There’s something immensely likeable about Prateik Babbar. At the Cosmo India Man shoot, the 36-year-old is unassuming and friendly, willing to play around with his poses (read: he’s completely diagonal to the chair in one), and putting in the effort to make everyone feel comfortable. You can sense a sense of decency in him. But most of all, Prateik speaks about his life with absolute candour...a quality that deserves to be celebrated where words, and intentions, are heavily guarded. For instance, he talks about fame: “It means a lot to me, not because I want to be famous, but because I respect it much more now,” he tells us, and you can gauge this is backed by some serious introspection. “Early on in my career, I took everything for granted—fame, money, relationships, love, friendships, family...and then I learned my lesson, the hard way. So this is my second attempt at all those things.”
The young man, with what he calls an ‘old soul’, tells us about the difficult journey he has had through his life. But the resilience and hope with which he powers through has earned him deep wisdom...that is serving him well. It’s most evident in his work: Prateik’s recent release, Cobalt Blue—where he essays the role of an unnamed paying guest caught in a love triangle between a brother and sister—has been likened to a work of art. And his second movie, India Lockdown, where he plays the role of a migrant worker searching desperately for a way to get back to his village during the Covid-19 lockdown of 2020, has already created a stir with its hard-hitting storytelling. “Every actor’s dream is to win an Oscar, but for me, I want to do justice to my mother's legacy (the late Smita Patil),” Prateik shares with us. Read this candid conversation with Prateik Babbar, the man who is here for the win. This is his second coming, and he is ready to make the most of it.
Nandini Bhalla: Tell me about this beautiful tattoo sleeve on your arm.
Prateik Babbar: It began with the name of one of my ex-girlfriends, but it didn’t stop there, and so, it has gained more meaning over the years. I am sure there are a few more names of women under there...I have covered some up with something else, and over time, my ‘sleeve’ was finally born. I have got some symbolic designs in there, too, and there are others that I just thought looked cool. There is a roaring tiger, which is the Chinese sign for the year I was born in—1986. So I am the tiger. Then there’s one guy who is an old soul—if you look closely you can tell that he doesn't have a tooth because he's really old...I feel like I am an old soul. The skull represents an old soul that’s just, kind of, worn out and there’s dirt...he's been through quite a ride, but he is still hanging on. I have scars all over my body and I love them. I also love The Terminator, so there’s the doughnut with the red eye. There’s a cobra, and I also have Kali maa, who protects me from all the evil while Shivji gives me strength.
NB: Do you have any affirmations you say every day?
PB: I have a few set affirmations and it is very generic. It could be just as simple as, ‘You have gone this far, you cannot give up now’. I, actually, don't get myself all the time. And yet, I do. I try to listen to myself when I need to really look deep within and introspect. I really do try to listen to myself. And most of the times, my gut has guided me the right way. Knock on wood. I truly believe that time is the biggest healer, teacher, and companion. Time is everything, and I keep telling myself to believe in time.
NB: How do you view fame?
PB: It means a lot to me, not because I want to be famous, but because I respect it much more now. Early on in my career, I took everything for granted—fame, money, relationships, love, friendships, family...and then I learned my lesson, the hard way. So this is my second attempt at all those things, and I want to make sure I am absolutely, 100 per cent present in the moment. I value my position in my career, even though it’s extremely fragile, and I have had to take baby steps. I am climbing the ladder slowly but steadily.
NB: Why do you think that you are an old soul?
PB: I feel like I have seen a different life, and I have had to overcome adversities at a very young age... I feel like I have experienced pain at a very young age, which people don’t usually go through. Somehow, I don’t know how, I found my ways to cope. I feel like that is something children aren’t meant to do; I was thrown into the deep end. But I am still here with my broken everything. I am still here.
NB: You have spoken about Shah Rukh Khan having an impact on how you look at cinema...tell us about that.
PB: I am getting goosebumps, man. That name really does something to me. I think all of us are just mesmerised by what Shah Rukh Khan did in the ’90s with all those wonderful characters he played. And the way he defined love, the way he treated a woman, just the way he loved his women, friends, children, the aunties, uncles... That man is special. But the fact that he came from nowhere, and he really, really worked his b*tt off—he really, really bent backwards to achieve whatever he has today and become the Shah Rukh Khan that we know today. I mean, why wouldn’t anyone want to be him? He represents India; he is the face of a superstar. Everybody might not know Akshay Kumar or Salman Khan, but everyone knows Shah Rukh Khan. That is the impact of that man. And that’s something I would love to have for myself. I know you can’t just become Shah Rukh Khan...you might have to go without sleep for hours, or work when you don’t want to work, train when you don’t want to, or be nice to people when you don’t want to. But if that is what you want, then that’s what it takes.
NB: What do you want your future to be like?
PB: I would love to win multiple awards and make my country proud. Every actor’s dream is to win an Oscar, but for me, I want to do justice to my mother’s legacy (the late Smita Patil). I really want to do justice to the artist, the woman she was, and to be recognised that ‘this kid is like his mom’. That will be my biggest victory...no Oscar, no National Award, no billions or millions of dollars, none of that will matter as much as me doing justice to my mother’s legacy. I will not stop till that happens, because that is my purpose.
