Barun Sobti is no stranger to critical acclaim, given his impressive and unique filmography over the years, but 2023 has brought him a new place in the sun. He has delivered three hits in a row in genres so different from each other that his range as an actor is finally out on a brazen display for every TV/OTT enthusiast.
Thanks to these shows’ varied pockets of viewership, TV’s beloved Arnav Singh Raizada has finally crossed over to the other side of fame. While the constant simp for the hot and angsty ASR from the iconic television show Iss Pyaar Ko Kya Naam Doon shows no signs of fading even after twelve years since its original telecast, in 2023, people have been forced to stand up and take equal notice of Sobti’s wider performance compass.
It is no mean feat that Kohrra’s Garundi, one of the flawed protagonists of the hit gritty drama on Netflix, is being hailed as one of this year’s best performances. The nuances that this kind of role demands are often lost in the journey from a script to a screen if not assimilated correctly by the actual portrayal. Barun has got the role nailed in this regard. By subtly unveiling Garundi’s soft heart to the viewers without any scenes specifically written to showcase his layers, he has ensured that this remarkably ordinary sub-inspector, with nothing overtly heroic about him, wins hearts everywhere with his relatable struggle.
Armed with a starkly different outlook towards fame or success, Barun Sobti is an interesting man to interview. There is no ice to break with him. He chats with an endearing casualness, offering spontaneous and straightforward answers that are often deeper than he would like you to acknowledge. Deeply rooted in his reality and very secure in his talent and calibre, he has a contagious aura of unwavering confidence.
In this interview, he gives us a much-wanted glimpse of the person behind the actor, showcasing an extraordinary awareness of his craft. This awareness has enabled him to propel his career forward precisely how he wanted. He talks about his bias towards robust scripts, his prioritisation of happiness over success and how he does not crave validation thanks to his upbringing and personal life filled with love.
He also looks back at IPKKND fondly for giving him the best learnings and friends for life. As the text of the interview will show you, throughout the conversation, Barun drops some vital life lessons and manages to disarm us with a dry sense of humour and surprising intuitiveness about the questions we are yet to ask!
TulikaD: You have three successful shows back to back in entirely different genres. Was there a thought behind choosing scripts that were on the broader spectrum regarding viewership, or did it happen by chance?
Barun: I would say it was coincidental, but there was always this idea at the back of my mind while I made these choices that this year would be a terrific year to display my range as an actor. I believe that what you want, you eventually become, so in that way, it’s a manifestation of sorts for me.
TulikaD: How do you see this sudden streak of commercial cum critical success? You have displayed your range through some excellent projects in the past, for example, Halahal or Tu Hai Mera Sunday, but even though critically acclaimed, they have remained lesser known. Has something in your process changed over the years?
Barun: No, nothing in my process has changed. The past stuff, even though received well in smaller circles, needed to get the medium to reach a wider audience. There could be many reasons…maybe I was not considered saleable or popular enough to be on more prominent mediums….but right now, these three mediums: Jio, Netflix and AmazonMini, are the biggest ones available, so that might have made the difference.
TulikaD: What’s your process for selecting or rejecting a project?
Barun: I always look at the merit of the script. Usually, I can tell whether I am doing a project by reading the first ten pages based on how engaging the writing is. I am a big proponent of good writing because it’s the most instrumental tool for quality content. l trust my gut, and I have good reason to, as there has never been a single instance where I have said no to a project, and it’s turned out to be monumental.
TulikaD: I can’t help but notice that many of your shows have been multi-starred over the years. But going back to the hugely successful Iss Pyar Ko Kya Naam Doon, you had hit the jackpot playing the solo male lead Arnav. This show was riding the TRP charts when it was pulled off-air because you decided to quit. How have you escaped the baggage that comes from carrying such a hugely popular show literally on your shoulders? Did your subconscious never push you to focus on solo projects after tasting that power with IPK? How did you remain open to sharing your limelight by doing multi-starrer shows?
Barun: You try to escape a problem if it exists. For me, there was never baggage. I am not naturally egotistical; commercial success or popularity are merely byproducts, not achievements. I was able to quit when I quit because of that precise reasoning. While it’s essential to pay attention to failures because they can shape you, success is something that should leave you largely unaffected.
TulikaD: What you have said makes so much sense in theory, but how do you practice it in an industry defined by success? I am sure people advise you to play into the glamour and glitz of fame and popularity. How do you keep yourself insulated from that kind of pressure?
