In his new film Rk/Rkay, Rajat Kapoor plays a filmmaker named RK who is also playing the lead in his new film. You're supposed to note how the on-screen RK mirrors the director. "Just because the protagonist in this case is a filmmaker, it might create the illusion of this being more personal, but this is an illusion one wanted to create," Kapoor said during our interview. "That is why it was important I play the role of RK."
Kapoor is a familiar face in commercial Hindi films and in his new film, he plays what could be himself in a parallel universe. The boundaries between real and reel seem particularly flimsy. In our universe, Kapoor's breakout role was in Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding (2001) and he was most recently seen in Shakun Batra's Gehraiyaan as Siddhanth Chaturvedi's business associate Jitesh, who comes across a dark, twisted version of Mahesh Uncle in Farhan Akhtar's Dil Chahta Hai (2001). "I'll tell this to Shakun," he said, laughing, after hearing my description of his character in Gehraiyaan. The idea of fictional characters taking off in unexpected directions is clearly something that amuses him.
Despite the acting credits to his name, Kapoor's first love is direction. As a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and a long-time admirer of experimental filmmakers like Mani Kaul, Kapoor's interest is in telling offbeat stories. The blurring of the boundaries between fantasy and reality is a recurring theme in Kapoor's films. In Raghu Romeo (2003), Kapoor's first film, the protagonist is obsessed with a character in a television soap opera. Mithya (2008) saw an actor being mistaken for an underworld don. The central premise of Ankhon Dekhi (2014), which pushes the saying "seeing is believing" to its logical extreme, is the need to distinguish real from unreal.
In the Mumbai of RK/Rkay, the border between fictional and factual is especially porous. Fittingly for a film that's so much about filmmaking and Bollywood, the two male protagonists are named after legendary Bollywood film studios — RK and Mehboob Studios. Kapoor as RK has "a Guru Dutt style moustache" and is playing the part of Mehboob, the hero of a film that seems to be modelled on the genre of the Muslim social, which was popular in Bollywood in the Fifties and Sixties. Sharing the screen with RK is a glamorous actress, played by Mallika Sherawat, and a character actor named Ranvir, played by Ranvir Shorey. "Mera naseeb meri mutthi mein hai (My fate is in my hand)," Mehboob says in a scene in the film within the film, and the dialogue in a strange twist of fate turns literal. After RK has shot the film and is in the process of editing it, Mehboob suddenly disappears from the footage and appears in RK's world, demanding the filmmaker change the ending RK has given Mehboob in his story.
"This film was particularly difficult (to direct) because of the double role, because when you are acting, you are responding to somebody, your co actor," said Kapoor
RK/Rkay is at once a high-concept film about filmmaking, a black comic caper and a piece on existential dread – and a continuation of themes and narrative devices that have interested Kapoor as a director.
Over the years, Kapoor has worked as you'd expect an indie filmmaker to have done — with a small circle of regulars — cinematographer Rafey Mehmood; sound designer Resul Pookutty; editor Suresh Pai; composer Sagar Desai; and production designer Meenal Agarwal (who happens to be Kapoor's wife). Among actors, Shorey remains a constant. For films like Kapoor's, the sources of funding are limited. For Raghu Romeo, Kapoor emailed to his friends, asking them to contribute. It might be India's first crowdfunded film. In 2018, Kapoor started raising funds through crowdfunding for RK/Rkay. Midway into the process, two private producers came on board.
Although RK/Rkay seems to be ideally suited for streaming platforms, Kapoor is excited for the theatrical release. "For me it's the joy of the premiere night, and just that Friday, Saturday, Sunday… I'll go and watch it in different cinemas. I'll go to the Andheri side, but I'll also go to Sterling, where Raghu Romeo and Mixed Doubles (2006) had released," he said. While talking about watching RK/Rkay on big screen, he emphasised on the sound rather than the image. "What we actually don't realise is that sound moves your emotion in a certain way. That's where the direction is happening," he said.
RK/Rkay will release in theatres on July 22.
Here are edited excerpts of our interview:
Is it tricky to direct yourself?
Normally it's not a problem. I don't start writing a role for myself. RK/Rkay is the only one where I knew it has to be me, because of the nature of the film. It's not an issue to act and direct, because as an actor you know if it worked or didn't work. And also these days you have a monitor — the great guys were the guys who did it without one.
