Kunal Purandare is Editor-Desk with the Forbes India magazine in Mumbai. He is also the author of two acclaimed books—Vinod Kambli: The Lost Hero and Ramakant Achrekar: Master Blaster’s Master. The postgraduate in economics with diplomas in journalism, advertising and public relations has been a journalist for more than a decade with previous stints at Daily News & Analysis and MiD DAY. Apart from fulfilling his editing and proofing duties for print and web, he also writes on sport and entertainment regularly. At Forbes India events, he can be seen hosting chat sessions with celebs. Apart from his love for reading and writing, he immerses himself in movies and music, likes exploring new places, and enjoys interesting conversations over cups of masala tea.
Pratik Gandhi, Indian theatre and film actor. Photo by Neha Mithbawkar for Forbes India
Pratik Gandhi was shooting for a Gujarati web series in a no-connectivity zone near Gir National Park in Gujarat in January when a few children requested the actor to pose for photos with them. He was surprised to hear that they had watched his web series Scam 1992, in one corner on their terrace—the only place where the show streamed perfectly on their mobiles, despite network issues in the region. It’s almost ironical that the man who once sold pre-paid SIM cards of Hutchison Essar and later convinced customers to convert them to post-paid connections in his hometown Surat was now a national star because of the internet boom and content consumption on over-the-top (OTT) platforms.
The success of Scam 1992—a 10-episode web series based on the life of ‘Big Bull’ Harshad Mehta—has given Gandhi the mainstream recognition he had been longing for. The 40-year-old has been on a signing spree over the last couple of months: He’s scheduled to start filming a Hindi movie with actor Taapsee Pannu later this year; is shooting for director Tigmanshu Dhulia’s screen adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s Six Suspects; and has given his nod to a Gujarati film with wife Bhamini Oza. His overnight popularity seems like a fairy tale, but for the holder of a diploma in mechanical engineering and a degree in industrial engineering, it’s been a wait of more than 15 years.
ROLE PLAY Gandhi, the son of teacher parents, came to Mumbai in 2004 to become an actor. “I wanted to do something big in this industry. I desired to carve my own space… where people will watch something in my name,” he says. It was easier said than done, especially for an outsider whose only achievements were performing on stage in school since the age of four, and doing local theatre in Gujarat. Yet, the lanky youngster believed in himself. It was a time when India’s Best Cinestar Ki Khoj, a television show to discover new talent, had premiered on Zee TV, and a couple of Gandhi’s friends from Surat had cracked three rounds with one of them ending up as a finalist. He thought work would be easy to come by, but what he had to endure was a struggle to survive in a competitive and expensive city like Mumbai.
After staying with his cousin for three months, Gandhi and his brother Punit rented a small house in an old housing society in Vile Parle (East). With a monthly rent of Rs 6,500 as additional expenditure, the actor could not afford to wait for an acting opportunity. He began scanning newspapers for job advertisements while keeping his hope of finding work in theatre alive. After spotting a vacancy for industrial and production engineers, including fresh graduates, he emailed the National Productivity Council (NPC), but it bounced twice in the days of dial-up internet. He was third-time lucky, though, and bagged freelance projects for the company.
Pratik Gandhi in a still from the play 'Hu Chandrakant Bakshi'
After finishing his first project for NPC—for Garware Industries in Wai, a town in the Satara district of Maharashtra—Gandhi decided to do the rounds of theatres in Mumbai in search of work. He first met theatre veteran Manhar Gadhia, who introduced him to a few groups. But nothing worked out. At Mumbai’s Prithvi Theatre in 2004, Gandhi was mesmerised after watching Mariz, a Gujarati play directed by stalwart Manoj Shah. He told himself that he should be a part of his troupe and approached him for the same.
“I was rehearsing a play called Maestro, Master, Swami with 30 actors when Pratik barged in, saying he wanted to act. I asked him what he could do apart from acting. He said gymnastics, and performed some impossible acrobatic stunts with ease. My team was stunned. He was too passionate and eager to work,” recalls Shah.
However, it was only when another actor backed out that Gandhi made his debut on stage with Aa Paar Ke Pele Paar, with his entry prior to the interval and a brief role in the second half. “I was paid Rs 400 per show. They do 25 to 30 shows a month, so that meant Rs 10,000 or so… it was good money to take care of my expenses. More importantly, I was getting to do what I wanted to do… get into the circuit. It helped me greatly understand the grammar of professional Gujarati theatre,” says Gandhi.
