I woke up to the acting talent of Vikas Kumar when I watched him play the lead in the TV show ‘Khotey Sikkey’, produced by YRF TV (Yash Raj Films’ television wing). The actor’s portrayal of the tough and sincere Inspector Deshmukh remained etched in one’s mind long after the first and the only season of the show came to an end. In the last decade, Vikas has been a part of several prestigious films like ‘Ajji’, ‘Parmanu: The Story Of Pokhran’, ‘Hamid’ and TV and digital shows like ‘Powder’, ‘CID’ and ‘Aarya’. The actor also owns a firm called ‘Strictly Speaking’ which offers services related to dialogue and diction coaching. As a dialogue/diction coach, he has lent his expertise to films like ‘Ishqiya’, ‘Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’, ‘Aurangzeb’, ‘Fitoor’ and ‘Shakuntala Devi’, among others.
In this interview, he talks about his eventful journey in the entertainment industry as an actor and a dialogue/diction coach, his latest film ‘Uljhan/The Knot’ garnering accolades at prestigious film festivals all across the globe, seeing class and caste differentiation in the society very closely, how ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge’ inspired him to become an actor, upcoming projects and more.
‘Uljhan (The Knot)’ has made rounds of several prestigious film festivals across the world and has been nominated for various awards apart from garnering appreciation from the audience. Ashish Pant, the director of the film has described ‘Uljhan’ as “a film that explores the chasm of class by putting the lens on marriage”. How would you define it?
I can’t define it better than how he has (laughs). It looks at class and caste differences in a very subtle manner through the relationship of the couple. There is no preaching. From the treatment to the performances to the camerawork to the dialogue, everything is very understated. It will be released in India eventually. It is essentially an independent film. Usually, such films are sent to festivals across the world and shown there first. Once the festival round is over, the makers will chalk out a plan for a worldwide release.
While many films have been made on the issue of caste discrimination, very few films have touched upon class.
Our film is essentially about class discrimination. A lot of people say we are not patriarchal but it is so deeply ingrained in us that it always remains a part of us in some way or the other. You also tend to maintain a certain distance from people who you think are from a lower caste or class. I could relate to the film because of the way my personal belief system functions. I don’t believe in treating the driver or the staff differently. To say please, sir and thank you is second nature to me.
Though you studied at Welham Boys’ School in Dehradun, you spent your holidays in Bihar Sharif, a small city in Bihar. In your formative years, did you observe some of the things which the film talks about?
Fortunately, I have been very aware of these things right from the beginning. I feel it’s important to have that awareness. I don’t believe in religion or caste. By birth, I belong to what they call OBC. I have seen people who are higher up in the so-called caste hierarchy thinking of themselves to be superior. I have also seen people from my caste feeling superior to people who belong to so-called backward castes. I have always had arguments about this with people in my society, neighbourhood and elsewhere. Fortunately, my father was quite a revolutionary person in terms of bringing about changes in the society. He always stood up for what’s right. Just sitting with him and listening to his stories inspired me. There is one particular incident I distinctly remember him telling me about. He was studying in a medical college and had come home during vacations. He belonged to a poor family and whenever he would come back to his village, he would gather all the youngsters and engage in social activities like doing cleaning up the streets and other areas of the village. There was this one particular day when he and others were cleaning the drainage system and feeling very thirsty. He knocked at somebody’s door and requested them to give him some water. The girl brought water for him and it became a big issue as she and her family belonged to the dalit community. He was the first person from his village to consume something from a dalit’s hand. He spoke to the villagers and made them realize there was nothing wrong in having water or food from somebody who belonged to a different caste. He kept fighting these battles and things improved gradually. Even I had my share of such experiences. One day, I was coming back from a friend’s place in my hometown. Since Bihar Sharif is a small town, you could just walk to most places. I was crossing this lane where these two ladies were sitting and eating outside their hut. Out of courtesy, I said ‘pranaam’. They greeted me back and offered me food. I told them I had already eaten a lot of food at my friend’s place and would not be able to eat more. One of the ladies misunderstood me and told me that I will not eat at their home as they belong to a lower caste. I walked up to them and had a bite from the same plate she was eating in to prove that I had no such feelings in my heart. The lady was in tears and blessed me.
Apart from being an actor, you are a diction and dialect coach too. Your first project was the Hollywood film ‘One Knight With The King’. You trained 40 Indian actors to speak in British accent. Can you speak multiple languages?
I have a good command over English, Hindi and Magadhi (Maghi). I don’t speak other languages but I do have a knack for understanding accents and sounds. If somebody needs to be taught a particular language or accent, I can help them with some theory and technique behind it. I don’t understand any language but I can prepare and try and have others understand.
You have a firm called ‘Strictly Speaking’. Does the fact that you work as a dialect/diction coach on several projects, make you take up lesser amount of work as an actor?
If you ask me, I am equally passionate about being an actor and a dialogue coach. At Strictly Speaking, we provide all kinds of services related to dialogue coaching. We train commentators. We are the ‘Public Speaking Coach’ at Miss India. We are a team and we handle different projects. Sometimes, I am directly involved and at times, I supervise. Running this company gives me the opportunity to choose my acting assignments. I don’t have to act for money. I would like to act more but I don’t know how to market myself.
