I want to thank Pitobash for taking the time to speak with me and for showing me his Screen Awards trophy for Best Comic Performance! We had our conversation between the time the show was filmed and when it aired and before we discovered, unfortunately, that the Screen Awards had edited out Pito’s thank you speech. Since I had yet to put the finishing touches on this piece, I offered to add in the names of everybody he wanted to thank here. You will understand why after you read the interview.
Now, for the record, direct from the man himself:
“I told: Thank you so much to my parents, my brothers, my sisters, my friends and my film institute, my teachers, my uncle, and my dear friend Swabha who was always there with me to energize me, to keep telling me to stay focused, to boost my morale and to give me the confidence that I will make it when I was trying to make it into films. Thank you, Swabha! And thank you so much Raj & DK who believed in me.”
I also want to state up front that English is not Pitobash’s first language and I really appreciate him meeting me on my own turf, so to speak, because my Hindi is atrocious and I have no Oriya or Bengali at all. I tried to keep as much of his own phrasing as possible so you could get the full impact of Pitobash but I did edit for clarity in some places.
Previous entries in this series have featured actors and actresses who came from outside of India but today I bring you an interview with an actor who comes from Orissa, which is an Indian state that is about as far away from Bollywood as you can get while still remaining inside Indian borders.
Located on the opposite side of the country from Bombay on the Bay of Bengal, Orissa does not have a big cosmopolitan city like Bangalore or Hyderabad or Calcutta. It’s a rural state, packed with wildlife refuges and vast stretches of forest. And it ranks in the bottom third of states in things like GDP and growth rates. Not everything can be measured by statistics, however, and though it may not have much money, Orissa does have a rich culture - even if it’s mostly known to people in Orissa. The reason I’m explaining all of this is because Pitobash is the first actor from his state in forty years to earn some sort of nationwide recognition and he is very aware of that fact.
“The last 40 years nobody was there; 40 years before Sadhu Meher was there,” Pitobash begins. My blank expression must have been obvious because he doesn’t give me a chance to ask who. “You know Shayam Benegal, right?” I nod. “He was the lead dumb and deaf character in Ankur. He got a National Award for the film. He’s from my state and from my film institute as well. And after that nobody made it big into Bollywood. And if you’re talking about the mainstream commercial film, there is nobody. The Screen Award I got, I am the first one from my state.”
And just like that, all of Filmi Girl’s cynicism about the annual merry-go-round of Bollywood awards ceremonies is washed away and I share in Pitobash’s excitement as he relives the experience for me with relish. “It was super! First time. First nomination. First award. Then Shahrukh Khan is announcing your name and I was like... short-circuit! I was completely blank when I reached there. So, for 30 seconds I was panicking. I don’t know what I have to say! Then after that when I am there on the stage for like 3-4 minutes, what I said, I don’t know.”
Pitobash is a fast talker and a fast thinker and Filmi Girl cannot imagine him being at a loss for words.
“So, you can understand,” continues Pitobash, earnestly. “For my family, nobody is related to films, acting, or anything. There’s nobody. They don’t even understand how it works here. They don’t know anything, so for them, at least, when I came for one shot in 3 Idiots, for them it’s like, ‘WOW!’ Big. I was with Aamir Khan in the same film. For them it’s a big thing so you can imagine ki how happy they are when they saw me in Shor in the City.”
The journey from Orissa to the bathrooms of the Idiots’ Imperial College of Engineering to the stage of the Screen Awards was a long one for Pitobash. His is not the story of overnight success but of a lifelong dedication to the pursuit of his passion - acting. When I try to pin the starting point of his career to when he passed out of engineering school, Pitobash corrects me. “It’s not by mistake I came from engineering. I always wanted to be to be an actor. Always. From school. I grew up in the 1990s, watching all those cheap films and, at that point of time, for me, it’s like you need to dance, to wear those clothes, and whoa! Shouting!” He laughs. “It’s a fantasy.”
“So, always from my childhood, I’m inclined towards dance, music, acting... I loved those. From all my school and college career – I’ve never been into sports. I’m scared of it. But when it comes to cultural activities, dance and acting, everywhere I’m top in all my schools, college, everywhere. So, I always wanted to be an actor in Bollywood, but, at the same time, I always felt that engineering - the study - would broaden the mind.” Yes, Pitobash wanted to study engineering not as a fallback or a crutch or please his parents but to challenge himself. To reach for something bigger than he could find in Orissa. “You can understand a lot of things,” he continues. “Like before joining engineering college, I hadn’t seen English films in the cinema.”