But this film was particularly difficult because of the double role, because when you are acting, you are responding to somebody, your co actor. So you do something, you see a reaction in his eyes and that propels you to say something else and so on. Or you do something which you think is funny and he laughs, so you know it landed. Yaha pe aisa sala kuchh thha nahi. Because I was reacting to a nobody. Then I would sit there and react to this nobody.
It's a triple role.
Yes. I also had a lot of scenes in which I speak to the Gulabo character through a computer screen — again, there was no reaction from another actor. I was really… in a void like that. So that was the tough part.
What was the central idea of RK/Rkay?
RK has made a film and he's anxious, because he knows it's not coming together. His anxiety is the interesting part for me. He gets this recurring nightmare — of doors opening and banging, which is what the film starts with — of something terrible happening. He wakes up at 2 am and tells his wife — and something terrible does happen when Mehboob runs out of the film. It's possible to read it like it is actually RK who is splitting into his alter ego and himself.
In the film, you revisit themes you've explored in the past.
Now I have realised, when I look back at my films, that there is a thematic continuity. There is a thing about identity, a lot, which is there in Mithya, which is there in Fatso (because this guy has died and his soul enters into another man's body). It's there in Raghu Romeo (this guy thinking that image is the person), and again with RK/Rkay.
There is a fascination about obsessive men. Raghu is obsessive, Sunil in Mixed Doubles is obsessive. VK in Mithya. Babuji in Ankhon Dekhi. And now again RK is an obsessive filmmaker — film, film, film, film, film, to the point that his wife (Kubra Sait) says, 'RK, it's just a film'. And he says, 'Just a film? I can't believe you said that?'.
Since a film like this is fundamentally so personal, was RK/Rkay born out of some kind of a crisis?
I don't think it is any more personal than Mithya or Ankhon Dekhi.
There are a whole bunch of films about the manic process of a filmmaker making a film, 81/2 being, of course, the most famous one. Did you have any particular film in mind?
81/2 is an obvious example and it is one of the big influences on me. When I ake classes I show parts of it, and it's one of my favourite films of all time. If I had to pick one film it would either be Chaplin's Modern Times or City Lights, or 81/2. Then there are films like Day for Night, All that Jazz.
But I think RK is more like 6 Characters in Search of an Author in that it's not a film about filmmaking so much as it's about the character running out, and saying that, 'I am alive, I live, and I have will, I am not predestined. Just because you wrote me doesn't mean you control me'.
For me, the interesting question was there, whether we are all destined to do what we do. At one point, Mehboob tells RK that "Even you have lines that are given to you. You are as controlled as I am." The larger idea is whether any of us have free will.
It's dealing with these big ideas, but it's also a comic caper.
I enjoy humour. That's part of who I am, in my work at least. In theatre, I have worked a lot with clowns. Everything I've done for the last 20 years have been with clowns and clowning. I don't know why I am attracted to it. Maybe I think it'll be more engaging for people. Otherwise things start becoming too preachy. I am very scared of that, that it should not sound like I am giving some gyaan. Things should have a touch of lightness.
The film has a fantastical hook.
It's a fable. That's the zone I like. For me fables work. Ajeeb insaan ki kahaani hai. Uske dimaag mein ek keeda hai. Aur is raaste pe jaa raha hai. (It's the story of a strange man. He has an obsessiveness. And he's going down a certain path.)
Do you face creative blocks?
No. I decide to finish a draft and I finish it. If I give myself 20 days, I finish it in 20 days. I'm disciplined enough to do that. At the end of 20 days the draft might be shit. So in that case I will do another draft after a year, take a relook at it, or I'll chuck it.
Sometimes, eight years later, it takes a new form. I wrote Rk/Rkay for the first time in 2011. The idea was still that RK was a filmmaker, but it's his reflection from the mirror that goes missing. So he's quite anxious. What does it mean? And then the reflection comes into the real world and slowly takes over his life. So it kept changing and took this form.
Rk/Rkay is crowdfunded. You've always sought non-traditional ways of financing.
I would love traditional ways of financing and they have not looked my way (laughs). When I had written Mithya, and Raghu Romeo, in 1998, I went to everybody with the scripts, but nobody wanted them. Meanwhile my acting career took off. I did Dil Chahta Hai (2001). I started getting a little money, started saving some. By 2003, I had Rs 15 lakh. I said, "F*** it, I will make this film somehow". The total budget of Raghu Romeo was Rs 80 lakh. Rs 40 lakh came from NFDC [National Film Development Corporation], Rs 15 lakh was mine, Rs 25 lakh was crowdfunding. I was writing emails to my friends, "Buy shares in my film." They sent it to other people.
