It is strange to hear Riteish Deshmukh, an actor who has made a career out of bawdy comedy movies, saying he was worried that his latest Hindi film performance "would make the audience have a chuckle". But, this is because instead of the cross-dressing and bumbling humour he is best known for, Ek Villain showed him playing a menacing anti-hero. In fact, when director Mohit Suri offered him the role, his reaction was, "The easiest call for me is to say 'yes' but are you sure you want me to do it?"
The 35-year-old's stony portrayal of Rakesh Mahadkar, a serial killer by night and henpecked husband by day, has led to what some in the industry reckon is a turning point. It followed a triple role in the low-brow comedy Humshakals, which as one writer pointed out, "was spine-chilling as well but for a completely different reason." For the actor, Ek Villain showed potential for much-needed versatility after a 10-year-long stream of identical comic films.
"The challenge was to be someone who you would hate but also feel sorry for. Deshmukh went with his gut and the character evolved hugely while shooting," says Tanuj Garg, CEO of Balaji Motion Pictures, which produced Ek Villain. Going merely by testimonials from filmmakers, the actor comes across as sincere. Sujoy Ghosh, who directed him in the fantasy movie Aladin, says he listens keenly. "That is very important. So his reactions are spot on." The actor is also said to place an enormous amount of trust on the director. "I still haven't figured this one out but I think it's a neat trick. He makes you totally responsible for him and then you have no option but to think the best for him," Ghosh adds.
Deshmukh entered the industry with Tujhe Meri Kasam in 2003. The success of Masti, an adult comedy he did the following year, meant he was offered more of the same. While his acting was not censured, the films he selected often were. "For the last decade, I have been consistent in a particular genre, primarily because people kept coming to me with those roles." Guilty of this to an extent is friend and director Sajid Khan, who says he is addicted to Deshmukh and cast him in all five of his multi-starrer comedies.
Acting was never an ambition, insists Deshmukh, even if he did attend a workshop at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York. "That was only for recreation, and if I knew I would get into films, I might have taken it more seriously." Architecture was his career of choice at the time. He co-owns home design firm Evolutions and still practises occasionally. As Deshmukh talks of never aspiring to do films and picking projects based on instinct, he sounds glib and secure. It helps, perhaps, that he comes from a privileged background with another career to fall back on.
To be fair, the actor had attempted a few serious characters earlier too, mainly in Ram Gopal Varma's films Naach and Rann, but they did not grab attention. What has changed between then and now, other than the improved competence of celebrity publicists over the years, is as the actor puts it audience acceptance of his films. "Once a film works, people enjoy you in that role. And they say we don't mind seeing you play such roles."
It seems to be busy days for him, especially when despite more than a week of pursuit he becomes regretfully available for a phone interview a few hours before travelling abroad. He married actress Genelia D'Souza in 2012 and the couple is expecting a baby. His other baby, the two-year-old production house Mumbai Film Company, has been creating Marathi films such as Mahesh Limaye's Yellow, which picked up three National awards, and Balak Palak, which dealt cleverly with the subject of sex education. A Hindi production is also in the works.
As a producer, Deshmukh is considered largely unobtrusive. Limaye says he gives directors a free hand in matters like casting or dialogue but steps in with inputs for promotions. He appears at press conferences and takes his films to a large number of screens. In a first, Yellow had full-page advertisements in regional newspapers.
Most recently, he also debuted as an actor in Marathi films in his own production, Lai Bhaari, which is in the same vein as Tamil action flicks. Even before the film released, he was, according to one film journalist, something like a "Salman Khan for the Marathi manoos."; The real Salman Khan was also roped in for a cameo. The hype led a typically sceptical local audience to skip reviews and go on the first day. The film, Deshmukh notes, was made purely out of love for his mother tongue and pride in being Maharashtrian. The actor also does not rule out a future in politics.
The actor's late father, Vilasrao Deshmukh, was a two-time chief minister of Maharashtra who resigned following a controversy over having taken him and director Ram Gopal Varma to the Taj Mahal Palace & Hotel right after the 2008 attacks. Recognition has taken its time coming for the actor and he credits his father for teaching him to be patient, says Deshmukh. "You have to wait and everything is about timing. You cannot speak before time and if you do, the value of those words is zero."
The actor says he will experiment going forward but at the moment there are more comedies on his plate, including Bangistan, Bank Chor and Housefull 3. So it remains to be seen whether he will stick with his Ek Villain character's refrain: "Aapko shikayat ka mauka nahi milega (you will have no reason to complain)."