Shantanu Maheshwari has made a very successful leap from dance to acting. If Gangubai Kathiawadi gave him a huge Bollywood launchpad, then Tooth Pari — the made-in-Calcutta web series about humans and vampires, in which he plays the (human) lead — is at the top of the charts on Netflix. The Telegraph chatted with the Kolkata boy on the Tooth Pari experience and more.
What was your first reaction when you heard about the out-of-the-box concept of Tooth Pari?
I was never a fan of the vampire genre because I don’t understand it and I can’t relate to it (smiles). But when Tooth Pari was offered to me, I started doing my homework to understand exactly hota kya hain iss sab mein (laughs). Once I did that and then read the synopsis of Tooth Pari, I got on a call with Pratim sir (Dasgupta, the director of the series) and the fact that he was so passionate about the story and about the project rubbed off on me. He explained to me how different it is and what my character is going to be like.
I hadn’t played a dentist before and I was happy to do something new. And anyway, I had to play a lousy dentist, so there was no pressure in terms of doing things absolutely right (laughs). It was super fun!
This is a tricky genre. But if made well, it stands the chance of being widely appreciated. In India, whatever we have seen of this genre so far, has been an adaptation or a copy of a foreign show or film. Most of them haven’t been accepted widely, but there is undoubtedly a huge following for this genre in our country.
Tooth Pari is a very original take. The premise is wacky in itself and the whole world that has been created in the series is very, very original.
You haven’t played someone like Doc Roy before and you sure aren’t a geek in life. What was it like being this character?
It was a lot of fun, actually. He has a lot of traits which are fun. He is disciplined and obedient, but at the same time, he has his own set of ideas about life and what he wants to do with it. He is perceptive about different situations and he has a lot of clarity even in circumstances which may be totally different from what he has experienced in life so far. He has been deprived of romantic love and so when he gets it from Rumi (played by Tanya Maniktala), he doesn’t want to let go of her easily, even knowing that she is not human. He wants to be a chef, he is passionate about cooking and though he’s been forced into dentistry by his father, he still finds ways and means to pursue his passion. He is at peace, he is himself when he is cooking.
Doc Roy is very different from me, and yet there are a few things about him that I could relate to. It was fun to play with the character. It was important not to make him typical or cliched. I think we could make Doc Roy a very likeable character.
Even though you had to play a man who isn’t very good at his job, did you pick up any basic dentistry skills?
Yes. He comes from a family of dentists... he’s been born into that atmosphere. He has been brought up around the family clinic and has listened to conversations about the subject. So even though he doesn’t like being a dentist, he is well-versed with the profession and knows how to handle the instruments. The irony is that he is afraid of blood and so he tends to be bad at his work. That’s something that keeps him away from the joy of the job, but he knows how to get the treatment done.
Which is contrary to how it’s unfolded for you in life. From a very young age, you were encouraged by your parents to pursue your passion for dance...
Yes, very true. In fact, my parents had more belief in me than I did. They pushed me onto a so-called risky path instead of going in for a safe option. My mom saw the talent in me and she would take me to different teachers to learn. On the first day of my dance class, I actually cried! (Laughs) I didn’t want to dance. My parents put up with my weird tantrums and worked tirelessly to make me the performer that I am today.
What was it like shooting Tooth Pari in your city Kolkata?
There was so much nostalgia. During the shoot, we stayed at The Oberoi Grand, which is very close to my school, St Joseph’s College. I have walked on those roads so many times with my friends during school... right from Chandni Chowk to the Rabindra Sadan metro station.
Since we mostly shot Tooth Pari at night, there were so many places that I discovered for the first time in my city, or at least saw them in a different light. Before this, I had never driven a car in Kolkata because back when I lived there, I didn’t have a license. Shooting for Tooth Pari gave me that opportunity. These may come across as small things, but they do add to the joys of life. I have grown up in the city and as a kid, I always thought ki jab main bada honga, main yahan pe gaadi chalaunga aur inn sadko pe ghoomunga.
I also got the chance to have phuchka on screen. That made me so happy! (Laughs) A lot of credit for exploring and showing Calcutta in a very different light should go to Subhankarda (Bhar, cinematographer) and Pratim sir. In Tooth Pari, we have shown a lot of places in Calcutta which haven’t been seen on the Hindi screen before. Like those who dress as Kali Ma and walk on the roads on some specific occasions.
Getting to shoot at the (Maidan) metro station was so nostalgic. Almost every day, for six-seven years, I have taken the metro between Sovabazar and Park Street. To shoot there was amazing! That’s something I always wanted to do. To have my roots in Calcutta and do something like this in my city has been magical.
What was it like being on a predominantly Bengali-speaking set?
It was so cool to hear so much Bangla on set because that’s not something that I am used to. In the initial days, a few of the crew members would converse among themselves in Bangla without realising that I know the language. I would just smile at them. After a few days when they realised I know the language, they were like, ‘Arre sir, aapko Bangla samajh mein aata hain? Oh, humne toh bahut kuch bol diya!’ (Laughs)
We would pull Tanya’s leg a lot. Pratim sir would instruct me in Bangla and he would do that deliberately and she was so clueless! It was amazing working with Ronnieda (Rajatava Dutta)... I have become his fan now.
Shantanu with Alia Bhatt in Gangubai Kathiawadi
You have been in the spotlight for a while now, but Gangubai Kathiawadi was a great launchpad for you as an actor and now you have Tooth Pari. How are you looking at furthering your acting career?
Honestly, a big shout-out to The Telegraph for putting me and keeping me in the spotlight and for making this ‘Kumartuli boy’ quite famous (smiles). Kudos to you guys!
I am enjoying this phase. I have struggled a lot to be where I am today. I am learning how to go about this aspect of my career, it’s new to me. I didn’t expect Gangubai to work for me like it did. I had maybe A se B tak expectations, lekin Gangubai toh poora alphabet leke aa gaya hain!
The good thing is that now I have the freedom of choice... I can choose to do what I want. That’s the best feeling in the world! And, of course, I am still dancing!