From IIT To Bollywood, 'Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan' Star Jitendra Kumar's Story Defines Hope

Jitendra Kumar, fondly known as Jeetu Bhaiya, is all over our screens. But the road to the movies has been long and lonely.
Jitendra Kumar
Jitendra Kumar

In August 2012, Jitendra Kumar found himself in Hoskote, a small town about an hour away from Bengaluru. After hustling in Mumbai for three months, Kumar had given up his acting ambitions and leveraged his IIT Kharagpur degree for an engineering job at a Japanese MNC, a gig where his bosses were oppressive, unempathetic and often, downright racist. It was a monotonous existence in what seemed to him like a listless industrial town after the glamour and razzle-dazzle of Mumbai, where he had unsuccessfully spent months of his life as a writer, actor, salesperson and, at times, the printout guy at The Viral Fever’s (TVF) Versova offices.

In Hoskote, Kumar barely had any friends and no concept of a social life. He would often scroll down his social media feed, enviously observing the far more happening lives of his other IIT batch mates, an experience that’d become a significant reference point when he’d shoot for the hit show, Panchayat, seven years later. Panchayat, which would make Kumar a familiar face on our screens, was released just weeks after the release of Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, the gay romance starring Ayushmann Khurrana that became a box-office success.

But years before all that, back in Hoskote, far from being the endearing Jeetu bhaiya who had easy fixes for every curveball life threw at his fictional students in The Kota Factory, Jitendra Kumar felt trapped. He was writing sad poetry about loneliness and thwarted ambitions on his Facebook wall. In a town where the generators often failed, abandoning his dreams of stardom, Jitendra would also spend what he terms “my saddest birthday ever.” No calls from friends. A few from family.

One hot afternoon, however, the inevitable happened. Kumar had had enough. Much like Ranbir Kapoor’s Ved from Tamasha, who explodes at his terrified boss after getting fed up with his monotonous corporate job, Kumar erupted at his Japanese senior. The senior was upset about a minor error the contractors had made and grabbed Kumar by his hand, dragging him to the site.

Humiliated but without a plan, Kumar declared that he didn’t need this job that felt like ‘enslavement’. “Fuck you,” he said, shocking other employees who had trained themselves to be subservient to the bosses. “Fuck you.”

He left for Khairthal, his hometown in Alwar, Rajasthan. His father, also an engineer, refused to talk for days, sceptical of the uncertain future that awaited him in Mumbai, which is where he’d decided to return.

Years later, this scene would be recreated in TVF’s Pitchers, where Jeetu would once again break the news of a career shift to his rigid father.

“How will you survive?” his real-life Dad yelled, persuading him to sit for UPSC exams or do a short course in civil engineering. A cousin brokered peace. Jeetu would then go on to make the kind of declarations we’ve often seen in melodramatic Bollywood films. “I won’t take your money to survive.” His parents asked for a timeline. “Kab tak karoge struggle?” He didn’t have an answer. Eventually, they gave in but not without articulating a simmering concern.

“Don’t get into drugs.”

Days later, in June 2013, Jitendra Kumar would again arrive in a city that had once betrayed his dreams, to give it, and himself, another shot at acting. This time, Kumar was determined to forge his way into the world of movies. He arrived at Bandra Terminus, like countless others continue to do, and made his way back into the crowded lanes of Andheri, Bombay’s sunset boulevard. It was raining. He was sure he didn’t want to go back home. And this time, Bollywood would have to listen.

Jeetu
Jeetu

Campus Drama

In 2008, days into his first year at IIT Kharagpur, Kumar was watching Al Pacino’s famous monologue from Martin Brest’s Scent of a Woman. His seniors had asked him to memorise the part for a performance due the next day. “Having studied in Hindi medium all my life, I struggled with the English and made a complete fool of myself.”

However, a bug had bitten him. Being on stage and watching people respond to his acting gave him a kick that organic chemistry and mathematics couldn’t. Kumar failed in three subjects in his first year but soon became the popular kid on campus, the go-to person for the team at the drama society. He was also a great mimic, switching between Shah Rukh Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Nana Patekar impressions with remarkable ease.

“I was loving the reactions, the little fame I had gathered. It wasn’t less than a nasha,” he said, adding that his interest in the academics was dwindling but he tried to maintain minimum marks. “It was only when we started to do plays professionally with lights, camera, costumes and workshops that I knew I wanted to become an actor.” Being selected for the dramatic society was a big validation, a confirmation that he wasn’t imagining the response but actually had a talent for acting.

