Sanjay Kapoor is a great believer in destiny. He was at his usual club in Juhu where he uses the gym when some of director Dibakar Banerjee's assistants saw him walk by. It so happened they were casting for the filmmaker's short in Lust Stories. As Kapoor flashed before their eyes, they saw in him Salman, a wealthy businessman trapped in a tenuous marriage. A few days later, Kapoor was doing workshops with actor Jaideep Ahlawat, who plays his best friend and his wife's secret lover in the film. As Kapoor narrates this story at his Juhu apartment, I wonder how this sounds like an anecdote one usually hears from newcomers about they got 'discovered' at a coffee shop, not an actor with 23 years of experience behind him.
But Kapoor does feel like he's on the cusp of something new and exciting. He says the impact of starring in a 30 minute film in which he doesn't make an appearance for a while has been far more rewarding than any of the work he's done before. For starters, starring in a Dibakar film has brought him some unexpected indie cred. He finds this quite amusing. "I'm sure people were thinking, yeh is film main kya kar raha hai," he laughs.
Kapoor shows off the congratulatory text messages he's been receiving, especially one from Nawazuddin Siddiqui, with child-like enthusiasm. At the same time, he also cautions that what this overwhelming praise does to his career in real terms remains to be seen. It's all about destiny, he reiterates.
Here he talks about what it's like to lead a life that's deeply entrenched in Bollywood and yet be on the sidelines.
Post Lust Stories, do you feel filmmakers are looking at you differently?
100 per cent. See what happens is that every actor goes through a transition period. Without comparing myself to the greats, be it Bachchan or Rishi Kapoor, everyone goes through it. At that time even filmmakers don't know how to cast you because they are used to seeing you in a particular type of role. Even actors go through the same thing, they don't know what roles to do. But with digital, you can cast a 45 year old guy and make him the main lead.
I've done TV too where I got great feedback and the number of people it reached was amazing. My show (Dil Sambhal Jaa Zara) has been off air for 5-6 months but I was in America and people were talking about it. So the acceptance of the people was there but the industry does not watch television.
But with Lust Stories, the kind of directors and actors that were on board, were the type who 25 years ago would be called 'Shyam Benegal type of actors'. There was Radhika Apte, Vicky Kaushal, Jaideep Ahlawat, and in that kind of a set up I was playing the main role. That was my major triumph.
I have been to so many film premieres but for this one the kind of people who were watching it was overwhelming. There were people from theatre, there was Javed Akhtar and Shabana behind me, Zoya and her team, Karan's whole commercial team, and the actors of Mukkabaaz whom I absolutely loved were also there. In fact, I think a lot of people must be thinking 'yeh Sanjay Kapoor is main kya kar raha hai. Yeh toh fit hi nahi hota isme'. They must have thought why I'm even in the trial amongst such good actors!
Nawaz was there. For him to even see my film is big. If I had done a double blockbuster film, if Nawaz was not acting in it, he would have probably never seen it. But he called my brother and took my number. He messaged me about my performance, and I'm never going to delete that message. It's going to be on my wall.
Let me tell you another funny story. So Karan (Johar) and Zoya (Akhtar) were very happy for me. But my entry in the film is after 10 minutes. When they didn't see me, they thought I'm not coming. They realised my voice is there. Normally if I'm the one talking on the phone, there are shots of me too. But Dibakar wanted my dynamic entry. No one knows that. So Karan and Zoya both told me were thinking Sanjay ka role kaat diya. Maybe my close ups were so bad that Dibakar has cut it and kept only the voice. They said we were so excited when you finally came on screen! They were so stressed. Poor guys.
You've had quite a checkered career through the 90s. There were some hits but the career never completely took off. Did you ever doubt your talent?
I did not doubt my skills at all. I was very comfortable in front of the camera. Probably the kind of roles I chose was wrong. I was doing all star roles where I'm taking care of Amrish Puri and four other villains. For that you need an image and it takes time to create that. When Salman (Khan) or Akshay (Kumar) beat up 20 people it looks convincing. But it takes a while to get there.
Sometimes it's a lot to do with destiny also. Between Prem and Raja the difference was four weeks. Prem took 5 years to make. If we had delayed the release by a few more months then Raja would be my debut and my first film would have been a blockbuster. But when my first film bombed and the second one did well, people were being very kanjoos in giving me credit.
Obviously Madhuri Dixit was the ultimate star but finally a film works because everyone in it has worked. She did movies with other top stars at the time, including my brother, which did not work. I couldn't fight with people. But I thought when you're giving me discredit for Kartavya not doing well, then you should give me the credit also when the film is a hit. So like I said, it's a got to do with destiny and timing. For example, if I had not gone to the club that day I would not have been a part of Lust Stories. So sometimes you gain and sometimes you lose.
