Meet Kulvinder Bakshish, the man who learnt from Michael Caine, and taught Aamir Khan

The unsung hero, acting and dialogue coach from Gwalior shares his experience of coaching Aamir Khan, and his journey as a whole.

Kulvinder Bakshish

By Mayur Lookhar

Dim wit, loud, and often played by people with cringeworthy accents. Bollywood has come a long way from the days of stereotyping of Sikh men. In 2022, such portayal is deemed as coarse, disrespectful to the particular community.

Mainstream Bollywood actors today are cautious when they play Sikh characters. Aamir Khan was recently seen playing a Sikh in and as Laal Singh Chaddha [2022]. We were unsure how Khan would play such a character, but we didn’t find much fault with his Punjabi. The credit here goes to acting, dialect/dialogue coach Kulvinder Bakshish.

Working with Khan surely boosts one’s CV but Bakshish has had his own remarkable journey. The Gwalior-born Bakshish has made theatre his home. He has acted, directed plays but more importantly, he’s found his true calling in teaching. The polyglot is proficient in multiple languages – Hindi, Punjabi, Haryanvi, Rajasthani, Bhojpuri, Maithili, Bundel or Bundelkhandi. He’s travelled across many parts of the country having learnt martial arts, and other folk forms in Manipur.

We spoke to Bakshish recently where he shared his Laal Singh Chaddha experience and his journey as a whole.

Excerpts.

Your current Whats App status reads as Sound of Silence. Now isn’t that an interesting status for an acting and dialogue coach?

When everything is quiet, the sound of existence can only be heard after all sounds are muted.  Let’s just say till the time we are not 100 per cent quiet – I’m not just referring to oral sounds, but till we are silent within, our thinking doesn’t awaken. It is a deep [philosophy]. An actor needs to imbibe this silence.

Before we talk about Laal Singh Chaddha, I want to know your story?

I come from Gwalior. I started doing theatre from my school. I’m a theatre director, actor. I’ve performed for many years.  I was 17 when I began my journey.  After graduation, I stayed in Manipur, where I learnt their folk forms.  Later I travelled to the South, also Orissa.

I worked with Makarand Deshpande in Mumbai. Whatever craft I learnt, I incorporated it [into plays]. Later, I learnt from Pandit Satyadev Dubey. Thereafter, I formed my own theatre group Anvarat. I added a new style to my theatre wherein you would have painting, music, dance, everything was part of it. This is a total theatre. Since my craft was slightly different, it reflected in our plays too. My first play was A Generous Warrior – Mrityunjay.  Sushant Singh Rajput worked with me in that play. This play won the National Award in 2009.

Michael Caine as Alfred, the butler in Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise

I stayed for quite some time in London too. I was privileged to have learnt from British actor Michael Caine [Alfred, the Butler in Christopher Nolan’s Batman franchise]. I realised why our training differs so much from theirs. 

Britain produces such fine actors.  Out there, either you are an actor or non-actor. You’ll seldom find bad actors there.  Unfortunately, back home you can count the good or the bad actors on your fingers. They produce many Irrfan Khan-like actors. We produce such talent once in many years. It is a sad reality. So, I started using their techniques here. I first coached Sushant Singh Rajput, in personal capacity.  I coached him at his house for Kai Po Che [2013], and later for Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! [2015], MS Dhoni: The Untold Story [2016].

I guess that changed things for me professionally. After him, Aamir sir called me for Laal Singh Chaddha.

Did Aamir Khan call you directly?

No, my friend Anshuman Jha had recommended me to Aamir sir. He had told them how I was a student of Michael Caine. So, we met. Aamir sir told me about the script, how it is the Hindi remake of Forrest Gump [1994].  I know Atul Kulkarni well. My journey began eight months before the shoot, where we worked a lot on the dialect. Remarkably, Aamir sir first learnt chaste Punjabi.  When the [script] reading happened, a lot of people were not able to understand what he was saying.  Then we thought it would be better for him to speak Hindi as a Punjabi would.

Won’t a Punjabi from Delhi have a different accent than one from Punjab?

Yes, that is right.  We didn’t use Dilliwali Punjabi. We’ve used the sweet Punjabi that is spoken in rural Jalandhar. The idea was simple – how this Sikh man would speak Hindi. If you see the passengers in the train [scenes], they are Hindi speaking, and so too the target audience.

Though cliched, what was it like to work with Khan who is known to be a perfectionist?

Kulvinder Singh with Aamir Khan

With Aamir sir, I often spent 24 hours at a stretch. He is someone who can switch on anytime. We were in a flight. When I woke up, he was next to me, asking to be heard. He would be on the treadmill, and next second, he would tell me to help him with the lines. With him, there is no fixed time. He is immersed in his character for 24 hours. Before shooting, he would take his whole crew to his Panchgani villa. That was a good experience for me. 

Is it challenging to work with someone like that who would switch on any moment?

