It is easy to mistake Arjun Kapoor for what he is not. His fan following, marquee status in Bollywood, the confident body language, and the roguish nonchalance on and off screen are those of a more established actor.
You could be so wrong.
I realised I had the opportunity to make it as an actor on my own; I didn’t have to be dependent on anybody. And that’s how it should be. Even if your family is there to support you emotionally, at the end of the day, you have to carve your own niche.
Arjun Kapoor in the flesh comes across as the guy next door. Much like a ‘potboiler’ of seething emotions, he’s carved a career with grit and hard work. What differentiates him from his peers is the way he has taken what life has given him and fought hard to turn it into a pot of gold.
He burst on the screen half a decade ago as the self-assured, reckless ‘I-don’t-give-a-f**k’ rustic bloke in Habib Faisal’s Ishaqzaade (2012). Despite his claims to the contrary (I auditioned to get the role), it was a carefully planned star-son launch. What people mostly don’t get, however, is that his struggles started long before that dream launch, and continued.
Arjun was a young boy when his parents’ marriage went through an upheaval and his father, producer Boney Kapoor, married actor Sridevi. It took him a while to ‘accept’ this. He failed in his final year at school and had a long-running battle with obesity. Many years later, he revealed his ‘fat pics’ at a function in Mumbai, admitting how he had been ‘grumpy’ and ‘under confident’.
While Ishaqzaade was a hit and got many nominations for best debut at numerous award shows, Arjun’s struggles continued. Mona, his mother, died of cancer just before the release of his debut film. His next, the crime thriller, Aurangzeb, released the following year and was a dud. The tabloids hinted at his association with Malaika Arora Khan as being the reason for her split from longtime husband Arbaaz (brother of Salman) Khan.
His under confidence notwithstanding, he figured that he alone was responsible for his future and it was something he had to work on. “It is up to me to make this opportunity work.” That realisation pushed him to work even harder and the result was out there. His films since then were box office hits, even Tevar, produced by his father and considered a flop, grossed more than Rs 40 crore, while 2 States, Gunday and Ki & Ka, all grossed upward of the magical Rs100 crore figure. On the eve of his highly-anticipated release Half Girlfriend (based on the bestseller by Chetan Bhagat), Arjun bares his thoughts in an exclusive chat with THE MAN. He reveals how he snatched the reins of his career from the pitfalls of self-doubt and insecurity, and about the only two people he ever listens to. Excerpts:
Unlikely or reluctant star?
Reluctant would be a stretch. I’m the unexpected star. Even I didn’t expect to be where I am today. I value that tremendously.
Unexpected because a lot of people, including friends, family and critics, didn’t expect it. Durability is not easy to achieve in this profession. You could be a flash in the pan. I refuse to be just that.
I’m not here for the short term. It was important for me to go beyond the, ‘arrey, itne saare ladke aye hain, he is just one of them, he will also disappear.’ There were others who made their debut around the same time as me. So, there was always a comparison.
I am very very happy the comparisons have died down and we have all managed to create our own niche. More importantly, I am happy that I have managed to do what I wanted to do, regardless of being XYZ’s relative or XYZ’s son. Those elements start fading away after a point when you work consistently. I am happy about those elements. Because it was unexpected for me, too. And once I had the opportunity…
Wasn’t the opportunity always there?
By opportunity I mean when my first film did well. That is when you realise the onus is on you to make it work. To do an Ishaqzaade and then get two YRF Films, to get a 2 States and have a line-up of such films, you figure you have to make this work. Very few people get an opportunity to be in this position after the first film.
So, the pressure on you increased after the first film?
To a third person, it might seem like ‘arre, isko to mauka milna hi tha’ (he was bound to get these opportunities anyway) which is fair. I had the opportunity to work with my home production. Instead, I went out there for an audition and got my first film on my own—that already set me on a path as an individual, of not hanging on to the baggage of being a Kapoor.