Barun: I have always been my own man from the time I can remember, used to doing my own thing. A few times during my career graph, I completely broke down everything I had, only to reconstruct it from scratch. I could do this because of a conviction in my abilities. So I am a difficult person to influence that way. I don’t listen to anybody in this regard.
TulikaD: Would you like to talk about these instances when you restarted everything?
Barun: I started working at a call centre when I was seventeen, and over the years, I established myself as an operations manager with a considerable span of people. Even though everything was going well for me, I let that go to start from scratch. Then when I built a decent career in the television industry, I let that go too. But I am still here, doing fine. That’s what I mean when I say I believe in my planning and foresight because it comes from a place where I know exactly what I want from myself.
TulikaD: And how important is destiny? Do you believe in luck, or working hard alone is enough to get you there?
Barun: Oh, luck plays a huge part! I was talking to a friend the other day, and we discussed how only a few actors can hold out for as long as it takes. While I did hold out for long, I got lucky at one point. We cannot even fathom the number of aspiring actors who fade out even after years of patience and hard work. So yes, luck is a must, but it all depends on what you demonstrate to the world once you get lucky.
TulikaD: In an old interview, you said before anyone can criticise your performance, you already know you did not do well. Does that still hold to this day?
Barun: Oh yes. And it happens very often (laughs). I love the idea of not having a false note, but it’s impossible. For example, when a wrong take is used, which is not my best, due to the demand of the story or editing, and people call out certain things, I can always see beforehand what did not work. So yes, I have hardly received any criticism that has changed my world or perspective because either it’s invalid or something that is already obvious to me.
TulikaD: And what about the opposite? Does it happen that something you are unsatisfied with goes out into the world, and people come up with praise?
Barun: All the time. Kohraa is an example. It is a great show, and mine is a good performance, but you always feel it could have been better when you watch it later. It’s not fair on the actor performing at that point because this is an observation I am making as hindsight post edits, a privilege that is unavailable when doing a scene. But criticising yourself makes you better. It’s not a bad thing in our profession.
TulikaD: You remind me of your character Nikhil Nair from Asur2 in terms of staying on the ground if you believe in something, even if everybody around you is changing their ways…
Barun: Well, I will not be a Nikhil Nair; if something goes wrong with my daughter, I can tell you that – everyone will be in for a serious ride! I am a practical man with my understanding of things, and that will drive my decisions regarding things I ignore and things I choose to fight back against.
TulikaD: I know you don’t give importance to success, but what defines success for you? When can a person call himself successful?
Barun: I think success can only be pursued, never really achieved, because it’s not a mountain peak that can be climbed and be done with. There is always going to be someone more successful. If you work hard, whatever success and fame you deserve will follow. But success in itself is an empty pursuit; you should instead pursue happiness.
TulikaD: So success and happiness are two different things….
Barun: Absolutely. Success can bring you temporary happiness, depending on how you have coded your mind to feel once you achieve what you were after…but only a full life can bring you authentic and lasting happiness. A life that includes moral virtues (if those appeal to you), being surrounded by people you love and who love you, good health and, in some measure, your success. However, getting carried away with success will certainly not lead you to happiness.
TulikaD: What’s a project that’s close to your heart? This question was asked to you a few years ago, and you had said not yet…
Barun: That answer is always going to remain the same. I am proud of many projects and the people I have worked with. I also love a lot of my work. When you spend all your time putting your soul into something, it’s impossible not to love it. During the Kohrra shoot, I hardly saw my family once or twice during the three-month schedule. So there are a lot of projects close to my heart, but I will not pick one.
TulikaD: Lastly, before I let Sree ask her questions, are you pulling a Dicaprio (vs Titanic) in terms of choosing starkly different projects to your biggest hit IPKKND, in hopes that people disassociate you from Arnav in their memories and see you beyond that?
Barun: I saw where this question was going… (laughs). No, I have never said or thought anything like that… I can’t help if certain imagery is created because of people’s perceptions in their heads… I know it has been made to look like I have quit television and don’t want anything to do with it, but it’s simply not true. Someone recently asked me what character I played that had the closest parallel to me. I answered Arnav because I was quite close to how he was when I was playing him.
TulikaD: Do you look back at Arnav as a creatively satisfying role? Are you proud of it?
Barun: Definitely. I learnt a lot in that role which has helped me immensely in my career. While I had some idea about portraying a character, everything about filmmaking and editing I learnt was on that show… I made friends for life, including directors, producers and actors.
