The Shahid Kapoor Conundrum

This year marks 20 years for the Farzi actor in Hindi cinema. Here are his top three performances
The Shahid Kapoor Conundrum

It’s called the Shahid Kapoor conundrum — not for one moment does it seem that 2023 is the actor’s 20th year in the Hindi film industry. This is both his biggest gift and greatest curse. 

First, some context. Kapoor’s done it all: Chocolate boy, romcom hunk, sanskari package, rugged hustler, massy action star, dancer, comedian, period hero, Shakespearean tragic and toxic lover. He has established himself across two generations of male performers, surviving not just the superstar era but also reinventing himself in the age of the Singhs and the Dhawans. The jury might be out on his image as a bankable star, but his versatility – and his willingness to throw everything at the wall to see what sticks – has never been in question. He has tried and tested more than most, which is perhaps why he has also stayed relevant longer than most.

Back to the conundrum. Unlike most, Kapoor has valiantly battled against the boyishness of his face. One might assume that looking young to a fault is every celebrity’s dream, but in a cultural landscape where masculinity has become the broadest box-office draw, this is no longer the superpower it once was. There’s always a sense that Kapoor’s trademark agelessness – one that shaped his rise from barely-legal music video favourite to mainstream Bollywood actor – has influenced his choice of roles as well as our perception of them. 

For instance, he’s never really made a mark as the righteous and conventional Indian hero, because the merging of actor and character feels too virginal. The odd Barjatya hit aside, this list is endless: Rangoon (2017), Padmaavat (2018),Mausam (2011), Teri Meri Kahaani (2012), Kismat Konnection (2008), Shaandaar (2015), Dil Bole Hadippa! (2009), Fida (2004), Dil Maange More (2004), Badmaash Company (2010). There are more, but it always seemed like he was the safest possible option in White Knight stories. Jab We Met (2007) broke that stereotype for a hot second, but he wasn’t quite the best Kapoor in that film; Aditya’s maturity almost seemed too staged in Geet’s free-spirited journey.

Yet, it’s only when Kapoor plays edgier, darker and Unlikable Male Characters – roles chosen precisely to counter that impossibly fresh face – that his performances become infinitely more interesting. It’s no coincidence that his much-hyped debut in Ken Ghosh’s Ishq Vishk (2003) – as an unappealing kid in a college love triangle – felt like a direct reaction to his popularity as “that cutie in the Aryans music video”. The quest started early. At times, of course, the Shah Rukh Khan-derived swag feels too performative; he often overcooks the rakish manliness in movies like Jersey (2022), Kabir Singh (2019) (don’t @ me), R…Rajkumar (2013) and Phata Poster Nikla Hero (2013). But again, for better or worse, it’s the nationwide success of Kabir Singh that revived Kapoor’s career. You could nearly touch his desire to break away from boring-hero-delicious-villain ensembles like Padmaavat and Rangoon

Perhaps it’s only fitting that Shahid Kapoor’s foray into long-form acting – his first web series – looks like his latest entry into the Unlikable Male Character catalogue. Farzi, directed by The Family Man duo Raj-DK and co-starring Vijay Sethupathi, is a crime thriller that features Kapoor as a conman artist pulled into a cat-and-mouse chase with a task-force officer. In light of this digital debut, here’s a brief flashback of Shahid Kapoor’s three finest performances, all of which – you guessed it – were heroes wrapped in the language of anti-heroes. 

Kaminey (2009)

The first of two Vishal Bhardwaj movies here had me at “Charlie lisps while Guddu stutters”. Kaminey was Kapoor’s first ‘serious’ stab at acting – his first heavyweight performance – after a string of uneven romantic outings. As it turned out – and much of this Bollywood-mad country, including myself, realised this – the kid could act. There was no turning back. Kapoor broke out in a quivering and dramatic double role fashioned by Hindi cinema’s best all-round filmmaker. It worked wonders, because this junction of Kapoor’s career actually informed the personalities of the characters. Mumbai-raised twins Charlie and Guddu vaguely represented the two facets of Kapoor’s on-screen quest. Guddu, the nobler and nicer of the two, felt like who Kapoor was perceived as until then; his nervous stutter and muted ambition to play it safe made him an endearing – if contrasting – presence in the film. The rude and morally ambiguous Charlie felt like the man Kapoor hoped to play more often, a middle finger to his pigeonholed sweetness that had been thrust upon him. Half a decade later, it would again be Bhardwaj who plucked Kapoor out of his commercial nowhereness with…

Haider (2014)

I remember breaking into a cold sweat after a screening of Haider. Vishal Bhardwaj’s Hamlet adaptation was so intricate and rooted that the prospect of writing about it felt scary. That it was one of my first professional reviews only made it worse. But the ‘in’ point was always going to be Shahid Kapoor’s storied depiction of sociopolitical madness. It seemed like a showy performance at first, but it’s the performativity of Hamlet’s descent that holds the key to the film’s Shakespearean swishes. By casting him, the director had turned Kapoor’s weakness into a statement of courage and strength. His Haider Meer is disillusioned by both mother and motherland, cursed by an ability to merge into a wartorn Kashmir while standing out at once. Kapoor owns the ‘moments’ of a film whose anti-establishment plurality threatens to hijack the cinema itself. There’s a lot to appreciate in the way the actor submits himself to a role that reminds the audience how the storytelling – the oedipal tension, the public outbursts, the moral conflicts – is just as big as the story being told. Tabu might have stolen the parts, but it’s Kapoor who sustained the whole.

Udta Punjab (2016)

I can’t think of a better actor as the popstar version of Kabir Singh – a man’s man spreading all the wrong messages through his art – with an actual redemption arc. Kapoor aces the reckless aura of Tommy Singh, an infamous Punjabi singer who suddenly grows a conscience. All of Kapoor’s intensity comes to the fore, even as he finds a softness at the core of his character’s unusual transformation. In a superbly directed Abhishek Chaubey drama with top-drawer performances by Alia Bhatt, Kareena Kapoor Khan and Diljit Dosanjh, it’s Shahid who becomes the trump card – the boyish buffoon who struggles to express his new identity as an enlightened adult. He crafts a canvas of darkness and humour, lending brevity to a narrative that refuses to be identified by its social significance. Of Kapoor’s many turns in the last two decades, it’s this one that best marries cinematic context with artistic potential. Ironically, this is also his most compelling love story; the unlikely romance between the two ‘survivors’ plays out like a primary thread disguised as a sideshow. And it’s to Kapoor’s credit that Tommy Singh becomes the male saviour who is saved – from (masculine) style and (toxic) substance. 

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