You may know Avinash Tiwary as the wrongly-accused RBI officer Ritwik Mukherjee from Kaala, or as the cruel Chandan Mhanto from Khakee: The Bihar Chapter, or as the tragically romantic Qais Bhatt from his debut cult film, Laila Majnu. It’s characteristic of talented performers like him to be known for their extremely convincing portrayal of any role they slip into.
However, you’d be surprised to know that acting wasn’t anywhere on Avinash’s horizons when he was studying engineering. From making a life-changing decision to study at the New York Film Academy (NYFA) and then breaking into the Indian television industry and now emerging as one of the brightest talents on the OTT scene, Avinash Tiwary has established his potential with every project.
In an exclusive interview with HELLO!, the actor talks in length about his time in New York, working with the biggest names in the industry like Anurag Kashyap and Amitabh Bachchan in his debut project and discusses his biggest hits. Read on to understand the career trajectory and psyche of Tiwary, who is among the crop of promising young talents of the Hindi Film Industry.
HELLO!: You were pursuing engineering before switching to acting. When did you decide to become an actor?
Avinash Tiwary: “I had a very sheltered upbringing and when I started doing engineering, it was the first time I was living away from home and staying in a hostel. So, that experience shifted a lot of my perceptions. I don’t exactly know what triggered the change, but one day, in my first semester, suddenly I started asking myself what I really wanted to do with my life. When you’re doing engineering, you’ve prepared for it for a long time… I had studied hard, given competitive examinations… But once I was there, it just didn’t feel right, I kept questioning myself.
I had no inclination towards acting up until then and I remember, one particular evening, I decided I wanted to be an actor. It may sound crazy, but I genuinely have no reason for why I arrived upon this decision. But once I had made up my mind, I thought I definitely needed to get some training. So first, I began doing small projects at Prithvi Theatre in Mumbai, and after a couple of years, I went to Delhi to train with Mr Barry John. And from there, then I went to the New York Film Academy and trained there for a year and a half. I came back and I thought the world was waiting for me. Unfortunately, it wasn’t and it’s been a tedious and long journey to be where I am today.”
H!: So, what was it like being an actor-in-training in New York? Was it everything sitcoms make it to be?
AT: “I was 19 when I went there, back in 2005. And I had never visited a foreign country up until then, nor had anyone from my family. I took up a waiting job in NYC to meet expenses. I would attend lectures between 9am to 6pm and then I’d go to the restaurant at 7pm and work there till about 1.30am. Then, I’d bring back all the food that I would get from the restaurant home and share it with my flatmates, accompanied with a couple of drinks before going to bed. This was my routine in New York for one and a half years and I truly believe that it’s the best period of my life. I was also studying with people from around the world, which not only allowed me to interact and connect with different nationalities but also opened up my horizons at a very young age. Plus, you have to be independent, which contributes to your overall development and I think those learnings have really shaped how I deal with things today.
I absolutely had no money in my pocket, but I didn’t feel like anything was unattainable. For example, I remember one time in 2005 or 2006, I was walking through Times Square, and I was looking at all the hoardings and realised there wasn’t one Indian face in sight, and that day, in passing I just said, “One day, I will be up there.”
Just recently, Bambai Meri Jaan’s posters were up on the hoardings in Times Square. And you know, you just say it as a 19-year-old boy but today when that happens, it just makes you feel that it’s all there, it’s all achievable. If it’s in thought, if it’s in intent and if you work hard for it, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow or day after but it will happen.”
H!: And then, what was life like when you came back? Did you go through a lot of processes of auditions and rejections? What was that like?
AT: “When I returned, I saw that our industry here wasn’t as streamlined as there. It’s still not completely, but it was much worse back then. I mean, we didn’t even have casting directors, there were independent producers, the studio system had just started taking shape. Basically, you just didn’t know where to go.
So, when I started off, I met a veteran director called Lekh Tandon, who’s helmed movies like Prince, Professor and Amrapali. In fact, he is the one who discovered the great Shah Rukh Khan by giving him his first opportunity in Doordarshan’s Dil Dariya. I met him when he was 81, and I thought to myself, ‘what film will he make now?’ but he gave me an opportunity on DD National for Bikhri Aas Nikhri Preet. I did a couple of shows with him till 2010 and he was very close friends with the Kapoors. So, Shammi Kapoor would be on our set every day and in fact, he directed my first ever shot. This is a big deal even today and not a lot of people can say this. The reason why I have a house in this city is because of those two shows that I did with him back in 2007.
With this I realised that okay, I can go act and make decent money. I mean, I was doing ads and making about a lakh to a lakh-and-half back in 2007, which was already more than what my engineering friends were earning... But in 2010-11, I decided it was high time to pull up my pants and started looking for work that I really wanted to do. But until 2013, I hardly had any long format work that I did. It was only advertisements.
