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Rajat Kapoor: A Bollywood ‘Kapoor’ In Search Of An Audience

Having directed nine acclaimed films in less than two decades, Rajat Kapoor is one of Hindi cinema’s most prolific and underrated auteurs. Then why does he always have a problem he always have a problem getting his movies funded?

It’s one thing to act out a part before a camera — however tough, over a 30-day shoot, after an 18-day workshop/rehearsal. Quite another “to watch someone who looks like you,” and wonder, then, “Damn, why did I do this [role]?” Which is precisely what Rajat Kapoor went through, he tells me, when Mira Nair sent over the VHS tape of Monsoon Wedding (2001) to him — much before the landmark film’s release. Monsoon Wedding was shot entirely in English, and Nair wanted to make it sufficiently bilingual (with enough Hindi in it), for Indian audiences. She had sent over the videotape for Kapoor to work on the translations — something he had done for Nair’s Kamasutra (1996) as well.

A still from Monsoon Wedding

Looking far back, how does someone even play a pedophile, I wonder, when we meet, guessing that he’s probably not been asked this before. Evidently, it’s not a role he wanted — he had auditioned for other parts in Monsoon Wedding, including the equally iconic Man Friday, PK Dubey’s. He recalls, “The biggest problem was to play someone older. It’s hard to play someone not your age; you end up faking it. I was 40, playing someone 60-plus. We took a month to figure out what to do with my hair — go orange, didn’t work; but now you can’t turn it black again; try white streaks.”

Physically, he adopted a limp — something he borrowed from his father: “It suggested someone who was not at ease with himself. Also, introducing a certain kind of irregular breathing went with the same idea — of a man, who’s not at peace.” Effectively, you can’t play a ‘pedophile’, really: “I’m playing a guy, who has something to hide. For the rest, you have to allow the script to take over, knowing [because of Nair] that it will be a good film.” He was, sure enough, in safe hands. Tej Puri from Monsoon Wedding, a subtly chilling exposition of how child sexual abuse often starts from safest spaces like homes, is decidedly India’s first, strong memory of Kapoor, on screen, from over two decades ago. It set off a rather prolific career. If you look up Kapoor’s filmography as an actor though, you come across his debut in Kumar Shahani’s Khayal Gatha (1989), from even a decade before that. Where was he in between? “Trying to make films,” he says.

Kapoor in Iti Mrinalini: An Unfinished Letter

It was Naseeruddin Shah, who had recommended Kapoor to Nair for Monsoon Wedding — having watched him perform Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot on stage in Delhi. By then, the actor-auteur had already directed Shah, in his debut feature, Private Detective: Two Plus Two Plus One (1995), which never released in theatres. He’s been indefatigably trying to make films, as it were, since then.If we jump-cut to the mid-noughties, we watch Kapoor script a film-making career quite unique to Bombay, or Bollywood, if you may — a box-set of over half a dozen movies that stand out as deeply personal, entertaining, and diverse at the same time.

Somewhat within the same showbiz ecosystem still, progressively sharpening takes on art and life, in general — from Raghu Romeo (2003), his first theatrical outing as a director, to RK/RKay (2022), his last release, when we meet. As we speak, he’s ready with his next, already — a whodunit, Everybody Loves Saurabh Handa. How he’s managed to pull that off, we can get into that later. For now, let’s flashback to the start, still. As a guest lecturer, Shah got acquainted with Kapoor at the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), where he was studying film direction. That acting debut in Shahani’s Khayal Gatha was accidental. In the sense that Kapoor was assisting Shahani in that film. “You’re a good student, be [the same] in front of the camera,” Shahani told his pupil Kapoor, which is what he plays, in the deeply experimental, genre-defying film on the history of the Hindustani classical music form.