It was an early form of crowdfunding.
Yeah. It was probably the first time anybody did it. Out of desperation, man. It's the film that pushes you to make it. It's not the other way around.
This is the more frustrating part, not the creative process.
It is. This and then releasing the film is the only frustrating part. These are the two big blocks. You can't get money to make a film. And when you make the film, that one year in between, it's pure joy. Then again when you have to release the film, again it's a block — nobody wants it. But I am not bitter about it. It is how it is. You want to make films like this, this will happen to you.
Has it changed?
It hasn't changed at all. OTTs have their own agenda and ambitions and their own idea of what will work and what won't work.
When you started making feature films, you were making what used to be called 'multiplex films'.
Those five years, 2004 onwards, were golden years for us… Mixed Doubles, Bheja Fry (2007), Mithya. Some of them were big successes. And then with the 2009 recession, it just disappeared. What happened after that was that these big Bollywood films like Wanted started coming. They said, "Boss, we will come out with 3,500 prints, take the entire multiplex space". So our space got washed out, then nobody wanted us. Aankhon Dekhi was a nightmare to release. We got 40 shows in the whole country. It was pathetic.
It did find an afterlife online.
It did, it did. I have got so much love for Aankhon Dekhi, I can't tell you. Everyday I meet someone who tells me, "Sir, thank you for making that film". It's really beautiful. But I remember being depressed that Friday. I remember going to Citi Mall, PVR, and when the show got over, there were 25 people. Then it picked up. But the life it actually got was on Netflix. So that's the good thing about OTTs, that a film is not out after three weeks.
As an actor, which are some of the characters you've enjoyed playing the most?
I enjoy my performance in Aankhon Dekhi. There's a film called Mantra, I don't know if you've seen it. My performance is very good in that film. Baaki I am okay.
I don't count myself as an actor at all. I studied filmmaking in FTII [Film and Television Institute of India], assisted for three years in Bombay. I made my first film in 1995, which never got released, called Private Detective: Two Plus Two Plus One (1997) with Naseeruddin Shah. Before that I made a short film Tarana (1995), which got the National award, but these films are never seen. Raghu Romeo was my first released film. I was always a filmmaker. I assisted Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani for three years. Acting just happened to me. Thoda paisa mil jaata hai, that's it.
I have done a few web series in the last couple of years I have enjoyed working on, which have not released. I play a terrorist, Bhaijaan, in this show called Radicals who is getting three young terrorists to attack Bombay. They are on their way and the trains are stopped when they are told that there have been terrorist attacks in Bombay. Very funny. There's one called Pirates by Jai Mehta.
I didn't do much in Scam, but it was fun working with Hansal [Mehta]. He was very sweet, very gentle, and gave me a free hand. I think people liked the character because they saw me using bad language. Even though the role in Gehraiyaan was nothing, I enjoyed working in it because I love Shakun Batra very much.
How did you get interested in films? Did you grow up in Delhi watching regular Hindi cinema?
Yes, but my father was a big film buff. Every year the National award-winning films are shown in Delhi in Vigyaan Bhavan. I remember in 1974 — I was 13 years old — watching Mani Kaul's Duvidha (1973) with him. My dad was not an ordinary film buff; he was slightly special. Woh bacche ko le ja raha hai Duvidha dekhne (He was taking a kid to see Duvidha)! So that must have had an influence on me. By the age of 16, I was certain I was going to make films.
When my father met Mani while I was assisting him, he told him, "Yeh toh bohut baad mein aapke fan huye, main toh bohut pehle se fan hoon," and I was super embarrassed. Have you seen Duvidha? I revisited it three-four years back on a flight and I was like "Oh, the sound design of that film is incredible".
Do you consider Mani Kaul your guru?
Mani and Kumar Shahani both, in equal terms. Ankhon Dekhi is dedicated to both. I've learnt everything, everything, from the two guys. The first film I made, Private Detective, is a completely Kumar Shahani film. I mean, it's a noir thriller, but in my head I was Kumar Shahani's chela. So it's heavily influenced by Kumar, not in a good way. I think in Raghu Romeo I started to find my own voice: Who am I? What do I want to do?