The new star of Hindi cinema sees himself as a work in progress. Arjun Kapoor on his art and fears
The year was 1992. On the sets of Boney Kapoor’s most ambitious project, Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja, Anil Kapoor was shooting for the song Parda Utha with a horde of background dancers. Later in the day, the same set was then converted into the villain Jugran’s (Anupam Kher) den. While director Satish Kaushik captured these moments on camera, there stood a boy in one corner of the studio watching the shots, taking in the atmosphere of a film set, his eyes wide and full of awe. The lights that lit up the set, the constant chatter of the crew, the enthusiasm of the actors and idea of making something look larger than life mesmerised him. He decided at that moment to be a part of this magical world of cinema. That boy was Arjun Kapoor.
On a humid October afternoon, he is a few minutes late for the interview which is scheduled at Sunny Super Sound in Juhu where he is dubbing for his upcoming home production Tevar. As soon as he drives in, he apologises for the delay. “I live alone and I have to take care of everything by myself. That’s why I got delayed,” he explains. He then greets the people waiting to meet him with warm handshakes before getting down to business.
No starry tantrums, no entourage, he even makes sure his phone is on silent mode while he is at work.
He parks himself on a chair to give a quick television bite to a waiting crew. “Quickly, ask now! I have to dub also in an hour. If I delay, my father will kick my butt for wasting his money,” he says with a poker face as everyone around him smiles. Arjun isn’t hyper-energetic or brazen like Ranveer Singh, nor is he goofy and talkative like Varun Dhawan. He, however, has an easy charm and this goes down to his dressing too. While most actors would refuse to do a television interview without hair and makeup in place, and in a pair of shorts and T-shirt, Arjun, much like his mentor Salman Khan, is comfortable in his own skin. “As an actor, I am supposed to look best when I am shooting for a film. Everything else is forgivable,” he says. At a personal level, he doesn’t have an issue with vanity. “How much can one control? When I am eating at a restaurant, a fan will want a selfie with me which will be uploaded on a social networking site. You’ve got to accept that you’re not going to be perfectly turned out all the time.” Arjun suggests that we do the interview in the artist room on the third floor, where we will not be disturbed. As we wait for the elevator, he climbs the stairs. “A way of keeping fit,” he smiles.
While most actors hope to debut with a candyfloss romance, Arjun debuted as an anti-hero in Habib Faisal’s Ishaqzaade (2012). His second film Aurangzeb (2013) was a gritty thriller in which he had a double role. Three years in the industry, he opted for a slice-of- life English film Finding Fanny (2014) despite its commercial limitations. “It is because of that feeling you get at the pit of your stomach when you are doing something adventurous,” he says, as his assistant hands him a cup of espresso.
Arjun talks with a maturity that belies his age. He’s just 29. It wasn’t an easy journey for him. Being an overweight teenager, acting was a far-off dream. He started off as an assistant director. Salman Khan spotted him and urged him to lose all those extra kilos. Casting director Shanoo Sharma of Yash Raj Films spotted his pictures on Facebook and called him for an audition.
He is well aware that he does not meet the standard definition of ‘movie star looks’. “I have always maintained that I am an ordinary looking guy. If anyone were to meet me on the road, they will not point out to me and say, ‘Kitna good looking hai. Bilkul hero type dikhta hai’,” he says easily. It makes him a bit of an anomaly as a Bollywood star, this lack of discomfort in talking about his limitations. His responses at no point seem rehearsed, but they seem all rather well thought out.
His increasing confidence as an actor stems perhaps from the fact that despite his ordinary looks, he has been wholeheartedly accepted by audiences. He goes on to talk about the time that Aditya Chopra first met him and told him that he wasn’t a quintessential good-looker and movies like Bachna Ae Haseeno or Jaane Tu… Ya Jaane Na will not come his way. “Adi told me not to be too bothered about my looks and concentrate on my acting because I wasn’t a chocolate boy,” recalls Arjun, who stayed true to Adi’s words and focused on being a better actor with each film.
Ali Abbas Zafar, who directed him in this year’s Gunday, a crime thriller that did not do too well, spells out the reason for Arjun’s success as a hero. “Before Arjun came in, for over ten years we were hit by the Urban Cool Youth Syndrome. A metrosexual image of a man had taken over Bollywood and this was repeatedly observed in films. Arjun, along with Ranveer [Singh] walked in to fill the gap of a macho man, much like Anil Kapoor and Jackie Shroff in the 80s. Arjun’s body structure, his built, his speech and his raw appeal is what separated him from the rest, making him stand out.”
