Rohit Roy, who was recently seen playing Vardhan Makhija in Sanjivani, has proved his versatility both on the small and big screen. In a career spanning 25 years, he has portrayed parts ranging from the lead to supporting and even villainous.

Rohit, however, says the kind of hysterical popularity garnered by his Swabhimaan character Rishabh Malhotra, still remains unparalleled. Though the actor believes the character now comes across as brash, he thinks the way it was done probably makes him a fan favourite even today. Swabhimaan, which ran between 1995 and 1997 on DD National, was written by Shobha De and directed by Mahesh Bhatt.

But how did Rohit land his first role? Here’s what the actor shared.

1. What was your first acting project? How did the project come to you?

My first project was Swabhimaan. I did an audition for it, but how it came to me is a very interesting story. I was sitting at Mansi’s (Joshi) house. She was my girlfriend at that time. And, she got a call from a channel. It was the time of landlines and she said no to somebody. I overheard her saying something like Shobha De and Mahesh Bhatt. When she hung up, I asked her what was it. She said this channel is making a daily soap, and I don’t want to do it. I said, ‘Okay, can you give me the number?’ I called that guy and told him I would love to come and audition. He agreed and that’s how I went and did my audition. There, I got rejected by the entire panel of directors after seeing my first take. Now, this is why I believe in destiny. Mahesh Bhatt was sitting on the editing table and he was going through the NG (not-good) tape. I wore a red jacket that day. After watching the tape, he enquired about the guy in the red jacket who got rejected by the directors and Shobha De. He saw some kind of potential in me because the audition was pretty bad as I was very conscious. He said call this boy for one more audition. After four months of my first audition, they called me again and said Bhatt ji wants to see you do a particular scene and if you crack this, then you are on. It was my father’s death scene and I had lost my father in real life too few years back, so all that angst was within me. Even now, I get tears in my eyes! So I guess I did a good job. Then Mahesh Bhatt went to Shobha De and told her, ‘You are picking all the other actors. I am putting my money behind this boy. I want to cast him. I know you have rejected him, but I want him.’ After the first episode was aired, Shobha came to me at the celebration party and said you have done full justice to the character I have written. That is how Swabhimaan happened.

2. What do you remember of your first day on set?

I still remember Mahesh Bhatt directed me in my first shot. He used to call me James Dean (laughs) because of an inherent brashness of my character. That time people complimented me, but now I realise my character was brash. I was a 20-year-old something. That was like my Sholay. I have done a lot of work after that, but I have not been able to match that kind of mad, hysterical popularity I saw as Rishabh Malhotra. My first scene that I shot was at night, and I suddenly get a phone call from out of the country and someone says, “Hi is that Rishabh… You father is dead.” That’s how my first scene happened.

3. Were you nervous? How many retakes did you take?

I have never been nervous in my life. The only time I got nervous was during my directorial debut The Rice Plate. I was really nervous to work with Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah. And Shabana ji jokes about it, saying, “This boy is lying, he just wasn’t nervous at all! (laughs) On the first day of shoot only, he knew what to do and how to do. Rather we were nervous!”

4. And who were your co-stars? How was the rapport with them when you got to meet or work with them again later?

We still have a WhatsApp group called The Swabhimaan Group. Of course, Swabhimaan had the biggest star cast of that time. It had Kitu Gidwani, Anju Mahendru, Manoj Bajpayee, Ashutosh Rana, Deepak Parashar, Harsh Chhaya, Shital Thakkar, Kunika, Mita Vashisht, you name them and they were there. We are still very close. Manoj is, of course, one of our closest friends now. In fact, whenever he has a successful film, I have a party for him at my house. Ashutosh is very close. Anju ji, who played my mother, used to be so irritated with my brashness that in one scene she had to slap me. She actually slapped me. And now I call her Anju Maa. So we are still very close because Swabhimaan was a first for so many of us. It was my first. It was the first TV show for so many senior actors who had done films before. We are really like a family today.

5. If given a chance to go back to your debut role, is there anything you’d like to change or do better?

I had no clue what I was doing. When I see Swabhimaan now and I see the reaction of people, it has sunk into me that this is what I did. I swear it might sound like I am being humble, but I really did not know what I was doing. I was just doing what I was told by the director. I had no training in acting. I just continued to follow what was written for me. And how Rishabh Malhotra became a phenomenon is still beyond me because I was fairly okay as an actor. I was in great shape, though there was nothing spectacular about my presence. But I guess Anju Mahendru kept repeating that I had that Rajesh Khanna glint in my eyes. That must have worked. I don’t know anything else really. I wouldn’t change a thing because I know it worked big time. Maybe, I would just be a little more aware.

6. One film or role that inspired you to become an actor?

Zanjeer and Deewar were two films which I saw because my father was a huge Amitabh Bachchan fan. So much, that every Friday when his film would release, he would take us, or sometimes even go on his own. And after watching Zanjeer and Deewar, I wanted to do that kind of roles, but I never wanted to be an actor. I don’t know if you realised, but very strangely in the four years of Swabhimaan, I had only copied Amitabh Bachchan. And because my face was so different, that’s why they called me the ‘Angry Young Man of Television’.