There are only certain things that will make film and entertainment journalists okay with working on a Sunday, and Gulshan Devaiah playing with bubbles while the cameras aren't rolling is one of them! Our first cover star of 2024 seamlessly switches between outfit changes, understanding the theme of the shoot, and keeping the crew engaged. Much in line with the theme at hand – freedom of expression and all the forms it can take for an individual. He also managed to squeeze in an insightful interview on what freedom of expression means to him, and the revelations were exemplary.
Whether he's tackling complex characters or navigating the maze of social media, Gulshan is not just an actor; he's a storyteller with a side of wit and a dash of irreverence. An impactful debut in That Girl in Yellow Boots (2010) followed by Shaitan and Dum Maaro Dum (2011) showcased his diverse acting prowess early on. Hunterr (2015) is now considered a modern cult classic, and a supporting role in Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram-Leela (2013) cemented his reputation as a force to be reckoned with. Proving that he has a funny bone as well, the incredibly quirky Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018) and the dark comedy series Afsos (2020) are also part of his impressive repertoire. Gulshan's collaborations with acclaimed directors such as Anurag Kashyap and Sriram Raghavan underline the richness of his filmography. Most recently, his layered portrayals in Dahaad and Guns & Gulaabs showcase his range, playing men who can be morally ambiguous to downright evil. For someone like Gulshan, the sense of feeling the freedom of expressing then becomes crucial for his roles. Bringing out the theme to life as well, here's how Gulshan practices his freedom of expression in a modern world that is quick to judge.
On growing up and growing out
Just how liberating can art be? Especially for children growing up in conservative environments where their behaviour is constantly dictated. “While growing up, I think, kids were discouraged to express themselves and expected to behave a certain way. Especially with male children, you cannot weep or express grief or sadness. You are made fun of by other children or sometimes even by elders. It is usually associated with being feminine, if you cry. I wasn't introduced to concepts of self-expression while growing up. It was a very conservative environment,” reveals Gulshan while reminiscing about his own experiences of not being encouraged to express himself and live his truths.
“Cinema is what introduced me to new ideas and new concepts,” confesses Gulshan. “As an actor when I was on stage or in front of the camera, I could express myself freely and nobody was telling me you can't do this. The requirement of an actor is to express and that’s why I was drawn to the craft of acting and was free to interpret text.”
He elaborates, “As I grew, I started to incorporate those things in my life also and I absolutely do not feel ashamed when I feel sad or pain or when I cry. In fact, I cry a lot!” exclaims Gulshan. “When I feel hurt, when you lose a family member, relationship falls apart or anything like that, or other kinds of disappointments, I really cry my eyes out.”
Another actor who’s made Gulshan bawl? Rajat Kapoor!
Social censorship and creative processes
Gulshan rightfully points out that the tussle between storytellers and the Censor Board has always been there. But these days social censorship has taken over where certain groups of people take offense and have extreme reactions to things. “Which is why the Censor Board is not particularly in the news lately,” chuckles Gulshan. They can often miss certain contexts or there are perspectives that can be skewed. “Maybe sometimes they start to cut things because they can. I don't know. But I do believe that there must be some kind of an organisation and a Censor Board is necessary as it maintains the balance of freedom of expression and responsibility,” concludes Gulshan.
So, does social censorship cause Gulshan any grief? “When the people take offence and go after certain films or certain actors, sometimes they scare you. Will I be free to tackle certain stories? It creates fear, and that's probably the intention behind it as well,” he notes.
How can then storytellers tread the line of what’s offensive and what’s required for the story? He explains, “It's all about sincerity. How sincere are you in the way you're telling the story? Because insincerity can get you into trouble. With controversial subjects also, if you're sincere in your portrayal, most audiences will see it for what it is.” He goes to point to one of his roles that on the surface should be “cancelled”, but wasn’t.
“There are certain protagonists who can be terribly entertaining but are despicable people. But that must come across. Take Atmaram from Guns & Gulaabs. People love Atmaram, because he’s entertaining. But you don't want to know an Atmaram in real life because he's not a nice person at all. Absolutely not. He's a murderer. He's a psychopath. He kills people for money,” Gulshan confesses. But the reason why Gulshan didn't hold back, and it worked is because the whole thing is a fantasy. “And the thing with fantasies is that the audience is in on it. That world may give you an illusion of reality but it's not. They’re exaggerated ideas, which can often make films such an enjoyable experience!” explains Gulshan.
On the fluid nature of freedom of expression
“I used to be made fun of by people when I was a young boy and especially in my teens because some of my mannerisms were feminine. Once I began to accept those aspects of me as being natural, I began to not pretend to be someone else, I began to accept my true authentic self. I am a man who is comfortable and in touch with my feminine side as much as my masculine side,” confesses Gulshan.
As an artist, and one that works with some of the most influential storytellers, Gulshan shared some interesting insights into the idea of freedom of expression. “I don't think that freedom of expression is absolute. We must exercise some social responsibility,” he stressed on the point that freedoms are important. But in society, freedom also comes with a caveat; there should be a counterbalance of responsibility. “Just because I have freedom of expression, I cannot put you down. I cannot swear at you, demean you or humiliate you. That’s when I am being irresponsible with my freedoms," Gulshan states.