After graduating from FTII, Kapoor assisted Shahani for three years — besides Khayal Gatha, on Bhavantarana (1991), a part-fictional documentary on Odissi dance, lensed through its best-known exponent, Kelucharan Mahapatra. Then, he was with Mani Kaul, on Nazar (1990), based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short-story, The Meek One. In 1993, as with the subject of Shahani’s films he’d worked on, Kapoor himself directed a short film called Tarana on classical music: “The film won the National Award, but that doesn’t mean anything. In between, when I was jobless, I even freelanced as a film critic with [the Mumbai tabloid] Mid-Day, reviewing foreign, art-house films, for Rs 200 to 250 a piece.” Now, I haven’t seen Tarana yet. Although I did sit through Khayal Gatha, without much context outside of watching Kapoor’s screen debut, that’s all. I don’t know how to put it to him, without sounding like a philistine, if not dismissively rude, calling any supposedly revered auteur-type work a snooze-fest. The fact is, it’s not an easy film to watch, by any means. Meaning, a detailed post-screening lecture, if not an explanatory brochure, would’ve helped (me, anyway). I’m hoping Kapoor will get what I’m trying to say, without having to spell it out to him any further.

He agrees, “It is a difficult film to watch.” Phew. “But it’s like classical music. If you’ve always heard pop, the first time you listen to Bhimsen Joshi, or sitar, or rudra veena — [you’ll wonder] why is it taking 40 minutes to start? Get on with it. But that’s what it is — another form, an acquired aesthetic. One can’t blame someone for falling asleep. Manmohan Desai famously said that his idea of prison was making someone watch (Mani Kaul’s) Uski Roti, everyday.” Among directors, Kapoor says he has “huge respect for Ketan Mehta and Saeed Akhtar Mirza. The teachers, though, were Kumar and Mani.” He followed their footsteps. It was hard to shake off their influence: “Tarana was entirely Kumar’s influence. Even Private Detective, while a thriller in noir [space, involving] murder and whodunit — in the writing it was me; in the film-making, it was Kumar’s influence. “It wasn’t until the [short film] Hypnothesis (1997), and C for Clown (written-directed for stage), that I started to find my own voice. It took me seven to eight years.”

Given the self-admitted lineage, it’s a given that if Kapoor had entered the film-making scene a decade before he did, he would’ve resolutely been part of India’s ‘parallel cinema’ — an art-house movement of sorts that began to fade by the late ’80s, and was pretty much finished by the ’90s. What did he make of the movement? “I think parallel is too generic a term. I don’t know if, say, Govind Nihalani and Mani could be placed in the same bracket. Or Basu Chatterjee, and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. But, yes, it’s true that there was a ‘new wave’ of cinema that allowed new, independent voices to emerge. That was the beautiful part of the ’70s. “And which happened because of [state-run] National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), really. NFDC funded almost every first-time film-maker of that time — Mehta, Mirza, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G Aravindan, Kundan Shah, Vinod Chopra, Kumar, Mani — You had 25 new film-makers, in a span of five years, but they were all very different film-makers. Even within Kumar and Mani, there were different gharanas, and disputes, ‘ki yeh asli hai’ (he’s the real deal) — that kind of thing,” Kapoor laughs.

The near-death of NFDC, among other reasons, meant the end of India’s parallel cinema movement, as we knew it. That said, it’d also be wrong to fit Kapoor into the ‘art-house’ circuit category. His movies are too accessibly cheerful for that. Or to see him as a mainstream film-maker, which essentially means art mixed with all the masala aimed at cinema’s fawning, overawed front-benchers. There is a lot going on under the surface in Kapoor’s films to fit this category. Maybe because of all the above, or that he’s also a commercial actor, writer, director, producer — in full control, almost like an author in a literary sense — you can perhaps categorise his deliberately medium-budget filmic voice as some sort of a Woody Allen-like cinema from Mumbai.

Peeking into the heart of complicated relationships, both real and imagined (Raghu Romeo, Mixed Doubles), placing his character in a quirky conundrum (Ankhon Dekhi), tinkering with conventional genre tropes (Mithya, Kadakh), going full meta, packed with self-references (RK/RKay). Basically, gently playing off the urban, human condition. What’s rare/unique is the clarity with which he can hold forth on the themes he wished to tackle in these movies. Kapoor likens film-making to self discovery/exploration: “The process of making a film isn’t to solve the problems of the world, no. It is to find out who you are, looking for it internally. As with everything [in art].