In subsequent years, Kumar would do about 4-5 plays a year and would also tour with Vijay Tendulkar’s Sakharam Binder. “I’d often win the Best Actor award whenever we’d perform. To win this outside of college was very reassuring. The jury would consist of theatre veterans so to hear feedback from them further bolstered my acting ambitions,” he said.

It was during this time that Kumar befriended Biswapati Sarkar, a senior from IIT Kharagpur and the writer of shows such as Pitchers, Permanent Roommates— and the actor who plays Arnub in Barely Speaking. The two would go on to collaborate on several plays together and develop a deep friendship. “I credit him for pushing me into acting. He was an inspiration during college and paved the way for me to come to Mumbai as he was already becoming close to the team that’d go on to form TVF.”

While Sarkar bounced off to Mumbai after IIT to work as a full-time writer, hailing from a family of engineers meant that Kumar had to honour conventions. In his final year in 2012, Kumar graduated as a ‘six-pointer’ — not a very flattering score.

His batchmates prepared aggressively for placements. Kumar remained distracted and confused and attended the interviews without grooming himself. “I just bought a set of formals and sat in front of those very intimidating recruiters.” And yet he wasn’t prepared for just how bad things were going to get. “Most people I knew got placed for like, say, 10-12 lakhs per annum. Except me. I didn’t even get a job.” Friends hung around for a couple of weeks but eventually left, leaving him alone to confront his existential crisis.

As if on cue, his friend and confidante Sarkar, whom he calls Bisso, called. “Just come to Mumbai, work at this startup, we’re calling it TVF,” he said. Kumar hesitated. “Will I get paid?” he asked. “You’ll get to act,” came the reply.

Jeetu
Jeetu

Surviving dreamland

In Ryan Murphy’s new Netflix show, Hollywood, a bunch of starry-eyed men take up jobs at a gas station in LA, which is essentially a front for a high-profile prostitution ring. The job subsidises the expense of living in LA while allowing intimate access to the power brokers and star makers of Hollywood.

It isn’t unusual for aspiring actors to take side gigs - waiting tables, coordinating events - to keep themselves afloat while they slug it out at auditions, hoping for that one big break that’d take them out of a shared 1 bedroom apartment into a bigger space. As his first gig, Kumar became a professor at one of the institutes that coach students for the IIT Joint Entrance Exam (JEE).

“I had said I won’t take money from home. So the first thing I needed to do was get a job,” Kumar said over a Skype call. He had suffered during his first three months in Mumbai right after IIT, anxiously watching the auto rickshaw meter as he reached his audition venue and doing odd jobs like being a director of photography for ads when he didn’t know how to operate a camera (“I’d run to the washroom and ask someone over the phone how to work a camera.”)

He couldn’t afford an encore. “A senior from college helped me out with a recommendation. I’d teach about 3 days a week and focus on my acting for the rest.” He was holed up with Sarkar in Versova, hoping to find financial stability (which the IIT coaching offered) before he could move out.

Jeetu as Kejriwal in the TVF satire 'Barely Speaking'
Jeetu as Kejriwal in the TVF satire 'Barely Speaking'

At TVF, work was slow but consistent, his second inning a lot more fruitful than the first, largely because of his patience and commitment. In many ways, Kumar’s growth as a domestic name of the Indian internet mirrors TVF’s own growth as a platform that built its brand as a counter to traditional Indian TV, often parodying tropes the Indian millennial didn’t connect to and was tired of watching. In fact, the TVF logo, which appears before every video, has an animation showing the letters TVF literally demolishing an analog TV set. Before one of its earlier fictional series, Pitchers, would change the game for Kumar, and for TVF itself, he appeared in several sketches: as the overdramatic intern, Munna Jazbaati, as Arjun Kejriwal in the viral hit Barely Speaking and as a ‘helpful colleague’ in another sketch, Ek Thi Behen.

“While things would go viral and I’d be recognised here and there, the big success still eluded me and so I couldn’t let the job go. Not until Pitchers was out,” Kumar recalled.

Originally planned to hit floors in May 2014, the show was delayed as TVF focused on releasing Permanent Roommates (where he had a supporting part) as a result of a brand integration. At this point Kumar had moved to an apartment in Powai (he wanted to be near an IIT for nostalgic reasons). Days before the shoot of Pitchers - a tightly-budgeted show about four boys who quit their jobs to launch a startup - he started suffering from anxiety. “It was pretty much make or break. Just doing sketches wouldn’t cut it. The show had to work.”