As an actor one of your first major projects was the TV show ‘Powder’ produced by YRF Television. After that, you did another show with them called ‘Khotey Sikkey’ in which you were the lead. After that show, we expected to see more of you but that didn’t happen then. Why?
This has happened with me a lot of times. The profession is such that you are never sure about things being stable at any point. There have been times when I thought things would move smoothly but I realized you can’t predict things in this industry. As far as ‘Khotey Sikkey’ is concerned, the plans were grand for the show. The show was ahead of its time. We would have had a few seasons but then, YRF shut down its television wing and there could never be a second season. In this industry, people typecast you very soon. I get a lot of cop roles. Though I am playing a cop in ‘Aarya’, it has many layers to it. ACP Khan is more humane than your regular cop in the uniform. In ‘Uljhan’, I am playing a Lucknow based businessman. As an actor, I try to pick projects that excite me.
You did your MBA in Delhi. What made you come to Mumbai?
I finished my postgraduation so that my family back home would feel a sense of security about my career. I did an honours in Zoology and then got an MBA degree. Immediately after getting my degree, I got a pretty decent job. However, I didn’t take it up. I told my parents if things don’t work out for me, I will take up a job. Thankfully, I never had to go that side. I have been doing what I enjoy doing. I am not overly ambitious. I am grateful that I have been able to take care of my family.
How did you get drawn to acting?
When I look back, I realize the passion to act was there since childhood. An average Indian kid is fascinated by Bollywood and cricket. I think the catalyst was ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge’. For many people in my age group, that was one film that made you fall in love with films and perhaps, filmmaking. We all loved Shah Rukh Khan and the film. When you fall in love with a film, you also get intrigued by the process behind it. Though I was very good at studies, I didn’t want to follow the traditional path. I was gearing up to study medicine but I remember telling my parents about my desire to explore other options too. I did appear a couple of times in medical entrance but my heart was not in it. When I joined Barry John for a three-month course, I told my father I want to pursue acting seriously. I was not sure if the desire was coming from the right place. I told him if I don’t perform well, I will come back. I did very well in the three-month workshop. I was a huge fan of Shah Rukh Khan and Manoj Bajpayee, I went to Barry John because of that.
Do you think the requirement for dialogue coaches has increased sharply in the last couple of years owing to a large number of young actors coming from an affluent background or film families where they grew up speaking in English?
I think so. If you look at yesteryear actors, even people who played smaller parts had a good command over Hindi and even Urdu. Somehow, in the last couple of decades, there has been a lot of western influences in our society today. A lot of newcomers, who come from affluent families, have grown up speaking in English. Nothing wrong with that but it does prove to be hindrance for them when they start their career in Hindi films. The need for dialogue coaches and diction trainers has increased because of this factor. Also, a lot of films these days are set in the heartland or the interiors of the country. And, filmmakers want the actors to sound authentic.
Which has been your most satisfactory project as an actor and as a dialogue coach?
It’s difficult to pick one. My two most recent assignments, ‘Aarya’ and ‘Uljhan’, have been very special. The first time I faced the camera was for a short film called ‘Shanu Taxi’. My first project on TV was ‘Powder’. I have enjoyed playing most of the roles that came my way and tried to give my best to every project. I feel with ‘Uljhan’ and ‘Aarya’ a lot of things have fallen into place. The experience I had on the set was incredible. ‘Uljhan’ is an independent film but has been made with a lot of love. ‘Uljhan’ ‘Aarya’ is a big project and had some very good people. The commercial success of ‘Aarya’ helped a lot. As a dialogue coach, ‘One Knight With The King’ was my first job and it taught me a lot. For that project, I sourced out books from a friend who was working in a British call center. ‘Ishqiya’ was the first time I was fully there on the sets.
Two of your upcoming projects are ‘Bhoot Police’ and ‘Dhamaka’.
‘Bhoot Police’ has been a very satisfying project. The dialect in the film is essentially UP. I was also the acting coach on the film. The kind of freedom I got and the trust they showed was amazing. It was truly a collaborative effort. The film had a lot of scenes involving mudras and mantras. All those sequences have been done by me. I researched and executed those sequences. Working with Ram Madhavani on ‘Dhamaka’ after ‘Aarya’ was a great experience. Ram and his whole team have been family to me. We share a good rapport. I was the acting coach and workshop director on the film. I have also done a role in the film. All the actors, including Kartik Aaryan, Amruta Subhash and Mrunal Thakur, took my suggestions very positively and incorporated them. Because of the Covid-19 situation, all the preparation happened on Zoom. The shoot was challenging because this was the first time, I was an actor as well as acting coach on the same film.
You recently wrapped up the shoot of the second season of ‘Aarya’. What can we expect from the new season of the show?
Just like the first season, it’s got plenty of thrills. A bunch of new characters have been introduced in this season. ACP Khan, the character I play, has also evolved. A lot of my scenes are pretty different from how they were in the first season.