On approaching risqué roles
Gulshan is no stranger to characters written to be outrageous, with an insatiable hunger to create chaos. So how does he approach a role like such? He reveals, “Often the dilemma for actors is that the scripts that you read or the characters that you play are people that you don't really like or agree with. I have a very simple rule of thumb when it comes to deciding whether I want to play these characters or be part of these scripts. It must be genuinely interesting to me, and if Gulshan is not able to accept the reality of the character the way it is then I can't do it.”
Giving us an insight into what can make even him squirm, Gulshan revealed that gratuitous violence against women in cinema is a big no-no because as a person he cannot relate to the reality of the same. “It might be ideological or personal, but this is my technique. There are actors who believe that these are characters and your personal opinion about this doesn’t matter. It's a fair point but it does matter to me.”
Gulshan also stressed on the importance of a collaborative relationship with filmmakers to take on challenging or controversial roles. “I've managed to negotiate necessary changes in my projects. And from Reema Kagti and Harshavardhan Kulkarni to Vasan Bala, I’ve worked with storytellers who are quite responsible themselves,” he reveals. Touching upon his most controversial role till date, he says, “Hunterr looks at sexuality and puberty with a male perspective. At least that's what it seems on the face of things. The film is a lot more actually than what people get excited about. It's a coming-of-age character study. And because it has it had a very sincere approach, and this is what the director wanted. We didn't think that we were making a film that's misogynist. But having said that, it would be a little bit difficult to make such a film now.”
He concludes by saying, “One shouldn't be really scared about what people will think; being responsible is good, being afraid is not. I'm fortunate that all the people that I have worked with worked with have been responsible, or at least have allowed me to reason with them and then make the necessary changes.”
On digital media and how to tackle the monster
Digital media spaces, especially social media, can be vicious for someone living their life in the limelight. Confessing to feeling his own freedom of expression violated, Gulshan reveals, “I feel that we haven't really found a healthy way of using social media. Even if I am being very respectful with my opinion about anything, people who don't like it take it in an extreme manner. Perhaps they themselves don't believe in this extremism, but it just ends up being quite an extreme reaction to things.”
So how does Gulshan deal with it? “Initially, I had no idea how to use social media. My way of looking at it is as an extension of myself. If I'm sitting with you here and I'm talking to you here, I should be the same on social media. Apart from that, because of my profession, it's another medium that I use to market either myself or my projects,” explains Gulshan.
So, is it always just business? For Gulshan, no. “When I'm expressing myself and sharing opinions, I must have reasonable degree of responsibility attached to it. Many times, I'm typing something, and I delete it. I don't post them at all because I feel like why am I doing this? Sometimes I post wrong things also; you can't always get it right, and that's how you learn.”
So, what has Gulshan learned from playing the Insta-game for so long? Share your opinions online but do it responsibly. It’s about anonymity. The fact that you do not see the people behind the dislikes or mean comments does not mean you can say anything to them. “A lot of times people do behave irresponsibly on social media and get a lot of traction, but that’s insincere and you're not being authentic. You're just doing things because you know something will be controversial and get retweeted or go viral with people having extreme reactions to it. I also see people I know, and love do that as well, and it bothers me, and I try to reason with them, but it rarely works, "exasperates Gulshan.
On self-censorship and why it’s important
“Self-censorship should be driven by a sense of responsibility towards society, not by fear," clarifies Gulshan, elaborating, “It’s good practice and I think each one of us should be responsible with their words and at the same time you're also exercising your freedom of expression. I remember having an issue with some of the dialogue or certain phrases. But I was fortunate that the people I was working with saw the point and allowed me to make changes. Sometimes even the writers allowed me to make the change and some of them even suggested alternatives.”
Empathising with his colleagues, he reveals that more than actors, storytellers face precautionary censorship from producers, networks or studios. “But if it's driven by fear, then that's not right. And a lot of self-censorship is driven by fear— Fear of having something shut down, taken down, or backlash,” he confesses. And what exactly is making storytellers today afraid? “Money, right to do business and how it affects your business all. It's fear, it's not good and shouldn’t exist,” opines Gulshan.
Is there anything off limits for Gulshan?
For an actor with Gulshan’s range, is there anything he wouldn't do? “Nothing is off limits. It’s the perspective. Why are you saying something? What is the point of it? Are you trying to make people think or are you trying to entertain people. It's all about how sincere and honest you are exploring a subject. Your protagonist may be a very dodgy person. But if you're sincere in your approach, then that becomes a character study.”
But something that will have Gulshan leaving you on read? Insincerity. “Quite often people use their freedom of expression in order to titillate and that lacks sincerity,” he reveals. Item songs with women in skimpy clothes to get YouTube hits? Gulshan’s not on board. But if it’s good and entertaining, sure, sign him up!
Zest Content Team: Srikant Malladi, Anannya Chatterjee and Atmaja Unny
Cover story: Sumona Bose
Photographer: Atul Kasbekar
Photo Editor: Ashish Limaye
Art Director: Vinod Guruji
BTS video: Rahul Sawant
Video Edit: Akshay Padwale
Stylist: Gehna Dholakia
Assistant stylist: Satakshi Pandeyy
Hair stylist: Dinesh Jadhav
Makeup: Prakash Vichare
Location: Mazda Imaging Pvt Ltd
Artist PR: Hardly Anonymous
Artist Manager: Richa Bhoyar