With his chiselled face, sharp jawline, the build of a Jat and the rugged looks of a supermodel, one might have thought that Randeep Hooda would have been a shoo-in to the hallowed halls of Bollywood. Not so. For years, his love affair with Tinseltown was a one-sided one. “For 11 years in a 22-year-long career, I have not gone to a film set even for a day,” he tells THE WEEK. He came to the city of dreams as a naive 24-year-old, his flight ticket sponsored by a friend. He was the alluring antidote to the prevailing chocolate boy archetype of Hindi cinema, epitomised by the Khans and the Kumars. Yet, he played the game at his own pace and on his own terms.
“I have taken it slow, because it is not a brick-and-mortar job,” he says. “Here, you are rearranging something within yourself, because for every film you adopt certain ways, thoughts and speech patterns. To get rid of them requires an equal amount of time. So, it is just not possible to go from one project to another.” He is an articulate speaker, with much to say about films, sports and music, occasionally slipping into philosophical rants that are just as interesting.
On the brink of his next release, the crime thriller CAT which drops on Netflix on December 9, Hooda is excited, but collected. He essays the character of a Sikh simpleton who is compelled to infiltrate the drug cartels of Punjab to save his brother. CAT, by filmmaker Balwinder Singh Janjua of Saand Ki Aankh fame, marks the actor’s second OTT outing after Extraction, in which he shared screen-space with Hollywood star Chris Hemsworth. The film follows the ‘CAT’ system prevalent during the insurgency of the 1980s in Punjab. Hooda is not new to such “overly involved roles”, as he calls them. His Once Upon a Time in Mumbai (2010), Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster (2011) and Highway (2014) have been potent dramas that were critically acclaimed, even though they failed to make a splash at the box office. “I have taken great care not to play similar roles in any project, not to show off, but just to keep the work interesting for myself,” he says. “Even if the genre is the same, the milieu and the language are different, and so they have their own challenges.”
Very early on, Hooda realised that there were only a select few films he wanted to associate with, but those were hard to come by. He felt “lost” in the films he was a part of, which were helmed or led by superstars. And so, waiting it out seemed the only thing to do. “You do the best out of what you get,” he says. “I have not been very good at chasing work or people for hits, and I have never found mainstream masala cinema very interesting. I don’t watch much of it. But of course, I have to keep my kitchen fire burning.”
However, this does not make Hooda a fringe actor. More than a decade into his career, Hooda has successfully carved his own brand image without waiting for “meaty, boy-next-door” roles. That is how he began his journey into biopics, starting with Main Aur Charles (2015) based on the life of the serial killer Charles Sobhraj), and Sarbjit (2016) based on the Indian national convicted of terrorism. He will soon essay the role of the hindutva idealogue Veer Savarkar, slated to release on his 140th birth anniversary in May 2023; it will also mark his directorial debut. Superstardom, says Hooda, is a double-edged sword. “Would I be wanting to do what these so-called superstars are doing? No. Would I want to be part of those movies? No. They don’t excite me,” he says. “Stardom or superstardom is a byproduct of a lot of things that I would rather not do. And so, I have stuck to my guns. Ever since my first movie, I have never done two movies at a time. I have paced myself, and focused more on content-driven and cerebral roles. So, I am not sulking in a corner saying that I am not getting my due.”
An equestrian and a “jungle boy” par excellence, Hooda is one of the few Bollywood actors to have successfully dabbled in something other than films. At the Motilal Nehru School of Sports, the residential school where he studied, acting and riding were his two primary interests. He has won several national awards in equestrian sports and, between 2008 and 2015, he had even relegated films to the background to focus on sports. The country might just have lost out on an Olympic medal, ever since Hooda decided to concentrate on “earning money in order to keep the horses”. But he says he will keep competing because he is fit. “My broken knee is now fixed, so I am going to be back in the saddle more often,” he says.
He has now taken to sponsoring promising sportspersons, like the ice speed skater Vishwaraj Jadeja, who recently became the first Indian to have skated 100km on Sweden’s Frozen Sea, as part of the Ice Sea Classic skating event. “Hooda is more than his films,” says Kalpana Iyer, founder of Nostalgiaana Jukebox and an ardent Hooda fan. “It is his passion for and excellence in other areas that lets Brand Randeep shine on the big screen. It is not the other way around.”