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Interview By: Ankita R. Kanabar

Arjun Kapoor is having a fantastic year with the kind of appreciation, ‘Half Girlfriend’ and ‘Mubarakan’ have received. But what’s also satisfying for him, is the fact that these roles were so diverse. He’s currently doing workshops for his upcoming film, ‘Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar’ being directed by Dibakar Banerjee. In the middle of his prep sessions, we catch up with the actor at YRF. In a completely casual mode, donning track pants, t-shirt and a cap, he settles down for a chat with us. More often than not, his casual, and chilled-out approach during a conversation makes you forget that’s he’s achieved some sort of stardom or fan-following. Probably because he doesn’t seem to walk around with that chip on his shoulder. But speak to him and his passion for cinema doesn’t go unnoticed. Clearly then, we talk at length about movies and more movies! Excerpts:

You’re doing workshops for ‘Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar’ at the moment…how much time do you need before every film to get into that world?
Every film is different and unique. What happens for most films that are desi or have a unique dialect is that, you have to give them a little more time as an actor and make sure you get the lines within the system. What happens is, you’re concentrating on getting the tone and pitch right so you give it a little more time. Like ‘Ishaqzaade’, obviously, I did a lot of readings because it was my first film. For ‘Half Girlfriend’, I did a lot of workshops. This film has been even more than that, because it’s not just the dialect, the whole world is unique, which I can’t tell you in detail, but you’ll realise when you see the film. For this film, I’ve been prepping since August, a week later after I finished ‘Mubarakan’. And November 1, I start off with the shooting. Three months of prep and two months of shoot. Normally, it’s a month of prep and 3-4 months of shooting. Over here, it’s the other way round. So, in one schedule, we will finish the film.

When the prepping takes a while, and you’re so into a character, with the tone and diction, like in this film, is it difficult to move into another film?
Right now, I haven’t shot any scene. I’ve been learning and I’m still in the phase of learning. So, I haven’t imbibed everything. Most actors do workshops when there’s a bit of uncertainty. That’s why they are doing more workshops. They’re trying to find out. No actor cracks it in the workshop, you’re still doing mistakes. So, workshops don’t increase your confidence. They just take away your anxiety. The confidence only comes when you live that moment, breathe it and perform it. But what happens is, your fears are away. So, when you actually do it, you’re not thinking negatively about it. You’re only positive that how do I make this better, because you’ve already made your mistakes in the meetings and readings with the director. So, it’s easy to drop something right now if it’s not working for the character. It’s a trial and error phase. But I’m sure that when I’m shooting the film, it will be difficult for me to get out. That’s why I’m happy we’re shooting in one schedule. Because firstly it helps in the continuity of the actor. And also, to kind of grow into a film and enjoy it. I feel that always helps, to shoot one film at a time. It’s not always possible that you finish a film at one go. But here the possibility was there, so we’ve made sure to finish the film in one go.

So, this year you had two very different roles and both the films have done well. Also, many people thought of ‘Mubarakan’ as a breath of fresh air. How does it feel to have these sort of films in your body of work?
Obviously you always want to do different kinds of roles as an actor and when you get appreciated for both the films, you get happy. The audiences liked it. Recently, I was travelling to Jaisalmer and I met some jawaans on the border and ‘Half Girlfriend’ had just premiered on television. They saw it, and some of them are from Bihar, so they felt connected to the character. You as a guy from Mumbai are connecting with the jawaan in the BSF, those moments make you realise that every film has so much value if you work hard and get it right, you will connect the right chords with the right people. That makes you feel happier, than seeing anything else in the world. Because you’re always trying to represent people in your films, and with a film like ‘Half Girlfriend’, you want that the common man connects to you. Where ‘Mubarakan’, is concerned, the best part for me was that all age groups went and saw the film. Older people who don’t venture out much – to see them go out and make a family outing out of it is great. Those are the kind of movies, I’ve grown up on, all my life. But in the last 6-7 years, the multiplex culture has lead to the reduction of family films. Film-going used to be a big family culture, it’s not that anymore. To see ‘Mubarakan’, bring back that feeling was great. The other day, I was at Saif’s house for Kareena’s birthday and I bumped into Ashish Soni who is a designer. He said, I really liked your film. I said thank you. He said, ‘I saw it thrice.’ He said, ‘I went with my daughter the first day, then I went with my family on Saturday and the second week, I went with my entire family.’ That’s outstanding, in a day and age where you don’t see people going to the theatres, traditionally. To go back to see the film with their families, there can be no nicer feeling for an actor than knowing there’s repeat value on your film, and you could take our entire family to watch the film. Because that’s another rarity in cinema these days that family films are not made. I’m happy that all diverse people are giving me reactions to both the films. You feel you’ve progressed ahead and feel validated for taking these chances.

