Interview By: Ankita R. Kanabar

While he’s still remembered for ‘Hip Hip Hurray’, Purab Kohli has his niche fan following, especially among women! Not to mention, he’s given a few fine performances in some highly critically-acclaimed films. But apart from the fact that he’s a good actor, what’s endearing about him is his honesty. Read on to affirm that. After ‘Airlift’ this year, Kohli is back with the sequel to ‘Rock On!!’. We catch up with the actor to chat about the film, and why we haven’t seen more of him on the silver screen…

“The mind-space of people is occupied with so much that is given to them that it’s very difficult for people to remember you until you are coming up with two-three projects a year”

Just as ‘Rock On 2’ releases on Friday, ‘P.O.W: Bandi Yuddh Ke’ also premiers. Both of them being big projects, what’s the feeling like?
I wouldn’t have planned it like this but it’s turned out that both of them came out in the same week. It’s probably the biggest week of my career, both these projects releasing back-to-back. ‘P.O.W’ is a big show for television and if it does well, it’ll be a big game-changer, so we’re hoping for the best.

‘Rock On!!’ didn’t really have expectations while the sequel has that. This time around, do you feel the pressure to match up to it?
Even in the first one, the response was that it’s not a very commercial film, there was an intrigue and fear before the release that people will not come and watch it. But it worked out well. Now there’s a whole tone been set by its predecessor and people have an expectation from ‘Rock On 2’, but it’s not the same film. Excel has made an effort to tell a different story, but with the same drama, emotional appeal that the first film had, there’s a hope that we want it to work, and we want people to accept that. Especially, in a country where sequels are not really sequels. For me, the definition of a sequel is – a continuation of the original story which ‘Rock On 2’ is. But in India, you often see sequels which have nothing to do with the first one, besides the lead actors, sometimes not even them. So, let’s see how it pans out!

How was it playing KD this time around – re-inventing the character and yet keeping his original essence?
The writing really defines that. When you are playing a part for a sequel, you hope the character has a certain amount of growth. The biggest growth for KD is the fact that he’s not grown. When you saw him in the first part, he was working in his father’s business, was happy and looking for an outlet when he suddenly realised that his true love is music; that’s what is keeping him happy. Here he’s indulging in music, he’s in the business of music, and holding on to what he had in the first film. He was a certain person in the first part, and here, he isn’t that person but he’s holding on to that. He’s still trying to be the KD which he was 8 years ago, and that’s what makes him interesting for me.

How was it getting back into that zone after eight years?
Very difficult actually! To begin with, When I met our director Shujaat, he told me to put on some weight because KD is older now. But he is the same person, he hasn’t changed much, and that was very difficult for me, because I bring a lot of myself into a character, and especially characters like KD which are close to my kind of upbringing. I identify more with KD than Ibrahim from ‘Airlift’. The person I am at a particular time comes into the character. I did the film 8 years ago. Now I’ve grown as an individual, so going back to Purab Kohli of 8 years ago was difficult.

So how has Purab Kohli changed in these eight years?
Well, I’m a father now, clearly that’s a big change (smiles). Also, before ‘Rock On’, I didn’t have a commercial success. I had done lots of critically acclaimed films made by some fine film-makers but with ‘Rock On!!’, it was the first time that I saw what commercial success meant in Bollywood. I was a lot younger also. I was just a happy-go-lucky boy, I didn’t really plan things and took life as it came. Now I think I have my feet on the ground and I look at life quite differently than I did 8 years back. And even now, you cannot really plan life, but you try your best to follow some path; let’s just put it that way.

How was it working with a different director this time around?
Interesting! I mean, we all missed Gattu (Abhishek Kapoor) for sure, I think he’s an excellent director. He brought a very infectious energy into ‘Rock On’ and you see it in the characters. I can easily say that Gattu really set KD up. In the first one, I was the KD that Gattu wanted. Shujaat who has taken the reigns in the second one, is really an intense guy by himself, and he brings that intensity into the film. Even the writing is different, he’s worked on the script also and you see that the film goes more into an individual sort of space as opposed to the band which you saw in the first part. The music has his flavor too and definitely the way it’s shot also. They are two very different directors and it’s nice to work with two different minds on the same franchise.

“With smaller films, they often come and go, and nothing happens with them. Suddenly, you realise that you put in so much hard work, energy and it didn’t go anywhere. So you need to be a part of films like ‘Airlift’ and ‘Rock On 2’, for lots of people to see you and appreciate the work you do”

Were you looking forward to the sequel ever since ‘Rock On!!’ released?
Yes, I think so. From ‘Rock On!!’ to ‘Airlift’, I didn’t have anything which was big enough or a commercial success. Some films came out, some didn’t do so well at the box-office. As an actor, the media, or the audiences, tend to forget you if you are not in the commercial eye. I’m understanding that now. I didn’t think about it earlier, but now I feel one needs to be in the commercial space of cinema for people to not forget you and what you’re capable of doing. Touchwood, I’ve always got work, but I’ve not had so many commercial successes. ‘Airlift’ did that for me in the beginning of this year but even with that kind of film you don’t know what the fate would be. But a film like ‘Rock On!!’ did so well, that you know that its sequel would definitely be anticipated.

