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#COVERSTORY: How Divyenndu Claimed the Spot of Streaming’s Most Popular Baddie

“You want to show your artillery as an artist,” says the actor ahead of the launch of ‘Mirzapur’ Season 2 on Amazon Prime Video

Nirmika Singh Oct 23, 2020

Photo: Amazon Prime VIdeo

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If you’ve watched Mirzapur, you’d know why this journalist experienced serious trepidations at the prospect of getting on a Zoom call with Munna — Divyenndu’s barbarous character in the series. The dread that Divyenndu brings to the show through his role of a baddie is one that will perhaps follow him for years to come. “I think I wanted that as an actor — to have that kind of reaction from people. And it’s not me, it’s how they wrote it, especially Puneet Krishna the show creator. You have to have that on paper first for you to perform. And I was very fortunate that I got what I feel is the most author-backed role in the whole series,” says Divyenndu, who, till Mirzapur happened, was remembered for his sociable characters in Pyaar Ka Punchnama (2011) and Chashme Baddoor (2013).

Photo: Amazon Prime Video

Mirzapur 2 releases on October 23rd with a bigger promise of guns, gore and glory. The show, set in the eponymous city of Uttar Pradesh, offers a peek into its mind-numbing lawlessness. Mirzapur is both revolting and riveting, and it forces you to look away from the screen as much as it glues you to it. That a layered drama like this would split opinions is expected – you can’t love the show without also being haunted by the abject reality served in it. But it helps that the show’s cast comprises some of India’s most acclaimed actors such as Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Pankaj Tripathi, Rasika Duggal, Shweta Tripathi and Amit Sial, among others. Divyenndu recounts visiting producers Excel Entertainment’s office and seeing his name on the cast chart on a board. “I was like, ‘This is going to be nice. These guys are brilliant!’ Acting is a give and take. You need the other player to play good so your game gets better.”

In his quest for more power, Munna’s return in season two will see him take over newer terrains. Divyenndu drops a spoiler: “Munna is The Hulk! (laughs).” The actor also confesses he is relieved that the show is airing. “Because in the past two years, we got such an overwhelming response and love from people that at times it gets too much! They constantly asked you about when the next season!”

And no there are no jitters. This is a moment of calm. “I just know that we created this thing and now it’s out. I feel good as an actor, as an artist. Let’s see how the people take it, but I don’t think too much about that,” he says. 

Aparna Purohit, Head of India Originals, Amazon Prime Video says, the show is made keeping the fans in mind. “Their incessant demand for season two of Mirzapur is a testament to the fact that we have spearheaded our efforts in the right direction. The fandom that has built for the world of Mirzapur over the last two years has been phenomenal; viewers have expressed their love and appreciation for the show and are highly engaged and immersed in the lives of the characters.”

It’s difficult to unsee the world that Mirzapur acquaints you with and the people that inhabit it. “Its characters have become a part of the popular culture,” says Purohit. “We have had a wonderful collaboration with Excel Media and Entertainment over many years and we are thrilled to join forces again for yet another gripping season. We are delighted to bring the highly anticipated new season.”

In the sea of crime thrillers available on OTT platforms, Mirzapur holds its own as a show that is more emotionally charged than action-oriented. The motives and intents that drive its characters are things that are relatable, such Munna’s constant need for validation or the convenient righteousness of Vasudha Pandit, a middle class housewife played by Sheeba Chaddha. Says Divyenndu, Mirzapur is about family and the love for your family, be it the Tripathis’ kind of family or the Pandits’ kind. There’s a solid flow of emotions throughout the show, and at the core of its, it’s the story of a family.” Having said that, the show is not aiming for relatability, the actor says. “You don’t always want to watch only relatable stuff. You also want to see a family like the Tripathis who discuss guns and drug trade at the dinner table. As a viewer, you are intrigued by this world too. If everything were retable, it would get too boring.”

Photo: Amazon Prime Video

In this freewheeling interview, Divyenndu discusses the dark side of shooting for a show like Mirzapur, his passion for indie cinema and why he dropped his surname.

Divyenndu, how does it feel to be on the cover of Rolling Stone India?

