Dalip Tahil is that man who has embodied every character he played, be it a shrewd villain or a fierce father. Beyond the camera, he displays an unguarded personality, refusing to be boxed in celebrity norms. Graduating from theatre to films has been a smooth transition for this veteran, but his urge to try something new has never ceased. Dalip Tahil went on to wow the West, sang in a musical by AR Rahman and currently owns some powerful parts in the digital space. Even at 69, he has shown the world that he is a talent house ready to explore a new opportunity every day!
In an exclusive conversation with ETimes, Dalip Tahil opens up about his acting journey, how ‘Buniyaad’ carved his career, how Ramesh Sippy taught him a life lesson and much more. Excerpts:
Nearly five decades in performing arts, how would you sum up this journey?
I am very fortunate and extremely privileged. When I started off with Alyqee and Pearl Padamsee, it was my good fortune that I realised that acting is not just my passion but it is something that I cannot do without. And through the discipline and the opportunities that they put in front of me, it became a profession. I always say that I haven’t done a day’s work in my life.
Of course when you are young, you tend to take things for granted but time goes by. Straight after theatre, I was called by Shyam Benegal to do his first film. So when I say I am fortunate, I mean this. I did my first film when I was 18, it was Shyam Benegal’s ‘Ankur’. I got to work with such wonderful people in the beginning of my career and got such fantastic exposure. When you see and work with talented people like Anant Nag and Shabana Azmi, you begin to realise that this is the place where you want to be. It is so encouraging, you feel you want to belong then. From there I progressed to the great Mr Ramesh Sippy. Then I worked with Mr Mahesh Bhatt, Rakesh Roshan, Mr Mansoor Khan, Yash ji and in these films, I was working with such marvelous talents like Amitabh Bachchan, Shashi Kapoor… They taught me so much, what this business is about outside the acting, performance aspect, your discipline, the way you conduct yourself, how people change you, how you treat people in this industry. So being in the film industry, it is like a life lesson and it is a very tough industry.
You speak so passionately about acting. But during your initial days, did the thought of quitting ever cross your mind?
Never! There were several junctures in my film career where I questioned the kind of work that I was doing. But by then, it was a kind of Catch 22 situation for me. ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’ worked for me, ‘Buniyaad’ was a game changer. Then came the middle 30s when everybody was doing three shifts. The producers will come to you and if you tell them that you have time, they won’t sign you! It was so mad. If you told a producer, ‘
Mere paas time hai, aap yeh date le lijiye‘, they would walk out of the door and say ‘
Yeh toh faltu baitha hua hai’. Toh tabhi sab ulta hota tha.
I have been through that three shift system and as an actor, that shook my foundation. I saw around me no one was happy, I had just become a money making machine. Raj Kapoor rightly called his brother Shashi Kapoor a ‘taxi’, imagine calling that to the great Shashi Kapoor. But I promise you, his words echoed with everyone at that time who were doing 3 and 4 shifts. We were all taxis, there was no question of quality because you are running from one set to another.
It was quite like roulette. You are doing six films and nobody quite knew what the heck was going on in any of the movies because actors would come for 2-3 hours, right there scripts were changed, dialogues were changed at the last moment. Sometimes Mithun and I would go from one set to the next, and apart from changing our shirts, nothing else changed. It was so chaotic.
Agar picture chal gai toh tu chal gaya, panch picture aur sign karo, but it was touch and go. Intentions were fine, people wrote the script but it was impossible to implement anything in a proper manner because the system was bizarre. So there was that time I was doing well, getting movies, I was earning well but the questions were becoming stronger and stronger as to what am I doing. Is this what I have come to do as an actor?
Satisfaction was far from it, it was a trap. Because by then comes a stage where you had to do it for the money. As you get into it and you begin to make money you start taking car loans, home loans, you begin to extend yourself financially to live your life. Because it is all happening at such a young age and then you realise that you have to earn a certain amount of money every year otherwise you are in deep trouble. So that whole situation I have been through.
I have been one of those few character actors who has had successful films all through my career of 47 years. In that madness also there was ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’, ‘Baazigar’, ‘ Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai’, ‘Ishq’, ‘Raja’, ‘Ram Lakhan’, so I had a lot of success.
Beyond movies, you also took up AR Rahman’s musical ‘Bombay Dreams’…
It was a game changer for me. AR Rahman and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical. I auditioned for it among 3000 people from all over the world and you have to sing your own songs. So when I got that on the London stage, it really was my breakthrough moment, in terms of understanding and being able to challenge and respect myself as an artist. Straight from the film industry I went into the discipline of theatre where you have to do 8 shows per week, with a break on Monday. You are singing every night, dancing, performing and there is no question of sleeping out and it is a bigger arena. When I returned from there, I was happy to see that a lot had changed in Mumbai itself. Some for the better, some a little exaggerated, but certainly the change is more for the better than what it was. It is still work in progress and I feel fortunate to say that I am a part of this work in progress.