And interestingly for you, ‘Mubarakan’ comes in after many unconventional choices despite the fact that you somehow naturally fall into that space because of your influences and upbringing…
I think whatever happens is for good. I have never thought that this film should be done now, or this film should come later. It just happened to me that I went on to do films based on conviction and instinct. I’m nine films old and it feels like quite a lot of films. It’ll be six years now. I just let things happen on their own, while making sure that I work hard and grab the opportunities that come my way. I want to do all kinds of films. Today the audience is not gauging you from your previous work. The audience is just going from film to film. They’re not setting a benchmark based on your previous films. They are judging you on the basis of what you are on that Friday. The baggage is not being carried in a good or bad way. Nobody is coming to see ‘Ki and Ka’ because of ‘Tevar’. Or nobody has gone to see ‘Half Girlfriend’ because of ‘Ki and Ka’. I can’t be sure but this is my assumption that in some way, every film builds some amount of equity, in terms of whether people like you or don’t. But a lot of times, they are surprised. Like after ‘Mubarakan’, many people were surprised that I can do comedy as well. In my head, I’m like, I’ve done some bit of comedy in every film, but ‘Mubarakan’, underlined the fact that I like this genre. This is how I am in real life and I keep hosting award shows or something as well, but people woke up to the fact that I can do comedy after seeing ‘Mubarakan’, so that opens up a new genre for me. I don’t know about commercial or non-commercial but I know that comedy is something I love doing so ‘Mubarakan’ will enhance the prospects of me doing another one.

“There can be no nicer feeling for an actor than knowing there’s repeat value on your film”

Does your production background and a great deal of know-how about movies, help you in being a better actor?
I think it makes me a better person on set. You become more aware about what everyone is bringing and there’s a huge amount of trust in what even other people are doing. You don’t waste other people’s time and energy. You try and keep a positive atmosphere by working towards a film together, instead of just thinking independently as an actor. Actors are a part of the set-up, they aren’t the set-up, and I’ve seen many people fail when they start believing that they are above the film. I think the only cultural thought process you get, as a part of being in the film environment for a long time is that your respect towards what everyone brings to the table. That has value over the course of years. The work experience is far smoother, cleaner, better. There are no egos, tussles because all that is kept aside when you’re making a film. But does it improve my craft? I don’t think so. Eventually what I do in front of the camera is completely devoid of what I’m doing behind the camera. I still have to bring that moment of honesty and purity. So I don’t think it’s co-related. I cannot say that because I understand film-making, it makes me a better actor, but I feel, I enhance the atmosphere on the set, so that I can get the best possible outcome from my work, and that can help me perform better because I try and make sure I’m a team player, that the film is being made on time and we make a good film, which I think makes the atmosphere such that I can hone my craft also since the atmosphere is positive. So, I think there’s a subconscious bearing that makes me a better actor, but my craft is not improving just because I know about the economics of film-making. At a human level, it’s making me a better person, so I’m able to meet more people at a grounded level rather than being in my own bubble. It’s not tangible but subconsciously, I’m sure some things have helped. Having said that, it can also be detrimental because sometimes you’re being too much of a team player and you forget that your main job is to perform and take the film to a different level. So, maybe I’ve also made that mistake. I’m human and I’m a producer’s son so that part comes naturally to me and I’m creatively obsessed with the art of direction so I’m directly entering into the director’s mindset and asking him questions. I’m intrigued and always a student. So, maybe that has also made me digress from my main aim in some cases. But it’s all done in honesty. There has never been a moment where I’m dishonest about it because I’m passionate about film-making. I’m passionate about acting, just watching a film come together for me, is the most beautiful experience in the world. So, it’s making me a better person. As far as acting is concerned, you have to keep nurturing the craft every day, you can never take that for granted. I don’t know if being a good human being reflects in being a good actor.

