The Night Manager is not your first tryst with an international project. Going back many years, you worked in The Far Pavilions with Omar Sharif, Christopher Lee and Jennifer Kendall, Shashi Kapoor’s wife.
I didn’t have a scene with Jennifer. My scene was with Omar Sharif, Christopher Lee, Saeed Jaffrey. These were biggies for me. Christopher Lee was Dracula. We’d grown up watching these guys. The director of that show, Peter Duffell, was very good. I had read for an audition, they had come to India and it just so happened that they had a lot of Indian actors, including NRIs from the UK. Unfortunately for the actor who was originally slated to do the part of the Prince and fortunately for me, he fell ill. So they had to cast somebody and I just did a reading and I got it. In fact, I had the good fortune to meet Steven Spielberg on the sets. Amy Irving was also in the show and she was married to Steven Spielberg later on. At that point of time, I think they were in the courtship phase. He had come down to check out locations for his Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. He specially came down to meet her. Amy grabbed me by my hand and she took me to him and said, ‘you have to meet this Indian actor’. Even the Far Pavilions team was very nervous initially. They were concerned if I’ll be able to deliver or not? But in the end, they were very happy and they all sort of became my friends. I still search for the Polaroids we had shot at the time. Someday I’ll be able to post them on Instagram.
There’s a fascinating story behind you getting cast for Morchha (1980) as well. Can you share that?
When I was a kid, Bruce Lee burst onto the scene. He became the guru of action. We were enamored by him. I remember there was this guy named Suresh in school, he was a black belt in karate. He used to teach kids karate. Naved, Jaaved and I were in the same school and we were all enthusiastic guys. We said we’d learn karate. I just liked karate and fortunately, I was very good at it. My kicks, jumps and flexibility was good. So the trainer used to make us all stay back and used to do extra time with me. There was a guy in our apartment building who had bought nunchakus, inspired by Bruce Lee. I remember I collected money and I bought the nunchaku from him. It was just a hobby, but I used to do all that. Full day, I used to jump around playing with the nunchaku. Veteran and very popular director Ravikant Nagaich, who made Suraksha with Mithun da spotted me. He was making a film with my father (Sham Behl) at that time. But that project became insolvent. When Mr Nagaich used to come to our house, he used to see me do karate and stuff. One fine day, out of the blue, we get a call and he tells my mom, ‘Bhabhiji, Ravi still does karate right? He keeps running the nunchaku in front of the mirror all day. Would you be interested in doing a film?’ My mom asked me and I said, ‘Of course, I am cool with that. I do it in front of the mirror, I’ll do it in front of the camera, too.’ When you are a kid, it’s easy to throw caution to the wind. My mom’s one condition was that I could do the acting bit, but only as long as my education doesn’t suffer. That’s a promise I made to her.
Your elder sister Geeta had also forayed into acting by the time you debuted as a child artiste in Morchha.
Yes. She had done Main Tulsi Tere Angan Ki. And then she did Do Premee with Rishi Kapoor ji. But if I remember right, I think I was the first guy to act from our family. (laughs)
What came first, the passion for martial arts or the passion for dance? How have the two influenced each other?
I would say it was hand in hand. I was influenced by the area which I lived in, Bandra. We used to have these parties and there used to be a lot of jiving and dance happening. There were a lot of dancers. That’s where we picked the passion from. Music and dance became our passion. Bruce Lee happened at the same time. We used to dance at home for action. Michael Jackson came on the scene and that did it for me. I was wowed. Naved, Jaaved and I, all had a passion for dance. Jaaved was a John Travolta kind of guy. I was more like Michael Jackson. We never had any classes or dance schools. We used to dance at home.
Whether it’s action or dancing, you need timing, you need grace and you need flexibility. Martial arts helped me in my flexibility. Doing a split, doing a roundhouse kick. Also, choreography is very important in both practices. Even when you’re doing an action sequence, you choreograph the sequence. The punch will come from here, you’ll block it, you’ll go one step back. You know what I’m saying? That’s why I feel dance and action are pretty similar in a lot of ways. If you’re good at one, you’re probably bound to be good at the other.
After hits like Narsimha, Agni Sakshi and Dalal, your career was on a high. What halted the progress as an actor? Was it Boogie Woogie? Did the show and its production distract you?
You hit the nail on the head. I think my last notable film was Agni Sakshi. But all the three films you mentioned were blockbuster hits. You could call it lack of experience. When you are younger, at that time we didn’t have much in terms of advice. People weren’t available to give you that kind of advice. And of course, with God’s blessing, Boogie Woogie happened. All right. Naved and I go a long way. We were buddies from school through college. So one day he came over. Mere career ki gaadi nikal chuki thi. Naved was sitting at home too and I said to him, ‘Man, let’s do something’. Television was just coming up at that time. So we came up with this thought that let’s do a dance show because it wasn’t done before in India. Naved agreed and I was excited and we got the show. But I knew nothing about production, yet we decided to produce Boogie Woogie together. I was too used to acting, I didn’t know the P of production. I thought, let’s make money on the side. There is security. Because at that time, it was either films or nothing at all. But once I started, I realised production is a full time job. Especially since I was learning it. It was a learning curve. I was learning along the job and it took up the maximum amount of my time. And somewhere along the way, meeting people and listening to scripts just stopped. You have a point. Boogie Woogie started and I got totally immersed in that.
