This winter, Sidharth Malhotra plans to go biking all over Rajasthan with a bunch of childhood friends. “I’ll wear a helmet, and hide my face.” It may come off a little conceited, but the actor’s wariness about being recognised in public stems from experience—there’s ample evidence on YouTube of teenagers and 20-somethings mauling him at promotional events and airports, and dissolving into mushy incoherence when he turns on his shy smile.
Since his confetti-packed debut in 2012, as the terse, ambitious Abhimanyu in Karan Johar’s Student Of The Year (SOTY), the 32-year-old has racked up a swarming fan following who seem entirely unaffected by the many forgettable roles he followed it up with. There was a time critics even wrote him off as just another chocolate-faced one-hit wonder.
Our interview has been squeezed into a commute from the shoot to his home in the suburb of Bandra in Mumbai because Malhotra has had some work engagements crop up unexpectedly. “Don’t worry, we won’t rush through this. I promise you will get all the answers,” he says. Does this mean he won’t be politically correct for once, I want to say, but then he takes off his sunglasses, and smiles into my eyes while he shakes my hand firmly, and all the snark leaves me.
That self-assurance took some time in the making, though. “As a kid, I was shy, bad at studies, and lacked focus. The movies have opened me up, made me reach out to people, and stripped off much of my naiveté. I know now that a plain ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is not enough when someone asks me for feedback or a comment. People want to hear more, and you need to spice it up.” The street smarts he gathered over time, from his modelling stints while at Bhagat Singh College, to his days as an assistant director on My Name Is Khan (2010), to the turning point when Johar delivered him into stardom with SOTY, alongside Varun Dhawan and Alia Bhatt.
While much newsprint has been spent on coupling and uncoupling him and Bhatt since then, their relationship status remains unconfirmed thanks to Malhotra’s unyielding ‘no comments’ stance or sarcastic comebacks. Maybe, treading carefully does help—after all, there is a lot of redeeming still left to do for his tweet in August, in which he expressed concern over a curfew imposed in Haryana during the Dera Sacha Sauda riot (in which 30 died and thousands were injured, reportedly) and simultaneously promoted his film A Gentleman. The online evisceration that followed was painful. “Some of those comments hurt, though I admit that my tweet was ill-timed. I should have been more sensitive, but I genuinely didn’t mean to offend anyone, and there was no malice. I never deleted the tweet though I was repeatedly told to. How can I pretend I didn’t utter those words?”
Away from all that disparagement is a gregarious bunch of family and friends in Delhi who love him unconditionally. He says he tries his best to make it in time for weddings, get-togethers and birthday bashes. “They keep me grounded. My dad still feels proud when someone walks up to him and recognises him as ‘that hero Sidharth Malhotra’s dad’, and my mum still wears a wide smile when people seek my autograph. I feel immensely grateful for what I have earned when I see that.” Much of the comfort he seeks away from stardom, he finds in the company of his childhood gang, driving around the neighbourhood market in Delhi blasting ‘Kaala chashma’, or gorging on his mother’s besan ke laddoo and poori chana halwa. “I am a true-blue Punjabi foodie, and I love it when my mum makes a feast when my friends come over for dinner. Everything can change around me, but this part of my world never will.”
Perhaps, these quotidian pleasures also enable him to negotiate the failures more efficiently. “I have to work doubly hard after each flop. I don’t come from a film family that will produce a movie for me to back me up repeatedly,” he says. Malhotra is honest enough to admit that he has a long way to go as an actor, and that he is still feeling his way through self-doubt. “When I watch a film during an edit, I always feel that the others have performed more beautifully. And that my level of performance and impact needs to be a lot better.” When one reassures him of the wide applause he won for his recent outings in Hasee Toh Phasee (2014), Ek Tha Villain (2014) and Kapoor And Sons (2016), he blushes.
He’s less second-guessing when it comes to romance though. “I trust my instincts. If I bump into an interesting woman, I don’t wait to plan a date. I’d rather ask her out for dinner right then. It has happened often enough, and I have had some great conversations.” His kind of woman is someone who can spar with him, is real and direct. “More than physical attributes, I look for an interesting personality, though I won’t deny I find long and loose hair very sexy.” His ideas on marriage, however, are a lot less conventional. “I don’t think marriage is essential. Live-in relationships are just as intimate. You get to be with each other, and see each other through your ups and downs. Does that need to come with a social sanction? Of course, when I am ready to become a father, I would want to marry and give my child the security of a family unit.”
That vanilla-and-spice template on relationships apart, he is not predictably chauvinistic about dating rules. “I find it very cute when a woman makes the first move. But I can’t come down heavily on a woman who is playing hard to get, either.” Not for him the standard persuasive rounds of bouquets and surprise gifts. “I pride myself on being a good listener and observer, and I’d rather make sure she knows that I remember the tiny details that matter to her.” A healthy respect for space is essential for him. “When I am doing my own thing, I want her happy by herself and secure about her worth. A woman like that, I would die to come back to.”
For now, though, work remains his one true commitment, and honing his craft. He is visibly excited about his new release, the thriller Ittefaq, where he plays the role of a writer who’s suspected of murder. He is also fully aware that it could be another chance for critics to lacerate him. But in response, he still hopes to smile through all of it. “I haven’t come this far to give up. I am here, and I will stand by all my choices.” One look into his eyes and you know that, right now, Sidharth Malhotra is not being politically correct.