Once upon a time, Pavan Malhotra was told that his acting skills alone were not enough to fetch him money. He is familiar with delayed payments and filmmakers cutting his roles, and while he managed to bag titular roles at the beginning of his illustrious career, attaining fame was tricky.
He is neither a one hit wonder, nor an overnight star. He comes from a league of actors who have earnestly weaved their career graph overtime.
You remember his ‘Oye hum khotey hai kya’ line as Geet’s hot-blooded but fun uncle from Jab We Met (2007). You know him as Shah Rukh Khan’s quiet but supportive friend from Pardes (1997), Farhan’s Akhtar coach in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013) and the typical middle-aged man from Chandni Chowk showing off his lighting venture in Delhi-6 (2009).
A chameleon in the truest sense, he left an unforgettable imprint as Tiger Memon in Black Friday (2004) and Salim Langda with a Dawood-style moustache in National award-winning movie, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989). These two roles even impressed the Underworld, and he was invited to meet Haji Mastan and Dawood Imbrahim on a few occasions, which he refused. Even today, viewers remember him as Tiger bhai.
His latest web series ‘Tabbar’, available on SonyLiv, is garnering appreciation from critics and audiences alike. It is the directorial venture of Ajitpal Singh, and revolves around a retired policeman (Pavan) trying to protect his wife (Supriya Pathak Kapur) and two sons after they are caught in a series of crimes.
Of course, the advent of OTT platforms and character-driven scripts have made it fairly easier for newcomers and even veteran actors like Pavan to make a mark, but how was it like to struggle in the Doordarshan era?
The answer is not very shocking.
“I can tell you 500 stories of struggle, but I would never like to romanticise my story. If you change your city and don’t have a permanent job, you should be ready for a struggle. When I was living in Delhi with my father, he made me sweep the floor of his office too. He used to say that if I didn’t learn this, I wouldn’t learn anything in life. He had also told me that if I wanted to work, I had to learn to keep my ego aside. I survived in Mumbai because of this lesson,” Pavan told The Telegraph in a 2016 interview.
Charting success through theatres, serials, movies, and OTT
Pavan was born in a Punjabi household that migrated to Delhi from Pakistan after the Partition. His father ran a business of machine tools and Pavan grew up with five siblings in the capital’s Rajinder Nagar, the same area where Shah Rukh Khan lived.
Being the youngest son had its own advantage, the biggest being not facing resistance or unnecessary drama for choosing acting as a profession.
Pavan’s tryst with acting began in school, when his friend took him to the Ruchika Theatre. When his friend asked him to participate in a play, he agreed, believing it was for a festival. Surprised to see that it was actually for a play with tickets, Pavan essayed six different roles in the play Tughlaq.
Oblivious to the essence behind plays and its social messages, Pavan went with the flow without stressing much about his career.
“I mostly didn’t know what was going on. It took me a while to understand serious political subjects such as Marxism. Somebody had then jokingly said that Karl and Marx were two brothers – and I believed him. In another Hindi play, Father, I played the role of an orderly. I didn’t even know the meaning of the word. I knew nothing – but slowly I learnt. That was also when I got some backstage roles in programmes on Doordarshan,” he said.
In between all the appreciation (a newspaper described him as ‘orderly’ and ‘impressive’), his father asked him to join the family business and he ended his theatre career.
However, one day, he got a chance to be part of the production team of Gandhi (1982) as a wardrobe assistant. This marked his entry into movie production. Thereafter, he worked on Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983) and Khamosh (1986) as a production assistant.
Whether the process of making films grew on him or he grew on movies remains unsure but not going back to his father’s business was a decision he made.
He moved to Bombay (Mumbai) to find work and experienced the ‘struggling actor’ phase.
“I assisted on the television serial, Yeh Jo Hain Zindagi (1984)The money was so little that it was a struggle to survive. But I never asked my father for money. I have done odd jobs in between my acting work like selling leftover bread from the bread factory or feeding cows in a cowshed,” Pavan told Rediff.
In 1986, he bagged a role in Nukkad, a television serial about urban youth striving for a steady livelihood, something that Pavan was experiencing in real life. He had a small role that was originally written for only two episodes, but his character became so popular and loved that the makers increased his role on the show.
His captivating performance and on-screen simplicity, coupled with his subtle yet intense expressions, eventually started getting him more work.
He did Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and Bagh Bahadur (1989), both of which won National awards. Sure, his stellar acting in both these movies were lauded, but pivoting roles and movies were still a distant dream.
Rejections from bigwigs including Yashraj Films and Subhash Ghai did not stop him from trying. He has credited late actor Amrish Puri’s advice on perseverance.
“I met Amrish Puri for the first time while shooting for a children’s film. He came to me with a lot of respect and said, ‘You are that boy from Salim Langda and Bagh Bahadur?’ I said yes. He said, ‘Have today’s lunch with me.’ During lunch, he told me, ‘You have the capacity to be in this field for a long time, so you keep trying. One day, your work will be noticed.’ I carry that advice very closely in my heart,” he shared in an interview with Rediff.
And life did come full circle.
Pavan went on to work with both YRF (Badmaash Company, 2010) and Subhash Ghai (Pardes) later in his career.
An instinctive actor
As he made his presence felt in the ever growing movie industry with varied roles (including a foregin movie, Brothers in Trouble, 2007), director Anurag Kashyap offered him Black Friday and that was a turning point for Pavan.
A major reason behind him nailing his performance as Tiger Memon so well was his research. He reached out to several people who had known or met Memon.
“One person said he had met him for 10 minutes and had noticed that whenever he spoke to someone, he would lean towards that person. There is a scene where I am speaking to Badshah Khan in a hotel room. That is the only place in the entire film where I have leaned towards him. I think one should not overdo it,” he says.
For a Punjabi biopic on Bhagat Puran Singhji , Eh Janam Tumhare Lekhe (2015), Pavan spent time among the villagers to pick up their mannerisms and accents. The dedication is such that Pavan even took a sabbatical for a year before Bhag Milkha Bhag, as he was growing his hair to play a Sikh coach.
He says acting is a combination of research, imagination and instincts.
“I work on the body language and voice of the character. And it is a conscious decision to play a different character in each film because the characters remain alive in the mind of the audience even if the actor is forgotten,” he said.
From not having a character name in his debut series Yeh Jo Zindagi Hai to helming an entire web series in 2021, this Delhi boy certainly proved that acting skills are enough to make a distinguishable career in the entertainment world after all.
Images source: Pavan Malhotra/Instagram
Edited by Divya Sehtu