Avinash Tiwary is having a moment. This weekend, the actor has had two big streaming releases — Bambai Meri Jaan on Prime Video and Kaala on Disney+Hotstar — and he plays the lead in both. Kaala, which is set in and shot in Calcutta, stars Avinash as a law enforcement officer named Ritwik Mukherjee who investigates the quagmire of the reverse hawala racket, of which Naman Arya, played by Taher Shabbir, is the kingpin. t2ONLINE caught up with Avinash and Taher for a chat on the Bejoy Nambiar-directed series.
What prompted you to do Kaala?
Taher Shabbir: I had been wanting to work with Bejoy Nambiar for a long time. When he told me about this role (Naman Arya), I told him: 'I will do anything, I will break a leg, I will break an arm, I will do whatever you say' (laughs). I am just too grateful to be a part of Kaala.
Avinash Tiwary: 'Slick' and 'banger' are the words which came to my mind when I was told about the series. I didn't feel any of those while I was shooting it because my character (Ritwik Mukherjee) is in such chaos throughout... the shoot was really chaotic! I had a tough time dealing with it. When I saw the trailer, I went and asked Bejoy: 'Is this the same series that we shot for?!' (Laughs) He's such a maverick... he is able to create stuff and see things that most others can't. Not everyone is blessed with the vision that Bejoy Nambiar has.
Avinash, I can understand when you say 'chaos' because, for a large part of the series, you look pretty roughed up...
Avinash: Oh my God, don't ask me! The prosthetic make-up took me a couple of hours to put on before we started shoot. You also have to see the amount of running I have done on this show. My character goes through a lot of chaos. He has an up-and-down journey. So Bejoy sir made sure that Avinash also goes through the same! (Laughs) So if you find any truth in my performance, then you know who the credit goes to.
Is there a dominant trait in your characters that leapt out at you?
Taher: In the case of Naman, it's his God complex (in which an individual believes they have great power, ability and infallibility). Naman believes that what he says and does is always right. That was tough for me because I am the exact opposite.
I enjoy playing all my characters, but Naman was a little tough because I don't relate to him at all. He's on a whole other level. Sometimes, actors take their characters home with them even without realising it. I must have carried Naman's attitude home because a couple of times my mother told me: 'Shut up! What are you doing?!' (Laughs) Naman is a little fugazi.
Avinash: Ritwik's sensitivity stayed on with me. In a cop vs criminals chase, we hardly get to see the sensitivity of the protagonist. Bejoy found that in him, which I found very unique.
Ritwik is also unstoppable. He will always be the last man standing and that's the kind of attitude that he lives with. He knows that he will get there no matter what the challenge is. I found his heroism to be very unique to our cinema but absolutely conducive to the present state of our society. Youngsters around us are unstoppable, they want to go and conquer the world. That's something I related to.
What was it like shooting such a chaotic show in chaotic Calcutta?
Avinash: Oh, it did add to it! (Laughs) The trams, the buses... shooting at live locations. But it added such a beautiful colour to the show. It's a city that really offers itself cinematically. There are all kinds of shades and colours in that city. And the chaos of Calcutta adds to the internal, personal chaos that Ritwik goes through. My last experience of shooting in Calcutta (for Bulbbul) was more on the outskirts of the city (The Rajbari Bawali). But this time was sheer madness and I loved it!
Taher: Before this, I had shot in Calcutta only as a director or an assistant director. I have always maintained that it's one of the most beautiful and vibrant cities in the country. And the food, oh my God! I loved Bhojohori Manna!
Avinash: Before this shoot, when I was last in Calcutta, I had a lot of sattu paani on the streets. Otherwise, my go-to was sarsonwaali machchli aur chawal. That was my fixed diet. During Kaala, there was this thali from Bhojohori Manna which was divine...
Taher: The crabs were so good! I am getting hungry now... main chala phir se lunch karne! (Laughs) Aami bhekti khabo!
What was it like being directed by Bejoy?
Avinash: I met him only once before we started shooting. And then when we were on set, it was just like: 'Avinash do this, Avinash do that... Avinash jump, Avinash sit.' That's all that came from him. I am very grateful for the kind of faith and confidence he had in me. That can sometimes scare you as an actor. You feel: 'Main sahi kar raha hoon ki nahin kuch bol nahin raha hain, yaar!' Over a period of time, I realised that he had so much faith in me and that he knew I was capable enough, that he didn't feel he needed to hand-hold me.
I have used the word 'maverick' too many times now but that's actually the best way to describe him. He had immense faith in me and I had huge trust in him and I hope that Kaala makes us earn the faith and trust of the audience.
Taher: I haven't done a lot of work and quite often, there are people around who make you feel that you are inadequate as an actor, that something is amiss. Even if I went wrong in a certain shoot in Kaala, not for once did Bejoy make me feel that... he never made me doubt myself. He also allows you to be the personality that you are, on and off the screen. There is no better gift for an actor than to have an environment like that.
Given that there is more opportunity and diversity, how are you looking at your career now?
Taher: Guilty (co-starring Kiara Advani) changed a lot of things for me. After that, a lot of shows and films came my way, but then the pandemic happened. I always look to do meaningful stuff. Barring one, I have never done a film or series for the sake of it. I am also proud of all that I have done because I stand for certain things. Streaming platforms have come as a boon for actors like me who have managed to make a breakthrough. If we were still stuck with only cinema, hum abhi bhi 'nepotism nepotism' ka gaana gaa rahein hote (laughs).
Avinash: The projects that I am doing now have come courtesy of the credibility I earned through the theatrical release of my film Laila Majnu. From here on, I shall start reaping the benefits of my OTT films and shows. Cinema is limited because the big films will always get 4,000-5,000 screens and the smaller films won't. There is competition and monopoly and it will exist. But OTT is a level playing field because there is so much content being generated. Plus, our content on OTT goes out to 240 countries, which will never be the case in a theatrical release.
I often talk about the power of compounding and all the years that I have spent being an actor sum up to the investment I have made and the credibility I have built and now it has compounded into where I am today. Longevity is what I am looking at.