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Sunil Grover: Being innocent on screen is more difficult than being smart

In an exclusive interaction with OTTplay, Sunil Grover gets candid about his character in the upcoming Zee5 web show Sunflower, making a comeback on TV, the influence of Social Media and more...

Harshita Alok Sharma
Jun 07, 2021
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We’ve seen him play lovable characters like Gutthi on Comedy Nights with Kapil and have been supremely entertained by his antics as Dr. Mashoor Gulati on The Kapil Sharma Show. The charming and efficaciously comedic actor Sunil Grover is back to dazzle his audiences with ZEE5’s Sunflower - a crime-thriller comedy that chronicles the aftermath of a murder in a gated community in Mumbai. Sunil Grover has emerged as one of India’s most recognized comedians in the recent past. However, the ace comedian does not shy from serious roles that showcase his versatility as an actor - his portrayal of  Saif Ali Khan’s assistant in Amazon Prime’s Original Tandav earned him immense praise. Grover’s character in Sunflower is equal parts funny and grave. The skill set that the actor brings to the table is novel, experimental and always memorable.

We caught up with him prior to the release of Sunflower for a quick chat about his experience working in the show, whether he’ll be back on Television, what makes the show stand out and more.

Here are excerpts of his exclusive conversation with OTTPlay:

You seem to be back in your element in Sunflower - your character has hints of comedy and quirkiness. What kind of characters do you personally enjoy playing more, the more serious ones like the one in Tandav or more lighthearted ones like your character in Sunflower?

I enjoy all kinds of characters that come my way. The story that is being told is always more important to me. In such formats, when stories are good and convincing, the characters become secondary. You choose the story because you like the character. If you feel like your character is enjoyable, then I choose to do that character.

What drew you to Sunflower - was it the story or the character then?

When Vikas Bahl sent the script to me for each episode, I enjoyed reading it. I especially liked Sonu Singh’s character. Then the more I read, the more I realized I must do it - Mr. Bahl and I were planning on working together for a long time but it never materialized. However, it came to fruition this time and I was happy to be a part of it. It was definitely a fun ride because what’s written on paper is what you like since you believe it and you understand it. So, I understood my character well. We had a workshop and we tried different ways of bringing my character to life. When that was done, we locked on one way to portray my character and that’s how it all started.

In an interview in the past, you stated that you choose to stay away from controversial roles since you do not wish to offend any sentiments. Is Sunflower an endeavour to move in this direction? And consequently, when actors like Saif Ali Khan are not necessarily staying away from such roles, do you wonder if your approach will backfire?

Any project that I do - even before Tandav - I have my filters in my mind where I think about my projects and hope they don’t hurt anyone’s sentiments. However, even if your intention is just to entertain, some people get hurt in the process which you only realize on release. That’s when you start to feel bad.

Sunil Grover as Gutthi

Your characters on TV like Gutthi and Dr. Mashoor Gulati have become household favourites. Will you be coming back to TV anytime soon or will you focus more on web-series and movies from now on?

Whatever has a good format and convinces me would be ideal. I never really thought about the medium before this. OTT, for that matter, is comparatively a new medium that is beautiful, but comes with its own challenges. Till the time the script is interesting, keeps me busy, I’ll do it. Same goes for movies and television shows - if there are new concepts which thrill me, I’m game. Mediums are important and have their own fun about it but if I’m busy doing a project and already involved in it, I often cannot pick projects I want on some other medium. However, if I have time, the role is good and the project excites me then I will take it up irrespective of the medium.

Sunflower is following some highly successful OTT shows this year. What do you think is going to set the show apart and stand out to the audience?

The premise of Sunflower is simple - there is a society where a murder has happened. However, Sunflower will be interesting in the way the story gets told. Since the story is told in a new form where humour is also happening in the least expected scenes - in the middle of investigations, humour will come out of nowhere. The thrill in the show is constant and parallelly going on the entire time. It is beautiful to watch, beautifully penned down and even while reading we had too much fun. I’m hoping audiences enjoy it as well.