NB: Do you enjoy the song and dance format of films? You don’t come across as that...
PB: Thank you! I mean, if the character or story requires it, I’ll dance. I may not enjoy it, but I’ll act like I do.
NB: Do you sing?
PB: I love singing! Although my friends might think otherwise. (Laughs)
NB: What kind of films and shows do you enjoy?
PB: You know, the past couple months, all I have been watching is shows about serial killers and murderers. I recently watched the one about (American serial killer) Jeffrey Dahmer. A lot of eerie, true stories were released on Netflix this year, like House of Secrets: The Burari Deaths...and I have been really enjoying the horrors as well. I love a good romantic film, too. I also recently watched Wedding Season, both very close friends of mine. I absolutely love that film—I bawled happy tears. I loved it that much. I love A Good American, too. I am a huge movie buff, as long as I am intrigued by the story...action, comedy, drama, I even watch The Kardashians.
NB: If you had to pick a character to essay, what would it be?
PB: I am such a passionate actor and I am such a dreamer, that I literally want to do everything. I want to do an action film, a great romantic film, I want to play a eunuch, a woman, a homosexual, a warrior, a cop. I think it is the journey that matters, the effort, commitment, and love for what you do.
NB: Where are you currently, mentally or emotionally?
PB: I am in a good place. I am looking forward to a couple of releases; I am starting to shoot a very special film. I am hungry for work, for life, for all the good things. I am in a very positive frame of mind. I think there’s a lot to look forward to. I have a full plate. This past year, I have only been shooting, training, spending a bit of family time, and meeting my close friends whenever I can. It has been a good year for me, personally and professionally.
NB: You have been quite private about your life in the past...how do the people closest to you see you?
PB: I would call myself a bit of an introvert, though not entirely so. I take time to open up but when I do, it's all fun and games... My family knows that about me. I don’t want to be perceived as rude or arrogant or unapproachable, because people can mistake being private for an attitude, which is not the case at all. I am just a shy person. I have been like that since I was a kid. I remember being the class clown in school; I’d take it upon myself to make sure the entire class was laughing. And if there was a lull for a couple of hours, I would stand up on the bench and do some funny stuff and the entire class would love it. I enjoy making people laugh. I am totally the guy who makes fun of himself to make others have a good time.
NB: What was life like for little Prateik?
PB: Wow, little Prateik was a very curious, confused, angry kid, yet really happy. I was a complete goofball. Apart from that, there were many things that were kind of consuming me—with my family, the major generation gap I had with my grandparents who I lived with, understanding my mother’s life... I do remember feeling very strange, even as a child, because of the loss of my mother. So I think being goofy was kind of an escape for me, from a really young age. Even when I was really little, I have memories of making funny faces with my grandmother, with my costumes on. I have never had a straight face in any photograph. Underneath it all, I felt very different from everybody else because they were growing up with their moms and dads...I was extremely curious to know how a normal family functioned. I’d see that with my friends. I’d go see my father (Raj Babbar) every now and then, as a kid, but there were too many questions in my head. However, it didn’t make me sad. More so, it made me angry... It was a journey, nonetheless. And I am extremely grateful for everything I have felt my entire life. Without all those questions, I wouldn’t have come to a conclusion, be at peace, or understand who I am today. This is my unique, precious journey. And I am bloody proud of it.
NB: What is the earliest memory you have of cinema?
PB: I obviously grew up watching my mother’s films, not all of them, though. When movies would play on the cable, everybody in the house would sit and watch them. I was more into films from the West, as a kid. And there was this cartoon called The Land Before Time about dinosaurs, and how the baby dinosaur gets separated from his mother and has to find his way on his own...it really connected with me; I felt like that film was made for me. Home Alone was massive too, and so was Terminator 2: Judgment Day—even though I wasn’t allowed to watch it. I also saw a bit of my father’s films. By the time I was 14, I began watching Shah Rukh Khan movies. I was never religiously into cinema, I just went with the flow. When we made plans with my friends, we’d watch all the superhero movies, like Batman with Michael Keaton and Spider-Man with Tobey Maguire. Some Bollywood films I really enjoy include Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Dil Chahta Hai.
NB: What are you like as a romantic partner?
PB: Wow, I guess you might have to ask my ex-girlfriends that. Personally, I think change and growth are inevitable. And hopefully, the older I grow, the better I become at everything, including relationships. My character Jeh in Four More Shots Please! is almost too good to be true—he is an extremely loving, supportive, laid-back guy. And he keeps getting cheated on, but keeps giving love a chance. It has been three seasons now, and I have received a lot of love for Jeh. When I was offered the character, they told me he’s going to dress like James Dean, have a bar of his own, and is a really sexy guy—all the girls love him. How could I say ‘no’ to that? And even though four gorgeous women and powerhouse actors headline the show, my character is an extremely integral part of the story.
Photographs: Chandrahas Prabhu; Styling: Pranay Jaitly and Shounak Amonkar; Interview By: Nandini Bhalla; Make-Up: Kajol Kanther; Hair: Kaustubh Pevekar; Fashion Assistants: Shubham Jawanjal and Chaitanya Balwant