Saawariya to Shamshera: Ranking Ranbir Kapoor’s Roles

Ahead of Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar, here’s a fond look at the actor’s filmography so far
Saawariya to Shamshera: Ranking Ranbir Kapoor’s Roles

Since his debut in 2007, Ranbir Kapoor has been that rare Hindi film actor who has both defied and owned his blue-blooded Bollywood heritage. Having a famous surname is complicated. But Kapoor has made art out of finding his own voice – both on and off screen – while making the most of his genes and access. His most ambitious roles stem from an awareness of where he comes from; his most celebrated ones are rooted in a vision of how far he is willing to go. This is evident in how a lot of his characters are defined by their love for movies, while a lot of their conflict is shaped by a curiosity for life. He has strived to capture the reality of the viewers who watch him as well as the fiction of the escapes they take. It’s a tightrope balance, and one that Kapoor has invoked time and again in pursuit of a newer, more contemporary language of storytelling. 

The result has been a refreshingly reactive filmography – spanning 15 years and 18 roles (not including cameos) – in which his failures have been more important than his successes. The fate of his passion projects have led him in a different direction today, but the all-or-nothing aura has endured through these phases.

On the eve of Brahmastra – his 19th and biggest film in terms of scale and pop-cultural stakes – here are all of Ranbir Kapoor’s roles, ranked, in ascending order of quality:

18. Besharam (2013)
Abhinav Kashyap’s mystifyingly empty homage to masala cinema remains the worst film of Ranbir Kapoor’s career. You can’t blame Kapoor for giving it a shot, though, because which Bollywood star doesn’t want a single-screen hit (also starring their own parents) on their CV? After the success of Barfi!, too, playing a quirky crook pursued by bumbling but good-hearted cops might have seemed appealing. There’s nothing blatantly wrong with Kapoor’s performance as Babli, but it often feels like he’s lowering his own standards to be in sync with the film’s brand of entertainment. His penchant for physical comedy, too, is undercut by an immodest script that seems content with the casting of three Kapoors. Besharam also signalled the end of Ranbir’s four-year honeymoon period, a rude reality check after one of the most remarkable acting streaks in modern Hindi cinema.

17.  Saawariya (2007)
Saawariya was Sanjay Leela Bhansali trying to get away with gorgeous murder. It was a Dostoevsky adaptation and a Raj Kapoor tribute at once, and debutant Ranbir Kapoor was little more than a spirited medium. Kapoor’s high-pitched performance plays out like an “expectation” panel – where his potential and talent feel secondary to the event itself. There are moments (not the towel) when Ranbir threatens to break out of elaborately conceived frames that leave no room for spontaneity. Like when his boyishness is on the brink of collapsing after learning of Sakina’s truth. Or when he teases the old-but-gold Lilliput. But the Bhansali-ness of this world consumes everything in its wake, leaving Kapoor to play a role – that of a true-blue RK descendent – rather than a movie character. The towel doesn’t fully drop. Neither does the penny.

16. Shamshera (2022)

On paper, Ranbir Kapoor’s return to the big screen after four years had everything going for it: A double role for its hero, his first period action role, a Baahubali-sized canvas, progressive caste messaging, a proper villain, a massive budget and a legacy production house. But Bollywood movies aren’t made on paper. Shamshera’s poor execution and derivative form consigned Ranbir Kapoor 2.0 to a rocky start. Except for a light-footed opening where the son of a fallen tribe ruler plays a version of Ranbir Kapoor (and not vice versa), the actor is undone by a script that strips his character of all complexity and edges in pursuit of easy thrills. For once, the brooding-hero act looks undercooked in a film that isn’t existential or imaginative enough to reframe history as a big-screen adventure. Kapoor moves and weaves and orates, but the intensity of the story is too stagey to tap into his between-the-lines craft.

15. Roy (2015)

Ranbir Kapoor’s is an extended cameo in this fascinating misfire about the symbiotic relationship between art and life. That’s not to say his presence is insignificant. His meta role in and as Roy – a fictional character (a suave art thief) being written by a heartbroken filmmaker who is looking for the perfect climax of his latest movie – is short but loaded. His cool, poker-faced performance even works as a nod to the way most film writers tend to use the actor as a medium of private catharsis through their glossy stories. That the film itself is far from perfect – though deeper than meets the eye – only adds to Kapoor’s uncanny embrace of the reel-real divide.