The impact of social media is huge in grasping the success of a show- it adds to excitement and anticipation. Sunflower has left its fair share of cryptic messages on social media. Do you think this builds the hype around the show or gives away the crux in its entirety, especially in a show like Sunflower which is based on a mystery?

The scriptwriters are beginning to anticipate such things so especially in Sunflower’s case, expect the unexpected. You’ll only realize this when you watch the show. The whodunnit seems to be the crux of the show but the more you watch, the more you realize that it’s more than that. What the audience is expecting and what has been shared can often be red herrings. But there is a twist to everything and our attempt has been to maintain the element of surprise.

Sunil Grover on the sets of Sunflower

You mentioned that the plot is equally serious and comedic. Does it require a certain level of expertise as an actor to switch between tense moments and bring humour to the scene with no difficulty or is that something that comes naturally to you?

Sunflower has the thrill of a murder mystery going on and it’s definitely a serious plot. But that’s the beauty of it - you’re telling a dark story in a fun way. Where I step in as my character, I behave in a certain fashion which only lets me focus on my part. For me, my primary focus is to portray what the character is feeling. So I have to believe in the character, get into his thought process and then enact it. The rest is up to storytelling - when the story is told, you’ll realize that every actor is just observing what their character will think and be and subsequently do in these circumstances.

Every portrayal comes with its own challenges and required skills. What were the new challenges that the script demanded you to fulfill in Sunflower?

The physical part was definitely easier - I had to lose about 8 kilos. But this was simple, the most difficult part was that the character is highly layered and has a certain amount of innocence. In everyday life, we try only to become smarter and try to gain experience and run around with an air of “I know it all.” Getting back to the innocence of any human being is thus so difficult, especially initially. I had to practice a little bit to gradually get used to this innocence but getting there was difficult. Something I learnt from this show and this character was that being innocent on screen is more difficult than being smart.

When you analyze your character in Sunflower, do you believe that you should have done something differently?

I am waiting to get the audience’s reaction to think about how well I am being received. If they give me feedback, then I’ll look back and rethink my character. If they accept me, then great! But I truly believe, right now and maybe later too, that success or failure or the acceptance or non-acceptance of a project should not affect my mental state. As long as I enjoy doing it, I want the audience to enjoy it too.

Sunil Grover in a still from Sunflower

You’ve portrayed many different characters. Each time you bring a character to life in a different medium, do you heavily tweak your performances to fit the intended audience?

I depend on the storyteller’s way of portraying a character for cues. That is most important - you do what the director says because that's how they want to portray their story. However, there is definitely some basic difference. So I have mostly dabbled with non-fiction work on television where you just crave a reaction after each line. You’re essentially performing for those lines only because you’re expecting a cheer or excitement. But then in cases like Sunflower, you get the reaction much later. So you play the character as you hope to see them on screen. Here, you can’t improvise and you have to tell the story you began with.

You can improvise within frame, within the bounds of not changing the plot, but you must keep the character graph in mind. Ultimately, the last scene should match the first scene in the way that the character should stay essentially the same. However, in my previous work there was a lot of improvisation and in-the-spur-of-the-moment kind of acting.

Sunflower also stars Ranvir Shorey and Girish Kulkarni. When you were on set or rehearsing for the script, did you find yourself building onto your character based on the nuances and portrayals of those around you? Was there a difference in how you brought Sonu Singh to life simply because of the influence of the cast?

When you work with a good cast, you feel motivated and get to learn. It’s so beautiful and profound when people who know their job, play their characters and believe in them, transform their lines to suit their purpose. Sometimes it's truly surprising, and the journey of the script translating to life, adding wonder to it and watching the actor’s take fit into the character is an ecstatic feeling. That’s the beauty of working with good actors, they can take you by surprise and elevate the whole narrative along with your own character. That is the experience that I had on Sunflower. The point of Sunflower is to entertain - I enjoyed it while reading it and while playing my character. My whole vision is that people also feel nice after watching this.

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