Movies were a rare treat at actor Sidhant Gupta’s home in Jammu. His parents — mother Sandhaya Gupta, now 54, runs a garments business, and father Sukesh Gupta, 60, is a retired forest officer — saw mainstream cinema as a potentially corrupting influence.
Among the films that the couple did allow their two boys, Sidhant and his elder brother Sanat Gupta, to watch were Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (Aditya Chopra; 1995), and Dil Chahta Hai (Farhan Akhtar; 2001). They transported Sidhant to another world.
It wasn’t just that the settings and characters seemed larger than life, richer in colour and fun. It was also that they held that then-impossible thing: the promise of adventure.
Anything could happen in the movies. Three young men could hop into a car and travel across state lines to hang out at a hilltop fort and talk about passion and purpose. A young woman could wander across Europe and find a life-altering love.
“I had amazing friends and a lovely childhood, but I grew up in a protective environment, and I wanted to choose a life that was different. I didn’t want to pick a lifestyle that was safe,” Gupta says. In a world where risk was only perceived as a negative, “I never imagined in my wildest dreams that someday I’d be on the screens that I was looking at.”
The 34-year-old has been on those screens for 10 years, but has just had his first major release. He is part of the core ensemble cast of director Vikramaditya Motwane’s Jubilee, and plays a struggling filmmaker who is battling post-Partition trauma and loss of identity in 1940s and ’50s Bombay.
Before this big break, Gupta did gain a foothold in Mumbai’s notoriously exclusionary and overcrowded film industry, via a modelling career. But he spent years inhabiting characters that demanded little of him, in films and shows that came and went unnoticed. There was the romantic comedy Badmashiyaan (2015), in which he played a lovelorn man whose girlfriend goes missing. Operation Romeo (2022), in which he was an enraged lover feuding with a policeman.
Jubilee is a carefully crafted look back, with mixed feelings, at the history of Hindi cinema, directed by an auteur whose first film, the masterful Udaan (2010), was screened at Cannes. Gupta’s character, Jay Khanna, is a young refugee from an old theatre family in Karachi. Ahead of Partition, the Khannas flee to Bombay. Jay takes with him a tattered script for a story that he wants to someday stage.
Angry, at sea, and suddenly poor, he picks fights and ends up behind bars. A string of odd jobs ends with him working in the canteen of a production house. Between waiting on actors and mopping floors, Khanna begins to fall in love with the relatively new medium of cinema.
What struck the actor about the character when he first read the script, he says, was his ability to glimpse the magic just beyond the everyday. The actor knows what it takes to hold onto this ephemeral sense that there is something more out there. At 19, he moved from Jammu to Delhi chasing it. The initial dream was to be a commercial pilot. Modelling, a side hustle, unleashed something new. “I realised that I didn’t want to spend my life locked up in a cockpit,” he says.
By his early 20s, he had set his sights on Bollywood. Mumbai felt like a calling; a place where he could make a life out of feeling and creating. His first audition told him he wasn’t yet ready for this life. With no experience acting, he blanked out. “I couldn’t utter a word.” Determined to learn the craft, Gupta signed up for workshops and an acting course. But he learnt most of what he knows, he says, on the sets of his first real acting gig, the Zee TV romantic drama Tashan-e-Ishq (2015).
Gupta played Kunj Sarna, a conflicted but caring husband. His subplot, about an arranged marriage that starts out rocky but soon heads towards love, earned him a collection of fans and numerous telly awards and nominations (Best Beta; Best Debut Male; Popular Jodi).
He quit a year in. It became like working on autopilot, he says. “I enjoyed the rom-com space, but it was monotonous living the same person every day,” he says.
He drifted for a while, appearing on the celebrity reality dance show Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa, in 2016; in a cameo in the Sanjay Dutt-starrer Bhoomi (2017). “I realised I wasn’t happy. I felt like I was screaming and nobody could hear me,” Gupta says. “I needed to understand why I wanted to do this work. I decided to step away for a while.”
During this break, he travelled to Paris and London. A chance encounter with an acting coach from Drama Centre London would prove vital. He and the coach (who would prefer to remain unnamed, he says), had a few valuable one-on-one sessions. Gupta also met students from the Centre who trained “like their life depended on it”. They were driven by an intention that he shared: to create.
Gupta also trained under the director-writer-producer John Markland (who coached Jeremy Allen White of the 2022 series The Bear). Markland, he says, helped him uncover new layers and greater depth as an actor.
He returned to India and received a call from Casting Bay. They were auditioning for new roles in Season 3 of the cricket-themed drama web series Inside Edge (2017-). Gupta was cast as spirited off-spinner named Imaad Akbar.
The following year the pandemic hit, and in the silence of the lockdown, he resumed the dialogue he had started with himself. He realised that he couldn’t blame industry politics, nepotism and the lack of opportunities for all the ways in which he felt stuck, he says. He decided to wipe the slate clean and ask a pivotal question: What did he want?
The answer: work that allowed him the space to feel. Between his training, his experience, and his new resolve, he emerged from the lockdown a changed actor. “I suddenly had a lot to give to my characters, and nothing to hide.”
At this time, Casting Bay called again; they were auditioning for a new series to be directed by Vikramaditya Motwane. When Gupta read the script, the honesty in the story drew him in, he says. As he played the part, “I could share all the pain that I was carrying… and it felt like I was healing.”
It’s taken a decade to make it here, but his father, once worried, isn’t worried any more. Neither is Gupta. The actor is sifting through scripts. He’s in no rush. The projects he picks next will need to speak to him, he says. The word “newcomer” still follows him around. That doesn’t bother him either. He knows it isn’t that he just turned up; it’s only that he’s just arrived.