Arjun Kapoor recently completed 7 years in the film industry as an actor. In his next film and 11th release, India's Most Wanted, he plays an officer tracking down a dreaded terrorist. He has also completed a film with Dibakar Banerjee – an experience that he says 'broke him' as an actor. We spoke to Kapoor about his acting choices, the film that never got its due, and his ability to process failure.
Firstly, congratulations. I saw you posted about 7 years of Ishaqzaade. When you look back, what are you most proud of?
That I've carved a place for myself in a cutthroat profession that has highs and lows on a daily basis. I've managed to embrace it, survive it. People have connected with me, the kind of work I've done. It superseded my expectations, but it's created new ambitions and it's created a new energy that I have to go forward(with). So, in a way, I feel one chapter's ended and a new one's begun. And every year it's a nice reminder that the day Ishaqzaade released, I just wanted to get work after that. That was the basic starting point: to take care of myself financially because I was in that position. I had to look after myself and my sister. By the grace of god, I think I've managed to get that. So today also when I look at having expectations from life, I just have to remind myself that seven years back, when I was sitting on the 10th of May, I was just saying, 'Yaar, film itni chale ki mujhe naukri mile, main aglay din shooting pe ja sakoon, meri agli film mujhe mil jaaye'.
Does that fear of not getting your next film ever go?
No, it happens even today. It's just that the quality of work and what you aspire to do changes. Because you don't want a monotony setting in. You want to work with all kinds of people, you want to take more chances, you want to put yourself out there with different things. So that fear sets in more.
But I think you still have to live with that insecurity (of getting work), in a good way. I think you should trust your audience, that they will give you indicators of when your film is good and when it's bad. And when it's bad, you understand, you go reinvent yourself and come back. When it's good, you still go back and make sure that you make a better film next time.
Is there a performance that makes you happy?
You know, in my second film [Aurangzeb] I had a double role. That was very, very complex. The film was under-appreciated at the time because it was put across maybe as a typical Yash Raj film, and people then later realised this is not that song-and-dance kind of commercial entertainer. It's far grittier and far more realistic. And it spoke thematically about a lot of interesting things – who's corrupt and who's right, gangsters, land mafia, cops, family.
Maybe people will watch it on streaming now…
They've been watching it. It has a certain following and appreciation. But I feel that was one of my tougher roles. It was not the typical conventional Hindi film double role – ek achha bhai aur ek bura bhai hai, to ek ka introduction hota hai kheton mein achhe gaane ke saath, ek ka hota hai item girl ke saath. It was a very clean film…
It'll get its due, as you said. I feel it still gets it, but at the box office it didn't. I think aaj lagti toh film chalti.
Is there also one bit of constructive criticism that you've taken seriously and thought, 'okay, this is something I need to work on'?
From day one, I've always been very open to criticism. The only thing I don't like is if people get personal in a review; then you ignore it. But if you're reviewing my film and my performance, and you're giving me constructive criticism, I'm always receptive. Like my father said, I speak really fast in some scenes. So I said, 'Yeah, fair enough. I must have. Maybe I need to give clarity to it.' For me, it's always been about what the director wants. Sometimes a person sees the film only from the actor's point of view. But the actor is also doing what the director asked him to do.
But you read everything?
Whatever I find necessary. I mean, kisi ko meri shakal pasand nahin aur voh review likh raha hai, I can't do anything about that.
India's Most Wanted stars you and a host of other actors playing various characters. But you're clearly the star of the film and the story is written around you. Whether the film is a success or not, either way the buck will stop with you. Does that freak you out?
Nahin yaar, dar nahin lagta. Kya hoga? God forbid sahi result nahin milega, phir se jaake exam denge! What I've been through in my personal life, after that, all this is nothing.
That's toughened you up?
I have lost a parent; I'm still sitting in front of you, holding my head high, going through life with a smile on my face. I've come from a broken family, I've had my share of ups and downs, I've seen hits and flops, I've battled obesity… Zindagi khatam nahin hogi. Zindagi behtar ho jaayegi agar yeh film chalegi, I will not deny that, but god forbid this doesn't, my life is not over.
