Mukesh Rishi: Redefining Villainy On The Silver Screen

Scorching. Memorable. Thunderous. …Just a few adjectives that best describe veteran character actor and sought-after villain Mukesh Rishi’s acting abilities that help him steal the hearts of audiences! 

By Andrea CostaBir

What makes Mukesh Rishi a thespian in the Indian film industry? His immeasurable talent, of course. Add to that his filmography across film industries – Hindi, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Punjabi, Marathi, and Tamil – which is a testament to his determination and dedication. 

Since his debut more than three decades ago, Mukesh Rishi has evolved into a legendary villain and character actor. Films like ‘Sarfarosh’, ‘Gupt’, ‘Sooryavansham’, ‘Singham’ and ‘Koi… Mil Gaya’ delighted audiences – and he blazed forward! As he continues to be part of big ticket films across the country, we wonder what keeps him flying high?! 

Excerpts from the interview… 

Please give us a few insights into your upbringing… 

I was born in Jammu and went to school and college there. Deeply interested in sports, I used to play cricket. So, when I was told that Chandigarh was the best place for sports, I left for Chandigarh and did my graduation there. I played cricket and became the Vice-Captain of my college team. I enjoyed karate as well, and I loved exercising. Then I went abroad for some time, did some fashion shows and decided to get into acting… 

You are a leading character actor, having established yourself in Hindi and Telugu films. You have also appeared in Malayalam, Kannada, Punjabi, Marathi and Tamil films. And popular TV serials. Please give us a brief overview of the most significant aspects of your career so far… 

First of all, I did the ‘Tipu Sultan’ serial where I had the role of a villain. Though I didn’t benefit from it work-wise, I learnt a lot, and I will never forget that. Coming from a non-film family, I didn’t have any knowledge of the film industry, nor was I a trained actor, though I did do short courses from Roshan Taneja and Madhumati. But this serial helped me learn a lot.

Moving to my first film, ‘Gardish’… I was introduced as a villain and it was a very challenging role for me. It had all the big stars – Jackie Shroff, Raj Babbar, Amrish Puri, Dimple Kapadia. 

Raj Babbar supported me a lot. He kept telling me that this was a very important role and helped me get into character. Of course, Priyadarshan is a great director, Santosh Shivan was the DOP, R Mohan (GoodKnight Mohan), Priyanji – they all helped me a lot. They were senior people, and they knew exactly how to handle other people. 

After that, I worked in ‘Sarfarosh’, a completely different film from what I was doing at that time. Aamir (Khan) was very cooperative, and the joy of working with him was something else only.

John Matthews’ preparation for every character was very solid and I just had to look at John to understand my role, what I had to do because he had so much information about the characters. I felt like I didn’t have to do anything, if I just followed him, my work would be done!

What’s your method for getting into character when preparing for a role?

I don’t have any method because I don’t come from any institute where acting is taught from A to Z, like the National School of Drama. So, my biggest method of preparation was life itself as I lived in the regular, real world before coming to films. My best education was living among people, going to different places with friends. I am well aware of the background of the Army, of the Police… All these experiences were very beneficial for me when I started acting. 

Could you share a particularly challenging moment in your acting career, and how you overcame it?

Challenging moments are always there… When you are not from a filmi background, you have to be prepared at every moment. You have to be alert. And I started working with senior people like Dharamji, Sunny Deol, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan. So, I  remained very alert. And I didn’t have any problem in learning from my mistakes. By doing that, I have reached here today.

How do you approach portraying complex or villainous characters? 

Let me tell you one thing: When I entered the film industry, there was a particular way of performing a villain’s role. So, I followed that as the directors too were happy with that. Whatever I did was with the guidance of the director. But what happened later was that the roles for the villains started to decrease. There wasn’t much colour left in them. Now this was a different challenge. So, we changed a few things around and if the director said okay, then we used to be happy that the director liked it.

Could you describe a memorable experience working on set with a particular producer, director or co-star?

So, I met a lot of good people. John Matthews, as I mentioned earlier; then KC Bokadia, who used to make his own kind of films. I worked with Sunny. He has his own style, he’s quiet but talks to his close friends. I was happy to spend whatever time I got with him. Salman’s nature is to meet in the evening and whenever I got the chance to exercise or go to a club with him, I was happy. Bobby Deol is very friendly and I did films with him too. 

What advice would you give aspiring actors?

The film industry is an open book. You can get a lot of information on it online, especially through YouTube. So, do film-related courses and learn things. Follow films. Follow trends. Live in the world. Meet people. Before getting into films, make sure you have all kinds of knowledge in your kitty. All the information is available. Take advantage of it. And prepare yourself completely. Remember that when we do not learn to swim in the sea, once we reach half-way, we drown. We have to learn to swim before diving in. It’s the same with the film industry. 

Also, it is very important for new people to be disciplined – especially with their work timings. Discipline is a part of acting. Don’t separate it from acting. It is very important because we don’t work only for ourselves, we work for others. They invest in us. So, it is our duty to not make them feel that they have invested so much in a person and  are not getting what they wanted.

What do you consider your biggest career milestone? My first film was ‘Gardish’, and it was very challenging for me. So, I would say that it was a milestone. Then ‘Sarfarosh’ released and people liked it. Similarly, there were two Telugu films which became very popular. One was ‘Narasimha Naidu’ with Balakrishna. B Gopal, the very famous director, directed it. Then there was ‘Indra’ with Chiranjeevi. It was very successful. Similarly, there was a film called ‘Ramana’ which I did in Tamil. I did two films with Vijayakanth. Those were also big hits. 

Do tell us about your journey towards achieving a healthy work-life balance.

Being a sportsman, I have been taking care of my health from the beginning. Post that too, I never stopped exercising – at that time, gyms were few, but I exercised in stadiums and playgrounds. This experience has been very beneficial for me. Exercise is a system of life. As life goes on, it  is important to breathe. It is important to be healthy. Don’t think of it as a burden. If you keep enjoying it, you will see its benefits. To live and work with health, to enjoy your work, is fun! Don’t look at the dividends and benefits  first. You will get it gradually when you have discipline. 

Tell us about your family… 

My girlfriend, who was with me in college in Chandigarh, and who became my wife, has helped me a lot. She helped me follow my dream and supported me wholeheartedly. I have reached here today because of her. 

We have a daughter who is very interested in music and is doing a music course in America. Our son Raghav (Rishi) has done two films in the lead role. One is ‘Khule Asmaan Ki Oar’ and one is a Punjabi film, ‘Nidarr’.

Family is very important. When children grow up, it is very important to be with them, to understand them. 

To sum up, where does Mukesh Rishi go from here? Any exciting projects in the pipeline? 

Right now I am doing a very big Telugu film, ‘Kannappa’. Mohan Babuji, who is a very big producer and actor, is producing the film. His son Vishnu Manchu, is the hero of the film. I have also done a Punjabi film called ‘Nanak Naam Jahaz’ which is releasing in May 2024.

This same film was made by Prithviraj Kapoor many years ago. Today, I had the chance to do the same role in the same film. Hence, I am very happy!

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Appearing in an ad for a brand of tea, he was shot against the backdrop of the magnificent Taj Mahal, immersed in playing the tabla.