When my first film clicked, I realised I had the opportunity to make it as an actor on my own; I didn’t have to be dependent on anybody. And that’s how it should be. Even if your family is there to support you emotionally, at the end of the day, you have to carve your own niche. This is a very difficult profession and what happens is that sometimes you get lost and get caught up in thinking you should stick to the people you know. To go out there and put yourself out there as an actor—I took that chance even more after Ishaqzaade rather than going back to home territory. I’m happy that has panned out well.
That way you’ve done a mix of roles.
Yes, even my character in 2 States, otherwise a highly commercial film, was not a conventional hero. It’s the choices he makes and the way he goes about carrying them out that make him a hero. That excites me. As much as I have done hero-centric roles, playing characters that give you the opportunity to not play ‘heroic’, where it is the film that makes the character heroic, that appeals to me a lot. 2 States is one such, Half Girlfriend is another. He is not the (regular) conventionally good looking hero with girls swooning over him, well dressed and with a sense of humour or anything—he is the everyday Joe. What defines him is his character and what he ends up doing for the woman he loves.
I’ve played the quintessential hero in Gunday, the anti-hero in Ishaqzaade, the boy-next-door in Ki & Ka, a messed-up soul in Finding Fanny. I’ve done a variety of roles and my filmography has a solid range.
Is that how you’ve approached your career—I have to do different types of roles.
Sometimes. Sometimes, the offers just come your way. At other times, it’s intentional. It’s a bit of both. Post Tevar, I did want to do a film like Ki & Ka that was pretty much the antithesis of Tevar. When you are doing a Gunday or 2 States, you’re excited about doing a Finding Fanny. Like I was doing Aurangzeb when Gunday was offered, but I wanted to do it even though it was also an action-oriented film. I won’t say you have to make different choices for variety all the time, but there are situations and circumstances that dictate your choices.
There are times when you don’t want to be photographed, like when you are stepping out of the gym, or have just gone over to a friend’s house. Those pictures could make it look like you had the longest night in the world, but it could just be that you were caught unawares.
Finding Fanny was definitely different, not exactly a film a teen-heartthrob actor takes up.
I don’t consider myself a heartthrob. If you start thinking of yourself according to the audience’s perspective, you will f**k it up. You have to do what excites you. You have to know the audience, but you cannot think like the audience. You cannot judge based on ‘arrey, what will my fans think?’ That doesn’t exist in these times. People judge you on the merits of your film, not so much on fandom.
Half Girlfriend and 2 States are both by Chetan Bhagat.
They have an essence of the youth of India. Chetan (Bhagat) understands our college culture, the education system, what goes on behind the scenes, the lives of the youth. My character is that of a boy from a small town in Bihar, who is not well-versed in English, but is very intelligent. He is a basketball player, and is trying to find himself in a crowd when he gets admission to St. Stephens College, Delhi. More importantly, it’s about the way he goes about taking care of the girl he loves.
The film has all the elements that Chetan is known for, but it also has the essence of Mohit Suri (the director), which makes it really exciting. I feel Biharis are often portrayed in a very cliched manner, so this film showcases the quintessential hero from Bihar.
Beyond Chetan Bhagat, are you a reader?
I am not. I was always a movie watcher. I read scripts because they play out as films.
Scripts beyond those that come to you as offers?
Yes, of course. I read the scripts offered to me, even the ones I end up not doing. I haven’t read too many except a few Hollywood ones that are available online. If a script can keep my attention for more than the first 20-25 pages, then I know there’s something there.
Is that the criteria for selecting a film?
Ideally, I like to meet the director and discuss his vision for the film. You want to know if both of you are on the same wavelength in general, forget the film. Then, of course, there’s the material overall, not just your role. Does that excite you? Is it a story you want to tell? And then, what you are doing in it. Those are the three main criteria.
Your final say depends on the script?
Not always. There are films I haven’t done because I’ve done something similar in the past and don’t want to do a repeat.
So you mostly prefer to try out new stuff.
As much as possible. That keeps you on your toes. Keeps you nervous and feeling vulnerable. It is very important for an actor to feel vulnerable because if you are complacent, you won’t give it your hundred per cent. I like that vulnerability.
Quite often, actors try different stuff, but after some time settle into a slot they find comfortable.