But a lot of people put that pressure. If you put pressure on a film, then that pressure comes in your head ki mujhe credit bhi pura milega lekin nahin chali to main barbaad ho jaaoonga. If the film resonates with audiences, the maximum credit comes to me today because I'm the face of the film. But if tomorrow, god forbid, it goes in a certain direction, I will still stand by the film.
On our producer's roundtable, Karan [Johar] had said there are only two kinds of films that work in the theatres now – either it's high concept, or it's a Baahubali-like visual spectacle. As actors, do these things weigh on your choices?
I mean, I don't completely know what high concept means, what is a 'high concept'?
I think he meant like Badhaai Ho.
Vicky Donor is high concept. But at the same time, for me, where does India's Most Wanted fit? It's not a concept, it's a real story. I feel today you need to have a hook to bait the audience in. You can't just say, 'Humaare chhe gaane hain, hero-heroine naachne vaale hain, aap please aake dekho'. Our commercial cinema has changed. Stree is a commercial film. Badhaai Ho is a commercial film. Uri is a very commercial film. But these are all devoid of the pressure of the face of the hero or the heroine, leading to adding three extra scenes or six songs kyunki audience ko gaane pasand hain. We have stopped assuming things about the audience. I feel India's Most Wanted is a commercial film because the storytelling format is commercial. There is an energy, there is an inherent speed in the film.
You've got a producer's brain too…
Haan, vo kaam nahin aata kabhi kabhi.
Matlab, hamesha kaam nahin aata hai; kabhi kabhi kaam aata hai.
And it doesn't inform your acting choices in any way?
It shouldn't, na? What my producer brain helps me understand is: today I'm doing India's Most Wanted with Fox [Star Studios] – my responsibility as an actor is that we deliver value for money to the producers so they exploit it and make money on the film. So when I'm shooting, I'm not wasting time taking three hours in the morning getting out of bed, having my breakfast, working out and showing up at twelve o'clock when there are two hundred people waiting to shoot. That is my producer mind working. If I came an hour earlier, then the shoot that would finish at 6 PM will now finish at 4 PM, and the director could use those two extra hours to take more shots.
We completed the film in 44 days with my work, but it's still a fully outdoor film. I feel maybe my contribution might be that I saved two days in a film. Today, one day's shooting costs nothing less than 21 Lakh. So if I've saved 40-50 Lakh of a producer's money, I think that in itself is being a producer's son. That can be put into the film's VFX, marketing, and so many other various elements to make the film better. So that is where my producer mind works. Not to say ki ye script mili hai, ye sau crore vaali hai.
I know you can't speak much about your film with Dibakar Banerjee [Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar] till you have a release date, but as a viewer, I'm interested to see what he's done with you as a performer.
He's pretty much just broken me and created a new me. If you feel India's Most Wanted is a newer side to me, Dibakar's film is the darkest new side to me possible. The experience has enriched me so much, I loved working with the guy. He's such a perfectionist in his own very strange way.
Did you have to unlearn a lot of things?
No, but I had to give him a lot of time. I sat with him for three months before shoot and then I shot the film in one-and-a-half months. I spent more time getting to know him, and him getting to know me, than actually shooting! But it was fully worth it. I think that experience has made me a far better actor. There is a lot more layering that he added to me, as a human being. He opened up a Pandora's box – the rollercoaster that I'd been through in my mind, he made me use and channel it to play the character. So to play a thulla, a Jat cop, who's suspended, and suicidal by nature, is a very dark place to go to. He's from Mahipalpur in Delhi. We worked on the dialect for three months. I felt if I'm doing a Dibakar Banerjee film and I don't get the dialect bang on, I should not do it. He took me to places, he made me meet officers, he explained ki Sonipat aur Panipat mein Jat alag hotay hain, Dilli ka Jat alag hota hai. It was very fascinating to spend time with him.
Can't wait. I hope it releases soon.
Yes, it will. It's releasing sometime around June/July/August.
That's great! Thank you and good luck!