It’s been less than six years since Sidharth Malhotra has been around – his debut film was Karan Johar’s “Student Of The Year” in 2012. What stands out in his oeuvre is the variety in his films – “Hasee Toh Phasee,” “Brothers,” “Kapoor & Sons,” “Baar Baar Dekho,” “Ittefaq” and the only two films that were non-Karan Johar co-productions, “Ek Villain” (his biggest hit that crossed 100 crore) and “A Gentleman: Sundar, Susheel, Risky.” Malhotra is now set to do his third non-Dharma film, “Aiyaary,” with the legendary Neeraj Pandey.

And Malhotra grins and tells us, “I am lucky Neeraj-sir found space for me!”

Excerpts from an interview:

Q: “Aiyaary” has an impressive ensemble cast of Anupam Kher, Manoj Bajpayee, Naseeruddin Shah, Kumud Mishra and Adil Hussain, all first-time co-stars for you. How was it working with them all?

A (Smiles): I am happy that there was space in this for me! I am lucky that Neeraj-sir found such an important role for me among all these heavyweights! The point is that I have sequences almost exclusively with Manoj-sir, not all of them. But I found out about the rest of the cast being in the movie only after signing the film. And that kind of ups your game, because these are experienced names that have done work across all the media.

Q: So how was the Manoj Bajpayee interaction?

A: Like all of them, Manoj-sir treats acting like a true loyalist to theater. We had acting workshops and I saw the kind and degree of preparations he did. He was also sweet enough to talk to me about Urdu diction and the techniques he followed. When we shot this crucial scene in London, where I am speaking a lot to him, it was daunting. There were no crutches to hold as actor, and I was just up and close with my anger. But I knew actors like Manoj-sir do not falter, they are always on the ball, and that gave me the confidence and made me prepare more.

Q: The film’s title “Aiyaary” must have invoked curiosity.

A (Grins): Of course, it did. The intriguing part was not knowing its meaning and yet finding it interesting. My first conversation with Neeraj-sir WAS about what “Aiyaary” means. He told me that it was a Persian word that he had read in the book “Chandrakanta” that meant “the ultimate trickster”. These are shape-shifters who can change form at will, and the term is so apt for military intelligence agents.

Q: Do we get some talk on the internal enemy, like “Prahaaar” or “Sarfarosh” did?

A: Yes, it does talk about a point of view on corruption and on politics. But in this thriller, the actual tussle is between Manoj’s character and mine. You see, Manoj’s character as the Major has taught me everything I know. When we clash, he tries to stop me, and I run away. Within that cat-and-mouse game that follows, we give a lot of messages. Also, there are a lot of gray shades, no clear blacks or whites, which makes the film even more exciting.

Q: Your film was moved to Feb. 9 to avoid “Padmaavat” and “Pad Man” clashing. (Exactly an hour after this interview, “Pad Man” was back to facing “Aiyaary” on Feb. 9!).

A: Ideally, every film should release solo, but we moved ahead when “Padmaavat” had to release alongside “Pad Man.” But I am completely confident about “Aiyaary.” Neeraj-sir gives a lot of thought to every word he writes and to every frame he shoots.

Q: How do you rate your journey in films so far, with respect to industry contemporaries Varun Dhawan, Tiger Shroff and Arjun Kapoor? Even Ranveer Singh, who is closely related to the Anil Kapoor-Sonam Kapoor family, did not find it easy. And you are a rank outsider.

A: It’s too early to comment on my career when even senior actors are assessed only after a decade or more. My films so far have been varied – I have had action films, romantic films, family films and ensemble-cast films. I think that is the way forward for anyone. “Aiyaary” in that sense, is my first real and relevant film. My films have succeeded, become big hits, or not done well. But I own all of them. I am happy that I find place in good films.

Q: One gray area of sorts is that actors have to deal with criticism, especially in the era of social media.

A: The brickbats that I have hardly got have been mostly destructive! (Laughs) My film, “A Gentleman: Sundar, Susheel, Risky,” and I did get some cool reviews, but so many trolled me.

Q: I revisited it recently on TV, and it reaffirmed my view that it was a very entertaining, mass-appeal film. Why do you think it did not work?

A: I think the release date turned out to be bad luck – Mumbai faced an unseasonal deluge of rains and cyclone, and the Ram Rahim arrest and resultant chaos wiped out key North Indian territories – everything happened together.

Q: Frankly, don’t you think that the title was wrong, and did not indicate what the film actually was – a hardcore action drama with masala elements?

A: With the wisdom of hindsight, we can think of all this. It may be right as a reason, or not right. (Shrugs and smiles)

Q: You recently interacted with the jawans of the Border Security Force (BSF) camp at Jaisalmer during the promotions of “Aiyaary.”

A: It was fascinating that there are more than a thousand jawans there, and there were almost twenty of them who shared my birthday Jan. 16, so we cut a cake together. The unit just wanted to spend a day with them and give them a take-back memory with some recreation, singing, and dancing. We wanted to give them a good time and make them laugh and smile. That is all we can give them back, because what they all do for us is too high in value, and what we are doing for them is too less. I thanked them for making my birthday special.

Q: You guys even shared a lot of their activities? How tough or easy was that?

A: When we shared their activities, we realized how hard they work for our country. The knowledge that I gained was priceless. For example, we sometimes get fed up of our day-to-day jobs and take breaks – they cannot! They are always on guard, often looking in one direction for hours, holding a gun. The BSF is on-ground 24/7, but we appreciate them only in times of war! But whatever the weather, these people have to keep relentless vigil, even when they keep a check on people and animals crossing the border! Their resilience and discipline make my stress look so tiny!

I could do their activities fairly easily because fitness is a part of my daily regime as well, but the average Joe will really find it tough. Like they casually told us that if a fiberglass tent in which they sleep is set on fire, they have just sixty seconds to get out! Now that is almost the time it will take for all us to react if we are asleep!

Q: What are the other things you learned?

A: So many things! How our border is manned – the workforce that is being used and money that is spent by our government is insane! We all take such things totally for granted, especially in the big cities! The jawans are divided into groups as per their physicality. In each group, you cannot cross a certain weight. There are people to guide and train them so well that they are ready for combat in a moment!

I was also clueless like most of us about many other things. Did you know, for example, that the BSF and the Army have different jobs and come under different ministries? Then we have RAW (Research & Analysis Wing), the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Military Intelligence – all different organizations.

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