It’s legendary, and it’s absolutely my pleasure. And I feel Munna’s character really deserves it! It’s my hard work that I invested in making Munna, and now I have this to relish.

 

There’s a palpable dread and menace that Munna carries in the show, to the extent that all I can see right now when I am speaking to you is Munna. Are you prepared for this kind of reaction from people?

Yes, as an actor, I was waiting for a role that has its own meat. And when I got it, it was perfect, it was medium rare – just like I like it (laughs). 

I was so fortunate that I got this and I had to nail this. There can be no excuses for not nailing it. The only tricky part was Munnna being an emotionally erratic human being, so to justify whatever he did was very difficult. My whole concentration was to choose shades of the character in the script and also choose things that you want to underline as an actor. My fight was to make him look humane, even if it’s 10 percent, 20 percent or 30 percent — that there should be times where Munna is also vulnerable. I wanted people to see him as a person, not as a caricature. I really hope that I have done what I wanted to.

 

As viewers, we were programmed to not like Munna – he is vile, malicious and a spoilt brat. But were there any not-so-bad bits about him that admired, or could relate to?

Honestly, I wouldn’t like to meet someone like Munna on the street. That’s why it was very fascinating for me to know a person like him. And although he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, there’s a constant validation he seeks from his father. He wants his father to praise him. He wants him to think that he is worthy of the Mirzapur gaddi (throne). Those things needed some light on them to make it more three-dimensional, so that people could go out there and touch, and maybe, feel Munna.

 

A lot of actors often say that it is difficult for them to shed the characters they play or certain aspects of them, especially when it is a negative role. Did you ever feel that Munna’s character was hard for you shake off? Aisa hota hai kya (Does it ever happen for you)?

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Definitely hota hai (it happens!). Because each time we began shoot, I was very excited. You feel it’s your moment to show your chops. But when you’re in it, it gets so dark at times that you want it to get over. It gets so dark and deep that you want to come up for that fresh breath of air and leave the Mirzapur world.

It does affect you. Since we aren’t experts in say, psychology, a lot of times, you can’t see all the behavioral patterns that have changed, but sometimes you can see a few. Like after the first season, there were certain behavioral changes in my personality that I could figure only ten to 15 days after the shoot got over. And I wondered why I was reacting the way I was!

 

And what were these changes you notices in your behavior? Did your mannerisms or the way you speak and interact with people change too?

Yeah! Like, one of acting exercises I did while playing Munna was to train myself into believing that whoever around me was shit – you need that kind of self confidence to be Munna, to believe that you are ‘it’; there’s a certain kind of anger Munna has…. So I’d practice that everyday on shoot. And it’s a very mean thing but I started treating people like in real life too. Sometimes I would just give people a cold stare if I didn’t like something. 

I had to shake the intensity of the character off my back.  I experienced that very organically. You know, you’ve heard actors like Pacino or De Niro who say that they go to a psychiatrist, psychologist or therapist after playing a character.

And I think I would like to visit an expert too just to see where I stand on the sanity meter.And I feel it’s good for your mental health anyway to visit a shrink and talk. Just to see if there’s something bothering you.

 

Do show creators and writers ever give disclaimers to actors like yourself that the show might affect them? 

Not really, but while doing it you realize that there are certain things you are doing to a person. For example, while shooting for the last episode, there was a character of – and pardon my French – bhosdi wale chacha. So I improvised it and everyone was like, this is so cool – this name.  And I felt I did that to an elderly person, and who knows, he might be remembered by that name. So I went up to him – he was an ‘extra’ on the set – and spoke to him, hoping he understood that it was the situation. And he said such a wonderful thing.  He said, ‘I have been working for years but no one really remembers the people in the background. But today, I got an identity.’ And he got pretty famous as an actor, as the chacha.

 

That is also because you displayed a rare sensitivity as an actor, and walked up to the man your character insulted in a scene…Were there any actors that you especially enjoyed working with on the show? How was the experience of sharing screen space with a legend like Kulbhushan Kharbanda?