I’m lucky because even though my screen persona is that of an action hero, my romantic films (2 States, Ki & Ka) have both worked. Ishaqzaade was at its core a romantic film, a violent love story. Sometimes, actors are accepted in certain kind of roles, and they tend to stick to those type of roles. I’ve been fortunate that way.
Do you surf the net a lot and see what people are writing about you?
I don’t. My team keeps me abreast of anything that’s important. Even if I read about things, it doesn’t really bother me. Being the underdog makes you thick-skinned about these kind of things
Why do you consider yourself an underdog? You have movies, stardom, and everything came naturally to you, or so it seems.
I’m not typical hero material. If you look at it that way, today, being a quintessential hero is boring. That has happened because people like me and Ranveer (Singh) have made successful careers out of it. It makes me an underdog because I am not a quintessential hero. In my first film, I played the anti-hero to a great degree. My character in Ishaqzaade has a stubble, is scruffy, is beaten up by his mother and grandfather, molests a girl to prove a point—basically non-heroic if you go into the regular hero space. I call myself an underdog because even then people were asking, ‘okay, you did that, now what will you do?’
That is what drives you, right?
Yes, in a very positive way. People are surprised by me from time to time and I think that’s a good thing. That’s a good quality to have in your armour.
Apart from the roles that are offered to you, what would you love to do?
I’ve always wanted to do a heist or a con film. I was obsessed with Forrest Gump since I was a kid. I would like to do a character who undertakes many journeys in one life. That’s the kind of role every actor dreams of. I’d love to do a period film, like Gladiator. I would love to do a dark thriller for that matter.
Ever thought of directing?
I’ll direct for sure. That’s essentially what I started out to do, why I started as an assistant (director) when I was 17. But, there’s a time and place for everything. It would be silly of me to not give my best right now and try and zone out to different things. The onus is on me to make it last, and I want to be in a position where I’m set for life. Direction is a gradual step.
You must have a lot of free time between shoots. What do you do then?
Actually, you don’t. Normally when you finish a film, you are doing prep for the next role, doing promotions for the current one, etc. You are not mentally switched off ever in this profession. The way to switch off is to walk away from it all, get your bearings back and then return. That happens every few years when you get a couple of months holiday, and you can unwind and come back.
Does the paparazzi make you uncomfortable or do you take it in your stride?
I take it in my stride 90 per cent of the time. I am human and there are times when you don’t want to be photographed, like when you are stepping out of the gym, or have just gone over to a friend’s house. Those pictures could make it look like you had the longest night in the world, but it could just be that you were caught unawares. And it’s not just the paparazzi. Today, everybody’s got a camera. I won’t say I am uncomfortable, but you can’t ever let your guard down unless you are with your own people. It’s a small price to pay for the love and adulation we get in return, but sometimes you would like to switch off.
How do you deal with that, besides staying at home?
Actually, that’s the only thing you can do! If I go to a hotel, there will be enough prying eyes. But I’m not complaining. Considering the profession I am in, you make your peace with the loss of privacy. I’m 90 per cent okay with it, let’s put it that way. There are good days and bad days.
Who do you go to for advice?
My motto in life is suno sabki, karo apni (listen to all, but take your own decisions). That becomes a problem! I also don’t like to blame others. Like ‘you told me to do this and see what happened,’ etc.
I make a decision and then double-check. There’s Aditya Chopra with whom I share my opinions. Even my father. These are the two people I trust blindly. But they have both always allowed me to make my own choices.
I don’t go seeking clarity from others because that could further confuse me. Once I get some sort of clarity, I get a second opinion. Often, I am not right, so it is good to have (them) around.
On A Lighter Note, Five Things People Don’t Know About You...
❖ I bite my nails
❖ I don’t know how to cook at all. I hate being in the kitchen. I learnt a bit for Ki And Ka, but don’t enjoy it at all.
❖ If I’m home or with friends or just roaming around, I don’t like wearing shoes. I like to be in chappals.
❖ I can’t wake up on my own. Someone has to wake me up.
❖ I have a phobia of ceiling fans. I don’t have a single ceiling fan at home!