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Exclusive | Kaalkoot’s Rohan Verma: ‘OTT is bringing regional stories to the forefront’

The actor feels that the lived experiences of people from various parts of the country are finally finding expression through digital platforms

Exclusive | Kaalkoot’s Rohan Verma: ‘OTT is bringing regional stories to the forefront’

Rohan Verma plays a key role in Kaalkoot

Last Updated: 01.33 PM, Aug 08, 2023


A deft handpan player, actor Rohan Verma believes that movement and music enable him to explore his craft as an actor. Known for his work in State of Siege: Temple Attack, Mai Hero Boll Raha Hu and Bhaukaal, Rohan was most recently seen alongside Vijay Varma, Shweta Tripathi and Seema Biswas in Sumit Saxena’s suspense-crime drama series Kaalkoot, streaming on JioCinema.

In a candid conversation with OTTplay, the actor spoke about his experience of working with Vijay in Kaalkoot, why he thinks it’s encouraging for young actors to see regional narratives finding prominence on OTT, his upcoming projects and more. Excerpts:    


Q. Tell us about your Kaalkoot experience…

A. So, I was shooting for another project when I got an audition call for Kaalkoot. Even the audition script that I read was very subtly written, in the sense that there was a lot of subtext. The language of the dialogues was very conversational, daily-life-like, real and raw. But the subtext of it and what the character is trying to say or trying to hide, that layering in the script was very interesting to me. It was the kind of work that I was really wanting to do, because it’s always a treat for an actor to layer how their performance will come out. So from the audition script itself, I could figure that this is something which is written very well. 

And it so happened that the director, Sumit Saxena, also liked my audition. He then called me for another round of audition, basically to have a meeting with him in his office. From that day onwards, Sumit sir’s brief on the set, and the way he would create the world for my character [Manav Gupta] was very inspiring.

He would take me in Manav’s world, as if the story is being told through my character’s perspective. The director’s awareness of the world that he’s creating through my character and his research on the psychology of Manav is commendable. And that’s also because he himself has been an actor, so he realises what will be beneficial for an actor to know, so that he can allow his performance to be better. 

Sumit sir knows exactly when to let you go and when to form a discipline around what you’re doing, in order to give you the right instructions to be able to ace your performance. 

Rohan with Vijay Varma in a still from from the film
Rohan with Vijay Varma in a still from from the film

I think I shot for about 12 days for this project, and there was a lot of freedom while performing. Also because the story is so raw, it needed to be very personal as well. I needed to personalise the complexity that my character was going through. So, the process was a little uncomfortable. But I always knew that we are serving a very important story, by speaking about an important issue in society.

Q. You mentioned the narrative of Kaalkoot focussing on a complex phenomenon relating to our society. How did you prepare for the role?

A. Kaalkoot deals with the idea of toxic masculinity, so I had to find those aspects in me that are born out of the same conditioning. I have lived in this society and I am a product of it. So, even if I am aware of that toxic trait in me and have tried to suppress it, as a man I know what it is. To allow that to come up and stay with it to eventually translate that into Manav Gupta was discomforting. 

That said, in a way it was also a healing experience, because to suppress those aspects in you that you think are shameful takes up energy, but when stories like these allow you to interpret them as a character, something in you also gets healed. In that manner, I think, it was a very important experience for me as an actor.

Q. Vijay Varma is currently hailed as one of the most prominent names on OTT. How was it to share screen space with him?

A. I mostly had scenes with Vijay sir. On the first day, of course, I was quite intimidated, to be honest. I have looked up to him, his work and his journey for quite some time. And as an actor, we are always trying to find that one figure, on whom we can rest our hopes. The name Vijay sir has made for himself after films like Gully Boy and Darlings is truly inspiring. He has always been a very strong performer, and we see that he has spent years on training and working hard to build this graph. And finally, it’s blooming. For actors like us, that story itself becomes a ray of hope. 

I carried that story within me even before I met him. The day I met him and we had to do our first scene, I told the director that although I prepared for my character, I wanted him to know that I am a little intimidated by how Vijay sir will respond to it.

Rohan with Shweta Tripathi
Rohan with Shweta Tripathi

So, to help me ease off a bit, Vijay sir took me into his vanity and we did a reading together. And in that reading, I saw this actor who was, perhaps, once at the place where I am today. I could see that he knows where I am right now. I could see it in his eyes that he resonates with that journey. He knows what could be going on in my heart and mind. And somewhere during that reading, I knew that we are serving this scene together. 

And that presence of us serving the story and not any hierarchy as an actor as well as his honesty towards the story was very infectious and space-holding, I would say. It was like, at that point, he would do exactly what is best for the story. So, that was our first scene together, which eventually came only during a very later episode in the series. In that scene, he’s only listening to me, and he does that with so much intent that I somehow had all the space that I needed as an actor to allow the performance to work. I didn’t have to push anything or be in a hurry. I didn’t feel like, oh, I’m taking up so much time or maybe I’m taking an extra pause. His capacity to listen is such a treat for any actor that it allows your performance to just bloom bit by bit, moment by moment and truth by truth. 