But you never got bitter?
I see the glass as half full and not half empty. After 23 years I worked with a director like Dibakar Banerjee so I must have done something right. Obviously I have not done a fantastic job but how many actors are there who after 23 years are still working and doing today's cinema. Not many can, no matter whose brother you are. And just because at that time you don't become a superstar, your body of work doesn't go. You managed only because of your talent.
That's why I'm not bitter or frustrated. Also I don't have expectations. So when I was roaming with the cream of Bollywood, I was not mixing friendship with work. So I never thought 'raat ko mere saath drink karta hai aur din ko kisi aur ko cast karta hai'. We are all professional here. That's why they also respected me.
Obviously you go through a low, you're human. But I remained fit. I worked on myself and I didn't let go. I never said pet bahaar aa gaya, abh toh producer ban janta hoon. I didn't give up.
I told myself I won't lose credibility. Yes, I did some wrong films. But I can only sign from what I get offered. So if I'm offered five films, I'll do the best from that. I can't say that won't do these five and I'll sit at home till the right five come. And I knew that only work will get you work. I kept myself happy and fit.
So when I was roaming with the cream of Bollywood, I was not mixing friendship with work. So I never thought 'raat ko mere saath drink karta hai aur din ko kisi aur ko cast karta hai'. We are all professional here. That's why they also respected me.
What do you enjoy most about acting now?
During Luck by Chance it was the first time I worked on a set where the assistant directors had walkie talkies and an actor was an actor. There was no star. If you're in front of the camera, you're the biggest star. Even if it was Hrithik's back shot, the whole attention was on me. Normally filmon main star ka back shot bhi hai toh touch up uska zyaada hota hai! And to me they will say idhar ho jao.
This takes me back to the time when I was this hot shot newcomer – India Today had covered me. When I was shooting for Raja, Madhuri Dixit was massive. She was bigger than today's top three actresses put together. But when a new comer is working with her, no matter how good an actor you are, everything is related to confidence. So for me it was very strange when I was giving a shot and the chief AD told me 'Madam aa gayi hai. Madam ready hai. Abhi madam ka shot lagva do'. I could feel that while I was giving a shot everyone was getting edgy because they were like let's quickly finish this and start taking her shot. Now the close ups that were left of mine, they would take later in the day when the momentum has gone. Now when I look back I don't know how we used to work. I did a movie that took 4 years to make. It's not humanly possible to stay in character.
I've also evolved with time. I've grown as a person because I travel a lot. If you keep evolving then this space in which I'm now is fantastic and it is suiting my intelligence level. This is what is more comfortable – where the work ethics are correct.
Your role as Ranjit Rolly in Luck by Chance was so memorable. It also came at a time when you were barely acting. Did Zoya Akhtar tell you why she was adamant that only you play that part?
That was the first time I was part of an ensemble cast. When she first narrated the film to me it was without dialogues. So when she said your character used to be an actor and now has become a director, I was thinking how much under the belt will this be. She said there will be a conversation scene with Hrithik. I thought aisa na ho ki Hrithik meri band baja raha ho aur main wahaan baith kar sun raha hoon.
So I said Zoya I want to work with you but I'm not very comfortable. She kept on convincing me. She said I know you as a person, you'd be fantastic in this, you have a sense of humour. Then she said wait till I show you your dialogues in 4-5 days. In that time I was thinking if Hrithik is doing this role then what am I thinking so much! Then when I heard the dialogues I had no doubt. I knew that when I'm in the scene, it's my scene.
You've said Lust Stories has opened many avenues for you. So what's next?
There are couple of things I have committed to but I can't talk about it. One is a film and the other is something for the web. I'm very happy. People loved me in Luck by Chance also but it didn't reflect in more work. But with Lust Stories I was in a short film of 35 mins of which I was there for 22 mins, and those 22 mins have made more of an impact than what I've done in 40 films. Don't get me wrong – aisa nahi hain ki producers ki line lag gai hai or ghar ke niche tod pod ho rahi hai! But it's enough to get me going.
Suddenly people are saying we loved you in Luck by Chance and I'm thinking toh pehle kyun nahi bola! But now I'm sure once some of my work comes out the momentum will pick up because here everybody waits for the other person – like a bhed chaal. I hope that happens.
When R Balki messaged me he said now I'm looking forward to meeting you professionally. Now whether it happens or not, at least he said that. But I can't wait 5 years for his phone call and say Balki ne toh bola tha cast karega! Zoya told me that I've never been cast properly. She said you must work with directors who don't give you filmy stuff to do and allow you to be vulnerable. She said it's time to rethink who you work with. But you know how do I make people understand that people of that level have to come to me first. I have to survive also. Finally if no one of that level casts me I can't keep waiting. But I think this time you'll see more of me. I just have to be patient.