While the show reminded one of HBO’s, Silicon Valley, it was recontextualised to suit the Indian milieu and instantly became a viral sensation. It’s worth remembering that when Pitchers premiered - in June 2015 - the shift to streaming hadn’t officially happened and we were months away from Netflix, Amazon, Hotstar making inroads into the Indian streaming market. TVF’s competitor, at that point, was perhaps All India Bakchod, also a startup launched by four young men.

A poster of 'Pitchers'
A poster of 'Pitchers'

Pitchers made all its main and supporting characters - Arunabh Kumar, Naveen Kasturia, Abhay Mahajan, Maanvi Gagroo and Kumar - taste Internet stardom, its fickle nature and ever-evolving nature yet to fully reveal itself.

The shoot was tough, often at ungodly hours like 3 am to 10 am at the bar Three Wise Men in Juhu. When Jeetu tried improvising some lines, his director, Amit Golani, reined him in. His one instruction? “Stick to the script.”

It took him a while to find his character’s groove. The decision to name the character Jeetu also stemmed from the fact that he wasn’t being recognised by his name but the characters he played. “I told myself I need to stay authentic to the emotions. And not deviate too much,” he said. Kumar admitted that there was talk on set about similarities with Silicon Valley, which had already aired, but “we were closer to Entourage in spirit.”

The show also created the Jeetu archetype: few faces capture middle-class disillusionment and thwarted plans the way Kumar’s does. His face has a look of quiet exasperation, as if resigned to a fate that cannot be challenged, an expression that singularly captures the young Indian trying to find his identity in an India he no longer recognises.

Pitchers was a hit, its influence on streaming shows would be felt for years to come. For Kumar, life in the city of stars was finally starting to shine. When the boys would travel to college campuses to perform at festivals in Mumbai, Goa, Bengaluru, Rajasthan, Haryana, Delhi, the auditorium would be packed with youngsters, yelling out dialogues from the show. “At one time, Rajat Kapoor was present but when we walked in, there was chaos. He was shocked and asked us, who the hell are y’all?” Jeetu recalled. “We told him about our series and also said that we were big fans.”

At college fests, the team would do skits and sketches. While the money wasn’t a lot, it was the experience of being on a campus that was the big catch. “It felt so good. It felt like home,” he said.

By 2016, the Pitchers fever had run its course and a sense of anxiety began creeping in. “I started feeling a bit empty. Like, ab kya?” While Kumar doesn’t say it in so many words, he agrees that the desire was of wanting to feel the high again. Despite his father’s warning, the drug of fame and recognition had latched on to the boy from Khairthal.

A still from Panchayat
A still from Panchayat

From ‘Pitchers’ to ‘Panchayat’

When actors who hail from film families are called out for their privilege, they often defend themselves saying that “it’s only the first film” they get because of their surname. While that’s objectively untrue (Abhishek Bachchan got over 10 films before he gave a bonafide hit), it also masks something else: grooming.

Those with famous surnames and complimentary Soho house memberships have access to the best of everything: from yoga classes to an accent coach to a personal trainer. Even their salads are curated. They are trained to make the right decisions, sift through multiple scripts before picking one that’d suit their image. Inheriting fame and stardom ensures smart projection in the media, where narratives are manufactured, and gym looks reach the paparazzi even before they can get off the treadmill. In contrast, the outsider necessarily has to have grit, determination and an immunity to failure. This isn’t to discount the struggles of the star kids, it’s to put their success in perspective.

After the success of Pitchers, Kumar pinned all his hopes on a thriller which was to be directed by Deepak Kumar Mishra, who made Panchayat. The show, to be mounted on a lavish scale, was to be shot abroad and had a True Detective-esque vibe. But it never took off. Having mentally committed himself to it, Kumar said ‘no’ to several big-ticket projects which he was offered. These included key roles in films like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha and Bareilly Ki Barfi.

“The show didn’t kick off and I lost out on these films. What do you do? You sulk and move on, hating on the fact that you just don’t know how to make smart decisions,” Kumar recalled. His personal life was in a turmoil too. His family back home felt he wasn’t giving enough time for them. Back in Mumbai, he broke up with his girlfriend, whom he’d met at a house party. So then it was only fitting that in 2017, he landed a part in a show called Bachelors, a satirical series that he says helped him ‘unlock my true potential’ and also enabled him to ward off his insecurities. “It got nominated for a bunch of web awards and we felt we were cool again,” Kumar said.

