Mukul Chadda: “Hadn’t seen British version of ‘The Office’ before auditioning”

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When the Hindi version of popular British comedy show ‘The Office’ was confirmed, many would have been wondering who would take on the role of the boss which was essayed by Ricky Gervais in the original. It was Mukul Chadda who landed the role and has been appreciated in it.

The actor was recently in London and BizAsiaLive.com’s Amrita Tanna caught up with him.

You’re in London on a holiday, is there anything else going on a part from the holiday?
Well this, I’m doing this interview (laughs). I went down to the BBC office a few days back and I met them. They wanted to do a little video, talking about the show (The Office, India). They’re planning to do remakes of various shows across the world now, which is great. People are adapting books; they’re adapting different shows because if something works and it is good content, then why not? I’ve had people on the streets who come up to me here, and it’s very heartening. They have seen the show and they liked it and it’s wonderful that the show has travelled and people here have seen it and that feels good.

By birth, ‘The Office’ is a British show. Were there any apprehensions, especially because the humour is slightly different?
On my part, no. I have to admit that I hadn’t seen neither the British nor American version before I was called to audition for the part. I’d heard of the show, it’s famous and I knew there was a British version, an American version. There are all these die-hard supporters who love one versus the other, the extent of which I didn’t realise at the time. When I was called to the audition, they said why don’t you watch the US show because we have really taken the tone and plot-lines from the American show from season 2 onwards. Apparently, things changed from season 1 to 2 (in the US version).

I watched it for the first time then, before going in to the audition but of course then I was looking at it very technically to understand the humour of the show. That was good because it is something that a two-page audition script wouldn’t capture entirely: What is this show about, the humour, the mockumentary style, the awkwardness, the cringiness. And of course, the character as well. So that was helpful when I was looking at it from that perspective, not so much as to whether it would work. For a month and a half, I did three rounds of auditions and during that time I watched quite a few episodes and I quite liked the show. I liked the format. I love the character, of course, and I was dying to get into his shoes. I didn’t have any apprehensions about whether it would work because to me if something’s good and it works, it works. I didn’t think we needed to change the format for the Indian version. Frankly if Indian audiences haven’t liked this kind of a show, it’s because they haven’t been shown this sort of a thing. I think it’s true for a variety of genres and content and styles. Don’t ridicule your audience. They will like something if it’s made well. The primary focus is to make it well.

In some sense I get why there was this backlash on Twitter when the trailer dropped in India because people felt ‘Oh my god, you guys are going to mess it up’. The reason they felt that was probably because there have been previous adaptations of other shows where I think maybe the producers got cold feet at the last minute and they decided to change it and basically morph it back to what we’ve already seen in India. In which case, why are you doing an adaptation of an international show? This is what is unique about the show so why are you doing that?

That’s happened in the past on a few occasions. And so some apprehensions came from people on that front. But I have to give it to Applause, the makers of this show. They said they’re going to make this as it should be made, and we think it will work. I’m sure that wouldn’t have been easy. There must have been some pressure on them at various points in time, but they stuck to it. As far as I was concerned, there were no apprehensions as to whether it would work because I have such a big job on my head, which was to getting this done right. The point is you have to do a good job. If you do a bad job, nothing is going to work so that was our focus.

The character you play is based on Ricky Gervais’ character and in terms of the way he is in the show; did you try to take on any of his mannerisms consciously?
I had never seen Ricky Gervais’ version. I actually saw it after we finished filming. I saw most of season 2 of the US one while I was auditioning. After that, I got the part and I then stopped watching that as well. You’ve seen a scene, it’s fresh in your mind, and you know what the character’s done – you don’t want to copy what he does but, more importantly, I think the bigger risk is an actor will sometimes say I’m going to do something totally different and try very hard to be different which is also an imposition in itself. You want to stay away from that so I stopped watching and I think that most of the actors didn’t watch or stopped watching because you don’t want to get into that. You want to read your own scripts. I’d watched enough episodes to get an idea of the character and what he is about. Now there were scripts that are written by the writers: there is a lot of material there. The good part of the adaptation is that we already had, like twelve scripts right away. There were twelve ready scripts so there was a lot of material there. And there are so many different facets to his (Jagdeep’s) personality. I felt there is a lot to work with here.

As far as Ricky Gervais is concerned, I didn’t watch that show at all until we finished shooting. Then, I wanted to see what it was like and so I watched the British version also, I saw two seasons and I followed the American version I think until season 5, and they’re very different. The pilot episode of all three are so similar but also so different. The plotline is very similar and the same thing is happening but the treatment is so different. Performances are different – Ricky’s style is so different. With mannerism and what people do, I don’t think you can replicate it and it is kind of horrible to try that because that is that actor’s unique timing and ability.