You’ve also taken up popular OTT shows like ‘The Family Man’ and ‘Made In Heaven’… How has that impacted you as an actor?
OTT, TV, films, theatres don’t impact me. I am still doing an actor’s job. More than anything else it is the technology that has changed the way we write our films, the way we watch our entertainment. It is all technology. TV opened an entire new way of life, a totally new entertainment ecosystem. TV came, so many people got more work. It became an industry. And then there were the regular jibes, ‘
Aap toh bade parde se chhote parde par aa gaye‘. Until the big screen actors came into a public gathering with the TV actors, nobody looked at them. Then they realised,
bhale parda chota ho, it reaches hundreds and millions. Then came multiplexes, again it is technology that changed the way people see cinema. In Shyam Benegal’s time, several films never got made because they were far away from the accepted formula. That changed with multiplexes.
Then came OTT and I fit into that also. But almost 90 per cent of the content is going into that rut, which is a copy of something. I mean we will never get over our obsession with the West. When it was Hindi movies, single screens, a lot of stories and ideas came from the West. We incorporated it beautifully. In TV too, some of our ideas like ‘Hum Log’, ‘Buniyaad’, ‘Mahabharat’, ‘Ramayan’, made excellent serials. But this has been the case with every film industry in the world, not just in India. You will see 2000 wannabe Godfathers in the West, you will see 3000 wannabe Sholays in India.
Toh woh toh chalte rehta hai.
If you had to name a person who helped shape your career in films, who would that be?
I can’t do that, it is impossible for me. When I look at my journey of 47 years as a professional, there are so many things and people and influences that I cannot put my finger on one. Never once in all the troubles, ups and downs, and heartaches that one has in this profession, I have never once said I want to do something else. Never. I haven’t even thought of changing my core work.
How difficult or easy was it to not get stereotyped into negative roles?
When I started with ‘Ankur’, I was edited-out of most of the movie. But let’s say, for practical purposes, I started with ‘Shaan’, where I was playing a bad guy. After ‘Shaan’, I took a break because I realised what I had done. My father came to the premiere and told me, ‘After doing such major plays in theatre, is this what you have decided to do? Play a side role to a bad guy?’ So I got a wakeup call and decided to do something of consequence. I went to Ravi Chopra, who gave me a movie called ‘Aaj Ki Awaaz’, which was a phenomenal hit. I was the baddest guy ever in that movie, so much so that my mother got shocked. She told me please don’t play this kind of role.
From ‘Aaj Ki Awaaz’, I started getting offered a lot of negative roles. Then came a movie in Malayalam, India’s first 3D film called ‘My Dear Kuttichathan’, which was a superhit. In that film I was playing a father, but a sort of happy go lucky drunk father. It was an emotional movie.
Your performance in ‘Buniyaad’ is also a memorable one…
After ‘Shaan’ and ‘Shakti’, in which I played a negative role, came ‘Buniyaad’. Those days I was in Mr Ramesh Sippy’s camp like his resident actor. He gave me ‘Buniyaad’ and that changed my life. That is the power of TV. My mother used to watch the show and start crying, because that’s our story as well, from Sindh. I played a father in ‘Buniyaad’ and I didn’t think twice. It was such a good narration that I didn’t even think of my role and was amazed by the subject. I was playing a father of two young kids and it didn’t bother me at all.
And after ‘Buniyaad’ I got ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’. I asked Nasir Hussain saab, long after we were shooting for the film, ‘Where did you find me in the big fat industry?’ Because it was such a powerful role and he told me, ‘I saw you in ‘Buniyaad’ and that’s what I wanted in this movie. I wanted a strong character but an emotional one. We knew we were going to cast Aamir and you fit the character of his father’. A lot of big actors had refused ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’. It was supposed to be made with Mr Sanjeev Kumar and Mr Shammi Kapoor. At that time Nasir Hussain saab was going to direct the movie. But he suffered a heart attack and doctors advised him not to take on the burden of direction. He offered the film to his son Mansoor, who loved the subject, but then he said there is no way I can work with Sanjeev Kumar and Shammi Kapoor, because they are too senior. So the film went through a whole recasting and it was offered to quite a few character actors in the industry. I won’t take names but a lot of people turned down ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’. I was 31 years old when I played Aamir’s father in ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’. And I didn’t even think before taking up this role. Aamir was a teenager then. I heard the prologue and I agreed to do the movie even before hearing it further. I wasn’t even a father myself at that time when I played a father to Aamir Khan, I was not even married!
