It was a small part in a cast of newcomers, but Prateik Babbar certainly made his mark every time he was onscreen in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. He received rave reviews for his performance in the film, and was listed as one of THE actors to look out for in the future. For his second film, and what could be considered his debut as one of the main leads, Prateik went with a non-typical-Bollywood film and role. Kiran Rao’s Dhobi Ghat is a small film that was made in a unique way including still photography and hidden cameras on the streets, in the crowds, and the Dhobi Ghats of Mumbai. The story surrounds four different people in the city Mumbai and how they connect and change each other’s lives. Prateik plays Munna, a young and beautiful washerman (dhobi) who aspires to be a film actor. When Munna learns of Shai’s (Monica Dogra) hobby of photography he agrees to show her the ‘real’ city in exchange for her shooting his portfolio. How they and Aamir Khan’s Arun and Kriti Malhotra’s Yasmin all intersect is what makes up the story of Dhobi Ghat. In an email interview, the young actor took the time to answer our questions about the film, working with Aamir Khan, his shyness and what’s coming up next. Check out what he had to say!
What was it about this film that made you say yes?
Initially, I was a bit confused whether I should do a typical Bollywood song and dance film, but the Dhobi Ghat story was different and Kiran had a vision about how this film was to be. Then there was Kiran and Aamir sir’s belief that I would be very well suited for the role of Munna. The ‘actor’ in me sensed that this would a great opportunity for me to grow. Also, who does not want to work with Aamir Khan in any way possible?
Who is Munna?
Munna is young, ambitious, hardworking, and goodhearted. A Dreamer. And easy on the eyes! A lot like me ;-)) No, seriously, after playing Munna for a while, I realised how close his character is to my own in many essential ways. It became an easy fit and Kiran helped to bring it out.
How did you prepare to play him?
Apart from lots of briefing from Kiran, I prepped by visiting the real Dhobi Ghat in Mahalaxmi. For over 2 weeks I spent time working with the guys to observe and learn the body language – the technique of soaking, washing, beating, drying, pressing, labeling and delivering the clothes. To really get in their mindsets I even spent some evenings drinking with them, hanging out to make friends and to understand their lives.
The film was shot a lot on location in different parts of Mumbai. What was that experience like?
It was an eye opener. Though I am born and brought up in Mumbai, I had never seen many parts or the facets and innards of Mumbai. The Dhobi Ghat itself is a perfect example. Though I have been in slums, I had never been so up close and personal in them. I rediscovered Mumbai once again.
What was it like working with Kiran Rao as a director?
Kiran is confident, caring, creative, charismatic. She has a vision she is unafraid to pursue. Kiran is able to bring out the best in her actors on and off the sets. Perfect to work with. I love her.
The film has been getting rave reviews at the film festivals it has screened in. In fact, one of our writers saw it and called it “poetry on film”. What does it feel like to be part of film like that?
Apart from a tremendous sense of satisfaction, it was overwhelming, but now scary. Toronto still feels like a dream. The scare now is: How will Bollywood audience react to a delicate film like Dhobi Ghat? Will I fail the public expectations? Especially when I don’t know what they are!
What do you think audiences will take away with them?
The four sensitive characters brought to life by Kiran. The real and layered Mumbai, which has been beautifully shot. The many types of people whose spirit makes this city tick. And Gustavo’s haunting music. Audience will see a sensitive ‘slice of life’ and fall in love with all the characters.
Overall how do you feel your journey has been so far?
I was taking tentative steps with Jaane Tu, I jump into the foray with Dhobi Ghat. It has been a big, big learning curve. From reading scripts, to preparing for the characters, to being open to direction, the complicated film world, all good and positive.
What do you think is hard about being an actor?
The most difficult, I think, is the adjustments of being in the public eye. I am not used to being stared at or being noticed in public eye, I am still getting used to it.
What do you love about acting?
Being different people. Living the lives that otherwise I could never do. It’s like having a totally acceptable multiple personality syndrome. That I can bring someone alive and tell his story and have the audience participate in that story. It’s a high.
Most debuts these days are glamorous and hyped up, but you debuted with a small but powerful role in JTYJN. Again, you’re doing a film that is very different from what people would expect you to do after Jaane Tu. Has it been a conscious decision to tread a new path, and if so, why?
No, not a conscious decision. JTYJN just happened. I was testing waters. Dhobi Ghat was a conscious choice, but no intention of being deliberately different. It was what appealed to me at the time. I have since done more mainstream films. But I do enjoy content in my characters.
You have worked with Aamir as a producer twice. How were things this time around different from Jaane Tu?
During Jaane Tu, I never got to meet Aamir sir. He was never on the sets when I shot my scenes. For Dhobi Ghat he was instrumental in me coming on the project, but is also acting in the film. I have been interacting with him through the filmmaking and post. It’s a lifetime of experience. He is an extremely supportive producer. He has treated me like family.
Can you see yourself being a conventional Bollywood hero?
You tell me
What types of films do you like to watch?
I like well-made Hollywood gangster films, action films and fun animation films. All sorts of films as long as they are well made and have good content.
What’s the best compliment you’ve received for your work so far?
That I am a natural in front of a camera! That too from Kiran! I’m on seventh heaven.
At the TIFF screening, you came across as very humble and shy. Was the experience overwhelming for you, and why?
I am a quiet and shy person. I like to be in my space. When I’m around my seniors I get my tongue-tied. TIFF was too overwhelming and because I least expected it. I did not expect people to like my performance more than others. I believe we have all done phenomenally well. I am fairly self critical, so I still feel overwhelmed especially when I see the number of places I could have been better.
Do you have any other projects lined up?
Sanjay Leela Bhansali Productions My Friend Pinto with a debutante director and Raghav Dhar, and Prakash Jha’s Aarakshan with Deepika.
When Dhobi Ghat premiered at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival, the film was given a standing ovation, and Prateik’s performance in the film has been singled out. Bollyspice’s reviewer at the festival wrote, “Mark my works, Dhobi Ghat will be Prateik Babbar’s well-deserved breakthrough role. The entire audience cheered when his name appeared in the credits, and he received a standing ovation at the film’s premiere. Babbar is an actor who hasn’t been groomed by the film industry and it’s this rawness that makes him so incredibly endearing.” I know I can’t wait to see his performance in the film, which opens on January 21st. Oh, and to answer your question: Yes, Prateik, I think you would be fabulous as a conventional Bollywood hero and am looking forward to seeing that avatar from you as well!
With contributions by Aly Kassam