As far as the reception has been for the show, there have been mixed reviews but primarily positive I would say. Did you want it to be received in a certain way, particularly because Indian audiences haven’t seen anything like that?
You always want to be loved by every single person. I mean, this is true from my days in theatre. As an actor, when you step on the stage and then step off, you want everybody to come up to you and say you were fantastic. We all want that, that’s why we do this, but that being said, to be honest, I’ve been overwhelmed by the feedback that I’ve gotten from people. People who I know and respect – their opinion counts a lot more for me, because you have to filter out what’s being said on Twitter. Everyone has an opinion and you can’t even take anything seriously.

But genuinely, from my stage days, if you always wanted feedback on your performance – and you always need it – you ask a few crucial people whose opinion you regard, because you can’t really go with the audience. A lot of people who I respect and whose opinion matters a lot to me – I was overwhelmed with their response. A lot of other people reached out and sent messages that they really loved the show so I’ve been blown away by the response. And some people whose opinion I didn’t necessarily seek, but who are very critical and very stingy with their praise, have also been very positive… so that’s great. You’re right that the reviews have been mixed. There are a lot of reviews which are comparisons to the US version, and also about what an adaptation should be.

‘The Office’ is like the Indian cricket team – someone put it this way and I really like it. Everyone has an opinion on it. Everyone thinks they know who should play, how they should play, what we should’ve done at the toss. I mean there were views before we released about the casting of the roles. It’s crazy. And now, I felt a lot of the reviews were about whether it’s either too close to the original or too far from the original. It’s very strange, you’re never going to get that balance right because everybody has their own view of the show, about the adaptation being made and what an adaptation should look like. You’re never going to hit that line for everybody. To me, the criticism has been mostly on that front. That’s not something I can really take to heart too much, but people’s responses and even some reviews have been very positive.

In terms of content in India, not even just Hotstar, the digital platforms have blown up. Content has changed and is changing for films and TV because of that. What would you say you want to do in that and is there any particular role you would want to take?
It’s been a great time for us. I’m just blessed. We’re all blessed. There’s so much more content to be made for audiences, so audiences will get more to see, and as performers and anyone involved in the content production business, there’s so much to be done. The medium of distribution has also broken down barriers in terms of what kind of content you can make. Earlier, films had a restriction. A film has to be between ninety minutes to 120 minutes – or 180 minutes in India! There’s only certain kinds of stories you can tell in that time.

But now, there are no such restrictions. You can take novels and adapt them completely; you can take series or books. Look at ‘Game of Thrones’ – eight seasons. There’s so much you can do so that’s great. I think it’s wonderful for us. For me, as an actor I would love to do many parts. If someone asked me if there is another adaptation I would like to do and I would say – let me put it out there! – if someone is making ‘Breaking Bad’, please think of me. It’s a totally different role and it’s a great role. I am just being greedy, I would like to do different kinds of content and different genres, different styles, different characters and I think that’s possible now. It’s a golden era and I hope it’s continues for a while. For me as an audience member as well, I have a constant backlog of the things I want to watch. I have a list on my phone of shows to watch. And I’m so behind on them but it’s great that whenever you put things on, your choices of what to watch are fantastic.

You’ve done some films as well, and you want to take on good roles, interesting roles, something that inspires you. Do you think you can see yourself just doing one medium, just TV, or just the web or just films?
I’m agnostic in that sense. I don’t care about the medium, and it doesn’t really matter to me. I do improv as well, I have an improv group so that’s going to continue. That is still something I consider a part of what I do and that’s not going to change. In terms of on-camera work, it doesn’t matter to me if its films or television, as long as the content is good and the roles are interesting and different. I wouldn’t want to be boxed in one genre of content or one type of character which can happen and that’s a risk. Producers often see you as ‘Oh he’s the funny guy’ and ‘He plays this Office type role’, but you want to try to break out of that. If it’s varied content all on the web then that’s great but I don’t care if it comes in film either. The process of making it is such a huge part of our lives. You spend so much time doing that, it has to be fun, it has to be engaging, challenging. That comes when you have difficult and challenging roles.

How about behind the camera?
At this point of time, no, but sometime in the future, you never know. Direction, production, getting involved in what kind of content you can make. Actually, if there is a field that is closest to my heart which I would like to do, it’s writing. I used to write earlier, I haven’t had much success. I didn’t really finish things. I used to write short stories and I still have a whole bunch – some finished, some unfinished one – on my laptop that I saved hoping I can get back to it. In terms of content creation and writing, it is the next thing I want to get into, apart from acting and hopefully that will happen.