Oh man! And he’s playing my dada (grandfather)! Like, Kulbhushan Kharbanda the man himself is playing my dada. Also fun fact: we come from the same college in Delhi (Kirori Mal College, Delhi University) so he’s my dada in terms of seniority also.

But to be in the same frame with Kul ji was such a blessing. He still takes such good care of each and every gesture of his character. He wants to just nail it. And he’s such a big yesteryear actor, and he’s such a dude. He’s such a cool guy. If people ever asked him ‘Pehle kaise hota tha?’ (How did the shoots go back in the day), he would say, ‘Kuch nahi yaar, aisa hi hota tha. Set pe aao time se, apna kaam karo aur ghar jaao.’ (It was no different than today. All that mattered was that we reported on time, played our parts well and went back home.)

To work with him and with Pankaj Tripathi — the kind of relationship my character shares with his in the show… And everyone, Rasika, Golu.. you have good people standing there. It was good fun.

Photo: Amazon Prime Video

There are a lot of sequences in the show that are disturbing because of the blood and the gore. Not to mention the violent sex scenes. How do you prepare for that kind of stuff?

Yes, the gore and the blazing guns is all there but it’s all part of the drama. You don’t prepare too much if it’s just about shooting with guns. It’s not always emotional. But the scenes where you are with a woman and you are treating her in a certain way – like the character of the housemaid who Munna violates – those things used to get really disturbing for me. To be that kind of a person with someone – it gets really dark. It’s a fine line.

So internalization of it really affects you. But the physical aspect of it, that’s very mechanical. There it’s all about the angles, how much the body shows, so that gives you a break.

There’s one scene where Munna did some terrible things to the housemaid – that was very difficult, because it’s so emotionally draining. There’s so much going on in his head; he is doing what he is doing physically but there’s something else running in his head, and life is just so tough for him. I always saw Munna as a troubled soul. Because the things he needs most — he doesn’t get them, like affection. 

 

About the character of the housemaid – it’s upsetting to see her, and as a viewer you felt that she was relevant in only those violent scenes. It was pitiful to watch…

Yeah, she’s a great actor – Prashansa Sharma. She’s very professional and I felt very comfortable working with her. Thankfully, that made your job easy.

 

The show depicts reality on the ground in its cruelest forms. Did the show offer you new insights to the world as we see it today or help in building new perspectives?

Well, we always knew that these things exist in our society and at the end of the day. It’s all about the constant greed of humans. It’s also very sad because a lot of the instances that Puneet wrote are real instances. They’re based on reality. There are certain portions in season two that got me wondering why people risk their precious lives to fulfill their greed. You want to tell them to relax and live a simple life. Don’t take yourself seriously and be comfortable in your skin first.

 

How much have things changed (or how much have they remained the same) for you after Mirzapur — do other actors, filmmakers look at you differently now?

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It’s helped big time. Coming from a film school were you watch parallel cinema and world films, I always wanted to do something like that after I left school — to work with indie filmmakers. And I got this big commercial break with Pyaar Ka Punchnama and it became a big hit, and I got David Dhawan’s Chashme Baddoor as my second film, so I really missed this indie space. I am an indie actor who wants to be part of stories that are not mainstream and familiar and play different characters that are unconventional.

Mainstream is great and I have nothing against it. But to be part of this layered world, the world which we are not very comfortable looking at, that was something I crave as an artists. And Mirzapur gave me that opportunity. Now filmmakers don’t look at me as a happy-go-lucky cute boy next door who’s fit for comic roles. You want to show your artillery as an actor. Because you have worked hard for it… I did my part in school, did theatre in college and went on to study at FTII. So I was just waiting. Yeah, I am very glad!

 

It’s so inspiring to hear about your dreams coming true. What are you biggest creative goals right now?

If everything goes well, I really want to continue in this path. I want to play different characters. I really love noir as a genre. It would be great if a series like Fargo comes to me. I want to do something like an Ozark. Just keep doing stuff that amazes you as well, and then your audience. The goals are to feel proud and happy, and not embarrassed, when you see yourself on screen. 

Photo: Amazon Prime Video

If you were to offer advise to budding actors on a foolproof way to success, what would that be?