Kapoor in RK/RKAY

A film must answer that, in whatever way you choose to frame the question. And everybody has their own idea of cinema, the struggle is subconscious. Besides, ideas don’t make films. Images, stories, characters, depending on which school you’re from, do.” Take the case of Ankhon Dekhi, arguably Kapoor’s finest work yet. The idea there is self-explanatory — about an obsessive man (Sanjay Mishra), who will only believe what he sees. Kapoor explains how the idea came to be: “Random images thereafter [would drop into the head] — one of them was a man listening to a song on the radio, and through the track, he understood something. It’s only after six to seven years [of staying with the central thought], that the [old Delhi] world of a joint family emerged.” And therefore the parts, and the narrative — Kapoor wrote the first draft of Ankhon Dekhi(2013) in 15 days flat.

His most recent film, RK/RKay, came from the concept of a man (presumably a film-maker), who looks into the mirror to find that his reflection has gone missing: “My daughter claims I’ve stolen the idea from her. It essentially means the man’s lost something — the reflection returns home, and slowly starts taking over his life, while he becomes a mere reflection himself!” This idea, through images, characters, and story, of course, takes the form of a film-maker (Kapoor) directing a film within RK/RKay, wherein the lead character Mehboob (Kapoor, again) disappears from the screen, during the film’s editing process, developing a life of his own. He must return to his fictional home for real life to carry on.

Kapoor in Code M

Going deeper into abstractions, we look at Mithya (2008): “Simple idea. Create a gangster. Gangster loses memory. And then?” That gangster could also be from the Big B, and thereafter SRK starrer Don (1978, 2006), no? “Not Don. That idea of replacing someone is fine, it’s [Akira Kurosawa’s] Kagemusha, or [Charlie Chaplin’s] The Great Dictator. But now who are you — this or that, or nothing, finally?” The question is evidently of identity. “Let me tell you a story [where Mithya actually comes from], if we have time?” Kapoor asks. Of course, we have all the time. He digs into mythology: “Narad [Muni] once asked [Lord] Vishnu: ‘What’s maya?’ Vishnu said he can’t explain it. They walk through the universe, over centuries, and he keeps pestering him to know. Finally, Vishnu says, ‘Okay. Now I need water, can you fetch it from the pond?’ Narad gets to the pond, dips the lota (tumbler), and slips. Out comes, not Narad, but Princess Sushila, bathing in that pond, with friends. A prince falls in love with Sushila. They are married for three years, with kids. Then war and famines take place, with people dying. In the final battle, the husband and three sons are dead. Princess Sushila is crying on the pyre. That’s when fire becomes water. Sushila becomes Narad. Vishnu is still standing there, and he asks, ‘What sons and husband are you crying for, Narad?’ Narad says, ‘Okay now I understand maya!’”

The success of an idea though, as with all business, should be measured against its return on financial investment. Esoteric as its inception may sound, Mithya (2008) has been Kapoor’s biggest commercial success yet — reportedly crossing Rs 5 crore on theatrical revenues alone. It was released during the time a tiny crevice had opened up in the box-office universe, for low to medium budget Hindi films, to survive as ‘multiplex movies’, some of which even turned into sleeper hits. In terms of profitability, Bheja Fry (2007), a desi version of the French comedy Le Diner De Cons, was considered a game-changer then — having reportedly collected around Rs 15 crore, on an estimated investment of about Rs 1.5 crore. But things changed soon after, just around the time that small films were finally finding an audience, the global recession brought about by the financial meltdown of 2008 and changed things once again. It also came at a time when cinema complexes around the country were shifting to having the films delivered by producers in Mumbai using digital technology. Gone were the days when cans of film reels were physically delivered to various parts of the country.