Maybe it does reflect. Probably because you’re able to be sensitive and understand characters better?
Understanding is one thing and to be able to articulate it with your performance is another thing. Acting is all about expressing, emoting and connecting through many layers. I’m not saying exactly what needs to be said. There are so many things which help me feel a connect. I think good human beings traditionally make good actors. Intelligent human beings make great actors. You need to be really intelligent to understand what the director is trying to say under the scene also. You need to be intelligent to understand, be fearless, take risks, execute. You need to be sharp in your mind. Your body is a tool through which you project but eventually it comes from up there. Most successful actors that you see, their brains are well-oiled. Most actors that grow with time, that observe, that learn, pick-up, they’re mentally very astute, they keenly get involved at a very distant level. It won’t even seem that they’re trying too hard, but when you meet them, you feel that he’s intelligent. He understands why he is doing what he is doing. That’s what makes an actor eventually last over a course of years.

How often does it happen that you really feel good after a scene?
I’m never satiated with my work. I can look back and say I gave it my all, but that’s very different from feeling happy about what you’ve given. You build towards a scene for days. You do 500 rehearsals, discussions and eventually it’ll just be that one take which will be on celluloid. Were you able to get all those five hundred rehearsals together into that one take? You’d always wonder. But sometimes the magic does happen when you least expect it and that’s when the director is there. You have to submit to someone else at some point. You can’t beat yourself up. You can’t become bitter and negative that I could have done better or I can’t do it. You have to be realistic about it. You have to always aspire to do better. That’s something I feel pushes you. In retrospect if you see, you will always feel you could have done that scene better because you grow also with time. You grow even in the gap of 6 months. But in that moment, if the audience has liked it, then they’re latching out to what you’ve done honestly in that moment.

Has there been any scene by the end of which you felt heavy or felt that you gave it your all?
Every film has those moments where you feel it has come together nicely. But it’s never felt while I’ve done the take. I’ve felt that when I’ve seen the film. For example in ‘Mubarakan’, when you’re doing a double role, I kept doing more and more thinking it’s needed. There’s a shot where the two brothers are walking into the dhaba and fighting with each other. It’s a performance driven scene because it’s casual. There’s no punchline in the scene, it’s just two brothers arguing over the fact that their lives are ruined because they’re marrying the wrong girls. But the way the scene came together, the way both the characters felt different and that was my quest – that they both should feel different – so I felt happy about that. I rarely get happy. While I was doing it, on set everyone said the characters seem different but I was like, it should come across in the entire film.

Like I remember one scene in ‘2 States’ where Alia and you are sitting on a bench after your father scolds you. There’s no dialogue, yet the scene is emotional and impactful.
That scene turned out well. It was a nice wide shot with Humayun’s tomb in the background and it then goes into the close-up. The atmosphere on the set was very casual. It got me into the groove and the tear just came. It wasn’t glycerin. And the director accepted that he didn’t want another shot, he got what he wanted. I didn’t know how good it was but it worked in the moment.