Finally, that year I got an opportunity to do a show called Yudh (On Sony), which was Mr (Amitabh) Bachchan’s show and Anurag Kashyap was directing. I was playing the main antagonist, who starts as a nice guy and in the end, his true colours are revealed. Yudh was a big, big opportunity for me, because I got to literally have a showdown with the biggest star of this country. And I was a new guy! While working with him, I learned so many things from Mr Bachchan, from the secrets behind his iconic styles to how to safely fire guns.
Then, I did a very beautiful small film called Tu Hai Mera Sunday, which went to a lot of festivals internationally. And it’s one of the films that I’m most proud of, it’s still available to watch on Disney+ Hotstar. And while this was happening, I met Sajid Ali for Laila Majnu in December 2015. We spoke, and overall, I think I tested for Laila Majnu about 21 times. Around June, I was told that maybe I’m doing it. Then, the film got shelved and I was heartbroken. For all that time, I was told not to work and I didn’t, so there was no money flowing in. And you feel like it’s the end of the world. That’s when Tu Hai Mera Sunday started getting a positive reaction and response at the international circuits and I really felt that okay, you are good enough and it is a possibility, you are capable.
Thankfully, Balaji Telefilms decided to revive the film. So in January 2017 they called me again, and then we started working on the film. In 2018, it finally released. So, from 2015 to 2018, three years I devoted only to Laila Majnu.”
H!: What were your expectations from the movie?
AT: “I wanted people to watch it and give me a space in this industry. I still remember when the film came out, there were a couple of new actors being launched as well. And because it’s a tight space, I was feeling competitive. How do I bring attention to myself when it’s all out there? I still remember going through all those feelings of what can I do? Because we are not household names, people are not interested in us at this point of time. What can we do to get their interest? I am still trying to figure that out.
But back then, I felt that if I don’t figure it out, I am not going to get these opportunities again. It has taken me so long to get here. I started acting in 2003 and the film released in 2018 — that’s 15 years of my life. Whatever I had mentally, physically, emotionally, I had put into that film. What I did not expect was to see the posters to be pulled down on the third day itself.
The film was released on Friday and on Sunday, I took my family and some family friends to watch it. There were hardly 15-20 people in the theatres. And by the time we came out, the posters were being pulled down. And that’s a memory which I can’t get rid of and it’s very scary.
Having said that, even if five people saw it, all of them gave me so much love for it. And the number has only kept growing. We just celebrated five years of Laila Majnu and I am now being told it’s kind of gaining a cult following. And I think that’s when I learned that a film is for life. If it’s any good, it will always find audiences. And Laila Majnu is a testament to that. I truly want to acknowledge and give it the credit... I mean, that film is the reason that people found me credible enough to do a Khakee, or a Bambai Meri Jaan, or a Kaala, which are extremely high-intensity acting jobs that require credible actors.”
H!: So, why did you decide then to make the switch from big screen to OTT?
AT: “Honestly, because we had two years of COVID. Also, I’ll say this: it’s not a switch in any way. I look at OTT and I see great potential. And for some reason, it’s somehow been put in its own box and I think it’s because we are still not able to see the vision. OTT platforms have provided us reach to 200 countries. Never in the history of our cinema has this been possible before. Even the biggest films that are released in this country are shown on about 4,500-5,000 screens, but the international pockets are very, very limited. You didn’t have a distribution system. But now, for the first time, there is a distribution system ready. So, it will be really stupid of us to not be able to build more audiences and create a bigger market.
But coming back to the question, I did Laila Majnu and then an opportunity like Bulbbul came to me, which was a commentary on the current times. But to put it simply, I was offered the chance to work with a great director like Anvita (Dutt Guptan), who had a beautiful vision and it was produced by big names like Clean State and Netflix. So, I thought it would be great to go ahead and do something like this. And then, COVID happens and you see how these platforms really took off. And in retrospect, it was a great decision!
I was also doing another film called The Girl On The Train. At that point, it was supposed to be theatrical. But with COVID, it came on Netflix. And with everything being shut till 2021, all the work that came to me was OTT. In fact, I started shooting for Bambai Meri Jaan in January 2020.
We, as actors, are trying to convey a story in whichever medium possible and hoping that audiences love it. That’s the only intent. We don’t have any other projects. Now we’ve also started having OTT awards separate from film awards, and it’s all basically straight up labelling. The media also monetizes it, but I don’t want to be labelled. To just earn the label of an actor has taken me so many years. OTT actor, film actor, TV actor is a different label that I don’t want.”
H!: You’ve had some experience playing twisted and antagonistic characters. What attracts you to the dark side?
AT: “You can only choose out of what comes to you. And these are the big projects that have come my way. It’s not that I was dying to do an antagonist character. But when I read the script, I see potential in the character and the story. The fact that it came to me is because this character has so many layers and shades to it. Again, plugging in the fact that I’m a great actor! (laughs) After all, they considered me good enough to headlining as the protagonist.
In a show like Khakee especially, people come back for the antagonist of the show. So, I think it all started falling into place like that. Personally, of course, as an actor, I do enjoy playing darker shades and having various layers to a character, which is very rarely found in protagonists… So, I feel that everything I have done has been a little intense, but I’ve been blessed with variety.
