In Vasan Bala’s Spotlight (a part of the Netflix anthology Ray), Harshvardhan Kapoor plays Vikram, an entitled and pretentious movie star who wants to be taken more seriously as an artist. Bala takes an empathetic look at the burden of fame but also spares no opportunity to have fun at Vikram’s expense. In a hilarious scene, Vikram’s manager, played by Chandan Roy Sanyal, reminds him that his wannabe ‘Ryan Gosling meets Elon Musk’ look isn’t fooling anyone.
Kapoor points out that while Vikram belongs to a world he’s familiar with, he has achieved the kind of box office success none of his own films like Mirzya and Bhavesh Joshi Superhero have. In that sense, he’s sort of the anti-Vikram. He’s drawn to films that end up being polarizing, not hung up on big theatrical releases, and is seeking out newer, braver filmmaking voices to collaborate with.
Excerpts from the chat:
You’ve had two releases during this pandemic.
Yes, it’s a strange situation. Before COVID I didn’t work at all; during COVID I can’t stop working.
Both AK vs AK and Spotlight take potshots at actors and the industry at large. Is it fun to be able to laugh at yourself?
Yes, absolutely. Especially at a time like this. My first few films were a bit serious. I love these kinds of films and it was great to be a bit self-deprecating.
You’re playing a huge star called Vik in Spotlight. But he’s quite a mess and for the most part, he’s deeply unhappy. How do you view him? Do you look at him as a cautionary tale?
I haven’t had the mainstream success or stardom that he’s had because I haven’t chosen to do films like Ruk Ruk Ruk or Chidiya Ghar. So it was fun for me to live through that experience for a couple of weeks. I feel that kind of stardom in a country like ours can be limiting. You can get imprisoned by what the audience expects of you, which is what happens to the character in the film when he tries to break away and do different things. The people around him, his entourage, his fans want him to do the same thing over and over again. So I kind of view the character as a cautionary tale. I have consciously taken the other path where I’ve not chased stardom so that I’m able to do the films that I’ve done. I hope to continue doing that for as long as I can.
Vikram insists on calling himself an artist. But in reality his life is about machchhar-daani ads and dancing at weddings. There’s a big gap between how he fancies himself and what his reality is. How real is this struggle for actors today?
I can only speak for myself because I don’t have a personal window into others’ lives. I think Vikram is kind of delusional and he sees himself as very different from the work he’s actually doing. But Vikram did not have a choice and had to do the kind of films he’s done to be where he is. And now maybe he is trying to break away from that success, but society isn’t letting him. His success also feeds so many people, and when you reach that kind of stardom, these are hard decisions you have to make.
Personally, I’ve tried to prioritise the art that I want to do and I’m hoping that the stardom comes as a consequence of that.
It’s been a tough year for the movies world over. We’re probably going to see long-lasting changes in terms of what gets commissioned and people’s viewing habits. How do these changes impact a young actor like you?
I think after Bhavesh Joshi came out in 2018, I was keen to take up a film that was more suited to theatres. The fact of the matter is that I became a bit indulgent. But over this period of time, so many things have changed that I don’t know if I need to think like that anymore.
If AK vs AK was released in a theatre, I don’t know how many people would’ve gone and watched it and seen my monologue. Maybe it would have been released with Coolie No. 1, and that film would have been celebrated and people would have ripped us apart. But now, things have changed. They celebrated our film and so many people ended up watching my work in it.
I am so happy that Bhavesh Joshi is still being watched three years later. It’s become a cult and how. It’s grown beyond my wildest dreams. If you just follow the hashtag, it’s crazy. People are making graphic art, they’re asking for a sequel, there are unlimited YouTube videos…
So if I have the platform where my work can live on, and people can access it anytime, I think I’ll go back to the other end only if I find the right story which needs to be told to an extremely wide pan-Indian office.
When we were doing Bhavesh Joshi, we were trying to force-fit it. We were trying to make this kind of film for theatres, so we had to have songs… If you can just avoid all of that, then you might as well. I’m thinking if Bhavesh Joshi was a Netflix original, we would have been making a sequel right now. So that’s been a huge learning for me.
The stories you’re picking are sort of indie in spirit. What makes you gravitate towards them?
I think it’s just my sensibilities. It’s what I grew up consuming. Growing up, I wasn’t a fan of a certain kind of Bollywood film. When I was 12, I was watching films from other places and when you are at an impressionable age, your mind absorbs things.
What are some of the films that left an impact on you?
I was 7 or 8 when my father used to have a VHS collection of films like Singin’ In The Rain and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. When I was 12-13, it became more about these big-studio Hollywood films like The Godfather, Scarface, The Silence of the Lambs. Then I discovered filmmakers like (Alejandro Gonzalez) Inarritu. I watched Amores Perros and Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien.