It was a start, but Gandhi was hungry for something more challenging and rewarding. The multiple auditions that he gave for films did not elicit any response, while television was considered dreary by the actor who thought he was a misfit in ‘saas-bahu’ serials and among the fair-skinned beefcakes on screen. “Looking at the 12 or 15 men at the auditions, I used to feel I am at the wrong place. But the moment they opened their mouths, I would decide to stay put. That world used to scare me,” recalls Gandhi.
NPC, meanwhile, was regularly offering him projects, three of which took him to Satara, for six months at a stretch. Gandhi feared it would disrupt his acting ambitions, so he would unfailingly call industry insiders from there, asking for work, saying he would take a day’s leave to do a play. But no offer came his way.
After finishing his assignments, the actor returned to Mumbai and sat idle for a while. One day, his cousin, who ran an event management company, requested him to fill in after the compere for a birthday party met with an accident. Gandhi enthralled the children with games and dance for close to an hour, and was paid Rs 600 for it. The amount went up to Rs 800, Rs 1,200 and Rs 1,500 for subsequent shows. At a New Year’s party at Fariyas Resort in Lonavla, he earned Rs 20,000. Though he was growing in confidence in his new role, he had set his sights on other goals.
An employment offer from Reliance Infrastructure in 2008 put an end to his monetary concerns. “My plans to negotiate my salary went for a toss when I saw Rs 8.5 lakh as my annual package. I just grabbed the opportunity,” says Gandhi, who joined the industrial engineering team for corporate excellence.
To play Harshad Mehta in Scam 1992, Gandhi relied on his learnings from theatre. Gandhi in a still from the play Mohan No Maslo
A regular job meant he had to adjust his rehearsal timings for theatre, where he was slowly making a name for himself with plays like Apurva Avsar—in which he played six characters—and Mohan’s Masala—staged in English, Hindi and Gujarati. “We used to rehearse from 6 am to 8.30 am in Borivali, after which Pratik would take the train to his office in Navi Mumbai,” recalls Shah, director of the plays. “I used to travel by train so that I could rehearse my lines during my commute. I did not want to waste the time of others who were adjusting their schedules for me,” says Gandhi.
Around the same time, Abhishek Jain, who had directed the Gujarati film Kevi Rite Jaish (2012), saw Gandhi in the play Hu Chandrakant Bakshi and thought of casting him in his next movie, Bey Yaar (2014). He messaged the actor on Facebook and met him at Prithvi before signing him up. There was one hindrance though: Gandhi had a full-time job. The actor assured the filmmaker that he would take leave and remain as committed to the film as he was to his job. “It was a wild thought in my mind that if I ever get such an offer, I would use my leaves. I had accumulated over 150 days of leave by then. We wrapped up the shoot in Gujarat in 22 days… nobody took a penny for the film. I just liked the script and Abhishek’s passion for filmmaking,” says Gandhi.
Jain says he was initially a bit sceptical about a theatre actor understanding the nuances of cinema. So, he kept instructing Gandhi on the sets. “Once he got into the groove, I had to step back. I realised he is extremely adaptable… he is very human, not a fake actor who’ll carry a banana with him or walk with a gym bag,” says the filmmaker. “Between takes, Pratik would rush to his laptop and attend to his office work. He would be immersed in work in the hotel at night too. But there was no hangover or fatigue that reflected on the sets. His energy was always high… he never lost the essence of the character or the energy of a scene. As a director, I did not feel insecure even for a second that he was doing a dual job.”
Divyang Thakkar, who co-starred with Gandhi in Bey Yaar and shared a room with the actor, concurs. “He used to give a perfect shot and then rush to his laptop while the setup was being readied for the next. That switch-on, switch-off was something… I haven’t seen someone multitask so well. He’s a gifted actor,” says Thakkar, who turns director with the Ranveer Singh-starrer Jayeshbhai Jordaar, scheduled to hit screens in August.
Word-of-mouth played a big role in the critical acclaim that Bey Yaar got. But it was Gandhi’s next film that proved to be the turning point in his career. Directed by Mikhil Musale and produced by Phantom, Wrong Side Raju (2016) won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Gujarati. Musale, who was associate director of Bey Yaar, says casting Gandhi was an organic decision, having followed his work on stage. “He is an intelligent person, apart from being a good actor. His understanding, humility and innocence come across in his performances. He’s a sucker for logic. If we are going wrong, he’ll come and point it out without hurting anyone. He’s upfront and clean, not aggressive,” says Musale, who has also directed the Bollywood film Made in China (2019).
The success of Scam 1992 has given Pratik Gandhi the mainstream recognition he had been longing for.
A month before Wrong Side Raju released, Gandhi quit Reliance Infrastructure to focus on his acting career. He was deputy general manager then, and had three offers, including one from Deloitte that could have taken him to Kuwait.
