Bollywood has always been about big. Big money, bigger productions, the biggest stars. In an industry obsessed with bluster, with overpriced stars and their PR machines on manic overdrive, we tend to forget that the machinery of magic that we know of as the film industry is equally run by the ‘little people’ - ushers who double up as ticket vendors at single theatres, reporters who practically invented the Page 3 format without even realizing it, gym instructors who sculpt superstars battling mid-life crises, rickshaw drivers who invented dhinchaak, the sound that has come to define Bollywood music. Also Starring is our tribute to the foot soldiers of pop culture who stitch together the dazzling quilt we call Bollywood.

Here’s the ‘Baap of Bollywood’

The many faces of Shireesh Sharma
The very fact that we never had a film called ‘Father India’ says a lot about the state of neglect that Baaps have endured in Hindi cinema. While every hero worth his six-pack abs is willing to swear by his mother and believes that he won’t get very far in life without his ‘maa ka aashirwaad’, the father is often reduced to a disciplinary grouch and at best, a bankable provider.  So you could be an Alok Nath, a Kader Khan, an Ajit Vachani or a Rajeev Verma, who have all played doting dads in numerous iconic films but still haven’t got the recognition or fame that they truly deserve.

Here, we present Shireesh Sharma, a man who is merely three films old in Bollywood and is hopeful and enthusiastic to join the above brigade of veteran actors to follow a passion he had brushed aside for years. Shireesh’s story is unlike others in his league as he has ventured into the field of films much later in life, having been in the hospitality and tourism industry for over three decades. He began as tourist guide in Udaipur in 1972 but Shireesh’s ambitious streak couldn’t be constrained to the heritage town in Rajasthan. So after a post graduate degree in Political Science and International relations from Udaipur University, Shireesh was off to Mumbai to work in the British tourism firm Cox and Kings by 1976. He then moved to Delhi as a Sales Manager for Siddharth Hotel which was a part of the ITC group (Welcome Group). But 1981, he was off to the US to explore a career in tourism and began developing tour packages for American travelers to Asia. After struggling for several years in New York , he moved his base to Los Angeles and was soon one of the most successful tour operators for several Asian destinations. Being academically inclined, he even pursued a Masters in Business Administration in the University of Portland. Almost 30 years hence, he’s back in India to explore a career in acting. Sounds like a classic case of mid-life crisis? Read on to know.

Shireesh’s filmography is short but significant- he’s played three very different baaps- Sonam Kapoor’s ageless and romantic father in ‘I Hate Luv Storys’, the grim minister whose son has been accused of murder in ‘No One Killed Jessica’ and Parineeti Chopra’s Punjabi-Delhi-businessman father in ‘Ladies Vs Ricky Bahl’. Apart from these, he’s played a father or a fatherly figure in plenty of commercials, TV shows (CID, Crime Patrol, Khote Sikke etc) and even crossover US productions like ‘Carry On Papa’ (2004). Let’s get to hear more about his fascinating journey.

The true 'Baap of Bollywood'
How did acting happen?
I was always interested in acting and had done a few plays in college directed by Bhanu Bharti. But then I moved to the US. I’ve been settled in the US for 29 years where I have set up my own tourism company. I had come down to India for some personal work a couple of years back when a friend of mine asked me if I was interested in auditioning for a Karan Johar film. He was aware that I was passionate about acting and I decided to just take it as a joke and went for the audition. He said that they were looking for a new face to play Sonam Kapoor’s dad in ‘I Hate Love Stories’ and I was like ‘…but this is an old face’ (laughs). And then I got the role and my journey in films began.

Your second film ‘No One Killed Jessica’ was quite critically acclaimed but were you disheartened to be given very few dialogues?
Initially, I did feel very insulted and humiliated since I was given lines which were later taken away from me. The director Raj Kumar Gupta came to me and said, “Just leave the rest of the dialogues.” But then I realized why he did that. He had noticed that I could play with my expressions and body language and that is what he wanted me do. I have a lot of respect for him and I think he was able to use me to the best of my ability in the film.
Shireesh Sharma as a cop
Since you’ve been in so many industries, do you think your previous vocations have contributed to your acting?
What is acting? Can anyone define acting? I've been delivering seminars, I was the master of ceremonies at the Winter Olympics at Vancouver, Canada in 2010. I began my career as a tourist guide in Udaipur. So when I am managing a crowd or developing a presentation or a product, I am just finding a new medium to express my creative inner self. I have always believed that my core skill is marketing dreams and acting for me is just the same as long as it is performed truthfully. Then I also believe that a person’s academic background also reflects in one’s ability to deliver a character. And Mr Amitabh Bachchan is a living example of this, given his knowledge of English and Hindi literature. I can narrate the Kamayani (a Hindi epic poem by Jaishankar Prasad) and I love reading. Since my tourism job gives me a lot of time in flights (I had earned around 170000 air miles in the last year itself), I invest that in reading.

How did your family react when you decided to suddenly venture into acting, leaving your thriving business aside?
Since 1997, I’ve been the only parent to my two daughters. One is studying in the New York Medical College and the other one is in University of Oregon. When I told them about my interest in acting, they told me something that I had always told them: one must do what one is good at and if acting is something I feel I am meant to do, and then I should go for it. This was very reassuring and boosted my confidence.

Do you remember any challenging scenes from any of your films which got etched in your memory?
On the sets of ‘No One Killed Jessica’, there was a scene where I go to meet my son played by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub at the police station. I was required to slap him in this scene. I was prepared to time my slap in a way that it could be mocked later. But the director of the film Raj (Rajkumar Gupta) came to me and told me that I should actually slap him and not mock it. This put me in a very perplexing situation and I requested him that if I were to throw in my full force, it’s best that this shot was covered in a single take and he agreed. So we went on with the scene. My son (in the film) looked up at me and smiled and my hand comes in from behind me in full swing and whacks his face. I felt really bad and the director came running screaming, “Brilliant! Brilliant! Ek aur karenge.” So as it turns out, he got slapped twice before the scene was wrapped up.

Do you think that the Hindi film industry is a bit wary of accepting newcomers?
I don’t know how much my film career will grow because I don’t know many people in the industry and the industry is a dynastical one. There are some exceptional cases who have managed to make their mark in films like Boman Irani, who is very talented. People want to be a part of the film industry for various reasons. But I am not a 25-year old who seeks fame. What drives me is the creative satisfaction of a job well done.

Would you consider moving back to India permanently if you were offered more challenging roles in films?
It’s a million dollar question…I had my reasons for leaving India and I had reasons to return. 30 years ago I left India because of frustration. India was a rich country with a corrupt bureaucracy. Today India is moving and things happen in offices. I've been to 109 countries and for 70 percent of those countries, I can tell you where to go and what to see but in the end of the day, India is the guru of all nations in every facet. When I was away, I missed our rich culture and tradition which I’ve instilled into my daughters. When I moved to the US, the first few years were very challenging. My wife and daughters were back in India at that time. By 1989, I had built a company that surpassed three million dollars and in 1988, I was Singapore airlines' biggest tour operator. But then in 1989, we lost a lot of business because of the Tiananmen Square incident in China. So I have seen a lot of upheaval in my life. Right now, I spend 80 percent of my time in India and if the film industry were to give me more opportunities, I would be happy to move here permanently.

Check out Shireesh Sharma in his many onscreen avatars in this video show reel of his work:


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