Sreejeeta: Talking about IPK, it was one reason I chose film and television media as a career choice. The writing and cinematography were way ahead of their times and it had a vast cultural impact…
Barun: Yes, it did have a huge cultural impact. People fell in love much more; only the background score was missing (laughs). The writing was very progressive; it was the major USP. Also, the cinematography! I remember Hrishi Da (Hrishikesh Gandhi), who was the DOP of the show, made special efforts to make the show look jarringly beautiful. The set was always alive with a lot of movement and experimentation, and a lot of effort went into lighting etc… The DOP was the guy who tested me for the role along with the director, so he was involved since the beginning… and that worked out so well for the show.
Sreejeeta: Talking about writing, a strike in the American film and TV industry is going on right now against the studios for pay parity. Do you see something like that happening in the Indian industry? What’s your opinion on it?
Barun: I don’t see it happening because the Indian mindset differs greatly from the Western mindset. We are taught to struggle with the circumstances rather than ask for anything as a right. There’s a lot more entitlement in the Western film industry, whereas here, the struggle is still fundamental: earning some bread. Having said that, the times have changed concerning writers. They are getting their due more than before, especially after the OTT revolution. I won’t say if it’s the best place to be, but there’s a huge improvement.
Sreejeeta: What’s one basic piece of advice you would like to give based on your experience in the industry regarding the craft?
Barun: Work 24/7 on improving the craft. Unlike any other job where your work ends at your workplace, the set is not the only place you are working. If you do not keep learning or bettering your craft, you will fall short because phenomenal actors are all around. If you can keep at it, acting is for you. If not, it’s better to change professions.
Sreejeeta: From more than enough testimonies, there’s visible discrimination regarding how a TV actor is perceived compared to a movie actor. Is OTT serving as a bridge to close this gap, or is it becoming another divisive medium?
Barun: OTT is an island. It’s not bridging anything. It’s a complicated and competitive place because there is a downpour of talent from all directions. The long format has brought on some phenomenal writers, and the styles have changed…all for the better. But it’s a fact that television is looked down upon; I have no idea why. I don’t think they are even ready to look at a TV actor’s work. The rejection happens outright.
Sreejeeta: On a lighter note, what questions do you get asked often but wish you were not?
Barun: Quite a few. Like how are you feeling after the success of your show…I want to say I feel horrible; such a bad life. Or how do you feel after you have a daughter or a son…I mean, what kind of a question is that? How do I articulate it differently? I am just as happy as any average person would be.
TulikaD: I am glad we didn’t ask those questions, but let me ask you an impromptu question that just occurred to me. What drove you to do IPKKND 3?
Barun: In television, actors are signed based on the premise…the episodes are written as we go. A lot of it is influenced by the rating that comes in every week. Because the ratings didn’t turn around, it didn’t end up as the show we had set out to make. The show was initially called….something Ki Chandni (I don’t remember the full name). Gul was supposed to produce, and I think she did initially. It was completely different in terms of premise, backstory or role. But the channel thought that since I was making a comeback on our channel, they should capitalise on the franchise I was already a part of. That’s how the name changed to IPKKND 3. Otherwise, the show had nothing to do with IPK. So all these empty speculations that Sanaya and Barun should have been cast, etc., don’t hold ground since it was a different show.
TulikaD: But did naming it IPK backfire?
Barun: Well, I would not say so… I believe most television audiences are not on social media, so the backlash it got might not have had anything to do with the ratings. We did not achieve the ratings; it was as simple as that. If the show had been good and taken off, I am sure the social media opinion would have changed instantly too.
TulikaD: You know, there’s one takeaway that I have from this interview is that Barun Sobti does not crave validation and has no particular affinity to fame and popularity. Has your upbringing shaped this outlook, which gifted you a family-centric focus in life?
Barun: I had a fabulous childhood surrounded by love. My parents and my sister gave me a lot of love, and I am very close to them. I have been fortunate in the department of love. I made great friends in school, in the town I grew up…I had fun all the time. I think I owe my outlook to the people I grew up with because I took a little bit of good from everyone. At the end of it, we are a reflection of our society, and I am lucky to be surrounded with love all around in my real life. My wife and kids love me so much, so I get all the validation from real life so I don’t need to search for it in the popularity of the characters I play.
Interviewed by Tulika & Sreejeeta
Written by Tulika Dubey