The 22-year-old saunters into the room with all the swagger of a quintessential millennial. He oozes confidence and has style. Watch Ishaan Khatter break into an impromptu jig to Hindi retro at the photo shoot and you’ll see he’s got rhythm, too.
He’s got something more - lead in iconic Iranian director Majid Majidi’s just-released world cinema Beyond the Clouds, which has already made its presence felt in the international film festival and awards circuit. And then, of course, come July, he stars in the biggest launch of the year, Karan Johar’s Dhadak, a remake of the hit Marathi film Sairat, opposite late Sridevi’s daughter Janhvi Kapoor. With such big names launching him, this half-brother of actor Shahid Kapoor and son of actor Rajesh Khatter certainly has reasons to dance.
“It was the most sublime miracle.... From nowhere did I see it coming!” says Ishaan. When he was in talks for a different film to begin his film career in 2016, he got a call from Honey Trehan, the casting director he had worked with when he was assisting on Udta Punjab. “When he said it’s a Majid Majidi film, for a moment it felt like the room had turned into a furnace. I could barely believe this was actually happening! Majid-sir had been in talks to make a film in India with the producers (Namah Pictures). It took them five years to reach this point, to eventually zero in on this subject, on this story.”
I learned patience and resilience early on, to be able to stand strong and take what life throws at you and make something of it. I admire that quality in people.
“Honey sir took me to meet the producers and they decided that we would do a shoot to test me for the part. They gave me a verbal brief of two scenes while the rest of it was improvised. They wanted to see if this boy looked the part in these locations, could he live those feelings and those moods, did he fit into the skin of the character... We actually went to real locations and shot with an iPhone. We went to Versova village and shot on the jetty, to Madh Island and then to a closed train station near Goregaon, where they got me to sprint on the streets. We went to remote areas and parks at 5 in the morning. When Majid sir saw the frames, he apparently said, ‘lock him.’ I missed the call in the evening because having been up pretty much all night, I was asleep. I called Honey sir and he said, ‘Go to the roof of your building and shout: “I am the lead actor of a Majid Majidi film!”’’
Ishaan hadn’t seen all of Majidi’s films, but after they met, he did and found a connect with the famous director. “I was over the moon. Beyond the Clouds has a beautiful spiritual arc and is a deeply human story that not a lot of people would choose to tell or have the ability to create onscreen. Amir’s personality is certainly close to who I am in real life, though perhaps not certain choices he makes or his journey.”
I feel like there are various personalities and persons inside me. Very naturally, I tap into different parts of me and adapt.
Ishaan’s onscreen charisma has been praised by international critics, but it is the opinion of the critic at home that counts the most—his mother’s. Neelima Azeem, a well known actor and Kathak dancer, has seen it five times. “She absolutely loves Beyond the Clouds. It gives me great happiness that she’s happy with my work, that she thinks it has merit and that it is enjoyable not only because I’m her son.”
He’s happy to share a glimpse from his childhood and his family’s influence on him. “Mom is generally very strong in her opinion, as is my brother (Shahid), but no one has ever put pressure on me to be a certain way. There was always room for me to grow as an individual and that’s something I really appreciate. My mother, brother and even my father understand I have a mind of my own.”
Born to Neelima and her former husband Rajesh Khatter, also an actor, Ishaan seems to have handled well the divorce of his parents when he was six. “It was a colourful childhood that shaped me into the person I am today,” says the Mumbai boy. “I’ve lived in about 17 houses. We moved a lot. When I was younger, we all lived together, once my parents separated, I stayed with mom and bhai, and now I live with my mother in Yaari Road. I’ve seen a fair amount of ups and downs. Most of the ups are–mashallah–what I’m progressing towards because I’m getting to do what I love.”
He sounds all grown up and mature when he talks about the tough moments. “I learned patience and resilience early on; to be able to stand strong and take what life throws at you and make something of it. I admire that quality in people and it’s something I’ve observed in my mother and that’s who I wanted to be as an adult. Generally, at home, there was a positive attitude about circumstances and situations in life. I don’t think I would have developed this attitude if I hadn’t gone through the emotional and financial hardships. I was born and brought up in a very middle-class household, but mother always provided us with comforts to the best of her abilities. My ambition now is to do the same for her a hundred times over, to be able to give her all that she deserves and desires, and more. She sacrificed a lot of her work for her kids, and now lives vicariously through us.”
I was over the moon. Beyond the Clouds has a beautiful spiritual arc and is a deeply human story that not a lot of people would choose to tell or have the ability to create onscreen.
His relationship with Shahid, who is 14 years older, is very guru-shishya, The younger brother idolises his older brother and admits he has learned a lot from him. Even his love for films has grown by following his bhaijaan’s Bollywood moves. Ishaan’s endearing boyishness and hero worship shine through when he shares that he and Shahid are very alike in their walk and in the way they dance. But then, as if to assert his individuality, he says quickly, “We are, of course, different too!
The fledgling opens up about himself, “I’m still developing an image of myself. I feel like there are various personalities and persons inside me. It depends on whom I’m interacting with. Very naturally, I tap into different parts of me and adapt. It’s one of the things that you experience as someone aspiring to be an actor… that you go through various moulds and moods and tones and phases in life. I’m curious about what makes a person, how they are, who they are… I often find myself contradicting what I’ve done before. Generally, I’m a happy person. That’s at my core. As far back as I can remember, my mother and brother would tell me I’m the happiest kid they’d ever seen, jumping around in my cot. I don’t think I’ve lost that. I’m enthusiastic and adventurous and curious. I’m also moody, which is the negative aspect of my personality. But I don’t believe in basking in a depressive state. As an actor, there is this awful tendency to enjoy your emotional phases even if they are sad, melancholic and negative. I allow myself a bit of that but I don’t indulge in it.”
He may not stew in melodrama like some, but he’s almost to the manner born. He did a few acting workshops, too. “There was one significant one called Adishakti, a very technical theatre workshop that I found very interesting. It had a different physiological approach to acting and I was exposed to certain physical tools and techniques that I hadn’t so far experienced. After that, it was two films as assistant director (Udta Punjab and a small feature shot in Kashmir, which hasn’t been released yet), and then I got Beyond the Clouds!”
I should hope that I will always be associated with subjects that have something deeper, besides, of course, being entertaining. I strongly believe you can’t bore an audience or force a kind of tonic down their throats.
His first shot had him walking into a precarious situation in a fishing colony in Mumbai. “There was blood and water, and all kinds of slippery stuff on the ground. My shoes were wet and I could have fallen 20 feet below into the sea. Quite the ideal situation for the first shot of playing the lead in my first film! I slipped and fell on my bum, luckily not into the water. That changed everything because then I was smelling of fish and all of that, which got me right into the feel of the character. I lost a kilo and a half because of all the running we had to do that day. It was a gruelling start, but great.”
Beyond the Clouds is gritty and has a message, much like Majidi’s other films. But, is this the right launchpad for a beginner? “I should hope that I will always be associated with subjects that have something deeper, besides, of course, being entertaining. I strongly believe you can’t bore an audience or force a kind of tonic down their throats. But, to be part of a film that is more than mere entertainment, that actually allows the audience to feel or think critically, that’s the kind of film I’d like to be a part of. I’m not averse to doing a film that’s purely entertaining, but it would have to believable and have some substance.”
PHOTOS ARJUN MARK ❖ STYLING PRACHI MIShRA ❖ MAKE-UP MAHIMA HAIR TEAM AALIM ❖ TEXT PRIYA PATHIYAN