But the trauma of the thriller series not kicking off had taught him a lesson: never say no. Say ‘we’ll figure it out.’ “As you grow, you realise dates can be adjusted and multiple projects can be completed with some skilful coordination by a sharp manager.”

Kumar’s realisation made him agree to a variety of projects, something that’d finally make him exploit his true versatility. While 2018 was a quiet year, in 2019 he appeared in his first feature: Gone Kesh, a critically-acclaimed film about a girl suffering from alopecia, the TVF series Kota Factory and the MX Player show, Cheesecake.

When Gone Kesh released, his family back home went berserk. “They’d go for a show every day. I was like, calm down. But they’d say, why? When will we enjoy? Some days they’d take kids from the school I studied in, some days they’d go with friends. I knew one thing - I had atoned myself.”

Although Gone Kesh is largely a father-daughter story with Kumar being a gentle, reassuring presence, it’s in Kota Factory that he really shines. As the charming professor Jeetu Bhaiya, the role was a refreshing departure from his characters that were perennially disappointed with life. In Kota Factory, Jeetu exhibits swag and sass, a sense of dramatic confidence that counters the feeble insecurities of his past roles. “That I had a real-life experience of teaching at an IIT coaching centre and also of studying in Kota made it so much simpler to slip into this role. We had an absolute blast filming it.”

While these gigs generated significant critical acclaim and kept him visible, Kumar’s breakthrough came early this year in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan where he played Aman Tripathi, partner to Ayushmann’s Kartik Singh.

A still from Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhan
A still from Shubh Mangal Zyada Savdhan

Kumar had almost rejected the part. In March last year, he was flying to Bhopal to film Panchayat, whose story of ‘reverse-migration’ had intrigued him. “I got a call for Shubh Mangal and I said I can’t do it, I’m gonna be gone for two months.” Fortunately, the movie got pushed and after he wrapped up the nearly 3-month long schedule of the rural comedy, director Hitesh Kewalya reached out again.

From producer Aanand L. Rai to leading man Ayushmann Khurrana, everybody wanted him to play the role of the boyfriend, impressed by his performances in Pitchers and Bachelors. After he signed the film, the shoot felt like a reunion. He was with actors he’d already worked with: Gajraj Rao, Neena Gupta, Manu Rishi, Maanvi Gagroo. On Day 1 of filming, the director asked him whether he was ‘excited.’ “Yeah, I’m excited,” he said.

Kumar says that underplaying his own excitement or showing what he calls ‘subtle excitement’ comes from insecurity. “At times, I’m constantly second-guessing myself. Am I actually good? Do I know how to do this? Am I able to hold my own in an assembly line of accomplished performers?”

The answer would come. But not until much later. The shoot was tough and Jeetu struggled, at times, making his character a little effeminate, a trait that was unequivocally rejected by the director. “He told me we’ve to steer away from stereotypes. I had to play the part as just another guy in love facing conflict at home.”

There was also the concern about his character’s big monologue, a one-and-a-half page of dialogue. The team wondered if Jeetu could pull it off without the performance coming across as preachy. There was talk of trimming the scene down too. But Jeetu wanted to live up to the part he was signed for.

“It was all Hitesh,” he said. “The support I got from him at a time when I was so anxious was invaluable. Every night, I’d text him to check if I was doing okay. He’d patiently say that I was, making the next day easier for me. Actors lead very insecure lives and every line of validation matters.”

And what about critics? It isn’t farfetched to say that he’s been typecast in the part. “It’s tough to take criticism seriously when it isn’t backed by serious thought. They call me repetitive. But every character I play is different from the other. And this is what I mostly get, so should I say not to everything?”

He was exceptional in Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, a perfect counter to the flamboyance of Ayushmann’s character. His quiet vulnerability becomes the film’s emotional anchor. It’s also a character that has more to chew on as we’re familiar with his inner journey a lot more intimately than Ayushmann’s.

“I just took each day as it came without feeling overwhelmed. And during the day of monologue, I was nervous, but it went quite smoothly.”

Even after the film was complete, it hadn’t hit the boy from Alwar that the unsteady journey that began in 2012 was finally bearing fruit. Subconsciously, it perhaps had. In a way, his monologue in SMZS encapsulates years of fear, pain, rejection and being on the margins craving acceptance by an industry that often values pedigree over merit.

For Kumar, it finally kicked few days before Shubh Mangal’s trailer dropped. Ayushmann had seen the film and sent him a message.

What did it say?

“You’ve arrived.”