That’s quite an ask! I think training is very important in acting. When you train you get to know yourself as an artist. Don’t only be starry-eyed and chase glamor – it’s the painful hours that you invest honing your skills and your craft that will prepare you. And never lie to yourself. Identify your shortcomings. Don’t rely on optimistism alone. Optimism is good to an extent but you can achieve things through training. I lay a lot of emphasis on training. Take your job seriously. Don’t take yourself seriously. 

You need to have that hunger, and you need to be aware of your bandwidth as an artist. I know it’s easier than done but you will eventually get there. Keep asking questions. Things should disturb you as a person. You can’t be comfortable in life if you call yourself an artist. Read, study, watch!

 

Interesting! Tell us about the music you grew up listening to?

My father used to listen to ghazals. So I was very young when he introduced me to Ghulam Ali saab, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan saab, Mehdi Hasan saab. My father likes to sing too – so we have that vibe in the family. When we get together, there are folks who’ll say ‘Ab main gaana sunaata hoon’ (‘I’d like to sing a song for you all’). 

I think the listening to ghazals at a young age instilled a lot of depth in me – what with the heavy words! I remember my dad would often say ‘Wah wah!’ (Brilliant!) when he admired a ghazal and as a kid, I would repeat after him ‘wah, kya baat hai’ (Brilliant! What a piece!) (laughs).

My mother liked watching regional films, the ones that aired on DD, and I would often watch them with her. I was very young when I watched Pather Panchali.  So I was very lucky. When I went to film school, we watched films that I was already familiar with. My parents always had a good taste when it came to art. Personally, I like all kinds of music – rock, house, except heavy metal. I had a phase of R&B and hip-hop also. Jazz and blues, any day! 

Photo: Amazon Prime Video

At what point in your growing up years did you realize you wanted to be an actor – that it wasn’t just a hobby and you wanted to pursue it as a career?

I always wanted to be an actor – I did dramatics in school. But there came a point where, in 11th standard, I got introduced to Political Science and I found the subject very interesting. The basic fundamentals of freedom and equality, the teachings of Aristotle, Socrates… it really fascinated me. I remember wanting to study law after that. 

And it’s funny – around that time I did a play where I played a lawyer, and I felt a certain kind of satisfaction that I accomplished what I wanted to. It was very clear then that acting it was. There were bouts of different things that I wanted to do – like archaeology, or the defense forces. When I joined KMC – and we had a great dramatics society – it brought out seriousness. We would spend long hours, even full nights, in the college auditorium, making a play.

And yeah, I did study Political Science in KMC – I wanted to give the subject that respect – but as I went along the theatre path, I knew it was going to be acting for me. And cinema – I don’t know how it happened. Although theater is my first love, I knew then that I wanted to be part of films.

 

How is your family receiving your success these days?

They feel really happy about the fact that I am on the path towards what I always wanted to do. As a family, we don’t take things too seriously. What matters is that you’re happy. When my wife, parents and sister – they’re happy knowing that I am happy.

 

They’ve been reports in the media that you’ve dropped your surname. Is that true?

There’s a story behind it. I was in college when we were visiting an IIT, I don’t remember whether it was Bombay or Kharagpur, for a dramatics event.

There was a person there who was noting down the cast and crew’s names – Anand Sharma, Divyendu Sharma, Abhishek Bannerjee… And she exclaimed, ‘Oh my god, all Brahmins!’ And that hit me. It affected me and I realized how in India we are still identified by our surnames, which are based on the ‘caste’ we are born in. It was then that I realized the injustice of it all. I think we should all be known by our first name, which is our real identity, rather than our surnames.

I had discussed this with my mother – that I wanted to drop my surname – and of course she didn’t take it too well. 

This one time when she asked me to try numerology, I told her I didn’t believe in it. She persisted saying it helps balance a name. So I made a deal with her that I would consider numerology if she took no objection to me dropping my surname. We both said okay! Although my official documents still carry my full name, for screen it’s just Divyenndu.

 

With a doube ‘n’ to balance it numerologically?
Yes, to balance it! (laughs).

With inputs from Rachana Haldar

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