14. Anjaana Anjaani (2010)

Siddharth Anand’s love story between two suicidal strangers wasn’t a bad film; it just lacked the maturity to be a good (or original) one. It certainly can’t be accused of playing safe, just as Ranbir Kapoor’s performance – which treads the risky line between black comedy and mental health drama – cannot be accused of playing to the gallery. (Unless the gallery is, well, empty). Both Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra commit to their roles – just like they would in Barfi! a few years later – and feed off one another to push the movie beyond its one-line concept. I remember noting how Kapoor uses his face – and the economy of expression – to convey emotions otherwise amplified by the excesses of life-or-death stories. In the scenes where Akash tries to kill himself, there’s a blankness in Kapoor’s eyes that he went on to patent in a decade of self-destructive roles ahead. 

13. Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008)

The Siddharth Anand directorial – that can best be described as Bollywood’s reading of a Mitch Albom book – was designed to modernize the YRF romantic hero, pay homage to Ranbir Kapoor’s own heritage and be a man-child transformation drama at once. Kapoor’s role as a playboy named Raj who sets out to pay penance for his sins by seeking out all the girls whose hearts he broke also felt like an apologist take on all those ‘90s love triangles featuring the charming hero freely rejecting one heroine for another. (“Kids, be a sensitive jerk”). Kapoor is charming in the film, too, and a fluid dancer to boot. To his credit, he makes the journey of a self-important drifter course-corrected by a Deepika Padukone character seem…novel. There’s no tamasha yet, just the introduction of a coming-of-age face that would go on to normalize a faceless generation.

12. Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani (2009)

In his everything-he-touches-turns-to-gold year, Ranbir Kapoor’s biggest hit was an over-the-top Rajkumar Santoshi comedy co-starring Katrina Kaif and Upen Patel. (2009 was a long time ago). You could sense that this was perhaps Kapoor living out his own childhood dream, doing a film for the man who made his (and everyone’s) favourite Nineties cult caper. Kapoor’s Prem fit right into the vintage mold – as an updated model of the pantomime hero made popular by his father and grandfather. His reading of body humour, in particular, would evolve into the soul of the other-worldly Anurag Basu movies. Looking back, it was probably the success of this film that freed the actor from the hype of his surname, allowing him to take wild swings at the screen after having ‘proven’ his mass viability. 

11. Bombay Velvet (2015)

There’s something about Ranbir Kapoor – an emotional endlessness and artistic fluidity perhaps – that convinces most filmmakers to do their most ambitious (and at times, messiest) work with him. Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet, just like Anurag Basu’s Jagga Jasoos, stayed in the news for all the wrong reasons during its production. The negativity bled into its (unfair) reception: The period gangster drama was overstuffed and immature at worst, but by no means the disaster that it was made out to be. Amit Trivedi’s hypnotic soundtrack aside, everything else was lost in the din – including Kapoor’s turn as Johnny Balraj, a dreamy 1960s hustler whose love for a fragile jazz singer borders on sickness. You get a sense of an orphan-to-king journey being derailed at first, only to realize that Johnny’s doomed romance was perhaps his destiny all along. It’s an agitated and acidic performance, one that strives to surpass the incessant cinephilia of the film.

10. Raajneeti (2010)

If there’s one grouse I nurture against Ranbir Kapoor’s career, it’s that he has never quite been the Bollywood villain. He’s been dark, lost, troubled, self-destructive, entitled, obsessive, unlikable, even borderline sociopathic, but never a morally depraved Padmaavat-level antagonist. It’s not his fault, though, for he broke through in an era that humanized our relationship with the big screen. Prakash Jha’s Raajneeti is perhaps the closest Ranbir Kapoor has come to breaking bad. As a cool-to-cold-blooded political scion who succumbs to his own genes, Kapoor delivers a deceptively sharp performance that defies the film’s loud and uneven tone. He looks like a misfit in a dense narrative, which strangely informs our perception of his character’s outsider status. In the process, Kapoor’s Samar Pratap nearly compensates for Raajneeti’s over-plotted mythological and real-world tone. Even here, the turmoil stays internal. How could it not?

9. Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016)

Ayan, from Karan Johar’s simplified ode to “ek tarfa pyaar” (unrequited love), is a Greatest Hits mixtape of all the roles that made Ranbir Kapoor. As a man who cannot accept romantic rejection by his best friend and, subsequently, a singer who turns heartbreak into art, Kapoor’s performance is familiar without being inferior. The typecasting is apparent, yet somehow Ayan’s entitled journey through the contours of toxic masculinity stays very watchable. Even when the storytelling descends into farce in the final act – and despite the urban fetishization of Urdu, the compromised Hindu-Muslim slant and the casting controversy surrounding the film – it’s the trademark heart-over-mind hold of Kapoor that prevents Ae Dil Hai Mushkil from losing the plot. Watching Ayan throw a lyrical tantrum in ‘Channa Mereya’ alone becomes worth the price of a ticket.

8. Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013)

Kabir ‘Bunny’ Thapar is the modern Indian millennial’s wet dream. He has wanderlust with a capital W, the best father in the world, a sensitive stepmother, nostalgic friends, a story that has eyes only for him, a potential lover with a geek-to-glam arc – and the audacity to be a drifter and settler at once. Kapoor floats between genres with effortless charm as Bunny, lending the character the sort of shapeless ambition that resonates with a culture that’s outgrown morally certain heroes. Whether he’s sitting quietly with a glass of rooh afza while reflecting on his identity as a son, or stealing a glance at a barely recognizable Naina in the opening seconds of ‘Badtameez Dil,’ Kapoor roots the romantic idealism of the script in something far more concrete. There is no faking a coming-of-age graph, and Bunny’s story unfurls as nearly the reverse of Ved’s from Tamasha – his free-spirited persona slowly finds the fruits of conformism. The actor is so convincing as an unconvinced man that he almost pulls off the unlikely climax. Almost. 

7. Wake Up Sid (2009)

Ayan Mukerji’s debut cleverly staged its protagonist, Sid, as a fictional version of Ranbir Kapoor himself. Just like the character breaks out of his privileged life to find his own path, one could sense the actor finding his own after a brace of glossy Bollywood launch vehicles. Both journeys collide to create a deceptively personal performance. Not for the first time, love compels a Ranbir Kapoor character to grow the heck up. But there’s an awareness here that the woman he’s paired with – played beautifully by Konkona Sen Sharma – is the star of her own Mumbai-centric film; their chemistry comes from the need to understand one another, both as reel and real characters. In no universe would Sid and Aisha end up together as companions; Mukerji repeats this folly – where romantic incompatibility is framed as just another obstacle in love – in his next film. But Ranbir Kapoor comes of age on screen so breezily that not even the compulsions of commercial Hindi cinema could derail these stories.

6. Sanju (2018)

Rarely has there been such a glaring gap between a whole and the part driving it. I’m not a big believer in the “great acting but mediocre movie” line of criticism, but Sanju – Rajkumar Hirani’s hagiographical blockbuster centered on controversial Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt – makes a solid case for it. It stretches the misunderstood-celebrity trope to its limit, blaming the entire world for its famous protagonist’s struggles. However, Ranbir Kapoor wheels past the narrative varnish and prosthetics to create a character that’s composed as much from life as the movies; his focus stays on adapting and interpreting rather than mimicking. His Sanju almost compels us to read between the lines, evoking the sort of social subtext that the writing sorely missed. I exited the cinema hall so swayed by his turn that my knee-jerk reaction was to like the film – for precisely one hour. 

5. Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009)

Shimit Amin and Jaideep Sahni’s disarming workforce film will always be Ranbir Kapoor’s Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa. There’s a wisdom beyond his years in his turn as the humble Harpreet Singh Bedi, a white-collar fresher who defies the corporateness of striving by starting his own computer-service company. Kapoor nails a rare character that finds creativity within the shackles of conformism – a person who many accuse Tamasha’s Ved of generalizing in its own breaking-free arc. The actor doesn’t play ‘Rocket Singh’ as a simpleton who fumbles his way to success. He resorts to empathy as an act of resistance, which in turn allows Bedi to embrace the computer-selling trade rather than the soul-selling business. The movie is an unabashed ode to Indian traditionalism, but thanks to Kapoor’s performance, it never feels like a bad thing. Playing an everyman in his third year as a Hindi film actor dispelled all the cynicism surrounding his starkid status, setting his career on a trajectory that fused artistic interest with commercial intent.

