Dancer in the Dark
Shahid Kapoor’s path to glory has been meandering, at best. He’s following his own compass – which is the way it should be
The week we met, Shahid Kapoor’s personal and professional lives had both been in the news. After years of dating some of the Hindi film industry’s most beautiful women, he announced there was going to be a wedding in December. Rumour has it the lady in question is from Delhi. Haider had also just picked up five National awards. At our evening shoot, in photographer Rohan Shrestha’s studio, Kapoor walks in with three “Oh my gods” and tightly hugs Shrestha. He misses actor Sonakshi Sinha by a few minutes, from when she was here for another shoot. Shrestha’s father, Rakesh Shrestha, is a well-know fashion photographer from the time Sushmita Sen, Manisha Koirala, Preity Zinta, Shilpa Shetty, Kim Sharma, Rani Mukherjee and Raveena Tandon graced fashion magazines. Their photographs, and those of many others, cover one half of the ceiling in the studio.
The younger Shreshtha, too, has some of his photographs on the wall. When Kapoor sees one of actor Ranveer Singh in Marilyn Manson make-up, he says, “Trust Ranveer to do this shit.” “He won’t do this any more,” says Shrestha. “This was taken eight years ago.” They discuss Whiplash, Birdman and the Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation promo that’s out. “You remember our first photo shoot? We knew fuck all,” says Shrestha. “Yeah, it was a look test,” says Kapoor. Obviously, the two have known each other for some time. Since those days, Kapoor has at least gotten a clearer idea of what he likes. Throughout the shoot, he keeps up a steady banter with Shrestha: “Do you have any more ideas for me to pose in? You just acted cool — you gave me a very strong instruction. Don’t ask me what I’m going to do, because then I start thinking and I fuck it up.” Even with our stylist, the ever-smiling Antara Motiwala, he cajoles and is critical by turns. He has to convince her to let loose his ponytail for one of the shots — “It will take 30 seconds. Just try; for fun.” When she gets him to try on a white, fitted ganji, he says “Don’t get these ganjis for me the next time. Looks very girly, very gay. I’m not a fucking heroine.” When she makes him wear a formal jacket and a scarf, he goes “What is this? You’re making me look like a 40-year-old man.”
By the time the shoot winds down, Kapoor’s sense of humour has begun to go home. At about our 100th pose, he says, “I’ve done so many of these kinds of things that I’m just bored of this shit. Give me some element to play with. Right now, all I have is this fucking wall.” Later, when he’s wearing a blazer, he says “I don’t like anything in this set of photos. It’s not looking natural. I’m not going to approve any of these. The shoot is so edgy, and the blazer is not. The early set is looking very grungy. Now, I’m looking very company-types. All these you’ll delete, no? [Jokingly] This shoot will end my career.” When he goes away to change, Motiwala, MW’s creative director and Shrestha huddle together to discuss what to do. They decide to convince Kapoor to do one extra shot. When Kapoor says of the last photograph, “That’s a sick shot, bro. We’ve got kickass pictures. Now let’s not overanalyse this,” everyone breathes easy.
Congratulations on Haider winning five National awards.
It was an amazing day yesterday. I was so happy because Haider was made by a team whose contribution has been so big in the film. I’ve been lucky, as I’ve won a lot of awards this year. I used to wish the team was winning more awards. And, the National awards are so, so prestigious. For us to have won five, which is the highest any film has won this year, was absolutely phenomenal. It was also a mildly controversial film. So, that level of appreciation and recognition took the film to another level.
What has Haider meant to you as a career move and as an artist?
Haider came at a time when I hadn’t had very successful films. I had done two to three films which hadn’t done well. Vishal sir’s last two films had not done well either. It wasn’t a subject that was considered commercial, in any sense. So, it was a big risk to take. But, when I heard the script, I felt it was a story that should be told. It was a part that was amazing to do as an artist. I just focussed on that feeling. Eventually, that’s what it’s turned out to be. For the newer generation, we’re trying to understand the different choices we can make as actors. The industry is going through a bit of a transition. There are two or three very different sensibilities in the kind of films being made. A film like Haider gives more power to the people who are trying to make honest cinema, and trying to tell stories they feel need to be told, without having to deal with this humongous pressure of commerce and success and numbers, which are usually more spoken of. Today, the focus is so much on numbers that the quality can sometimes be questioned. And, I’m glad that films such as Haider and Queen were able to break out and be loved for just the stories. That gives an actor a lot of hope.