“I was always good in studies, so I sat for the entrance examination [for engineering college] and I choose a seat in Kolkata rather than in my state because I know ki I’ll get more opportunity in terms of broadening my cultural activities. My exposure will be more in Kolkata rather than in Orissa. So, it’s not suddenly after engineering college I shucked [engineering], [acting] was still in my mind. The best two acting schools in the country – one is the National School of Drama and one is the Film and Television Institute of India; it was always a plan that after my graduation that I join there because that was always my target. To reach Bombay. If you don’t have a godfather, if you’re not rich ki your father can produce a film for you, he can launch you, then you have to polish your craft because that’s your weapon. And the best way to polish your craft is to be in the best school in the country. Make yourself good so you can compete there.”
Filmi Girl would like you to take a minute to appreciate the focus of mind that the young Pitobash must have had to draw up this plan of attack for his life, at an age when most of us are wandering around with our heads up our asses. When Filmi Girl was 20, she was serving pancakes to drunk people while working the graveyard shift in a diner in rural Maryland.
“I got [an engineering] job in my campus interview but I had also applied for the Film and Television Institute, so I left. I didn’t join the job because I never wanted to be in a 10-5 job. I can’t. If you put me in a 10-5 job, the next day you will find me a suicide. I can’t. I just cannot do it.”
From engineering college, Pitobash went to the Film and Television Institute of India, which is located in Pune. One step closer to Bombay. The Institute played (and continues to play) a huge role in his life. Pito was quick to point out that Divyendu Sharma, who won Best Newcomer at the Screen Awards had been one year senior to him at the Institute and they were both nominated for their first major films in both categories together.
Students at the Institute spend the first six months of their study learning every aspect of filmmaking from the bottom up - from loading film reels to holding the camera to actually editing the film - before they start their specialization. “From that three years, I understood the whole language of film making. And being an engineering background student, it’s always helped to understand the optics, the logic behind the camera, the lighting, the lensing... It all depends on that. It depends on the lensing. It depends on the frame. You need to act depending on that. Apart from your acting capabilities, your research, your preparation – it’s important to understand the grammar of the medium. To understand the lens, to understand the camera. To understand the sound, if it’s a sync sound. To understand how you are to deliver.”
Filmi Girl can almost see the engineer’s mind at work, building his performances methodically and carefully. Taking apart any scenario and putting the pieces back together in the best possible way.
After three years of intense training at the Institute, Pitobash had a couple of lucky breaks. The biggest of which was meeting directors Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK (aka Raj and DK) during open auditions for their short film Shor in the City - which would later become the feature film Shor in the City.
“My first release was 99 with Raj and Krishna,” says Pitobash. “You remember me in the film?”
No, I admit, though I remember the film very fondly. Between the short and the feature length Shor, Raj and DK did a wonderful little heist film called 99, that starred Filmi Girl favorite Kunal Khemu along with wonderful character actors like Boman Irani, Vinod Khanna, and Amit Mistry. (And is available to legally stream on youtube so go watch it.)
“I had four scenes,” he explains, trying to jog my memory. “Okay, you remember the story a bit? It’s about money. You know Boman Irani, right? At the climax, I’m the guy who gave the suitcase with 50,000 bucks and who keeps irritating Boman Irani. Yeah? You know, ‘Buy this’ and ‘Buy those.’”
And immediately Filmi Girl remembers the wiry guy who stood outside Boman Irani’s office and tried to sell him a new suitcase.
Pitobash smiles. “Yeah, it’s a very important role but very small.”
Sometime during all of this, Pitobash also ended up becoming a part of 3 Idiots. “I was there for almost like two months with them because the director of the film, Mr. Rajkumar Hirani, he is from my same Institute. He is my senior. He is the super-senior! I’m a big fan of him, so when they all used to come to our Institute to take workshops and everything, I told him once, ‘I love your work and whenever you’ll make a film if there is something for me also, I’d love to be part of your film! So anytime, please call me.’ And he remembered that when they are making this film. He told the office to call me and tell me that he remembered that I want to be a part and they said come and join in this film as a student. So, I was almost like 55 days on the set playing a student. If you see 3 Idiots’s “All Iz Well” song, you’ll see me throughout the song!”
(Filmi Girl would like to direct you here for visual evidence.)
“So, 99 released first. Then 3 Idiots released. Then one of my films released called Mirch.” Pitobash pauses. “I don’t know whether you’ve seen the film or not.”
Filmi Girl has not. In fact, I had not even heard of it. ( You can watch the trailer here.)
“That’s by a director Vinay Shukla, he made a film called Godmother in 2000 that got six National Awards. Mirch is my first major release. It’s a multi-narrative film, a multi-story film set up in different time periods and I’ve done five roles in five stories. But I don’t know what happened from the production side. Maybe they didn’t promote it, maybe they didn’t release the trailer and everything. They just released it like that. Mirch was appreciated all over the country by the critics – but it’s not worked, so my work is unnoticed. It’s very important that a film should work.”