So you’ve been here for six years and a lot has changed I’m sure. Do you introspect?
See I can be very hunky dory and say that things are going great. Of course things are improving in certain aspects. You have a certain discipline and energy with which people are working. The professionalism in the industry has increased over the last five years that I’ve been here. And there are a lot of people getting opportunities in comparison to when I started out. There are a lot of interesting topics being touched upon as writers are writing and directors are making. So, as an interesting audience point of view, we are evolving. But I feel we are missing out on being entertainers, which is something I grew up watching. For me, cinema was escapism, larger-than-life. It was everything we can’t do in our real life. We are deeply embedded into showcasing what’s happening in our galli-nukkad, people will like it upto a point and that reflects in your business. But escapism when done correctly has its own charm and that reflects in the box-office collections. That’s when films rise beyond their expected numbers and love because you entertain people. People have forgotten how to entertain while taking about issues, and what’s happening in the system. We’re making films based on regions but we’re not able to unify our country in bringing to the theatres. That’s reducing even in terms of the kinds of films. The aspirations of a lot of people is to go more deep inside the roots, and show what’s happening, you’re taking risk with the material because you’re talking about maybe taboo subjects. But I sometimes feel it’s a bigger risk to bring together the entire Indian audience and give them a cinematic experience. And I definitely feel that is the future. You need to give them cinematic experience. We’ve gone into the inner circle in the last few years, we need to again become extroverts.

Which is the essence of Hindi cinema, isn’t it?
Yes, but a lot of people started feeling apologetic about commercial cinema. I’m not saying one should become arrogant but that I think is the bread and butter by bringing in a lot of people to the cinemas. Which is what everyone is complaining about right? That people are not coming to the cinemas. That certain section of the audience will come on Monday, Tuesday also. But that audience who used to come and watch films on Friday mornings and Friday nights, that audience has stopped coming. We are not giving them Friday films, the joy of going to watch the first day, first show. Those tent-pole films are very important. Hollywood has summer blockbusters, we used to have year-long blockbusters. And I’m not saying make nonsense. But I want to see many more young directors wanting to make entertaining films, engaging films and aspire to tell stories that unify the country, not just certain pockets. That audience is always there. The multiplex audience who can afford to pay 300 bucks, that much audience is there. But what about the audience who can pay 50-100 bucks? We are making less films for them. So, they are watching TV. Paisa vasool films have reduced in the last three years. But now that’s happening again slowly. We are having those big films again. If you notice the announcements and the line-up of films next year and after that, you can see a change in the dynamics. Smaller films will work, but if you want to create euphoria, stardom, box-office numbers, then you have to give them a larger-than-life experience. I remember when ‘Dhoom’ released, it had three young actors who had just started out. But when the trailer came out, with that background music, drift, I went and watched the film on Friday afternoon in a packed theatre. I bought the tickets in black. Which was the last film one saw on Friday afternoon because of the excitement of being a film viewer? It’s been a long time! In the last two-three years, we’ve deleted that bit from our system. But that’s slowly coming back. The intelligent films, they must be made. They should be made and they should work. But we can’t just make films for that audience. That audience is still limited in our country. It only gives you a gap of 70-80 crores. But for the consumer with a common man sensibility, they will go to watch the film thrice and see it if it’s entertaining. But we have reduced our entertainment quotient at the cost of trying to be cerebral. That balance is very important.

Talking about the film announcements, you also have ‘Namaste Canada’…
Yes we start with ‘Namaste Canada’ early next year after we finish ‘Sandeep Aur Pinky’, and we’ll be done mid next year. People will have Parineeti and me back-to-back in two different genres. For me, ‘Namaste Canada’ is a proper desi romcom. For me, I’ve never done a hero-heroine typical romcom. I’ve done character-driven romantic films, whether it was ‘2 States’, ‘Half Girlfriend’, the module of the character in these is different. Characters were defined. I haven’t done a typical hero-heroine wala romance, and we’ve also not seen it for a while – with romance, a journey, story, colour. So everything that Vipul sir achieved with ‘Namaste London’, he’s got those ingredients, with two new faces this time.

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