Saqib Saleem will soon be seen in ‘Shootout at Lokhandwala’ (2007) director Apoorva Lakhia’s next action-drama espionage series ‘Crackdown’ on Viacom18’s streaming platform Voot Select from 15th August. Revolving around RAW’s special ops team trying to crack through multiple smaller decoys to uncover a larger conspiracy and prevent a major national security threat, the series also stars Shriya Pilgaonkar, Iqbal Khan and Waluscha D’souza.
BizAsiaLive.com caught up with the actor, who plays RAW agent Riyaz Pathan, for an exclusive chat about the whodunit spy-thriller that’s slated to release soon.
How did you prepare yourself to play a RAW agent?
When you’re playing a RAW agent, who’s a field agent, you’ve to make sure that you’re physically very fit while you do that. Of course there’s an emotional graph to the character that you’ve to work on but more than that I think one has to look the part. He’s an on-field RAW agent who’s in the middle of missions, so he had to physically be very fit in order to do those actions. There was a lot of training that happened specifically for those actions. I was doing something like this for the first time and I wanted to be really good at it yaar! When you see the kind of stuff that is being made and the levels of action we have reached with a lot of people, I just wanted it to look a certain way. A lot of action training happened and we workshopped a lot. I didn’t base him on any particular RAW agent or cop that I knew. I wanted to work on this character from scratch right from his childhood and know the guy. When you’ve a reference point, it’s always easier to construct a character. While constructing it, everyday you get to know various facets about him that’s very interesting and if you pull that off on-screen that feels very nice. I’ve developed this process for the last two years. I did a series called Rangbaaz (for Zee5), while I was doing that I had workshopped a lot. It was a character where I had to have a heavy dialect and it was just not me. I had to play that character very differently and not like a stereotypical gangster. After that, I decided that before every film, my job as an actor would be to workshop, either with the director or with somebody else. By workshopping I mean, I just need to be able to talk to someone about the script and my character at all times.
Whom did you workshop with for ‘Crackdown’?
We did readings with Apu (Lakhia) but there’s this guy called Abhishek Pandey with whom I work with now on all my projects. There was a 20 to 25 day workshop with him where we would meet every day for five hours, have five cups of chai and just keep talking about the script so that it becomes clearer in my head.
Apoorva had mentioned that the location wasn’t very conducive to shooting action scenes. How did you manage?
We were shooting in zero degrees and we shot in locations like Chandigarh, Kasauli, Patiala, Delhi and Mumbai. We shot in zero degrees in Kasauli and we had to run up a mountain holding buzz guns and ammunition. Saari jawani nikal gayi woh karne mein (laughs)! We shot in Nandher in extreme heat, we traveled from one place to another in tough conditions. I don’t know about others but I can say this for myself that once you get the rhythm of action and start enjoying action, you just want to do action. It’s very taxing but I love it! We were shooting the climax in Nandher on a runway and we were fighting and my back was completely bruised but in the middle of it, I didn’t even realise that I was hurt. See these marks (shows injury marks on his arm), these are all from the shoot! I didn’t even realise how badly bruised my back was till I went to my room and took a shower under hot water. Suddenly I was dancing in the shower realising I’ve bruised my back completely. It gives you such a big adrenaline rush that you don’t even realise it in the moment. Later you think, ‘Arre take it easy, Saqib. Jaan pyaari hai tujhe’ (laughs). It was a lot of fun and I’d do it again.
What do you think about the sudden rise of thrillers that seem to be the next big thing on OTT platforms?
Thrillers have always been an exciting genre. Even in movies, a thriller always works and I think it’s a very interesting genre. I love action-thrillers, that’s my genre because that’s what I’ve grown up watching. I was a huge Akshay Kumar fan growing up, I still am. I was obsessed as a kid because he used to do these martial arts moves. I used to always think that if I ever become an actor, I’d do action! When I started doing films, people saw me as a cute, chocolate boy who should do sweet roles. So, this was an opportunity where I could delve into something that I’ve not done.
How was it working with Apoorva?
I’ve known Apu for the last five years because we’ve played a lot of cricket together in the Celebrity Cricket League (CCL). We have been friends since then. The interesting thing about the show to me is that it’s a real show done in a very heroic way. By the virtue of who this guy is, he is a RAW agent and a one-man army, so there’s some heroism to it but the treatment is very real. The actions are very real, it’s not like he’s bashing five guys at one time. He’s bashing and he’s getting hit too, he’s bleeding. When you’re looking at an espionage show, we try and make it very patriotic. Our show is not where we kill a terrorist and say, ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’. I feel it in my heart and my bones that I’m doing this for my country but I don’t need to say it every time, right? Every day it is like my job, it’s so clinical and it’s like every other job. That’s what we have maintained in the show, when you’re on the ground and in the middle of bullets you are not shouting, ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’. It is my mission and my job, you got to kill those people, extract the civilians and get out! We have kept it like that. The larger thing that you’re trying to do is ofcourse save the nation but you don’t have to say it everytime and dilute it. There’s no propaganda here, we should just tell a story as it is. On the ground, things are extremely different and we have tried to keep it as real. That’s why the name is Crackdown – that’s exactly what we do, we do crackdowns. We are a special operations unit who do crackdowns and in doing those smaller crackdowns we realise there’s a bigger, larger conspiracy and there’s a threat to national security. The drama within is what makes the show. My character is called Riyaz Pathan who’s known as RP and there’s this dialogue in the trailer where you’ll hear him say, ‘Musalman sirf Quran se nahi apne imaan se banta hai aur uski misaal main dikhaunga’. People are good or bad, religion isn’t. That’s the perception that has been built, we are not doing any social commentary on anything but just trying to show that here’s a Muslim RAW agent. He’s not saying I’ll save my nation, he’s just going there to do his job and we have tried to keep these elements in the show. Today making a show like this is very important because the noise that is happening around, that narrative isn’t so nice, no? It’s very important to make a real show and not try and over-dramatise things for effect. The main objective of the show is to show how things really happen on ground.
You also play Mohinder Amarnath in Kabir Khan’s ’83’. You look uncannily similar in the pictures…
For a year-and-a-half, I didn’t watch anything else. I’d wake up and watch his videos and before going to sleep, I’d watch his videos. I am playing a guy who’s a living legend, people know him. So the comparisons would start from the first look itself that, ‘Arre he isn’t looking like that!’ So, I had to be extremely careful approaching this part. I told myself from the first day that I’m not going to mimic him, I’m just going to take his persona and personality. If I do that, people are going to believe it but if I start mimicking him, it’d start looking caricaturish. I didn’t want to make this into a caricature, I just wanted to capture his aura within me.
But that’s the personality bit. How did you practice to bowl like him?
I practised his bowling action for about eight to nine months. I’d bowl about 15 overs every day, that was like 90 balls each day. It takes an hour and a half if you bowl nonstop. My shoulder after a point would hurt so much, not just mine, actually everybody’s. All the 13 boys have put so much hard work, I have not seen commitment of this level before from actors.
Give us some funny anecdotes from the set of ’83…
For the first time in my life, it genuinely felt like I was at a school picnic. Every day we would wake up and ask each other who would have what for breakfast and we would order that for one another. The process was just so organic and Kabir made sure that it was like that. We shot in London for around 90 days and then shot for about 15 to 18 days in Mumbai. We trained for about a year before that, so almost a year and a half went into making this film and I’d do it all over again. There was no better experience than shooting ’83.
‘Crackdown’ will be streaming on Voot Select next month.