Just over a decade ago, Jimmy Sheirgill decided to return to his Punjabi roots and made a commitment to help the movie industry there. Aside from regularly acting in films, the acclaimed actor also took time out from his schedule to promote Punjabi cinema across the world.
A decade later, the Bollywood star has mixed up high-profile Hindi releases with starring in a string of successful Punjabi films. Such has been the impact he has made that the Punjabi movie industry is thriving around the world and tackling more subjects than ever before. He is hoping to continue that momentum with this week’s big movie release Hero Naam Yaad Rakhi, a romantic thriller shot entirely in Canada.
Eastern Eye caught up with Jimmy during his recent visit to London to discuss his latest film, acting and more. The actor spoke with genuine passion and was, not surprisingly, excited about his latest movie.
You must be proud of the great heights Punjabi cinema has reached in recent years?
I am absolutely proud of it, Asjad. A decade ago, it literally started with me going door-to-door saying ‘watch these Punjabi films, they are not as bad as you think’. I would also say ‘we are trying to do a good job and technically elevate Punjabi films to the same level as Hindi movies.’
The good thing was people listened because they knew I didn’t need to do this as I was already doing my Hindi movies. They saw me as the prodigal son coming back to Punjab and trying to support the industry. I had a variety of films and then by the time Mel Karade Rabba came out in 2010, things really changed and I feel that was the beginning of the big box office of Punjabi cinema.
You must have enjoyed the variety of work you have been able to do as an actor?
That is basically what I have tried to do. I have tried not to get stuck in any one image. I have tried to enjoy this space as an actor today where you have films, especially in Hindi, that have such amazing concepts. Somewhere you are doing a negative role, playing a lead or doing a supporting character. So the variety of projects I am being given is great.
You are very unpredictable in the films you do. How do you select your projects?
I think it’s the script. It comes, you say ‘oh wow, I love this’ and just do it, even if you know they don’t have that much of a budget. I might not get too much money for it, but if I love the role and story, I want to be a part of it.
Sometimes you have a very good powerful role and go ahead with it, and other times you do a film for a friend. Sometimes you do a project for a cause like when I have done some children’s films, which support a particular cause.
What did you like about Hero Naam Yaad Rakhi?
I have been fortunate enough to a variety of roles in films like Yaaran Nal Baharan, Mannat, Tera Mera Ki Rishta, Munde UK De and Mel Karade Rabba. The audience asked me to do powerful roles like I have done in Hindi films and said they wanted something different in Punjabi cinema. I take these comments very seriously. That is why I did Hero.
How did the story come about?
(Director) Baljit (Singh Deo) and I have wanted to work together for a very long time. He met me for the first time soon after Mohabbatein (2000) was released. Things somehow didn’t work out, but I am so glad this is our first film together. He is known for his visuals, sense of suspense and action. We were coming up with various ideas when Baljit recalled a particular real-life incident that happened in his neighbourhood. It rang a bell in everybody’s mind and we all decided we should make a film on this. The story was written. It had drama, suspense, action and everything else. Right until the last scene, the story is unpredictable.
Can you talk about the story?
(Smiles) I can’t talk about the specifics of the story because it’s a thriller. What I would like to say is that we have a crisp, 100-minute-long film. It’s a romantic thriller. In the past we have been handicapped in films like Dharti, because most people outside Punjab, especially youngsters, don’t understand the politics of the region, only elders do. The subject of Hero is universal and one that everyone overseas will understand. It has suspense, is based on a true incident and made by great producers who want to offer something different.
Tell us about the title?
The title Hero might have been done by various big films (including in Hindi), but when you watch this you will understand it is one of those films where the title absolutely fits the story.
What about the shooting of the film?
The entire film is shot in Canada, in British Columbia. It was very difficult to shoot. It wasn’t like you filmed three scenes in one location and then quietly moved to the next. Here we started off early in the morning, shot somewhere then moved on to another place and again somewhere else in the same day. So there were hectic schedules. We couldn’t have lots of romantic scenes because it would take away from the drama of the story, so the songs are a part of the screenplay. They show time lapses and blend into the story.
In Punjabi cinema they say ‘leave your brain at home and watch the film.’ I am telling you for the first time, bring your brain with you for this film because you will need it.
You can play anything from good guys to villains with ease, but which do you like doing best?
I love doing light-hearted films.
Really? I think you are at your best doing more intense characters.
Yes, that’s what people do like me doing, but if you ask me, I love playing light-hearted roles. I like stories where you can shoot all day, and then just go home. Intense films take a lot from you mentally as an actor; they kind of drain you. People asked for something different in Punjabi cinema and I feel they will have that with Hero.
Do you have any other Punjabi films confirmed?
I have Shareek coming up. The entire Punjabi portion is over and now we have about 10 days shooting left in the UK. It should be out in October.
You are a great actor, but what is the secret of a good performance?
I think the script and director – the script because whatever the writer has written is what you deliver. The biggest example is Tanu Weds Manu Returns – when the script was narrated to me, I told director Anand Rai that he had a blockbuster on his hands. When in a film every single character entertains and you enjoy every single one, you know you’ve got something big.
Finally, why do you love cinema?
After a point, it just runs in your veins. You can’t think of anything beyond that. It’s almost been 20 years since my debut film Maachis and I still get nervous, excited and anxious when my film is about to be released. I am still nervous when I shoot an important scene and have the desire to do it in a different way. I enjoy sitting with the writer and director deciding how we are going to approach a scene. So I think as long as these kinds of feelings are there after 20 years, that is what the beauty of cinema is for me.
Hero Naam Yaad Rakhi is in cinemas now.