There was this period in my life where I did nothing but watch two films a day. I used to watch a lot more films in my 20s than I do now. By the time I was 18, I was studying screenwriting and watching really indie stuff that nobody would have heard about. I started following Shia LaBeouf and Andrew Garfield and Emile Hirsch, who was doing Into The Wild. I was like, ‘I want to do that. I want to have that kind of filmography.’ Even if you look at Robert Pattinson, he’s such a beautiful man and after Twilight, he’s done Cosmopolis and High Life with Claire Denis. He has only done independent films. For some reason, there, it’s okay and here, they crucify you.
What are some of the films that made you go – I wish I could do that?
There is a film which Andrew Garfield has done called Under the Silver Lake. I’d like to do Shia LaBeouf’s Charlie Countryman. Even something like the old Richard Linklater films or something like Fast Times at Ridgemont High that’s written by Cameron Crowe. I also gravitate towards stoner comedies. That’s a genre I think I’ll really excel in.
I have to ask, these are all wonderful films but are we writing those kinds of stories here?
I actually think AK vs AK, Spotlight and Bhavesh Joshi are, within the realm of our filmmaking, the closest I’d get to doing those kind of movies. I think aesthetically, stylistically, those films are deeply rooted in American culture. That’s what makes them what they are.
Vikram [Motwane] and Vasan are phenomenally talented. It’s the constraints that they have to deal with. I think if you gave Vikram or Vasan any of those screenplays, they would completely knock it out of the park.
I also really want to work in the West as well. That’s the ultimate aim. If you never aim that high, you are never going to get that close. And I’d rather attempt it and fail than just not do it at all.
Who are the filmmakers here that you aspire to work with?
I think Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Vikram and Vasan are some of the best, and I’ve been very lucky to have worked with them. Ashim Ahluwalia is on top of my list. We’ve been speaking for many years and I hope something comes up. He’s amazing. Then there’s Aditya Vikram Sengupta, who made a film called Jonaki. I’m trying to get in touch with him and meet him. Zoya Akhtar, Shoojit Sircar are some directors I’d like to work with.
Ishaan Nair is a photographer but also a filmmaker. He has got a great eye and a beautiful sense of aesthetics. I’m looking forward to working with filmmakers of that generation. I want to be successful enough to give those guys wings and be a part of the next wave of Indian cinema. I think there’s a lot of talent and calibre in those kind of films and filmmakers. I guess they just need backing and the right kind of producers. They need freedom.
Are you okay with reaching out to them for work?
Yes, absolutely. That’s how these films begin. I have been interacting with Vasan since the Bombay Velvet days. Vikram and I have been interacting since I saw Udaan. So these are relationships that I’ve had for many, many years. People don’t see what goes on behind, they just see us in the film. I’ve been talking to Ashim since I saw John & Jane.
There’s a scene in Spotlight where you’re watching a really scathing review of your film. It’s played for laughs in the movie, but dealing with criticism is a part of the job. How good are you at dealing with it?
I try to learn from them and improve, but sometimes you do get criticism that’s personal. So I have to decide what I can use – what can I really take seriously out of this review to try and better myself? Also, you have to understand what sort of film it is. Like Mirzya was an abstract musical with barely any dialogues. It had newcomers and used silences to take the narrative forward. You cannot expect the film to be unanimously loved. When Terrence Malick makes Song to Song or To The Wonder, it gets panned. It gets absolutely destroyed by the critics, but I love those films.
I love Bhavesh Joshi, I absolutely love it. If somebody criticises it, I respect that, but I love the film, so I don’t know what to say or do there. I’ve seen it about a 100 times and everytime I watch it, I enjoy it. I feel it is an extremely engaging experience, it’s beautifully crafted, and has a lot of heart. If the critics say that the film is too long, I apologise that you lost those twenty minutes, but for me – I really, really love it.
But something I will also say is that all the international reviews for most of the stuff that I’ve done, right from Mirzya to AK vs AK, have always been positive. I don’t know why that is, but I always feel that with my father being such a big movie star, it’s very difficult to separate us.
Do you think you are judged harshly because of that?
I wouldn’t say harshly, but I would say that it’s difficult for some people to separate us. It’s not their fault. I would probably be the same if I was in their profession. I’ve seen the best of critics involving my dad and sister in my reviews. When you’re seeing somebody on the screen for 30 years, it’s very difficult to separate. It doesn’t just happen to me, it happens to Zoë Kravitz. People are just obsessed with the fact that she is Lenny Kravitz’s daughter.
How do you stay objective while judging your own work?
You generally get a sense of it after a film has come out. You get the sense of what demographic is liking it, who is liking it, why they like it, why they haven’t liked it. I think for Mirzya, the narrative was too incoherent and the chemistry between the lead actors wasn’t felt as much. So fair enough, I’ll take that on the chin.
With Bhavesh Joshi, the audiences have loved it more than the critics. With AK vs AK, I feel that critics really loved the film more than I had expected. I think it’ll be the same with Spotlight. There will be people who like it, there will be people who won’t.
What are we seeing you in next?
I shot a thriller that is complete, but I can’t talk about it because of a contract. They’ll get angry with me. It’s a thriller-drama, written by Anurag Kashyap and directed by a very promising director, and it should be out sometime in the winter.