Refusing to fall into stereotypes - Manjot Singh

As a Sikh myself, I cringed every time I watched a character on screen who donned a turban, presented as a Sikh, especially in the 90s. The jokes came, and the onslaught of terrible, over-the-top drunkenness and lack of sense prevailed within that character. I craved to see Sikh people depicted in a realistic manner. And then, I started seeing some mainstream actors such as Saif Ali Khan, Salman Khan, and Sunny Deol, don the turban and shed light on the Sikh religion in a much more productive manner. But I still craved to see an actual Sardar play the role of a character who happens to be a Sardar. One of those actors came in the form of Manjot Singh, who thrilled audiences with his characters in films like Fukrey, and then followed up with films like Arjun Patiala, and the most recent, Dream Girl. When I sat down to chat with him over the phone, I felt delight in knowing he was hoping to bring about a change in perspectives.

First of all, congratulations on the success of Dream Girl. its had a great run and it's a fantastic film. It's been an interesting journey for you, in the sense that you have really come out on your own and we don't see a lot of Sikh turban wearers making it in the mainstream so to speak. We don't see it very often. I come from a Sikh family myself. My father wears a turban and I've grown up watching Hindi cinema in the 90’s where most Sikhs with turbans were there for comedic purposes. That was about it. In recent times, some of the portrayals have changed in the sense that we have seen Salman Khan, we’ve seen Saif Ali Khan don turbans for their respective films. But we haven't seen an actual turban wearer, an actual Sardar in those roles. Do you think that there has been a change with Diljit Dosanjh a little bit, with yourself a little bit. Do you think that there has been a change? Or is it still in the starting phases?

M: No definitely there has been a change for sure. I’m still trying very hard you know, to be up there and I'm still very choosy about my projects. You know when I started, to be very honest, by the grace of God, it's been a splendid journey so far and when I started my career, Mom and Dad only used to say one thing that “Apni Sikhi Da Naam Roshan Rakhna Hai” (Your Sikhi’s name should be honoured). It  means that you have to maintain your identity. Just because you’re a Sardar, does not mean you are funny all the time. You have to be funny - no! You have to show different shades, you have to show your versatility. In Bombay, there is a stereotyped perception, the filmmakers, they stereotype Sardars. 

As if Sardars have a one-dimensional personality?

M: Yes - they think that a Sardar is a character. He's not an actor. So they treat Sardars as characters. I just think I’m trying my best to change that by doing good films, good content and not to just accept any role. You know earlier, when a Sardar ji said something in the movies and there used to be a background “balle, balle, balle, balle”, my parents used to hate that. My parents were against that. They felt it's a good thing that you are entering the industry but you have to maintain that you are a person, and not a character.

It is interesting you say that because when I first heard of Fukrey, like the first ever time I heard of Fukrey, and I saw the star cast and I saw that you are in it… thought to myself, ok, because it is slated to be a comedy, I thought to myself that I really hope that the Sardar is there for comic relief. What was refreshing was that Varun Sharma’s character was the one that was a little bit more crazy. He was a little bit more “out to lunch” so to speak. He wasn't always with it. So it was refreshing to see that they had not typecast the sardar in the role that I thought that the Sardar would get. So when you look at projects, even when they're comedies, do you look at the script, do you look at the character? 

M: First of all, I don't read scripts. I hate reading. I just go with the vibe. You know, sometimes, a casting director, maybe a director or producer calls me. If I like the way they approach me, I go for the project. If my vibe or their vibe doesn't match, I just say no. I just say that I won't be able to do it, something or the other. But I just go with the vibe. I used to be very shy when I started my career. After doing 2-3 films, I came back confident and learnt how you have to be in front of the camera, how you have to talk. So I think after 2-3 films, I got to understand what are films, what are scripts. So I always tell the director that I will never do anything funny just because I am a Sardar. So I talk to them at the very first meeting. It should be a situational comedy, if it is a comedy I’m being pitched. But I won’t do the stereotypical roles – I’m never going to do that because my parents hate that. So that’s why I’m planning and I’m getting situational comedy roles. I am not going to be making fun of myself.

You know Manjot, it's tough to break into an industry where you are not connected to anyone. We always hear about star kids but there are a lot of people who have carved out their own journeys. Ayushmann Khurrana who was your co-star recently is one of those aspirational individuals who you see and he has had a long journey. People call him an overnight superstar and he's not one! He started off his career very early on, he struggled quite a bit. I noticed him first in Vicky Donor and it took him a while to reach that height of Vicky Donor again and beyond. When you look at your own journey, if there were any dips or any falls, anything like that, how did you come out of it? Were there times that you wanted to give up?

M: No, see when I started my career, I never wanted to be an actor. My friend told me that auditions are going on so I had given an audition and got selected. After that, after doing my first film, I was like theek hai (okay), now back to normal life. I don't think I’m going to work in films anymore. People are not going call me and say do you want to work in my film. I was like now concentrate on studying. Because coming from a non-filmy background, I had no more focus and I never thought anything would go further. I gave my audition and it was a fluke for me. So when the movie got released, there was so much happening. People across the world, across I ndia loved my work. After winning awards, I got the Filmfare Best Actor (Critics) Award for my first film! So after winning that award, it was the turning point of my life. Everything changed. Relatives, friends, everyone was like “My God! You did it” and I was really shocked too and after that, I completed my studies and I started getting calls - “You want to do this film, you want to do this ad, this commercial”? I was enjoying fame and all of this. 

So what happens once Fukrey works and you realize the fame that came with it?

M: After I did a couple of films, after shifting to Mumbai and after doing Fukrey, for two years, I didn't get anything. I was very upset because I wondered why are people not calling? I went to Mumbai and spoke to my known directors. They guided me. They said you have to work for it, you have to go and meet filmmakers, producers, casting directors. You have to do that and you have to do it everyday.  You're not a child actor. So then I shifted to Mumbai and fought with my dad that I want to go to Mumbai. He said why do you want to shift to Mumbai? But after some time, I was very upset, then I fought with him, then I shifted to Mumbai. Then I started meeting people. My life was on track. I'm still trying to show filmmakers that I can do some stuff besides comedy as well. I don't want to do only comedy. I want to try another genre. So I'm still trying. And you know, just because I'm a sardar, doesn’t mean I’m funny. I want to do something serious. I’m very versatile. I hope they listen to me and it gets better.

Manjot, one more question I have is that you spoke about your parents. You spoke about your father and the initial hesitation on his part. You are going into an industry that is about social media these days. It's not just about acting, it's about marketing. It's about marketing yourself. It's about putting yourself out there on social media as well. You know Sardar parents, they have that added burden sometimes, you can call it that if you want. They don't want to lose their Sikhi. You talked about your parents saying that “make sure you remain true to who you are as a Sikh”. So today, when your parents look at your journey, do they have anything to say? I assume that they are supportive but what role are they playing right now in your journey so far?

M: I just want to say that they are very happy, they are very satisfied. For them i'm like “ghar ki murgi daal barabar” (saying that no matter what, you are still from our home). For them, I’m the normal son. I think that's the right way. They know inside, I’ve done something good. They will never show that I’m doing great and all. Especially my Dad. My Dad never praises me for anything. Till 11 years he never said “beta you have done a great job, I am proud of you”. He never said that. But they are very happy with my journey. 

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Armin Sethi

Bollywood Film Fame Canada has been a source of original content consisting of real conversations, reviews, and news of everything film, music, and entertainment for 15 years.

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