Were you happy with the kind of reaction ‘Airlift’ got you?
A lot of people didn’t recognize me in the film. They didn’t expect me to be in that film or be Ibrahaim. The director also didn’t see me as that, I had to chase him down. Raja Menon who directed ‘Airlift’ directed my first film, ‘Bas Yun Hi’ so I know him very well. When I called him, he said, you’re a great actor but you don’t really fit into any of my parts, you are an urban boy. I was taken a back for a moment, and I told him, but I’m an actor, you tell me and I’ll change accordingly. For three months I chased him, and finally he met me. When he met me, I had grown my beard and hair. And then later, of course, he made the film he thought I really fit the part. But it’s nice to come back into the public eye. I think it’s the biggest compliment when people call you and tell you, we sat through the film and didn’t know it was you. Definitely then you feel that as an actor you’ve been able to detach yourself from that part or sense of self that you’re lending to that part is coming from a space which nobody has seen before. It was great to get that reaction from people.

You mentioned that ‘Airlift’ brought you back in the public eye, but then you’ve always had a certain credibility as an actor and a niche fan base….
In 2011, I signed a film called ‘Jal’. I had a huge expectation from ‘Jal’ primarily because it was a good film, it had me in the lead part, and it was getting a lot of critical acclaim across the world. It also went into the contention for getting nominated for an Oscar. It won a national award here. So I had a huge expectation from the film. From 2012 to 2014, I didn’t do anything else. I was just doing some advertising work and waiting for ‘Jal’ to release. While promoting ‘Jal’ I went to smaller towns, and while sitting over there after doing a film like ‘Rock On!!’ and a television show like ‘Hip Hip Hurray’, I had reporters coming and asking me to introduce myself. Then I had to tell them, I’m Purab Kohli, I’m an actor, I’ve done this and that. Suddenly, I realised that the mind-space of people is occupied with so much that is given to them that it’s very difficult for people to remember you until you are coming up with two-three projects a year. Only if you are a Shah Rukh Khan, Salman Khan or Aamir Khan, then you can enjoy the luxury of doing one film a year or one film in two years. There’s so much information thrown at the audience that every actor needs to be seen often for people to remember them. And even for journalists to remember you, who are like a medium for you to reach the audience. I realised that during the promotion of ‘Jal’ and even when the film released and disappeared. There was no work, and no interest in the international accolades that I’d got for the film. So, I re-assessed that and started calling people I know to tell them I’m back, and would like to do some work. ‘Airlift’ then changed that again. Suddenly, people were like, he’s a good actor, we knew that and now we know that again. Now there’s ‘P.O.W’, Nikhil was the producer on ‘Airlift’ so he cast me in ‘P.O.W’ and then there’s ‘Rock On 2’. I do a show called ‘Sense 8’ for Netflix. Then I have ‘Noor’ in April with Sonakshi Sinha. So, I believe things look good for now.

Does that mean, you’ve changed your approach towards work?
I’ve gotten more pro-active. I’m an actor who thankfully gets work easily. It was because of wanting to do a certain kind of work, that I was limiting myself. It’s just that now I’ve opened myself up a little more. I’m wanting more people to see my work. When you do a film, you hope that lots of people see it, and when that happens, you feel satisfied. When more people see it, the appreciation is also more and its gets easier to do other films that you want to do. With smaller films, they often come and go, and nothing happens with them. Suddenly, you realise that you put in so much hard work, energy and it didn’t go anywhere. So you need to be a part of films like ‘Airlift’ and ‘Rock On 2’, for lots of people to see you and appreciate the work you do. 

How is the experience of doing something like ‘P.O.W’?
Sartaaj Singh is the name of my character, and it’s a lot more separated than who I am. Primarily because of the experiences we’ve had. He’s grown up in a pind in Punjab, I’ve grown up here in Bandra, he’s been in the army, I’ve been fooling around all my life. The emotions he’s gone though are very intense but I felt them, because I usually feel everything that a character goes through. I try and pull out a performance from that honest space, and it’s very heavy. Every day, when I go to work, I tell myself to go in and get out of Sartaj issues. But it’s very fulfilling to play that as an actor. You feel like you’ve vented out every emotion that’s stuck in your body while playing Sartaaj.

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