But I just go by the content. Till this date, whenever I am given a narration, I ask myself, ‘If my character is not in the film, can the story be told?’ And if the story can be told without my character then I will not do it.
As you mentioned the burden of the 3-shift system, was there any movie which you had to leave?
Yes, there were quite a few. I can’t mention all but I lost Mira Nair’s ‘Kama Sutra’. She offered me a fabulous role in the film which she was shooting in Khajuraho. And her rule was, you can’t go up and down the set, as they have their insurances. You cannot say you will take 3 days off for some other shoot and then come back. I adjusted all my dates, all I wanted was two days, which I couldn’t adjust. And I begged her. I said, ‘Mira, give me 2 days’ and I wasn’t even supposed to be shooting on those days with her but she wouldn’t let me go. She said ‘No, can’t leave’. And then she explained to me why I couldn’t leave. It was because of the way the insurance structure is done in international films, all insurances of the actors, team, caterers are locked into 1 policy. If I take off from this shoot,
khuda-na-khasta, if I get hurt and I cannot shoot with her. The insurance will not cover her. Her entire project could be jeopardised. I lost ‘Kama Sutra’ with Mira Nair because of the 3-shift system. I could not adjust, two days, that’s all it was. Mira wanted me to do the film, everything was sorted, but those two days, she couldn’t compromise and she had her reasons. I also lost a few international projects because of this system.
Your career is punctuated with several iconic roles. What is your method to sign a movie?
The person who taught me this was Ramesh Sippy. While I was doing ‘Shaan’, he offered me this cameo in ‘Shakti’. It is a very beautiful cameo and the entire movie’s plot changes from that one scene. When he offered it to me, I was very flattered because he had the confidence that I could pull this scene off, that too with Amitabh Bachchan, who was at his peak. But then I told him, ‘Ramesh ji, this cameo and all, it sat me down.’ He told me, ‘Dalip, the cameo that I am giving you, changes the story of Shakti.’ And then he went on to explain the same. I said fine, now Ramesh ji is telling me, I can’t say no to him and I did it. But I was never 100 percent convinced in my mind that it would have such an impact, because I was not so knowledgeable about scriptwriting and cinema. And after shooting the movie, he asked me to watch it and then decide. You won’t believe it but I still get emails for ‘Shakti’, till this day. Such an old movie, I did one scene in it and till this date in my fan mail people remember me for ‘Shakti’. That taught me like nothing else. It was such a big movie with Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Smita Patil… Who the hell is going to remember Dalip Tahil in the movie as a newcomer? From that time onwards my respect for Ramesh Sippy went through the roof. He is such an honest director, he doesn’t exploit people. What he taught me has stayed with me through my life in selecting films.
These days they say Bollywood does not have villains any more.
Having played several iconic negative shades in your career, d
o you agree with the concept of an anti-hero?
There are just different kinds of villains now, there’s blue collar crime, hacking and cyber crime. The gold smugglers are all gone now. Society has changed and new technology has affected the change. Today if I tell you that I am playing a gold smuggler then you will laugh, though gold is still being smuggled, but it doesn’t fit into the pattern today.
If you had to share a memorable episode from your nearly 5 decades journey…
I’ll tell you how I got ‘Aaj Ki Awaaz’. BR Chopra saab had called me to play the second lead with Rishi Kapoor in ‘Tawaif’. In between I went off to do a play and he decided to give that role to Deepak Parashar, who was after that role all the time. So when I returned to Bombay, I got a message from BR Chopra saab to visit him at his office. He knew I was going to do a play in Bangalore. He called me down and told me, ‘Dalip,
yeh ‘Tawaif’ ka role, I don’t think it would do anything to you because it’s the second lead. You have a strong presence and are a powerful actor. I just don’t see you fitting in as the second lead to Rishi Kapoor in this. So I have given this role to Deepak Parashar.’ My face fell and his next sentence was, ‘Go to Kookie’s office, that’s Ravi Chopra. There is a cast reading for ‘Aaj Ki Awaaz’ and we have kept a role for you. Kookie has waited for you. Raj Babbar, Smita Patil and Nana Patekar are doing the reading and you go there.’ I went to Ravi Chopra’s office and sure enough they were all doing a reading of ‘Aaj Ki Awaaz’. I walked in and Ravi gave me the script, told me about my role and I got into the reading. It turned out to be the main bad guy, who just does the most horrible things.
Woh picture hit ho gayi! So ever since ‘Buniyaad’, ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’ I have always got strong characters and I am grateful for that. Because of the persona that I have and I suppose the strength and weight that I bring into my performance, is why I get strong roles. And that’s what BR Chopra told me.
