Ishwak Singh Beyond the ‘Cute Cop’ From Paatal Lok

My first interaction with Ishwak Singh was a very humble one. It was outside a restaurant in Bandra, with a couple of mutual friends. We spent a large part of the rest of the evening talking about films. Humble, passionate and hungry for his craft, that’s the Ishwak I saw that day, and continue to know. His stint in Paatal Lok has made almost everyone envious of his talent, and looks, and has put him on the map. A rumour that he is Anushka Sharma’s next leading man just adds to the fire. In a candid conversation, Singh opens up about the show, its aftermath and explains why Ansari has been getting so much love…

Paatal Lok has become the show of the year, if I may call it that, how do you feel about it?

Many things. How can one not feel grateful and blessed! It’s one thing to do a film and quite another for it to get such a wide scale appreciation. The fact that there are so many messages, Ansari has become an overnight star and all of that is one thing, but for an actor what really matters is that you are known. And when I say be known, I mean for your craft. Everything that people are talking [about my performance] is now, and it is something I have worked on, especially during my time on stage.

It’s quite surreal, the response the show has gotten. And to be honest, I did not expect the response to be what it is. I’ve always believed that content is king, and Paatal Lok is just that. It’s proof of the fact that the lines between commercial and parallel content are blurring. And it’s a rare kinda show. You don’t see shows like Paatal Lok everyday. This is my Sayta. 

Ishwak Singh in Paatal Lok
Ishwak Singh in a still from Paatal Lok

But Ansari is a far cry from being a dark character…

It’s not really the character. It’s always the essence. It’s more to do with how the show is written, or any content for that matter, and also the reality of it. Paatal Lok is a very real show. It’s very conversational. Even when I was preparing for Ansari, I spoke to some people to do my research, and all of it was very real, and when we started shooting, he came to me very organically. You read a few books, talk to a few people, understand the nuances of the writing and go about the character. I spoke to people in the force, who are Muslims and asked them about their experiences. But even into my research, beyond a point I began asking myself, is it just about religion, ethnicity? But for me he (Ansari) was more than that, it was more about being marginalised. I think everyone feels marginalised for some reason or the other. And you need to understand this and also bring it in your performance, otherwise it becomes linear. Having said that, Ansari is a very positive person. He wants to be something in life. And that’s what you cling on to, in such characters.

I’ve seen a lot of praise for your looks in the online space. People are calling you cute, a lot many headlines read “handsome cop”. Do you think people are complimenting you more for your looks, and not your work?

Laughs. Honestly, Ansari is not even my best game (laughs again, maybe blushes), but honestly, I’ve been around a lot, and what I have realised is what comes across as ‘cute’ for Ansari is for Ansari. It’s the character. But I’ve gotten messages from people in which they use words like ‘cute’ and ‘handsome’ and then there is a paragraph about how Ansari has inspired them – to be a good person, friend, to have that honesty, to be kind, compassionate and so much more. It’s his honesty that people have fallen for. And none of these qualities are based on face value. It’s about what he is on the inside. The only thing I know is that Ansari is a good man. There’s a certain adab to him that is rare and unknown. He’s a very passionate man.

Is it difficult to come out of characters, that have been in dark places? Even though Ansari is one of the positive characters in the show, he lives in a dark world. 

Not at all. At the end of the day, this is what we do, as actors. It’s a very beautiful thing, which some actors experience – every character gives you something and you give something to that character too. A character always makes you aware about yourself. It’s real but it isn’t overwhelming. And secondly, it’s not dark places that Paatal Lok ventures into. It talks about real things – child sexual abuse, harassment, community clash, corruption, politics and so on. You pick up a newspaper and it’s all there. And even though all of this is there in the show, it’s mainly about human relationships. Like, you see Haathi Ram and Ansari. Even though Haathi Ram is the one in charge, there are moments in which Ansari is the one who has to take charge of the situation, and a lot of it is emotional.

You’ve been in the industry for a long time now. How does it feel to be finally recognised?

Sahi hai! I wouldn’t say I was hopeless before Paatal Lok, because I always knew it would take this much time. And it did. So I was good, and now it feels good too.

Paatal Lok has an ensemble cast, were you ever insecure about that?

Never. You’re talking to someone who has done even a 30 second role. I wasn’t even insecure when I did Raanjhana. I had two scenes in the film, but I didn’t care about that. I just knew the character and I wanted to have fun and make the character worthwhile. When you take up a role it gives you an opportunity to explore a new culture. How else am I going to get an opportunity to play a cop in an outer district police station? So, for me, it’s the journey that’s really important to me. And honestly, the industry is really fair and so is the audience. If your work is good, people will take notice and you will get your due.

What next?

I’m reading a few scripts. I’ve been approached for a few things, I have auditioned for a few. Things have definitely changed with Paatal Lok. Now even I know what a good choice is! And again, it’s nothing but content that can drive me. And I really ask myself as to why am I doing something: is it just for fun, or what? Because it’s true you want to do stuff for fun but you also want to talk about what’s going on in the society.

So the film with Anushka [Sharma] is just a rumour?

Who wouldn’t want to work with Anushka Sharma. There are stars and then there are these exceptional actors who are so talented. So, I hope, someday I get to work with her.

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TW: Depression #StopTheStigma

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