Call My Agent: Bollywood

This digital disruption brought about a fundamental shift in the economics of the film industry. Producers and distributors saw the economic merit in placing all bets on one or two big releases a week, carpet-bombing thousands of prints into multiplexes and single-screen cinemas. In the new system, the movie is hyped up for weeks before the release. That combined with the star/hero’s pulling power guarantees crowds on the so-called Day One or Opening Day, and a few days after that. Box-office collections of Bollywood films began to get counted based on the opening week/weekend collections alone. Thus the ‘100 crore’ club was born — Aamir Khan’s Ghajini (2008) being the first big success in this category. The new system had little or no place for film-makers like Kapoor whose films target a niche audience. Despite having worked as an actor in films made by some of Bollywood’s biggest production houses, he had difficulty finding backers for his kind of cinema, both on the funding and distribution side. “Because what you want to do is not what they [producers] want to do; simple. There is not one bit of regret or bitterness within me [about that]. This is something I chose to do,” Kapoor says stoically. Or as superstar Ranbir Kapoor recently said, revealing merely the prevailing/popular mindset of movie industries in general, “Films are too expensive a medium for self-expression.” Streaming services, Netflix, may have countered this notion. But then again, OTTs are home entertainment, isn’t it? Not quite the same thing as films as we’ve traditionally consumed them.

Speaking of tradition, Bollywood and the Kapoors, as it were, Kapoor bears the initials RK, as does his brother, stand-up comedian, Rajneesh Kapoor (RK), because his father, Rajan Kapoor (also RK) was a “huge RK (Raj Kapoor) fan.” He also owes his interest in film-making to his “evolved film-buff” father who, from a really young age, would take him along to screenings of more off-stream films, playing at the odd art-house cinemas in Delhi. Thereafter Kapoor joined Delhi University’s film society. By 16, he says, he knew that all he had to be was a film-maker. Obviously turning out to be a very different kinda ‘Kapoor’ in Bollywood.

Despite no consistent arrangement for financing his films, he has created a comfortable working environment around himself filled with some of the most talented people in Hindi cinema, an ecosystem which allows him to work at his own pace, unhindered by the demands of creative compromises that come from doing films for large production houses. His team hasn’t changed much since the time of Raghu Romeo. His wife, the well-known production designer and photographer, Meenal Agarwal provides the authentic look and feel that characterise all his films. The cinematographer is invariably by the national award-winning cameraman Rafey Mehmood; music by Sagar Desai, one of Hindi cinema’s most underrated composer; and sound designs by Oscar winner Resul Pookutty. Even the actors don’t change much. Regulars include Vinay Pathak, Ranvir Shorey, Manu Rishi Chadha, Saurabh Shukla, also himself, of course. Many of whom are a regular part of his theatre productions as well.

His point about a theatre repertory like company for films, besides the obvious efficiency, is quite simply: “A sense of loyalty. I don’t know why I’d want to work with someone [else], when these talents are available to me? And we’re growing together — with a basic understanding of aesthetics — growing old together, sharing films and memories together. It’s beautiful.” The first time I spoke to Kapoor was before a live audience at Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College, shortly after the release of Ankhon Dekhi (2013), surrounded by fans of the film, listening to stories behind the scenes. During the audience interaction, a young boy got up to ask Kapoor about how he should go about becoming an actor. Kapoor’s terse reply was: “Don’t. It’s all luck.” That’s it.

I didn’t interject him at the point to figure out exactly what he meant, or why he would so actively discourage a young aspirant from pursuing a chosen passion. I did make it a point to ask him this time. He explains, matter-of-factly, “I think the question from the audience was, ‘How does one become an actor?’ The thing is, why do you want to become an actor — or for that matter, do anything at all? If it’s for anything like glamour, fame, money, but craft — don’t do it. If you’re driven, you will make film; if not, you’ll drop out [anyway]. Now, most of my friends, I’ve known for 25 to 30 years, are actors. And for actors, it’s particularly [harsh] — there’s constant humiliation, rejection… It can get to you. And you have so much time on your hands. You really don’t know what to do, besides go for auditions, and get rejected, again. Many years pass like that, when you aren’t acting, [then] what do you do? I tell them, go work on yourself — your body, it’s your only instrument, or read, or do theatre if you can…”

This tallies quite well with the reality of so many acting aspirants in Mumbai’s entertainment district — anywhere between their 20s and 40s — living out a near campus-like life for years, for a profession, where the success rate is strikingly lower than getting into the IITs. The hope can be everlasting still. And many carry on being a ‘struggler’. No other field has aspirants who are called strugglers. There are no struggling engineers, doctors, architects — only actors who are ‘strugglers’. This obsession also has a name — the acting ‘keeda’, equated to a bug. In his own films as a director, Kapoor says, “I’m beginning to see a thematic continuity [over the question] of identity. So Raghu (in Raghu Romeo) starts believing that a character [from a soap opera] is a person. Obsessive men is a pattern for sure, whether Bauji (from Ankhon Dekhi), or Sunil in Mixed Doubles — they’re all slightly obsessive about an idea. Don’t know where that comes from.”

