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January 9, 1998


Watch this man!

V S Srinivasan

Milind Gunaji. Click for bigger pic!
Picture this -- a policeman so obsessed by a woman that he brutally tortures a prostitute who refuses to behave like the object of his dreams. Not perhaps the man you'd want next door, but Milind Gunaji loved the role in Fareb.

There's also something very wrong here. Gunaji's 31 and ruggedly handsome. Also tall (six feet two inches) and dark (we'll pass on the colorimetric reading if we get it), with brown eyes and a beard that, had it been half an inch shorter, would have got him being described as unshaven. Despite those killer looks, he made his mark as the bad guy, a lurid example of which we just mentioned above.

Gunaji in Mil Gayee Manzil Mujhe. Click for bigger pic!
But Bollywood always had this thing against those dago good looks, preferring those harmless-looking types, pandering maybe to the tastes of the average male cinema goer and, by extension, to the producer and director. But recently, he has been getting more positive roles...

His first role was in Govind Nihalani's Drohkaal. But it was Fareb that drew attention to him. Close on its heels came Salma Pe Dil Aa Gaya, where he again plays a nasty bloke, but one who reforms in the end. In Priyadarshan's Virasat, he is back to his old ways, crossing swords with Anil Kapoor.

Upcoming projects
  • Zor with Sunny Deol and Sushmita Sen
  • Prabhu Deva with Sharad Kapoor and Ayesha Jhulka
  • Sai Paranjpye's Papeeha with Winne Paranjpye
  • Trishakti with Arshad Warsi and Sharad Kapoor
  • NFDC's Abhisar with Navni Parihar
  • Dinesh Shukla's Godmother with Shabana Azmi
  • Lekh Tandon's Mil Gayee Manzil Mujhe with Meenakshi Seshadri
  • Govind Nihalani's Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa with Jaya Bachchan, Nandita Das and Seema Biswas
  • Kuku Kohli's Zulmi with Akshay Kumar
  • Jwala with Ashish Vidhyarthi and Deepti Bhatnagar
  • Zindagi Zindabad with Om Puri and Mita Vashisht
  • Sangam Hoga Ke Nahin with Jackie Shroff and Madhoo.
  • Fareb he describes as "the role of a lifetime". Another role he likes, again described as that of a lifetime -- is the one he has opposite Shabana Azmi in Godmother.

    "I play her husband. It is based on a true life story of this woman gangster in Porbundar, Gujarat. It's a great role. After my death, she take over as leader of the gang," says Gunaji.

    Another project that captures his boundless enthusiasm is the one in Nihalani's Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Ma. "I play a cop out to get the Naxalites. In the last scene, I come face to face with Jaya Bachchan and I tell her that I am sorry for what happened to her Naxalite son, but I had to do my job."

    He is also happy with the positive role he has in Zor. Now the publicity centres only around him and Sunny Deol, Sushmita Sen having been given short shrift by the makers.

    Gunaji in Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa. Click for bigger pic!
    Noveau stardom has had its pitfalls, primary among them being associated with a variety of women. "Everyday I'm linked with the heroine I'm acting with," he claims ruefully. Wife Rani understands, claims Gunaji -- she knows the ways of the industry. So does he mean that he's absolutely innocent?

    "Where do I have time for affairs,yaar? I am stuck up at work, shooting all the time. And if I am not shooting, I am wandering in the mountains."

    The mountains are Gunaji's refuge from the insane pace of urban life, and a compulsive hiker is he. These hikes, most of them in smaller places in Maharashtra, provide the pictures -- he was an industrial photographer -- and the articles that he puts in some Marathi newspapers. Yup, he writes too. With even a book forthcoming.

    And this isn't just some trumped up claim at versatility. For he can talk for hours about the wild. For instance, he tells you, during the monsoons there is a peak in Maharashtra atop which you can see a circular rainbow. And, at a certain time of the day, your shadow will fall on it," he says. Gunaji also plays the tabla and is a trained Hindustani vocalist.

    Gunaji in Virasat. Click for bigger pic!
    He missed becoming a doctor by one mark and so opted for engineering. He later had become a pro badminton player and a cricketer of promise when he dislocated his arm in an accident.

    "This cast a huge shadow on my sports career," says Gunaji, "I was forced to turn elsewhere."

    He decided to cash in on his good looks and did a photo session with Gautam Rajyadhyaksha.

    "A week later came the call from ad man Shantanu Sheorey, who was doing the Digjam ad. He was looking for a replacement for Shekhar Kapur."

    Gunaji in Salma Pe Dil Aa Gaya. Click for bigger pic!
    Gunaji became the Digjam man and went on to do more campaigns, including Philips, Hong Kong Bank and Kentucky Frief Chicken.

    Then came Drohkaal, and he got the role of a cop who infiltrates the bastion of a terrorist, Bhadra (Ashish Vidyarthi), and tries to reform him. Despite the presence of Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah in the flick, Gunaji was noticed and grabbed more roles on the strength of his debut.

    "Govind is my godfather. He made me learn more about dramatics from Satyadev Dubey... This workshop helped me hone my skills... Even when a junior is performing, seniors had to listen attentively. There were instances where we had to laugh and say a dialogue while washing a Maruti car and then cry and say the same thing while doing the same job." The training showed when he returned to Nihalani.

    Gunaji in TV serial Aksar. Click for bigger pic!
    "Govind told me that it was acting that was important, good looks don't really matter. A master cameraman, he is thorough with every technique and knows how to portray my face so that it gives maximum impact. His command over Hindi and Urdu has to be heard to be believed."

    It was during Drohkaal that an impressed film critic recommended him to Sai Paranjpye. And Gunaji bagged his second role.

    "It is a beautiful film with a lot of songs. It is on the environment and the need to conserve it. I pay a forest officer and Winnie Paranjpye is my sweetheart in the film." Then he laughs in recollection.

    "There was a scene where I had to sing a line and walk towards Winnie. I did so and was soon invisible in the midst of the tall grass. The cameraman tried to locate me in vain." Later the crew found he'd fallen into a pit. "Every one had a laugh at my expense and I had no choice but join in, aching bones and all," smiles Gunaji.

    Gunaji in Virasat. Click for bigger pic!
    Whatever other hang-ups he might not have, there's this one on his chin he can't get rid of. Correction, won't! Gunaji rejected quite a few roles in his career, including ones in Yash Chopra's Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Harry Baweja's Diljale because it would mean sacrificing his trademark beard.

    "In the former I was supposed to be a Punjabi and Yashji wanted my beard off; in the later I was to play a commando. And commandos don't have beards..." Clean-shaven Parmeet Sethi took his place in both films.

    But Lekh Tandon didn't mind the facial foliage and took him on for Mil Gayee Manzil Mujhe. "The film was 70 per cent complete when Lekhji left the film. I thought it would never get completed." But last month he was called back and the last shot done.

    Gunaji and Meenakshi Seshadri in Mil Gayee Manzil Mujhe. Click for bigger pic!
    "I play a Veerappan kind of a character. I see on television that this young journalist (Meenakshi Seshadri) wants to meet me. So I call her to meet me." What the protagonist -- and the journalist -- does not know is that her cameraman (Kanwaljeet) is actually a commando in mufti.

    "When I am killed by deceit in the end, she cries over my dead body. A very, very moving film," he says with great relish.

    Now he has lots of work, many in yet untitled films, before he can retire to the hills. He also has projects in television and journalism, besides a factory to manage.

    Great roles, great looks, great future. Gunaji seems to have it made.

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