If you’ve been watching The Family Man, which seems to be trending above everything else in this part of the world, it is unlikely that you’ve not googled the name Neeraj Madhav. Along with Sharib Hashmi and Priyamani, the actor is enjoying a newfound popularity among the Hindi audience, thanks to the show. As the mad and manipulative, cool and complicated ISIS terrorist Moosa Rehman aka Al-Qatil in the Amazon Prime Video original, Neeraj is enjoying both rave reviews from the critics, and fan love.
Having mostly played lighter parts down south, when he first got the brief for Moosa from directors Raj & DK, the 29-year-old jumped at it. “In terms of acting, this was something that I would love to do… I have mostly done lighter characters, parts that were mostly on the funny or the romantic side… [But] when you get to play such a challenging character, it doesn’t actually matter if it’s negative or manipulative,” he says, responding to the suggestion about whether he had second thoughts at some point, given that this went totally against his ‘type’.
Added to that was the pressure of starting out ‘right’ in a new industry, and one that more or less comprises the largest audience base in this part of the world. Neeraj, however, differs: “I think the whole [idea] of playing positive character for the family audience, a good guy, it’s not there anymore. If you look at the trend internationally, a lot of actors have gone to fame playing negative characters. I don’t really mind playing negative characters. I wanted to do something different,” he shares.
Talking of different, one can trust writer-filmmaker duo Raj & DK to come up with just the right recipe. Right from their breakout Shor in the City (2011), to the zany zombie-stoner comedy Go Goa Gone and last year’s horror-comedy Stree, their talent has acquired an edge in a short span of time. Executing a slick, unconventional, conflicted story that straddles genres and packs incredible performances, has turned them into a force to be reckoned with, a name that has become synonymous with a certain brand of treatment. In The Family Man, the directors’ decision to go for actors with authentic cultural and linguistic backgrounds was one of the reasons the series has enjoyed such admiration from viewers.
“You know, in so-called commercial cinema, if you wanted to have a south Indian character, the trend would be that you would cast a dark-skinned guy from Mumbai itself to speak Hindi with a fake accent. But Raj and DK have genuinely made the effort to actually reach out to the regional actors who fit in perfectly. They even have Kashmiris to play characters from Kashmir,” says the actor, who played Mohanlal’s aide in the original Drishyam (2013).
The actor agrees that the platform does play a role in encouraging makers to try out such a thing. “Of course, I think, the platform is a reason for that. I don’t know what percentage of the commercial audience would want a show like this — a Hindi mainstream show that opens with five minutes of Malayalam dialogue,” he says.
Interestingly, Neeraj also points out to Chhichhore director Nitesh Tiwari calling him up to play a south Indian in his Sushant Singh Rajput-starrer that just released. The role, suitably altered, later went to Varun Sharma. “That was a big movie, and they were planning to have huge participation from a south Indian character. So, I think, it is happening, it is right now happening… the walls are being broken. I think in the future, it would be one big industry.”
Neeraj’s portrayal of the layered Moosa, who, despite his mercenary intentions, as the show’s climax reveals, has a mellow side. He not only manages to half-convince Srikant Tiwari (Manoj Bajpayee) about having abandoned all his terror plans, but charms his nurse, Mary, then seduces and finally murders her in cold blood. It is natural to wonder if Neeraj brought in his own soft-spoken manner and boy-next-door charm to a character, the likes of which have been played rather unidimensionally in the past. How much of Moosa was the directors’ wish?
“Raj and DK are very progressive guys. They have this attitude of being so cool and not super dominant. They won’t come up and say, ‘Emote like this, or act like this’. They’re intelligent in tapping the right actor for a role, so that they do justice to the character. They had all brilliant actors on board,” he explains. “The sophistication and subtleties that went into the character was my part, but it definitely was all there in the writing. Writing mein sab kuchh tha. The script was so well written that you would know what the character is,” adds Neeraj.
“But there are [times] when you have to put some intelligence into it… like when you’re playing the innocent Moosa in the hospital, should I give it away or not… That’s up to the guy who’s playing him. So I decided to kind of not give it away. But Raj and DK would come up and tell you when they wanted something. As in, ‘Neeraj… let’s not do that’ but they wouldn’t tell you, ‘Do this only’. That was the kind of freedom that they gave you.”
His first Hindi project brought learning in plenty for the actor. And a lot of it happened on field, as he shot with Manoj Bajpayee. Neeraj gushes about the time he had shooting with the Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) and Aligarh (2015) actor. “Manoj sir improvises like anything. You have to be prepared for that. Anything’s gonna come from him. If you get distracted or give up there, then it’s gone but if you rise up to his level — not his level — but if you show the courage to rise up to him or play along with him, the entire scene is lifted,” he says.
Neeraj has quite a few scenes with Bajpayee, including a standoff in a slum where Moosa, bloodied and battered, surrenders before the security forces. In the latter scenes, he feigns disillusionment with his crusade and a fledgling desire to reform. “There are different kinds of actors. There are people who make you uncomfortable or, you know, block you or don’t give anything back, but Manoj sir is the kind of person who would elevate your performance. So that was something very exciting,” he shares.
With a follow-up season already announced, one wonders if, on looking back, Neeraj now thinks finishing off his character — he succumbs to a middle-of-the-road fight with his protégé, Sajid — was an idea he is okay with. Viewers would indeed have wanted to relish more of his machinations and manipulations.
“I was okay with it while filming, but now that I’m getting so much response… I kind of feel bad. But that’s completely the creators’ freedom… Even the gas attack is left out in a very cliffhanging scenario. Raj told me if Moosa was not killed, this character wouldn’t have been as glorious as it is right now. Therein lies the catharsis of the character. You… kind of feel for him. That happens because he was dead. You feel for him, you reach out to him. In that way I’m quite happy,” he signs off.
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