How do you look back at the chemistry and camaraderie between Jaaved, Naved and you on Boogie Woogie? Your candour as a group really added to the show’s popularity.
Naved or Jaaved would say something and I would pick up from there. I would say something, they would pick up from there. That was just us. That world was so immersive and so engaging. It was phenomenal. It was a huge show. In fact, the respectability that we’ve gotten from that show is unparalleled. I’m always thankful that Boogie Woogie happened to me. It just was a transition that happened in my career. It gave a lot of people a platform. During our times, we didn’t have a platform to showcase our talent. Through our efforts on Boogie Woogie, we were able to create a chance, ki ek common man aake stage pe perform kare. That was a big service.
You come from a film family. Your father was a filmmaker. You must have seen production, film sets and actors firsthand.
Unfortunately, when my father passed away I was 11. So I really didn’t see that glamourous side of the business. He was going through a lot of problems. He was gone by the time I could even start to realise things.
After your father passed away, did you assume responsibility of being the man of the house and be the breadwinner? Did that influence your decision to opt for the security of producing a TV show over the uncertainty of life as an actor?
It’s like you’re reading my mind. I just loved to act. But yes, that was one part of life. It was also for family. I started earning money and it would get bread and butter to the table. I’ve been working for a living ever since I was 11. And that’s why after so many years, when Boogie Woogie ended, I didn’t do anything for the next 10 years. I realised I haven’t had a childhood. I just decided I don’t want to do anything. It was like for 10 years, I went into hibernation. I didn’t want to move a muscle. That’s why I took that big break after Boogie Woogie.
In the past you’ve used a very peculiar adage to talk about your relationship status and the fact that you are unmarried. You’ve said, ‘dhoodh ka jala chaas bhi foonk kar peeta hai’. What went wrong?
I think you fall in love probably once in your lifetime, twice if you’re really lucky. I am talking about true love. And I was in love but certain things didn’t work out. Don’t go by the ‘Boogie Woogie’ and onscreen demeanor, I am a very emotional guy and it hurt a lot. It took me a long time to get out of it. It was a long distance relationship and it really kind of scarred me. My intentions were honourable, her intentions were honourable, but somewhere down the line, it just didn’t happen for whatever reason. After that relationship I used to feel so confused. What if the next relationship doesn’t work? That’s not the way one should think, but that’s what happened to me. I had become like Majnu.
How did you end up getting cast in The Night Manager?
Let me take you a little back. Once we were done with Boogie Boogie, it had been 10 years. And before that, it had been around 20 years that I hadn’t acted. I did small cameos for friends, I did a guest appearance in a web series. But this is like a full-fledged role, as an actor. I’m coming back after 20 years. There was a lot of excitement. And when I first heard the role, I was pretty excited because I love the character. The character is very suave and smooth. He’s like a glib talker, kind of a rakish Casanova and yet a gentleman. The character was very exciting for me.
The show was made in English as well. I had seen the show two or three years ago. But it was very dull. I didn’t want to revisit it again because I didn’t want to get influenced by that character and the gentleman’s acting. He’s done a fine job, but I wanted to play it my way.
Your co-stars Anil Kapoor and Saswata Chatterjee have been singing hosannas for you. Anil Kapoor equated you to Brando.
I swear upon God, I was so touched. All of these guys, including Aditya (Roy Kapur) have never seen me acting. I met AK (Anil Kapoor) sir after 20-30 years. It was so heartwarming and it was touching when everybody said, ‘you’re doing a good job’. I’m blushing as I’m saying that. When such a big actor like AK sir sits you down and then tells you that you’re doing well is very encouraging.
How much of this look of yours, with the salt and pepper hair and the beard-mustache, influenced your casting?
I would say it played a big part. The credit for this look goes to the lockdown. I had a goatee beard, a very light one. One went through so many phases during the lockdown and one day I just said, I don’t want to shave. I’ll let it grow. Then one day, I kind of trimmed it a little bit and suddenly everybody at home, my sister, brother, mom all said, ‘this is looking damn good’. When I decided to act, I met my dear friend Mukesh Chhabra and he said, ‘Sir! Come and have a coffee with me’. When he saw me, the first thing he said was that ‘I’m on with you, but do me a favour. Don’t touch this beard. This is a very different look. People have an impression about you from Narsimha, Agni Sakshi, Dalal and Boogie Woogie. This look brings out something totally different’.