4. Tamasha (2015)

Every time anyone writes or speaks about Tamasha, I can almost hear the collective eye-rolling on social media platforms. It’s been that sort of film – divisive, shape-shifting, personal, provocative. And it’s aged in all sorts of directions with time; I’ve rarely seen a new-age Bollywood movie trigger so much scrutiny, reading and fan theory. Much of this legacy is rooted in Ranbir Kapoor’s many-splendored performance as Ved, an escapist parading as a realist: A man of the movies parading as a man of the world. Say what you will about Kapoor’s monopoly of the man-child template, nobody mines it better than him. His Ved cannot be reduced to one label, largely because of how the actor translates an identity crisis into somewhat of a cultural touchstone for Hindi storytelling. His blurring of lines between dreams and mental illness ties into this society’s tendency to dismiss both as fictional constructs. Tamasha also represented the most fertile phase of Kapoor’s career – one that, while it lasted, turned the see-sawing between actor and star into its own art form.

3. Jagga Jasoos (2017)

Eventually, history might look back at Jagga Jasoos as more than the heartbreaking failure that set Ranbir Kapoor on a more orthodox acting path. Anurag Basu’s gloriously eccentric musical has the heart of a silent film and the soul of a father-son chamber comedy. It’s held together (or something like that) by Kapoor’s unfiltered investment in the stuttering comic-book hero who’s almost bleeding into the real world. He makes the dissonant journey look poignant and rich at once, often cutting through Basu’s madness to reveal the method at its core. More than anything, it’s a joyous performance to watch – unadorned by starry crutches and fueled by a desire to reinvent the language of Hindi entertainment. It looks deceptively natural, bridging the void between soundscape and visual grammar. Kapoor thinks like a filmmaker in his finest roles, and his Jagga is right up there in terms of bringing dreams to life – and life to dreams. 

2. Barfi! (2012)

The conflicted legacy of Anurag Basu’s Barfi! – homage or rip-off? Clumsy or genius? – has not dimmed the light of its fabled performances. Ranbir Kapoor’s enchanting turn as the deaf-mute protagonist who sees and hears the world as a whimsical fairytale plays out like a giant feeling. He’s all heart as Murphy “Barfi” Johnson, a human extension of Basu’s optically elastic setting. Kapoor blends into the world and stands out at once, straddling the line between visual prop and social misfit. Emotions inform Barfi’s slapstick harmony with the environment; Kapoor’s Chaplin-esque ability to snatch joy from the jaws of sadness – and vice versa – comes to the fore. Most of all, he lends credence to Barfi’s oddball relationship with an autistic Jhilmil – which might have looked creepy in a lesser film – by legitimizing the differently abled view of care as platonic love. Barfi is the father and brother she never had, and his desire to protect her is derived from a mutual mistrust of an ableist society that links companionship to romance. And life to the stories we consume.

1.Rockstar (2011)

The jury will forever be out on Rockstar, Imtiaz Ali’s messy and mercurial ode to the romantic tussle between art and heartbreak. It can be argued that editor Aarti Bajaj, composer A.R. Rahman and, most of all, actor Ranbir Kapoor whipped the restless film into the shape of recklessness. Rockstar legitimized the birth of the Ranbir Kapoor era – one that was unofficially well underway after a coming-of-age drama (Wake Up Sid), a goofball comedy (Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani), an office-space underdog dramedy (Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year) and a political thriller (Raajneeti). His feverish performance as Delhi-born musician Janardhan Jhakar (a.k.a Jordan) has that eye-of-the-cyclone vibe about it – particularly in terms of how it reveals the stillness of a rebellion torn between adolescence and adulthood, rapture and rage. It’s like watching an artist get infected with love and inspired by it at once. He makes genius look incidental to the grief of living – a magic trick that, in the inimitable words of Luck By Chance’s Romy Rolly, announced Ranbir Kapoor as a ‘vul-cano of talent’.  

This story was originally published on September 6, 2022.

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