Arjun’s acceptance in the industry is a result of Bollywood churning out real stories that require understated and more relatable faces, and those that come with no baggage. For a while, the industry was driven by a handful of male actors—the larger-than-life Khans and handsome stars like Akshay Kumar and Hrithik Roshan—but the last few years have challenged the status quo. Arjun belongs to a new generation of leading men in Bollywood, those who are actors, not stars. While Ishaqzaade worked for Arjun, his second film Aurangzeb was a flop at the box-office. His credentials as a solo hero were questioned by an industry that is more and more mercilessly driven by ticket sales. However, 2014 has proved to be his year. With 2 States (2014), he proved that he can carry a film on his shoulders. He could portray subtlety as well as machismo in Gunday. “My role in 2 States was the anti-thesis of a Punjabi hero. It was real and believable and got me a family audience.”
On the other hand, Finding Fanny was an experiment. Arjun was aware of its lack of commercial value even before the movie went on floor, but the challenge of working in an English language film and with stalwarts such as Pankaj Kapur and Naseeruddin Shah excited him. Homi Adajania, who directed the film, has an observation to share: “When I watched Arjun’s debut in Ishaqzaade, I was impressed by how effortlessly he played a character so far removed from himself. I found him very convincing and consistent. During our first meeting on Finding Fanny, I liked Arjun’s mature sensibility, his approach, and instinctively I felt that he’d totally get [his character] Savio.” His ability to submit himself to a character and allow the director to mould him to that role is a quality all his directors point out.
Having a producer father, Boney Kapoor, he learnt early that a film is a collaborative effort and not a medium for self-indulgence. He has grown up seeing his uncle Anil Kapoor’s journey; has witnessed the rise and fall of several actors in the industry; and most importantly, understood the box-office statistics that make or break a film. Talk to him about the business of cinema, and his face lights up instantly. He can rattle off statistics on films as if he were a distributor. “This has helped me in understanding my position in the industry and being realistic about my place in the industry. When you have grown up seeing Anil Kapoor and Salman Khan, your idea of stardom is at a different level. I am far away from that still,” he says. Steeped in the world of cinema, he has not limited his ambition to acting. He speaks animatedly about how he wants to write, produce and direct—in short, be involved in every aspect of filmmaking.
Adajania, talking about Arjun’s progress, says, “I’ve known Arjun through the last decade. So while it may be observed with a smile, I know he has busted his ass more than most to get where he is. I think he has a unique inner strength owing to the personal journey he has had to tread. He is wiser beyond his years as an actor with an impressively vast knowledge of all aspects of filmmaking.”
During his debut release, he had to deal with the death of his mother, Mona Shourie Kapoor, apart from all the media scrutiny of why he chose not to debut under his father’s film banner. His thorny equation with his father has been a subject of much speculation. In interview after interview, he has spoken about the influence of his mother in his life. His grounded attitude towards stardom is a result of his mother’s upbringing, he says with a lump in his throat. “Whatever I am today, I owe it to her. As a person, I am a reflection and interpretation of her.”
His relationship with his father has changed since their decision to work together. For the Kapoor lad, his next film Tevar is a homecoming of sorts. Boney Kapoor is producing the film along with paternal uncle Sanjay Kapoor. He describes it as the biggest film of his career so far. “It is Ishaqzaade– meets-Gunday—a believable action film.” Working in a home production is “draining out”, he says. “You sometimes don’t know where to draw the line between personal equations and professionalism.”
Being of different generations, Arjun and his father did have several on-set discussions that would sometimes border on arguments. But, they would go home to sleep content that it was for their film and not to push any personal agenda. The film, says Arjun, also helped him develop a good rapport with his father. “Earlier I used to have a formal relationship with him and that is because we did not live under the same roof. But while shooting, I was free and blunt with him. On the set, we connected like an actor and producer, but at the end of the day I know a father was proud of his son.”
There is a marked difference in how he handles the media from the time he was first launched and now. He talks openly about his life in the public sphere and is friendlier. “When you are brought up in this industry, you are guarded and overconditioned to [treat] the media with [wariness]. But when I was touring with Ranveer for Gunday promotions, I realised that you can make media a part of your family too. He really helped me open up,” he says. Arjun has recently joined Twitter to interact with fans.
His disarming honesty, which his Tevar co-star Sonakshi Sinha points out, is perhaps his most endearing trait. “I have achieved quite a bit today, but I am still a work-in-progress,” he states. Three years and five films later, he is on the verge of entering the industry’s league of self-sustaining successful actors. He knows there is no room for complacency. “My biggest fear is disappearing from the industry or becoming a has-been.”