is geared up for battle — he is wearing a camouflage army vest with a Ralph Lauren army-like shirt and Redbridge jeans with green Vertice shoes.

The Tollywood star, I have been told, is not a man who opens up easily. Industry watchers describe him as someone who is diplomatic and politically correct — so much so that he ends up sounding even a bit boring.

I needn't have worried. Jeet speaks for almost three hours, holding forth on subjects as diverse as marriage and struggle, and flitting from his weaknesses and strengths to Salman Khan. And, of course, he talks about Dev.

There's a buzz in the world of Bengali cinema. For quite a while, it was contended that Dev had dislodged Jeet from the number one position among heroes. But now that Jeet's new film Bachchan has edged out Dev's Puja release, many believe that Jeet is ready to reclaim his throne.

The actor looks a bit stern when I bring this up.

"I don't get happiness out of others' defeats. I cherish and enjoy my own victory. I am not an athlete with a number on my back, nor am I a telephone number. And how many times do I need to prove myself," he asks.

Well, with Bachchan, he seems to have proved himself all over again. The film has ably withstood the blows of the other much-awaited Puja releases — including Dev's Yoddha and Srijit Mukherji's Chotushkon.

"So far, Bachchan is much, much ahead of the others in terms of recovery. In two or three weeks, we will recover completely," he says with a broad grin.

Jeet has reason to smile. Arch-rival Dev's last three films — Bindaas, Buno Haansh and Yoddha — haven't exactly set the box office on fire. But the Bachchan star is characteristically diplomatic. "I watched Buno Haansh and I liked it. In fact, I was surprised to see a much improved Dev, and telephoned the director to congratulate him. I can't figure out why the film didn't click. It is really difficult to know what charms the audience," he says.

Jeet is more eager to talk about his own film — and its rocking music. "Rituparna Sengupta called me up the other day and said 'Jeet, what have you done? My daughter just can't stop singing Bachchan.' We wanted the film to appeal to all age groups and we have succeeded," he says, sounding almost like an excited child.

I go back to Dev. There is speculation in Tollywood that the Yoddha star's decision to jump on to the political bandwagon — he is now a Trinamul MP — may have affected his fan base in politically polarised Bengal.

Jeet lights his first cigarette, and carefully measures his words.

"I have never made an extra effort to stay close, or away, from politics. It's something that happened very naturally. Only time will tell if it's good or bad for those who join politics. As for me, I understand a bit of cinema but nothing about politics. So there are no plans of getting into politics right now," he replies, blowing rings of smoke into the air.

What he has in his blood is business. Jeet — Calcutta-born Sindhi boy Jeetendra Madnani — dropped out of college when he was 19 to focus on supplying building material to clients. In 1990, when he says he was 21 or 22 (that makes him 45 or 46, though Wikipedia says he's 36), he started a cable TV business in south Calcutta.

"I hail from a business family; so it is in my DNA. But I had to leave the cable business when I fell short of money — I needed Rs 1.5 lakh to shift to satellite channels," Jeet says almost nostalgically.

When the business folded up, Jeet started looking for a break in television serials. After a few insignificant roles, he moved to Mumbai to try his luck there.

''I reached Mumbai on May 17, 1996. The train was late by six hours and my friend, who had come to receive me, passed the time by watching (Ajay Devgn-starrer) Jaan which had been released that day," he recalls, now peering through the mist of smoke that has almost enveloped the room.

He struggled in Mumbai for five years — with little to show for it. He appeared in a few commercials and music videos, acted in a south Indian film called Chandu, which sank without a trace, borrowed money and moved house eight times to save on rent.

"A local newspaper wrote that I couldn't act to save my life and had no attributes of a film star," he says. The depressed would-be actor turned to a celebrity astrologer, who agreed with the critic.

Lady Luck finally did her bit when Jeet came to Calcutta on a holiday. Director Haranath Chakraborty, to whom he'd earlier presented his portfolio, offered him the lead role in his film Saathi.

The film was a blockbuster. And by the end of 2002, Jeet was a star.

There is little sign of the successful star in his modest — and functional — office. Apart from the black leather two-seater sofa, there is a Mac on his table and two big posters of Bachchan on the walls.

On the screen, though, he has been a raging hit — with films such as Champion and Nater Guru (2003), Premi (2004), Yuddho (2005), Josh (2010), 100% Love and Awara (2012), Boss (2013) and Game (2014). On the anvil now is Boss 2.

Jeet has no qualms about being seen as a mainstream hero. "Connecting with a wider audience is always a bigger blessing and that can be achieved only through mainstream cinema," he points out. But the actor says he would like to be directed by some of the new wave directors of Bengal.

"I love their work and would love to work with them. I watched Srijit's Autograph and Kaushik Ganguly, too, has grown a lot as a director. Kamaleshwar (Mukherjee) even told me that he liked my work and wanted to work with me. I am waiting for a good offer," he says, now junking his cigarette for a protein bar.

He has his own production house, too. Grassroot Entertainment, he says, "is now taking baby steps". He, however, plans to turn it into a powerful movie production machine launching future superstars and producing "meaningful" cinema.

After almost 13 years in the industry, what has he learnt? "My emotional quotient is higher than my IQ. I am very gullible and trust the wrong people and get stabbed in the back. I am still learning, but now I draw a line when it comes to trust," he says.

Jeet wants to now focus on skills that he has long buried. Once a carrom doubles champion at the state level, he hopes to pick up sports again and has applied to a few premier clubs in town to try his skills at outdoor games. He works out regularly but confesses that he loves good food — though he has to restrict himself to boiled food on most days.

"Once, on my niece's birthday, everyone was eating at a restaurant but I carried my boiled vegetables with me," he rues. Jeet adds that he loves Bengali food, though he can't handle the bony hilsa.

He enjoys travelling abroad — where he shops for shoes and designer denim (he has a hundred pairs of designer jeans). He likes popular cinema. And he also admits that he has little interest in the printed word, though he does want to develop a healthy reading habit and watch good films at home.

Life, he says, has changed drastically for him ever since he married Mohna three years ago. It was an arranged marriage — and the actor can't stop raving about his wife. "Mohna is a very sweet and simple girl," he says. "Everything is predestined. And love is the only thing that drives everything and takes relationships to another level," he smiles.

Doesn't she get troubled by his countless female fans? "She is a Salman Khan fan," Jeet coyly replies. So is he okay with that? "I have only Salman to deal with. For her, there are so many," he says and bursts out laughing.

I ask my last question — how does he describe himself. There's a long pause, and then he replies: "Soft within and hard outside, like a coconut, you may say. That's me." Interview over, he now digs into a plate of meat and roti that one of his employees has brought for Id.

His next meal, I am afraid, will consist only of boiled veggies.