TURNING POINT Hansal Mehta, director of Scam 1992—an adaptation of journalist Sucheta Dalal and Debashis Basu’s book, The Scam: Who Won, Who Lost, Who Got Away—had zeroed in on Gandhi to play Harshad Mehta after watching Wrong Side Raju. He was convinced after casting director Mukesh Chhabra showed him the actor’s photos. “I didn’t have to look any further,” he says. Gandhi had auditioned for the series, without knowing what he was auditioning for, at Chhabra’s office in Juhu. It was only a few weeks later, when he met Mehta, that he realised something serious was brewing. “I have yet to see his audition. I was quite certain about Pratik. There was a checklist that I had made: I wanted a Gujarati actor, someone who had a tall frame, belonged to that age group, and most important, he had to be a terrific actor,” says Mehta.
Once Gandhi came on board, the director asked him to put on weight. He went from 71 kg to 89 kg to essay the lead role, and watched the late stock broker’s interview with journalist Pritish Nandy multiple times. He consciously decided against mimicking him and treated his debut in a web series like a stage performance. “My theatre background helped me as I had done biopics on stage, where I had never met or seen those people. I just picked up the nuances or characteristics. I treated the series like a monologue,” explains Gandhi.
Agrees Mehta, who calls Gandhi a “fine actor, someone right up there”. “His riyaaz [practice] and discipline of theatre came into play. He gave himself up to the character.”
Gandhi’s portrayal of Harshad Mehta was hailed by one and all. It took his craft to a wider audience that was oblivious to his work in regional cinema and theatre. However, those who have worked with him previously are not surprised at the recognition he is getting.
“He deserves every bit of adulation coming his way. It was a matter of time. He was equally dedicated to his plays as he was to Scam 1992. I haven’t seen him less committed. He’s broken out now,” says Thakkar. Jain, who recently shot a web series with Gandhi and considers him more as a friend and collaborator, says the overwhelming attention hasn’t made him a different person. “There is no hangover of the success or appreciation from people across the country, including the who’s who,” he says.
Musale believes coming from a middle-class family, and understanding corporate affairs and politics closely by virtue of doing a proper job helped him play Harshad Mehta flawlessly. “I was feeling guilty that such an exceptional actor was not getting his due. Pratik as a discovery was a shock to the world, not for me. Not that we had predicted this show would be so successful… but we knew he was going to get noticed someday for sure,” he says.
Gandhi admits that things have changed drastically since Scam 1992 released. It marks his rebirth as an actor. “It looks like I have broken through. People have started taking me seriously as an actor. The belief in me as an actor has also changed,” he says. The actor, who has learnt martial arts and enjoys working out, says the last 15 years have been about perseverance and hard work. “I never felt like giving up ever. In fact, I used to get more excited. I enjoyed the near-misses because I felt I am almost there… something nice is going to happen.”
He’s indeed come a long way—from taking up contracts of cleaning water tankers in Vile Parle’s societies, selling pesticides at exhibitions, and installing cellphone towers in the city, to finding himself in a position where he had to reject projects due to the abundant acting offers coming his way. “He’s going to be talked about in the industry,” says Shah. “We had once done a play in Malad with only two people [a European couple] in the audience. His intensity, whether it’s in front of two spectators or 30,000, is the same. He’s adaptive and obedient. He’ll do whatever you say and then suggest other ways of doing it.”“He is immensely talented and this is just the beginning. I tell him this industry is like a vulture and keep advising him to choose wisely. My hope is that he picks the right projects,” says Jain, who calls the actor ‘Bachchan’, after the legendary Amitabh Bachchan because of his dedication to his craft.
Mehta, too, is “cautiously optimistic” about Gandhi’s future. “He has delivered something special. It’s a pleasant burden and it’s also a challenge,” he says. Adds Thakkar: “The sky is the limit for Pratik. He will get parts that are deserving of his calibre. He will be venturing into a zone where he will be able to choose his roles. As actors, one strives for that place where one can choose their work. It’s the best thing for an actor.”
It’s a happy space to be in for someone who is the first in the family to buy a scooter and a car—his father would travel to school on his mother’s ‘lady’s bicycle’. Gandhi, who his peers describe as a positive, grounded and humble individual, looks back at his journey as a steep learning curve. “On one hand, it looks and feels like it [success] has come late. On the other hand, I think it is a correct time because I was given this time to prepare myself. What if I was not ready and unprepared? I don’t think I would have made it big then. And it’s a good time for actors to be around. As far as time is concerned, I don’t have any regrets. I enjoyed climbing the staircase to the top where I learnt at every step.”