A still from Kapoor & Sons

Well, where else could it possibly come from? It must take obsession of different kind for an independent film-maker to push himself as hard as he does without much of the financial rewards that come by the way for many of his contemporaries who have joined the mainstream and are comfortable in their formulaic work. RK/RKAY, his most recent film which released in July hasn’t still got the kind of screen time it deserves, but Kapoor has already finished writing his next film. He has followed the same ritual since Raghu Romeo (2004), his theatrical debut, which was possibly India’s first ‘crowd-funded’ movie, even before the term was coined. He got much of his funding from friends and strangers after he sent out mass emails, seeking financial support. And to his credit he repaid each one of them. The end credits of RK/RKay similarly lists 800 producers — basically strangers, who sent cheques, based on his script, or primarily his personal credibility, what else. Likewise, for Ankhon Dekhi, Kapoor reached out to Twitter for funds. In came a businessman based in Nigeria (Manish Mundra) to bankroll his film.

This obsession with ideas, of course, flows into personal life as well. Consider, for instance, that Kapoor still does not use a cellphone: “I’m good with laptop, email. Not saying, shun technology. Without the cellphone, I find it easier to give attention to where I am.” Or, with other life choices. He recalls, “For 10 years after [the unreleased directorial debut] Private Detective, I had no work, [wife] Meenal had no work. We were okay with it. This was going to be our life — do theatre, make a film while I can —artistes have lived like that in a parallel universe.” The visual image of the fabled artiste is a lot more bohemian than Kapoor. I’m thinking more Rastafarian, a joint in hand, maybe? Kapoor, who does not drink, on the other hand could also pass off for a banker on a working day. He obviously doesn’t agree: “Well I still wear dirty jeans, [same] unironed shirt, for the fourth day consecutively, no shave, no bath, when I don’t have to. Part of the [‘suit’] image comes from the fact that I did a film called Corporate [directed by Madhur Bhandarkar].” Even while acting in student films at FTII, Kapoor says he knew he was a “good actor”. Fair, why else would he cast himself in all his films? Acting in movies, otherwise, for him, is non-serious “mazaa”.

“I love being on a [film] set [as actor]. There is no stress or responsibility. You’re not working hard either. Everyone on the set is. And you get a lot of bhav (attention). If the picture turns out good, there is bhav for you. If it turns out bad, well, picture toh unki hai (it is someone else’s film).He says, “Acting came my way after I did my first ad. I was paid Rs 40,000 for a day’s work. And I was like, ‘What?’ It’s still not sunk in — so much for doing nothing?” According to IMDb, he’s appeared in over 70 films, in reasonably prominent parts. More than the fame, Kapoor is thankful to his acting career for the money he makes, most of which gets diverted to making movies. Much is made of the crowd-funding route to his films. Fact is, all 800 producers of RK/RKay, combined, do not account for more than 15 percent of the film’s budget. A proper producer, to bankroll the rest, did sign in on the project, eventually. And as a producer himself, Kapoor puts his own money into his films.

Through that first commercial, he got spotted for the genial uncle’s role in Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai (2001). He shot for that, right after Monsoon Wedding. Both movies opened just a few months from each other. Kapoor became an instantly recognisable face. A film actor was born. Both these early films remain indelible in public memory, which is rare, providing him a successful acting career, which in turn provided him the unencumbered creative freedom to make the kind of films he always wanted. While Kapoor rightly hates Tej Puri, the character he had to play in Monsoon Wedding, it wasn’t such an inauspicious start, after all.