So, my biggest learning from Vijay Varma was that we are all serving stories. The idea of being a star or being popular or being known is secondary to the story. And that was very reassuring for me. The path that I’m on now is the one that he has treaded too. You see a part of you in him. He is giving hope for an entire generation of actors, and not just me. 

Q. There’s been a very prominent influx of stories with regional flavour on OTT. How much do you think that would help maintain diversity in the digital space?

A. Honestly, I think OTT is marking a new age in the history of cinema or content-making, whatever we call it. The idea that stories can be told by everyone; that it’s no longer monopolised by a certain system is very encouraging. OTT is allowing new directors, storytellers and writers to tell stories that, perhaps, couldn’t find an audience previously. And because there are so many platforms now, there’s also been an increase in the budget allocated for different projects, translating to diversification of resources and making the process democratic in the true sense.

When it comes to stories with a regional flavour, the Mirzapur series marked the beginning of that trend, and recently we have seen shows like Kohrra and Garmi doing well. India is a country of various people and cultures - from the ritual that we follow and the food that we eat to the language that we speak and the clothes that we wear. There is so much diversification in our culture that it’s only pertinent to find its reflection in our cinema too. Additionally, it allows all kinds of artists to express themselves on screen. And until and unless that is happening in art, unless we are able to reflect our lives back through our craft, it won’t enable a meaningful, wholesome feedback loop in our society. If not, cinema and entertainment will be isolated from society, and we won’t be able to serve as artists. Even though we have to engage and entertain, our primary responsibility is to serve as an artist. And that can only happen when we’re able to reflect on our lived experiences. 

I think in many ways, OTT is allowing such diverse kinds of lived experiences to find a space of expression, and that is the biggest service OTT is doing right now. But that doesn’t mean that it will take away anything from the theatres or television. It’s just that there is one more option that we have now; the dynamics of how we understand the audience are different now. It’s only adding to the ecosystem of how we tell our stories.

Q. As young actors, why do you think it is important to narrate stories that are more inclusive and rooted in our lived experiences?

A. For us to be able to find our true voices as actors; to be able to find narratives through which we can impact people; where we can share what it means to be human and to be part of a society; and what it means to have relationships - we need stories that are rooted in our culture and lived experience. I come from Bihar, my father and my ancestors are from that state. But I have also lived in Pune and Delhi for my studies and otherwise. I always felt that there is somehow a sense of my culture being, perhaps, lower than the ones that I see in cinema.

Rohan Verma
Rohan Verma

I see images on screen that make me feel that, perhaps, I am less. The fact that I don’t know English properly; when I speak Hindi or English, my Bihari accent comes out quite evidently. So everybody will, perhaps, see me as Bihari, and maybe I will be considered less. When that happens, although maybe not intentionally, we are making a huge chunk of the population of our country feel small. And in the absence of any reflection of their life, lived experiences and culture, they somehow feel isolated in an urban scenario. What films and series like Gangs of Wasseypur and Mirzapur did was cool. Many still remember dialogues from series like Bhaukaal. Such projects help bring the different cultures of our country to the mainstream. It brings everyone to the playground, and makes all of us able to relate to something about the other’s way of life. 

Maybe I have a friend from Punjab or from a southern state. Because there is a reflection of their culture in our cinema and OTT content, we are able to somehow relate to them more, and it brings us all together. So I think, yes, that is definitely a gift for me as an actor, and it’s an even bigger gift for society. I mean, I could be going a little overboard with the ideal of it. But yes, we are finding our way. Our direction is towards making it more inclusive.

Q. What are the future projects that you are looking forward to?

A. I am most excited about Sam Bahadur. It’s the first time that I have worked with Meghna Gulzar and Vicky Kaushal, and the movie is based on a very inspiring story. I have been reading about Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw since my school days, so much so that I even wanted to be in the army. I was deeply inspired by the real-life hero that he has been. And I don’t know how, but the universe conspired and I got the opportunity to be part of a film that is based on his life. I am playing Captain Attiqur Rahman in the film, who basically fought with Manekshaw during World War II, when they were in the British Army. They were leading two Commandments for the British Army. 

Apart from this, there is Dharma Productions’ upcoming film The Untold Story of C Sankaran Nair, starring Akshay Kumar. It follows the life of Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair, who fought against Brigadier Reginald Dyer - the man behind the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. So that’s another project that I am waiting for. Then, there is a slapstick comedy film, called Ishq Jhamela, which I recently shot with Arjun Rampal sir in London. After Kaalkoot, I am working on another project with Tipping Point Films. Titled Murder in Mahim, the show features Ashutosh Rana sir and Vijay Raaz sir as key characters. So, except Sam Bahadur, all the others are OTT releases. 

I am also part of the Hindi remake of the 2017 Malayalam film Angamaly Diaries. It’s directed by Tamil director Madhumita of KD fame and marks the Bollywood debut of actor Arjun Das.

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