What was the shoot of Shandaar like?
Fun. There’s a lot of family involved. My dad and I got to act together for the first time. That was a little nerve-wracking. I’m a little in awe of my father in terms of acting. It took a little time for me to get used to it. My sister’s debuting in the film, so I’m very emotional about that. Me and Alia [Bhatt] haven’t worked together before. Among the younger generation, she’s probably one of the finest talents we have. Vikas [Bahl, director], I always tell him he’s the best actor for heroines. So, I was always a little insecure if he’ll focus on me or not. Jokes apart, he’s a fantastic director. He likes things to be real, normal, natural.
I did the whole of Shandaar by just asking two people. Vikas and Alia. ‘Do you guys think I’m doing okay?’ The whole film, I swear, I’ve done like that. Anuraag [Kashyap] is editing the film right now, and when they call and say they’ve liked something, I feel very happy because I actually had no perspective. After Haider, to do a film like Shandaar, I didn’t know how to jump from one space to another. In Shandaar, I wasn’t analysing myself too much. That’s a good thing for an actor, as it can set you free. You have someone sitting in front of the monitor whose job it is to do that.
Are you able to find faults in your films?
I only find faults in my films and my work. I’m overtly critical.
What was a flaw you saw in Haider?
I think Haider could have been a bit shorter. That was one of the biggest issues, if I was to look at the issues in the film.
And, films such as R… Rajkumar and Phata Poster Nikla Hero?
See, those kinds of films you can’t sit down and analyse, because they’re meant to be fun films. Either they work or they don’t work. You can’t have panipuri and get down to discussing, ‘Iss mein kitna teekha daala.’ That’s the kind of movies they are. If you can put together a product which is entertaining, audiences like films like that. Everybody in this country is tired of dealing with their issues, and they want to go to a movie theatre and enjoy themselves. I can’t analyse films such as R… Rajkumar and Phata Poster Nikla Hero; I can only react to them the way the audience reacts to them.
Speaking of these pani puri kind of films, how many have you personally enjoyed?
Dabangg was a film I really enjoyed. I actually quite liked Chennai Express. I know it got a mixed reaction, but I found it entertaining. The general junta has a prototype of films they like. As an actor, it’s your job to try different things. So, I don’t try to judge what I do. Of course, being my father’s son, whenever I get the opportunity to do something substantial and something that excites me, I want to take it up. I do think we should do something fresh in this space of entertaining films. That’s a feeling I definitely get. After seeing what’s happening in the last four to five years, I do feel some things are getting too repetitive. There’s no thought. There’s just a set package you rehash and put out there. Maybe that’s something I won’t be able to do again and again. But, sometimes it’s the film-maker you really want to work with, sometimes it’s the character. Ideally, Shandaar is a film like that — commercial but with a new take.
Did theatre never appeal to you?
It’s the most amazing thing to do, and my father’s done so much of it. Everything happened very much by chance with me. My parents were separated, so I was always living with my mother. When I came to Mumbai, we lived a middle-class life. After a certain age, I felt the need to earn for myself. That’s how I started in Shiamak Davar’s dance company. At the age of 16, to be able to earn for myself would take a lot of pressure off my family. And, I loved dancing. It’s something that really worked for me at that point of time. I got picked up for a couple of ads, and I started auditioning for movies, and it just happened one day. I was 22 when I started shooting my first film. I miss that I could never go to NSD or FTII to formally learn acting. It’s pretty much been on the job. Seeing performances, learning from my film-makers, understanding what they want from me.
Which film-makers have you learnt the most about acting from?