I got to say, I’ve watched more of your wife’s (Rasika Dugal) work than I have of yours. She’s amazing in every role I’ve seen her in. Is there any collaboration on its way maybe between the two of you? It would be interesting to see you both on screen in front of the camera.
We are doing a film and we’ve shot it, it’s coming up. In the past we have worked on stage doing improv together, too. We’ve done two ads together, one of which is playing through the World Cup in India right now so that’s there. In a more meaty role, we’ve done a film which we’ve shot for most of last year and some of this year. It’s in post production, tentatively titled ‘Fairy Folk’. We play a married couple in the film who live in Bombay, so all that is similar to our real lives. Some strange surreal events take place – I can’t put an exact description to it. It’s unbelievable, because Karan Gour’s script was so different from anything I’ve ever read that I’m not able to tell you what genre of film it. There’s some kind of weird events that takes place and the film is about how it affects their relationships and their lives individually. It is a very interesting film for the way it was made. Karan, who is the filmmaker and who wrote the script as well, he is a very fascinating guy. He has some ideas, not just about the kind of films, but about the filmmaking process. This process was kind of like improv but different. Karan had a storyline but he would leave us very free. He is very into the actors having lot of freedom and moments that are more real and there’s a way to play with that. He would have the 3 cameras rolling and we’d do takes, once as long as 25 minutes, but at the very least a good take would go on for 7-8 minutes. It’s kind of theatrical in that sense because you’re kind of in a space doing what you have to do. Dialogues were in our hands. We’d just be the character and really be in the moment because we’d have no idea where the scene is going. But he has an idea. We also had to shoot this as the audience sees the film. It is very different and wonderful because normally when you shoot, because of location constraints, you are first doing scene 77, then scene 23, and then scene 51. You’ve got to map the whole thing in your head first. It’s a challenge for the actor to figure out. Sometimes what does happen is you’re shooting scene 43 and you know you’ve done 44 and 42 earlier. You have to remember what you did and sometimes you have to remember in what take. It’s very hard to get back and make that work. That’s also the director’s job, of course.

But here we were shooting in order of the scenes in the film. In fact, it was tougher for Karan. Because logistically, we weren’t clubbing locations together. But for us, it was great. As a character, you’ve lived the film, scene by scene until that point, that’s one thing that happened. We would just be the characters and continue to tell the story in some sense though you have no idea what the other actor is going to do. It was very in the moment. It’s kind of close to being on stage in improv. If the scene wasn’t going accordingly to the storyline, Karan will give some pointers to each of the actors for the next take, until he got to close enough to what he wanted. And he was also flexible in changing what had he thought of, which is a wonderful quality to have as long as the storyline doesn’t change. It was fascinating. I’m very curious to know how the film has panned out. He has the headache of editing it, because he has so much footage now. He has to trim that down to a film. I’ve seen a rough cut of the first twenty minutes but I want to see the whole thing.

In terms of how you both approach things, like a project you and Rasika are acting in together, is there a certain process you both take together or do you just stay individual?
No we didn’t discuss how each of us were going to approach a scene. We did a whole bunch of improvisations together earlier, some scenes before our story begins, to just get into it. We wanted that, Karan wanted it, and so before we started filming we did some kind of rehearsal, if you can say that. It was more like rehearsals of being in the character and understanding this process, as it is very different to the norm. We were all very nervous.

In terms of the approach, I think we both do our own thing. It’s also good because you don’t want to know what the other person is doing. You don’t want to discuss what you’re thinking with another actor ever, I feel. You can make the actors genuinely surprised then, and react to them. No, we wouldn’t pre-plan things.

In terms of individual projects that you were being both offered, do you bounce off each other when making choices?
I mean yes, we live together so you discuss a lot of things together but it’s a decision that you have to take individually. Of course, you discuss everything. At the end of the day, it’s has to be a decision that you have to take for yourself.

What else do you have coming up? I’m not going to ask you about ‘The Office’ season 2? (laughs)
Well, that there is. To be honest, there is a project I can’t talk about because I haven’t signed it, so mostly can’t say much, but it’s a film. I’m hoping that hearing this interview, people will go out there and give me lots of work and different work at that.

The UK audiences may not be accustomed to you. However, in terms of festivals that take place in the UK, do you think anything you’ve done might appeal to a festival audiences?
I think ‘Fairy Folk’ will be for a festival crowd. I think Karan will definitely send it to a festival. It’s a very different kind of film and very interesting. I had a lot of fun doing it. It’s anything but mainstream; it’s far removed from mainstream. Of the stuff I’ve done earlier, ‘Gurgaon’ is a film that comes to mind. I did it a couple of years back. That actually didn’t have a good run in theatres. It also depends on what kind of release you’ll get, but it’s had a great run on Netflix. Web platforms are great for the films and audiences, they find each other. Films have these restrictions – because you have to have an opening weekend where it has to do well. It may compete with a big blockbuster that eats up all the screens, for example. It also depends on the show times you get. On the web, it’s right there and there’s always word of mouth, which I love. It’s there for people to see. I don’t have the pressure of telling people ‘Please watch my film the first week, please go or you won’t see it.’ It’s been a hectic month of promotions. I think that might continue for a little bit. Many talks and hopefully something works out, let’s see.

 

BizAsiaLive.com thanks Mukul Chadda for talking to us.

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