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Saturday, September 26, 2020

I Am Yet To See Sikh Actors With Turban And Beard As Protagonists In The Non-Sikh Backdrop: Kuljeet Singh

Veteran theater actor Kuljeet Singh talks about his association with 'Breathe: Into the Shadows', his long battle against breaking stereotypes associated with the Sikh persona on screen, and his upcoming projects

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Murtaza Ali Khan
Murtaza Ali Khan
Executive Director of Transcontinental Times, Murtaza Ali Khan is a noted film critic and journalist. He can be reached at murtaza.jmi@gmail.com.

INDIA. Pritpal Singh Bharaj is easily the most memorable character in the Amazon Prime Video series ‘Breathe: Into the Shadows’. A soft-spoken family oriented Sikh man, Bharaj has a very convivial personality. But he suffers from a rare called Germaphobia which his killer exploits to push him to a point where he loses it all. The character of Bharaj is essayed by veteran theater actor Kuljeet Singh who has been performing on stage since 1996. His journey started from Delhi University’s Khalsa College where he served first as the general secretary and then as the president of its theater society Ankur. In 2004, he set up a theater company called Atelier. He has also acted in films like Amu and Margarita with a Straw.

In this exclusive interview with Transcontinental Times, Kuljeet Singh talks about his association with Breathe: Into the Shadows and how he prepared for his complex character in the series, his battle against breaking stereotypes associated with the Sikh persona on screen, effect of COVID-19 on Atelier and its day to day activities, and his upcoming projects.    

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Excerpts

Q1. You have been receiving a lot of praise for your portrayal of Pritpal Singh Bharaj in the Amazon series ‘Breathe: Into the Shadows’. The character suffers from a condition called Germaphobia. How did you get associated with the project? What was your first impression of the character?

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A. Well, let me tell you that Pritpal Singh Bharaj is absolutely not Kuljeet in real. Kuljeet hardly cares about germs. He is a man of the soil and aspires to be a farmer.

I am a theater person and for last two decades had been rehearsing at odd spaces with not-so-clean milieu. When I was approached for the character, I had a lot of questions. But, the references were few, online and offline. Whatever I gathered from friends and casting director, I attempted to incorporate in the screen test I took. The real journey started with the table-reading meeting which took place in Mumbai, where I get to meet the director, Mayank Sharma, and I got a lot of information on the ideation of the character. The training in theater, I feel, was adequate to get into the skin of the character.

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Meeting Arshad, the screenplay writer, at the sets helped me reach much closer to Pritpal. In the first two days, I felt I was comfortable with the character and the responses (conscious and indirect) from the direction team helped me concretize the character.

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Kuljeet Singh as Pritpal Singh Bharaj in a still from Breathe: Into the Shadows
Kuljeet Singh as Pritpal Singh Bharaj in a still from Breathe: Into the Shadows

Q2. How did you grasp the interiorities of the character? What was the brief like? Did you get a chance to improvise?

A. There is a method each actor would employ in order to get acquainted with the character. I also have my own method to approach the subject-to-be-performed, and the attempt is to reach a level of ‘belief’ where your own ‘self’ starts believing in the ‘self’ of the other. Undoubtedly, one requires substantial time to move from one self to other and fortunately I was given that time.

As far as brief is concerned, the back story was shared along with tendencies of the character. The script also offers a great deal about Pritpal. Mayank sir had been awesome throughout and allowed me to add to the character through improvisations and responses.

Q3. The scene wherein Pritpal is murdered is very graphic. In fact, it’s one of the most gruesome murders depicted in an Indian web series. The scene involves a lot of struggle. How challenging was it for you to shoot the scene?

A. I agree. That was the most challenging part of the entire shoot, at least for me. It’s shot in a stinking dumpyard and my character can’t put a mask when the takes are on. I remember I fell sick on the second day of shoot and had to consume antibiotics to sustain.  