There are actors who don’t rehearse much. They are spontaneous. That is a craft too. Everyone cannot function in one way. That is the problem in our acting schools. We teach everyone the same stuff, it is like a common syllabus. We don’t give individual attention to actors. Michael Caine says that you must first understand a person’s mind and accordingly design a training for him/her. So, the artiste will not adapt your technique, but s/he will use it to develop his/her own craft.

When this film was first announced, I always wondered what was the need to have a Sikh protagonist in the desi Forrest Gump remake?

Aamir Khan in and as Laal Singh Chaddha [2022]

I asked him about the character. I didn’t ask why a Sikh? The way the Sikh character is written, the first big moment in the film is Operation Blue Star, then [former PM] Indira Gandhi’s assassination, followed by the Sikh riots. A lot of these incidents that happened in the North, largely occurred in Punjab and Delhi.  That is why the film is rooted in that milieu.

You were born in Gwalior. A Punjabi born in Punjab would be more natural in his speech as opposed to a Punjabi born in Madhya Pradesh.  

Well, I come from a Sikh family of farmers. My roots are from Punjab. Also, I’ve been a scholar in Punjabi. 

But I assume you wouldn’t have studied Punjabi in your school in Madhya Pradesh.

No, we didn’t – but my father was proficient in Punjabi. I was fond of learning, writing, reading Punjabi. We have a strong presence of Sikh community in Madhya Pradesh. My village [in MP] has many Sikhs, Punjabis. Besides, I’ve travelled extensively in the Hindi belt. So, I’m familiar with Haryanvi, Rajasthani, Bundelkhandi. I like learning new languages. Of course, when you do theatre, you do use many North Indian languages. I know most of these languages fairly well.

I felt that Aamir was fine in his Punjabi accent, especially in the scenes where he is narrating the story in the train. However, the moment a teenaged clean-shaven Aamir Khan turns up, I felt both the film and even Aamir’s performance wasn’t as good as the Sikh storyteller in the train. Your thoughts.

When the voiceover was taking place, we thought should it be according to the narration of the story [pauses] maybe it wasn’t connecting with the scene. Or should the narration have been changed as per the value of a scene. We persisted with one thing, because there was difficulty with the other one.

Look the Forrest Gump desi adaptation in itself was so tough. When this film commenced, everyone was told that we are not making this film for hit or flop. Second, this [adaptation] is an experiment. No one braved to adapt a cult film like this before. Such films are beyond hits and flops. They are made for documentation purpose.  Years later, one will know that the only country that attempted to adapt Forrest Gump was India.

Do you believe that the #BoycottBollywood campaign has also played its part in the film’s downfall? Or is that somewhere the film couldn’t connect with the Hindi belt?

I asked those who saw the film, and all of them said they liked it. I interacted with few from the #BoycottBollywood lot. I asked them if they have seen the film, they said no.  Look audience has the right to criticize a film if they didn’t like it. Everyone has the right to hold opinion. But please without seeing the film, don’t call for boycott. There are 500 people working in one film. Just because of some misunderstanding due to one person, you can’t be unfair to the other 500.  They earn their livelihood through such work. 

Leave the trolls aside, but these days, the sentiments of the Armed Forces, too, have to be taken into account while projecting them in films. Some retired officials, too, didn’t rate the film highly.

That is their personal view. When we were shooting these scenes, we had army experts on the locations. We shot the action scene in Kargil. The top official in the Kargil belt was present on the sets. One retired veteran Chhibber sir was also present.  We had discussed all the scenes with them but they had no reservation.

I personally liked the journey of the Pakistani commander Mohammed in Laal Singh Chaddha. His story, penance was a perfect slap on the face of Pakistani army, ISI. But sadly, that aspect has evoked sharp criticism.  Your thoughts.

We can defeat Pakistan any time, but our culture has always been about about dialogue. Look most Indian religions, they all preach peace, acceptance. Ours is a land of sages. It is our nature to first explain to the enemy, as we try to solve his confusion. We don’t attack straight away. We are not fools. We are not rogue people who would kill recklessly. This is a land of Guru Nanak, Krishna, Buddha.  In Sikhism, we are taught to offer water to a wounded enemy too.. So, Laal Singh Chaddha embodies that spirit.  He [Laal Singh Chaddha] just wanted to save as many lives as possible.

You’ve been associated with theatre, coaching for long. Didn’t you ever harbour big cinematic dreams of your own?

My life has never been about achieving. I believe in the walk of life. I enjoy that. I don’t want to limit myself by achieving one thing or other. I intend to keep walking. 

It is a great philosophy, but in a material world, you need money to survive.

Yes, I earn enough to earn my bread. I stay with my parents, my wife. Any unambitious man too earns enough to survive. 

But often I hear artistes complain that there is no money in theatre, people are working for free.

Well, theatres did suffer due to the pandemic but before that, if anyone is responsible for the poor state of theatre, it is the theatre owners. There is money, but people don’t pay. Hindi theatre owners have led to this impoverished state. There is less money, but it is there.

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