The obvious temptations for an actor to do a double role are precisely those temptations that one should avoid. One major temptation is to show your range as an actor and dazzle the audience. Most actors while attempting a double role often mark out two different sets of mannerisms first and build on those, and the temptation is to wow the audience with your amazing range. I didn’t go down that road. Whether they are twins, whether it’s a double role, I didn’t put my focus on any of that. For me these were two separate roles that I was playing. I approached each of the characters as I would approach any other character in a film.

Give me the backstory, build a biography from the age of zero to where the character is in the scene, figure out the character’s childhood, growing up years, friend choices, musical likes, culinary preferences, go into their family lives, school lives, sexual lives, sexual orientation, all of that. I went into this journey for both Indranil and Mahendra (in Bulbbul). I was never anxious about showing the difference. I played them the way each demanded I play them.

After setting the biography of the character, Rahul says, in every film he thinks of one or two keywords that he has to say to himself before he gets onto the set

Role rehearsal

So, getting down to the roles themselves. After setting the biography of the character, in every film I think of one or two keywords that I have to say to myself before I get onto the set. With Indranil it was fatigue and the mantle of responsibility. While for Mahendra, it was wonder. His is arrested development. His first reaction to everything is just that of wonder. He doesn’t have a thought in his mind that lasts for more than maybe five seconds. He was the more difficult character to play. For the danger in playing such characters is that of hamming. These kinds of characters very easily lend themselves into becoming caricatures. So that challenge was how do you swallow him and when you act him you don’t thrust him down the audience’s throat, audiences only need to smell his essence. A massive amount of credit goes to Anvita. She has used him sparingly.

“If you look at it as two different roles and you don’t care about the double role, then you are free as an actor”

It is interesting that most of the comments I have got are about how it didn’t look like Rahul Bose was playing this role. We were aware that however well Indranil was being played, he was being played by Rahul Bose, they would say. But almost all the feedback was that while watching Mahendra they completely forgot it was I who was playing him. With Mahendra, my approach was to capture his total lack of thought.  He doesn’t have a cerebral bone in his body. He lives for and lives in the moment. But when it came to the rape scene, the animalistic impulses of a 40-year-old trapped in a 10-year-old are that of a 40-year-old man’s and not that of a 10-year-old boy’s. Mahindra’s sexual appetite or his appetite for food, for instance, is that of a 40-year-old’s. So when he lies on her, how does he change from the child asking her to play with him…from ‘khelo, khelo, khelo’… to a point where he has an erection? I had to also remember that he is used to having his way anyway, as a spoilt child zamindar. Like a spoilt child, he has never been denied anything. He just takes it. But when he finishes, his fear is that of a 10-year-old’s, who knows that the gudiya has broken and that something very bad has happened. He looks up and knows he has done something wrong because something isn’t normal. That scene was a massive challenge.

So if you look at it as two different roles and you don’t care about the double role, then you are free as an actor and there is just so much to do for each of those roles!

In terms of physical appearance, Rahul’s only suggestion was to join Mahendra’s eyebrows in Bulbbul to give him a little unkempt, slightly bestial look

In terms of physical appearance, Rahul’s only suggestion was to join Mahendra’s eyebrows in Bulbbul to give him a little unkempt, slightly bestial look

With Indranil, it was equally complex, but on a different level. He’s quite civilised. He doesn’t force himself sexually on his child bride. He is patient and understanding when he says ‘pati aur devar ke beech ka farq tum samajh jaogi’. He looks at his errant brother fondly but with a stentorian eye. But his one weakness is jealousy. And that is where Paoli Dam’s character Binodini drives the stiletto knife deeper and deeper into him. Now we see a rapidly changing person, till finally, and this was the real challenge, we bridge the graph from jealousy and anger as he walks away from the fireplace, to rage and violence by the time he reaches Bulbbul in the bathroom. I knew people would be shocked by the sudden emergence of his violent streak, so I had to give them a foreshadowing in his personality – this his simmering, growing jealousy – such that the violence, though shocking, seems plausible in the character arc. Maybe Indranil himself was ill- prepared for that. So, if you look at him from all sides, there’s so much to do. He’s having sex with Binodini, but he doesn’t care. It shows that perhaps he’s not having the kind of sex he would like to with his wife – she’s too young/they don’t have sexual chemistry, so perhaps there’s a schism already there.

The backstory

In terms of physical appearance, my only suggestion was that you can join Mahendra’s eyebrows to give him a little unkempt, slightly bestial look. That unibrow was the only thing we externally added to Mahendra. It’s a really subtle touch, but hopefully it worked subliminally on the audience’s mind. The rest is all in the playing.

Many would ask how it was shifting between the two characters. It’s like this: once you know how to fit your foot into a ballet slipper and you know how to fit your foot into a mountain boot well, then depending on which one you are wearing, you mould and shape your foot. But then you should have done it at least a hundred times before. Once it becomes a habit, the switch becomes easier and your feet become comfortable in both pair of shoes. I had been working on the characters quietly for about a month. So, yes the prep was crucial.

Still from Bulbbul, where Rahul Bose plays a double role and lends it a nuanced edge

Still from Bulbbul, where Rahul Bose plays a double role and lends it a nuanced edge

I need at least a month to prepare for any character, to chew on it, to discuss it with the director, to do the workshops. Workshops can be very intimidating places. You don’t want to fail, you want to be clever all the time, you want to wow the other actors. But I have come to a point in my career that I don’t feel the need to wow anyone. Not because I’m so great, but because it’s such a dangerous place to be. So, I start with a clean slate. I start from emptiness. I am relaxed and devoid of any ego, I don’t care about my reputation, I am an empty space waiting to be filled. I think for an actor that is the right place to begin. With Bulbbul, I started at the right place, lived with each character as a separate entity, fleshed each one from inside working to the outside, and made them separate habits. Even when they met my prep was different for each of them. It feels incredibly rewarding that Indranil and Mahendra have worked. The opposite would have been a terrible burden to shoulder for the rest of my career.

(As told to Ananya Ghosh)

Rahul Bose is a critically-acclaimed actor and filmmaker. He is also a social activist and producer.

From HT Brunch, July 5, 2020

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