Kuljeet Singh performing on stage
Kuljeet Singh performing on stage

Q4. You have done theater quite extensively over the last two decades. But ‘Breathe: Into the Shadows’ marks your web series debut. What took you so long to make a foray into the world of OTT?

A. I am a happy person and relish my relationship with theater. It opened various avenues in the last decade for Atelier, the theater company I founded in 2004, and we are travelling extensively across the globe with our productions. The platter is full, if not overflowing; never felt the need to look up to cinema as something eventual.  Also, I was never approached with challenging roles like Pritpal or the one I played in Shonali Bose’s ‘Margarita with a Straw’. Having said that I am not averse to cinema. If there are substantial roles to be performed, irrespective of screen time, I would like to play them. I would love to essay a character like Manto’s Ishar Singh, an underworld don, a money minded property dealer; I enjoy playing characters with different shades and colours. 

Kuljeet Singh in a still from Margarita with a Straw
Kuljeet Singh (right) in a still from Margarita with a Straw

Q5. Over the years we have had very few Sikh characters that don’t end up looking like caricatures. But in the recent times we have started seeing more and more realistic Sikh characters. What do you attribute this change to? What have been your personalexperiences in this matter?

A. It took me almost 20 years of contestation against the stereotypes associated with the Sikh persona on screen. I was deliberately keeping distance from the offers on these lines and refrained from the allure. Maybe, I was waiting for the right time to come. And I am not saying the right time has come; we see caricaturing even today but yes you are right, there are a few films produced in the recent past where you see Sikh actors projected not as a cliched comic or aggressive person. I feel films on real life situations belonging to the people have enabled this change. I am yet to see Sikh actors with turban and beard as protagonists in the non-Sikh backdrop. I hope to see that soon.

Q6. Often when a non-Sikh actor plays a Sikh character there aren’t many good references available in films / series. A rare brilliant example of course is Irrfan Khan in ‘Qissa’. What advice would you like to give to non-Sikh actors playing Sikh characters?

A. Well, I believe there are enough references for actors to play any character and Sikh character is not an exception. You can always take references from real people in present or past; or you imagine the experience of the character. Sikhs have had been a part and parcel of the social fabric of not only this nation but internationally; a good amount of time spent on finding and believing will certainly pay. What Irrfan Khan did in Anup Singh’s ‘Qissa’ is certainly an exemplary performance.

Q7. Tell us about Atelier and its various activities. How have they been affected by COVID-19?

A. Atelier opened its newly built three floor space at Ghitorni in February 2019. The ground floor was beautifully created into a Performance Café; first floor was dedicated to Atelier Repertory Company’s rehearsals space; and the second floor was made into a 60 seater space. We were going pretty smooth until the COVID-19 situation took over. The space had to be shut and we had to operate from our homes, reading new plays, watching films and web series, and hoping eagerly to go back to rehearsals.

Q8. Other than theater you have also acted in movies like ‘Amu’ and ‘Margarita with a Straw’. And now you have done a web series. As an actor how do you see these three different mediums? Also tell us about your upcoming projects.

A. ‘Amu’ coincided with my theater work on 1984 Sikh Genocide, ‘Goodbye Blue Sky’ in 2004-05 and I have personal liking for socially-politically committed creation in any domain: theater, cinema and OTT. ‘Margarita with a Straw’ came 10 years later by the same director and again the pressing issue in the film made it a memorable one. The story and the questions the story is asking is what makes it unique.

Next, I am playing a cameo in Shoojit Sircar’s ‘Udham’ and I am unsure about the release dates, given the unprecedented COVID-19 situation. There is a web series I have signed, of late, and a few more offers in the pipeline. With theater, I am building up a set of Dastaan performances along with proscenium productions which will be available for audiences once we return on stage. A 360 degree project, ‘Sher-e-Shamsheer’ is conceptualized and is in the pipeline. I have completed screenplay for a 6 episodic web series and there are producers taking interest in that as well. Then, I also wish to develop Atelier Talkies.

Hazaaron khwaashishey hain… dekhtein hain kaun kaunsi poori hoti hain…

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