Because if people don’t see it then it doesn’t matter how good it is.
“Yeah, in spite of having a wonderful cast like Boman Irani, Shreyas Talpade, Konkona Sen Sharma, Raima Sen… a lot of good people. You can search it on imdb; the whole cast list is so wonderful, very wonderful film. I love the film. One of my very closest films. I don’t know how you will take it.” Pitobash wants to make sure I know this is a spicy film and not your typical art house fare. “Mirch means chili, right? We call it mirch in Hindi. And the whole film is about Woman. Five different stories put up in different time periods and all the stories’ central theme is about Woman. So, yeah, after that Shor in the City released.”
It’s difficult for Pitobash to describe the impact Shor in the City has had on the boy from Orissa. Perhaps he’s still too close to see clearly. One thing is for certain is that it’s brought him a lot more offers of work, even if it’s not always the kind he would want. “Everybody is coming with the same Bombay tapori role because that’s what people loved in Shor in the City. You have to be careful. Without knowing, without realizing it, you will be in the trap and you’ll do same role for ten films, then you’re a cliché for the directors, you’re cliché for the filmmakers, you’re cliché for the audience and your career is finished in four years. So, you need to be very careful about choosing the films. You need to decide whether you want to work for next forty years or you want to work for four years.”
Filmi Girl has seen enough actors come and go over the last few years to know the truth of that statement.
“After Shor in the City, I only signed two films – that’s Joker and Shanghai. Somebody ten-fifteen days before in some film event said, ‘Wow! What is your test?’ I said, ‘Variety. That’s my test.’ Rather than doing the same role, Shanghai is completely different – Dibakar Banerjee. And Shirish’s Joker, it’s more larger than life and commercial Bollywood stuff. I want to try both. I want to be somebody who is considered a versatile, talented actor who can do anything and everything. So, for that, you need to be very careful choosing your roles. I know about this fact ki as an actor first there is the struggle to get a good break. Then it will be the worse struggle to convince people to listen to me like, ‘It’s not that I can do only that. I can do different stuff!’”
“It’s even more difficult time at this stage but I’m not in a hurry. It’s not just that I saw a hero and heroines in the magazine and was like, ‘Wow! I need to be a film star.’ If you are coming like this, it’s useless. I’m here in Bombay to lead my life. I have my whole life, you know? I’m taking my time. I know it’s a bit difficult sometimes and you have to do some shit stuff if you don’t have any money to survive in Bombay. So, you start, ‘Okay, let’s do some rubbish work and let’s earn some money.’ But you have to balance it out. I know this kind of stuff will happen but I even know that if I be a bit careful the next three or four years, people will see ten films of mine with ten different roles.” Pitobash makes a convincing case to the imaginary filmmakers of the future. ‘See, it’s not ki I’m doing this only, I can do this, I can do this, so I can do anything. You try. Take me and experiment with me.’ So, yeah, it’s a process and everybody’s gone through it. I’m not in a hurry.”
Considering Pitobash’s overnight success took eleven long years, taking one’s time seems to be the right way to play the game.
As a final question, and just because Filmi Girl is on a big regional film boosting spree these days, I ask Pitobash if he would ever consider regional film. “If I get some good concept, I don’t mind,” he says frankly. “I don’t mind doing any work - to do a Tamil film, to do a French film. I don’t mind to do a film that is good and I’m doing a good role. That’s important. And language doesn’t matter. Because if you’re talking about acting, dialogue is the 20% the 80% is your performance, what you are doing.”
Filmi Girl imagines certain scriptwriters blowing their tops at that but I agree wholeheartedly. Too many actors think it’s all about reciting words.
Pitobash gets a wicked glint in his eyes. “90% of the people decide whether they do a film or not depending on the check – how many dialogues that they have in the film.” He laughs. “So, if you’re talking about Shor in the City, there’s so much improvisation in the film. And you’ll be surprised - that climax scene where they stand on that table in front of the girl and I say, ‘Sweetie, bank hijack ho chuka hai.’ That’s an improvised line but they put it in the promo. You hijack a plane, you don’t hijack a bank, you know? And in the script it was just like we’re shouting at them and putting them in the toilet but people enjoyed the line like anything. But here 90% people select the script by how many dialogues they have.”
“So, it doesn’t matter if it’s Bollywood films or regional films or international films, it’s about cinema. If it’s good and I’m doing a good role then I don’t mind doing anything. Come on!”
And Filmi Girl very much hopes filmmakers take him up on the challege because I’ll be eagerly awaiting what comes next for this bright, young actor!
You can currently see Pitobash in Shor in the City, Mirch, and I Am Kalam, which are all available on DVD. The upcoming year will see both Joker and Shanghai. I will be sure to keep you posted.
You can (and should) follow Pitobash on Twitter. He's @Pitobash.