Having said that, you’ll soon be seeing me doing lighter stuff too!”
H!: What do you think it was about Khakee and Chandan Manto that made it your breakthrough into stardom?
AT: “I think we give too much credit to actors. The story was very well written, it was directed very well, all the actors associated were brilliant. Even if one, two things were off, the show would not work. I’ve done the same kind of work that I do everywhere with the same intensity, same integrity. And sometimes it all comes together, but this is not only in the actor’s hand. Otherwise, every actor would be killing it in every film. And I want to give due credit to Bhav Dhulia and Neeraj Pandey for being able to tell the story in a way that kept the audience excited and gave me the freedom to become Mahto.
I think one thing that helps me be a much, much better actor is when people on set are looking at me like I’m actually the character that I am supposed to play. It gives you the confidence that if everyone is already looking at me like I’m the king, I don’t have to do much!
On the flip side, there is also the debate on who to credit for a successful project, when the actors are paid the most. But what people fail to understand is that we get more money because there’s a greater risk factor involved for the actors. If the film doesn’t do well, everyone else can get other jobs but not the actor. If the film does well, unfortunately all the credit goes to the actor. But when the film doesn’t do well, all the cussing also comes to them.”
H!: What was your hardest scene to film in Bambai Meri Jaan?
AT: “I think the action sequence in the rain. We filmed it on a cold night in December, with cold water pouring on you. With the weather being what it was, even smaller mishaps were a lot more painful, so yes, that was the most physically difficult. Emotionally, and mentally, I think it was the father-son scene with KK sir.”
H!: Alright. Next up, you are going back to the big screen with Kunal Kemmu and Madgaon Express. Can you share a few details about the film and the character you’re playing?
AT: “Kunal and all of us jokingly calling it ‘Mira Road ka Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara’, for those of us who can’t afford to go to Spain. It’s about three friends from Mumbai, and it’s kind of like a Hangover-meets-ZNMD type of story. Pratik Gandhi, Divyendu and I are the three boys and the beautiful Nora Fatehi joins us in the film. It’s been crazy, we had so much fun filming this in Goa. So, yeah, it’s a fun film. I really hope that people will go with their family and friends. It’s literally one of my first films that I can show to all the kids of my family as well.
I also am doing another film with the writer of the Oscar-winning film Birdman, Alex Dinelaris Jr. He has written a beautiful script of a father-son story. It’s a drama and a niche film where I think I will hopefully earn a little more credibility as an actor.”
H!: Sounds exciting! But, let’s step away from the movies and, let’s talk about your fashion game. How would you describe it?
AT: “I’d say chill, laid back. That’s my only understanding of fashion—that it should be comfortable, you should look presentable, you should be relaxed. I wouldn’t want to wear anything that I am not comfortable in, even if I am looking like a million bucks.”
H!: Are there any accessories that you like experimenting with?
AT: “I am a new sneaker and watch lover. I used to be when I was a teenager, but then work took precedence over everything. But now, I have just bought like eight sneakers. I don’t know why. Bought a couple of watches. I mean, I could have done better with that money, very honestly. But yeah, everyone is allowed some indulgences.”
H!: Can you share some grooming tips?
AT: “Firstly, you need to have a beard shampoo. Especially in a city like Mumbai, which is very humid and beards get very itchy. Also invest in a fragrant beard oil, as it helps hydrate the skin underneath, which can get slightly dry from time to time. It also helps maintain a certain fragrance to the beard. I am not a believer of keeping your beard very sharp and clean, because it looks made up to me and I prefer to have that raw factor.”
H!: Which celebrity do you find yourself inspired by?
AT: “I am very inspired by Priyanka Chopra. I still remember growing up seeing her do a gritty film like Gangajal at home and then also see her on the US Billboard List for her song with Pitbull. To have that kind of reach from Bihar to the US at the same time shows the possibilities that are there.
I am so inspired by her because she really went on and created stuff for her that people could only dream of. We might have big stars here but to be able to say, okay I will leave everything that I have worked for and go and create bigger dreams for myself is very inspiring. Right from the way she has carried herself to how she has dealt with everything around — if I get the chance to work with her, I feel like I would have really made it in life.”
H!: What do you hope the future holds for you?
AT: “I want to do a Bond film. Just throwing it out in the universe. Why not? Why can’t an Indian be a Bond? They are still dealing with black and white right now. But, I am sure in a few years, we will break through the race and genders and cultures. An Indian entity that is saving the world because Americans currently hold the rights to it. They save the world everywhere, which is why they have a cultural impact on the world.
It’s time for India now and to create a cultural impact on the world. This is also probably why I am also inspired by Priyanka — to be able to create a cultural impact on the world through our work. Because, it is time for India now.
I mean, we have Korean shows and films affecting our pop culture. We are consuming so much of that content, we are consuming all the content from the West. Who is consuming our content except for us? We keep talking about B tier, C tier, Pan India and are still struggling to make a film that will reach out to the whole country, forget about the world. I am sure people know better, but I have the vision for it. One day, I’ll have the resources for it too.”