A lot of character actors from the 80s and 90s ended up in obscurity, despite being recognised faces during their time. Do you think the film profession is an unkind one?
Yeah, it is very scary. I am a very lucky person! So far I am not in obscurity yet because of the fortunate things that I have had, met such good people who have defined what I was. BR Chopra told me that I couldn’t be cast as second fiddle because I had such a strong screen presence. And you see my career, I have always done powerful characters, who are self contained. If I am not playing the protagonist, then I definitely want to be the antagonist. Would there be a Mr India without Mogambo?
People get leading men, heroes who can sing songs and all but all the top directors that I have been to, struggled to find powerful actors to play the other side which balances their story. Which makes the hero a hero. That’s why a person like Amrish Puri ji was so successful in the film industry, he nailed the performance of a super bad villain. He was a larger than life villain. In the old days James Bond movies were where the Hindi film industry took its inspiration from. Today’s James Bond villain is a techie.
How have you dodged the obscurity?
The fact is that I got selected for those roles. So I have a broad base in terms of it, maybe it is because of the background that I have, coming from theatre, having exposure to the West. So it is a combination of things.
With the content on TV, OTT and films undergoing a drastic change, there’s so much violence and adult content that needs parental supervision. What is your take on it?
When ‘Mirzapur’ came, there was a lot of abuse, and when the second part was released, it was all the more abusive. It became stylish to abuse in shows and I accept the reason. But you cannot add that to every single movie and show. It’s not going to be successful this way, it is going to be offensive.
Also, I feel violence is a refuge for bad script writing, unless it is there in the story. If there’s nothing to add then you just cannot increase the fight sequences. Previously, in films like ‘Godfather’, they showed violence, there was a premise of killing, unrest, suspicion but it was all very silent. But to each his own, everybody has their own thing. I feel it is just when you just run out of the ideas that you put in a fight. It becomes offensive after a point. It is all
Today, ‘The Kashmir Files’ has released, I have received at least five offers after that to play different subjects in different ‘files’. In every country’s history there has been oppression, mistakes, injustices. Everybody wants to make a film on some injustice, so they can play it on the previous government or the first Prime Minister of India, a poor fellow who is dead and gone. And gain brownie points politically. People think that politics is driving cinema because one movie has been a hit. But you see all these movies that are going to come will be bombs, barring 1 or 2 which are genuine. This is
bhedchaal, mob mentality, which is happening on OTT as well. ‘Mirzapur’ did well because people over there speak just like that. I am from UP, they cannot speak without expletives. Then the
bhedchaals got together and said ‘Mirzapur’ hit ho gayi because of the abuses. They don’t understand the story or the milieu.
What are your thoughts on the recent debate on Hindi versus other language cinema?
South remakes have been there for ages. Creatively, South is way ahead of Bollywood. Now it has come to transcend. They have always led the game, even in the old days, a lot of Hindi films were remakes of South movies. They were not copied, but were remakes. In the end it was a huge hit, for example ‘Sadma’. So, the South has always been a leader and now they are making it pan India. ‘Baahubali’, ‘KGF 2’, ‘RRR’, all these movies have such a huge format that they have transcended the language barrier. Cinema has never had a language barrier, it is only people who are short-sighted and tunnel visioned, who say ‘
Hindi hai. woh hai…’ Cinema has no language barriers, only ideas and concepts have any kinds of barriers and that is good or bad. I have seen movies made in Korean language, look at Indian classics made in Hindi, it transcends. You put subtitles, dub them in any language and it will be a super hit.
Look at ‘Chota Chetan’, India’s first 3D film which was made in Malayalam. It was a hit in every single language, in Gujarati, Hindi, English, Tamil, you name it and it was a hit. I rest my case! There is no language barrier for films. A Malayalam movie made on a tiny budget, made crores in its time. What is this whole language issue of Hindi, Tamil, Telugu? You make a good film, dub it in any language and it will be a success. And if it is not a good film, you can dub it in any language, it will not be a success. End of story. ‘Chota Chetan’, even if it was not made in 3D, it would have been a hit. This is the way the system works and it works in every field of life, not just in cinema. After the success of ‘Chota Chetan’ in 3D, everyone went crazy over 3D. People bought 3D cameras and what not. Then came a film called ‘Shiva Ka Insaaf’ with Jackie, a 3D film. It was a total flop. What they don’t understand is that 3D enhanced the presentation of ‘Chota Chetan’, but the film’s story and emotions, even if it wasn’t in 3D, would have been successful. People think if one has a 3D camera, then there is no need to write a story. But there is a very limited amount of creativity in films, like anywhere else. We just hear of the 1 percent of movies of the classic films of the West.