The obvious choice would be Vishal Bhardwaj; he’s been career-defining for me. I don’t think anyone would think I’m an actor if he wasn’t there in my life. I would have had to really struggle to be considered a good actor. Imtiaz Ali is one of the finest cinematic minds we have in this country. The way he deals with his actors and spends time with them is phenomenal. I really miss working with him. He’s someone I learnt a lot from. Today, I’m at a stage in my career when I could have learnt a lot more from him. Five years ago, when we did Jab We Met, I was too inexperienced. If I got that opportunity today I would learn much more from him. Sooraj Barjatya’s understanding of the craft and of the nuances of performance is phenomenal. He doesn’t get enough credit for it. His films don’t appeal to the critics, so to say. But his understanding of emotion — he really knows how to make you cry. I worked with my father in Mausam. And, to my understanding, he’s the best actor in the country. I know I’m his son, but I feel very balanced in my perspective towards it. To learn from him was amazing.
Specifically, what are the things you’ve learnt from your father?
That’s a very large question. He’s said a couple of things. I don’t think I’ve been able to do them all. He said that no two people in the world are the same; therefore no two characters should be the same. That’s a tall order. On the big screen, less is more. It’s not about making expressions and making faces. That was something he told me when we did Jab We Met. That really helped me in the movie.
Between your father and you, you’ve done 80 per cent of Vishal Bhardwaj’s films. How does it feel to be his muse?
I hope he doesn’t go anywhere else. We’ll hunt him down and tie him up. Dad has a fantastic relationship with him. And, obviously, the fact that I’m his son must have helped somewhere. But, whatever his reasons were, I’m glad he’s given me the films he did. Both him and dad have an equal relationship. There are films in which Vishal sir has said that I wouldn’t have done the film if my dad had said no. So, he has that kind of respect for dad, and dad has that kind regard for him as a film-maker. But, yeah, I’m the lucky one. Sometimes you give an actor a role because he’s done great work in the past. But, Vishal sir has given me a role in which he’s said, ‘You haven’t done this role, but I think you can do it.’ To put that kind of faith in me makes me feel very fortunate.
What is your initial impression of Abhishek Chaubey [director, Udta Punjab]?
He’s a serious guy. Very passionate, and fully into films. He won’t settle for second best, so I’m nervous, because I know his expectations are going to be high. All he wants to do is express himself as a film-maker. My father had spoken about Abhishek many years ago. Dad had done Maqbool, in which he was involved. He’d said, ‘There’s this one guy called Abhishek Chaubey, and he’s so talented and he works with Vishal. When he’ll become a film-maker, he’ll become a very fine one.’ So, that had always stayed with me. It’s rare for my father to mention a specific person’s name and praise them.
Udta Punjab sounds similar to Requiem for a Dream.
See Udta Punjab. I don’t want to tell you too much. It’s so early right now to say anything about the film. It’s a fresh space. When you see the film, you’ll understand.
You’ve said you’ve never done a film for money.
No, I haven’t. I’m sure there are a few of them which people saw and said, ‘You definitely did that for money.’
In the phase of your life in which your films weren’t working well, what was going on in your mind?
It’s a very painful thing when an actor has to face rejection. You are an actor because you seek applause. Even when you tell a joke to somebody, and if they don’t laugh, it’s awkward. As an actor, you’re doing something for the reaction. When that reaction doesn’t happen, it’s like a vacuum. You don’t know what to fill it with. There’s no output, but you still have to go out there. The circle completes itself when you do something, people like it, you feel appreciated, you get inspired, and do something again. But, there are times in every actor’s life, and those are the toughest times, when the audience doesn’t appreciate what you’ve done. I was very lucky that people never walked up to me and said, ‘You’re shit.’ I had people telling me that my last film was shit. But, there was no judgment on me personally. I guess that’s what kept me going. I was like, ‘OK, I’m not getting my films right, but people are liking my work.’ I never got the feeling that people thought I was bad at what I do.
There are rumours you’ve gotten engaged to a girl from Delhi. How much of it can we believe?
No comment. This is not a question that I can answer. [Looks at his PR agent] I didn’t know this question was going to come. Sorry, but I’m not going to answer that.
Creative Director – Kapil Batus