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Fighter villain Rishabh Sawhney - ‘People said my performance reminded them of Amrish Puri’ | Exclusive

In an exclusive interview with OTTplay, Fighter villain Rishabh Sawhney reflected on the "unreal" reception for his performance in the Siddharth Anand film. 

Fighter villain Rishabh Sawhney - ‘People said my performance reminded them of Amrish Puri’ | Exclusive
Rishabh Sawhney/Instagram

Last Updated: 03.55 PM, Feb 06, 2024


Rishabh Sawhney burst onto the big screen as the menacing Azhar Akhtar in Siddharth Anand's Fighter. The debutant plays the main villain in the film, which features Hrithik Roshan and Deepika Padukone in the lead roles. Soon after the release of Fighter, several praised Rishabh for his performance as the evil terrorist in the first film itself. In an exclusive interview with OTTplay, the newcomer delved into the intricate layers of his character and the exhilarating journey of stepping into the spotlight. He also reflected on the overwhelming reception of his performance and the profound personal transformation that brought his character to chilling life on screen. 

Edited excerpts are below:

It has been exactly a week since the film's release; how is it responding to the feedback?

Oh, it is really amazing. I mean, I really hoped that I would be able to do justice to the character. But the amount of love that I'm getting from the audience and the industry people for my performance is a little unreal and unbelievable because I have not received any hate messages. Most of the reviews that I've read praise my performance as well. 

What has been the most special compliment you have received for your performance?

So, there are two, okay, and for one of them, I don't know if I deserve that sort of compliment. But a lot of people told me that the performance reminded them of Amrish Puri. And that is like one of the biggest compliments anyone can get if you're playing a villain or anything, because he was a phenomenal actor. That is why I say I don't know if I deserve that compliment. But the second compliment, which I'm really happy about, is that, when I was initially auditioning for this part at Mukesh Chhabra's office, they had given the brief that the character needed to be menacing, and so did Siddharth Sir when I met him after getting locked. A lot of people have texted me that Azhar Akhtar was so menacing, like the exact word being used by the audience, which made me feel okay. This is a task well done. 

Siddharth Anand's film has a star-studded ensemble; even in his previous outing, Pathaan, a popular actor like John Abraham played the main antagonist. Did that create any pressure to meet expectations and compete against Hrithik?

Yeah, of course, there was a lot of pressure because, on one side, you have Hrithik Roshan as the protagonist. And if I were not a strong antagonist in the film, the film would lose its gravitas. If there's a strong villain in the film, then the conflict for the hero becomes much bigger, and that translates to the audience and on screen in a much better manner. So, there was a lot of pressure. But then again, I always believed that I would be able to pull it off. Because once I got the opportunity, I knew that there's no way I'm going to let go of this opportunity or underperform it, because how many times does anyone get an opportunity like this? 

In the film, your character plays a terrorist with no remorse. In today's times, when such themes are explored in movies, it gets polarised reactions. Was that any of your concern at the initial stage?

No, no, I did not think about it like that. I am an audience member myself; I've been watching Bollywood films all my life. When I watch a film, it's like, I know the difference between the actor and the actor playing the character. I kind of hoped that the audience would also know that and not throw hate at me because it's just me playing a character. No, I mean, I wasn't really scared, or, you know, I didn't have these thoughts at that time. I was really excited that all these years of hard work are culminating in such a huge project. 

You started off your career with one of the biggest series on OTT, The Empire, and in the movies as an antagonist in Fighter. Both boast of big stars coming together. So how has that been for you, being a part of the huge cast in both mediums and having an impactful role also?

It has been an amazing experience, and I've been lucky that way. Even when I was shooting The Empire, that was a huge project with a huge star cast, it was my first time on camera for the long format, and I had to shoot scenes with Kunal Kapoor and Shabana Azmi. Although it was very exciting, films have their own unique charm. So when I got this film, it was a very different experience because, firstly, in The Empire, I was playing a smaller character, like the character had less screen time. In the film, I am the main antagonist, so it was a completely different switch. For The Empire, I was told that I could not look too big because I had to play in two different age groups. For Fighter, I was told to become big, which I absolutely love because I never used to get the chance to increase my size. That is something I really wanted to do. 

Your character seemed like a man who refused to die until you had a face-off with Hrithik in the climax. What do you have to say about your character building and being a villain with no back story?

But then, when you think about it, a whole country's army has called upon Azhar Akhtar to help them battle the Indians. Now, that itself tells you a lot about the stature of this guy in terms of the amount of damage he can cause. If he's being specially called, so that a lot about the fact that Azhar has been part of a lot of wars before this, and he has been part of a lot of extreme activities before this, and the eye and even the face palette marks, all of those are scars from previous wars. It's explanatory over there. 

In a recent interview, you said, "When I saw myself in Fighter while dubbing, I looked very ruthless. I was like, ‘I’m looking so evil’. At the same time, I knew that it was the best thing for my character." Why did you feel "evil" per se?

So basically, my whole thought process behind that was that I'm coming from a modelling background. So I've always seen myself on screen looking good. This is the first time I will see myself on screen where, you know, I'm fighting, I'm shouting, I have blood all over my face, and I'm like delivering these gory lines where I'm talking about killing people and torturing them. So I was like, "Damn, that looks very scary. That looks very evil." That is what I actually meant. 

How did you come to terms with the vanity of being an actor?

No, definitely. If I was looking beautiful while saying all these lines, it wouldn't have come across. It would have been funny. The fact that Azhar was looking so ruthless was all part of the character building. I think it was necessary at that point in time for Azhar to look like that, because I was feeling like that from the inside. I was filled with so much hate and rage, which is all part of my character preparation. 

Playing a villain in your Bollywood debut, did it come with the baggage of getting out of the character?

Yeah, I mean, I do not experience any post-shoot stuff like that. Pretty easily, I came out of the character. After the shoot got over, I went, visited my family and my school friends, and chilled with them for, like, a couple of days. I came back, and I was out of it. 

The acting coach that I was working with had designed a really nice plan for me. We had, like, four or five months of that before the shoot started. I had a whole playlist of songs, which I would listen to continuously on loop, and then I was not talking to people for four or five days at a stretch, like no words were coming out of my mouth, not even to my family or even to my friends. I was watching only war documentaries, and I was writing down all my thoughts at the end of the day. So, what happened after a month of doing this was that I could automatically see myself getting filled with rage. I could see my thoughts becoming more and more aggressive and more and more evil. I realised this is actually taking me into a zone where I've not been before because, in general, I'm a pretty happy-go-lucky kind of a person. But at that time, I was quite dark in that, and when I was doing the exercises, the mindset sort of became like that. One of the reasons I was not talking to people was that I might not like having an outburst at someone for no reason. So, all of that was done to prepare for the character. 

How did you then communicate with your close ones?

I was texting most of the time, but I avoided it because I was also told to stay away from my phone, and I deleted my Instagram. Every time I was doing this exercise, I was just staying away from my phone. I was reading a couple of books I had ordered on terrorism and like, what went down and how stuff was, how stuff used to happen, how it started, and all. I was just keeping to myself, trying to gain as much knowledge as possible and play the character as authentically as I could. 

Do you hope you get to play positive characters and not get typecast?

I think it's too early for me to talk about it because it's the first film that I've done. I do not think about this typecasting, and the fact that Azhar is so far away from what Rishabh is proves that I can go into that zone; I can touch those depths, if need be. I mean, there's a lot of versatility inside me, and I would really like to explore that. I hope I get as good a chance to do different projects, different characters, and not only negative ones, but I have no apprehension about doing the negative characters also. I've always found them fascinating.

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