Even in the misfire that is Sachin Pathak's web show London Files, a moment early on made me sit up. It's a scene where Arjun Rampal's character, Om Singh, is standing in front of a mirror, practising his smile before leaving for work. He's the father of a boy who has perpetrated a school shooting, after which Om's marriage breaks down, and he's ousted from his home in suburban London by parents in mourning. The sight of a broken Om Singh sits perfectly with Rampal's poker face – a face so hardened by grief that it needs to prepare for one of the most customary, involuntary actions in everyday life. It's a moment in which Om Singh's (seemingly several years' worth of) agony is communicated so effectively, one can't help but wrestle with the spark they see in Arjun Rampal – the actor. This is hardly the first time the 49-year-old actor has forced us to wonder what a pristine performance in a genuinely great film would look like.
Having been around for more than two decades (he made his debut in Rajiv Rai's Pyaar, Ishq Aur Mohabbat in 2001), Rampal has comfortably existed between an understated persona, good intent, and (often) faulty execution. Transitioning from a model, Rampal joined the industry around the same time as his colleagues, including John Abraham, Lara Dutta and Priyanka Chopra. Initially neither of them, especially Rampal, seemed to match the pitch of mainstream films – resulting in lazy phrases like "models can't act" getting coined. Daddy director Ashim Ahluwalia definitely seems to think his 'looks' proved to be a hindrance. "I think because he started off as a model, he was always typecast," Ahluwalia says in an email.
Rampal occupies a peculiar spot – where he seems to be in no rush to sign lucrative 100-crore franchise films, but where he still hasn't produced a unanimously adored performance in 20 years. While Rampal has often teased us about his 'potential', he's almost doggedly refused to draw attention to himself beyond what's required. Like in his latest release Dhaakad, Rampal plays the antagonist running a human trafficking syndicate – and it's interesting how Rampal fully commits to the part of a campy villain – donning silver hair and fur coats a la the Russian mafia, while speaking in chaste Bundelkhandi. It's a part that seems exciting on a theoretical level, even if it ultimately doesn't amount to much beyond violence and vacuous style.
Director Nikkhil Advani remembers how the actor surprised everyone in Rock On! (2009), a performance that also won him the National Award. "I think Rock On! was quite experimental for its time. He grew his hair, learned to play the guitar… " says Advani, who went on to direct him in D-Day (2013). In Advani's film, Rampal delivers one of his most assured performances as Rudra Pratap Singh, an undercover RAW operative, seeking refuge in a Karachi brothel. "I remember Arjun coming up to me on the 36th or 37th day of our shoot and saying he hasn't said a single line of dialogue till then," recounts Advani with a laugh. It's a performance that sits perfectly on the edge of a screen, the way Rampal likes it, until he's required to neutralise someone. He is pitch perfect as the brooding ex-military spy, earning massy lines like "Main sazaa hoon" (I'm the punishment).
"He's always remained underrated. He's meant for better roles and I think that's why he naturally gravitates to unique or interesting films," says Ashim Ahluwalia, director of Daddy
Rampal's filmography has plenty of 'safe' films – including supporting parts in Farhan Akhtar's Don (2006), Sajid Khan's Housefull (2010), or as the villain in Om Shanti Om (2007) and Ra.One (2011). But there's also a particular type of 'beta male' role that Rampal took up in the early 2010s, in films like We Are Family and Heroine. In both of these supposedly 'female-oriented films', Rampal is garnish at best. And yet, there's an assurance and grace with which he plays both parts, never trying to hog the limelight for himself. It's a trait that Ahluwalia recognises from the time he was making Daddy (2017): "He was really open and really let me push his limits as an actor. He also let me push the form of the film, which to me is a sign of great confidence as a human being."
In Kahaani 2: Durga Rani Singh, Rampal had no qualms dialling down his physical presence to play inspector Inder. "He was a sidekick to Kharajda (Mukherjee), and he just kept it there. He never once said 'I'm Arjun Rampal, look at me' through his acting," recounts Sujoy Ghosh.
Right in the aftermath of his commercial peak, Rampal swung for the fences in Sudhir Mishra's Inkaar (2013) – a film about sexual harassment at the workplace, as much as it is about office politics and a deep-dive into noxious gender dynamics even in so-called liberal workplaces, three years before the #MeToo movement began. Despite a cop-out of a climax, it doesn't take away from Rampal's assured performance, who plays both the earnest mentor and the devil, all in a span of seconds.
All his directors maintain that Arjun Rampal has the makings of a good actor, who is yet to strike his best form. "He's always remained underrated. He's meant for better roles and I think that's why he naturally gravitates to unique or interesting films," says Ahluwalia. Advani echoes Ahluwalia's sentiment. "A lot of people told me when I was about to make D-Day why I don't go to John Abraham or Ajay Devgn. But I said no. Arjun and I watch the same things, so he fully understood what I was trying to make," says Advani.
Rampal has already taken to interesting parts on OTT platforms, including a suicidal pilot in Zee5's The Final Call, a lawyer fighting a twisted case in Zee5's Nail Polish and the umpteenth iteration of a cop with a tragic past, who cannot function without the odd drink or pill in London Files. Advani is of the opinion that underrated actors like Rampal will witness a second coming on OTT. "I'm talking about the Sharman Joshis and Akshaye Khannas – unbelievably underrated actors, I believe OTT will allow them to fly provided they fully submit. I think Arjun already is. In his heart – I think he's quite an arty guy" says Advani.
Starring in Aparna Sen's next directorial venture, The Rapist, which premiered and won the top prize at the 2021 Busan International Film Festival, Rampal will be doing a 180 degree turn from his role in Dhaakad, by playing a bespectacled husband to Konkona Sen Sharma. It's the kind of range that keeps most observers fascinated about Rampal's choices.
It's debatable whether Arjun Rampal's career as an actor deserves to be dissected at all. And yet, who can deny the potential in him waiting to be tapped. The day Arjun Rampal nails a part in a great film/show, we all win.