Zahan Kapoor’s physical resemblance with a young Shashi Kapoor is difficult to miss. But the similarities between this Kapoor scion and his late grandfather, who would have turned 84 on the 18th of this month, run much deeper than their handsome faces.
Zahan Kapoor, the son of actor, filmmaker and trustee of the iconic Prithvi Theatre, Kunal Kapoor, and well-known photographer Sheena Sippy, is the latest from the first family of Hindi cinema to have made his big-screen debut. In Hansal Mehta’s Faraaz, he plays the titular character. The movie is based on the horrific incidents that unfolded inside the Holey Artisan Bakery in Dhaka, Bangladesh on the night of 1 July 2016, and Faraaz Ayaaz Hossain, the affable young Emory University student hailing from one of the most prominent business families of the country, was among the 20 hostages killed by the militants during the siege. He didn’t sign up to be a hero but ended up being one when he refused to leave his friends and save his own life. In most parts of the movie Zahaan as Faraaz is seen sitting huddled with his two friends inside the café –he is scared and helpless. It is far removed from the quintessential screen-scorching Bollywood hero role. But he is effortless and nuanced as Faraaz—a complex role that required a mature handling.
His rather low-key entry into the movies sits in sharp contrast to the big-ticket debuts of the other members of the Kapoor clan. However, there is a strange parallel between his and his grandfather’s debut films! Shashi Kapoor’s first job as an adult actor was in Yash Chopra’s National Award-winning 1961 film Dharmaputra, which like Faraaz tackled issues like religious bigotry and radicalism. At the core of Zahan’s debut film, Faraaz is the same religious bigotry and radicalism —the underlying common theme of two movies set 62 years, and two generations apart, is also a stark reminder how religious fanatics and fundamentalist are still scripting narratives of terror.
However, according to Zahan, it was not a strategic choice. He was reluctant to position himself as another privileged industry kid who deserves a big debut just because of his family name. “It didn’t feel an organic and honest approach to opt for a big-ticket movie,” says Zahan as we sit down at the Adda at Prithvi Theatre for freewheeling chat.
We start with the origin story: “When I was about 14, I had written a short film script and directed it along with a friend. My dad then taught me how to do a script breakdown, how to do the shots, how to edit, colour correct, and work with the music, he also put me in touch with a DOP, and I got fascinated with the process of filmmaking. It is like preparing food, you have all these ingredients and you have to follow the process step by step to create a dish, and once you do, you share it with people. And it nourishes them. I am a Kapoor, and food and cinema are the only two things that matter to us!” laughs the 30-year-old.
“One year later, my dad decided to properly expose me to the world of film production, and I started from the very bottom—I have worked as the second assistant to the casting director, as the third AD–and slowly climbed the ranks while learning various aspects of the filmmaking.”
It might be interesting to note here that his late grandfather, in an interview had revealed that he had made his first film Phansi at the age of 10 with a 16 mm Bell & Howell gifted to him by his elder brother and maverick filmmaker and actor, Raj Kapoor. He had even mentioned that it was filmmaking and not acting that initially interested him.
Without me even pointing out this parallel, Zahan goes on to says “Acting is something I got interested in much later when I was probably around 18. But I am still interested in filmmaking and would definitely want to direct movies, I want to do both!”
Hailing from the first family of Hindi cinema, he is acutely aware of his privilege. But instead of bagging a starry debut vehicle cashing in the surname, this Kapoor scion has seen it as an opportunity to learn the craft. “I could have my beginner’s lessons in filmmaking at 14 from my dad. I have grown up watching how a play is put together, and how films are made. It is a privilege to have actors like Naseer sir [Naseeruddin Shah] and Mak sir [Makarand Deshpande] around, watching various kinds of plays, attending theatre workshops—not everyone has the access.”
But does having a famous surname also come with certain disadvantages where you are scrutinised more and have the pressure to live up to the legacy? “The judgement placed upon me in respect to my performance in my first film can be harsh but it is very different from the judgement someone like a Rajkummar Rao would have to face as a newcomer. He would be judged a million times to be even considers for a role. As an outsider to the industry, you have to convince the producers and directors that you are good enough to have this opportunity as against someone like me where the producers are willing to take that initial risk and give you that opportunity. Now, if I get an opportunity because of my surname, I can’t change that. I also can’t change the expectations it brings. I can simply prove myself worthy of the opportunity with my hard work and dedication. Then I am not just a commodity in a flashy package but I have served a purpose as well.”
But what bothers him is that while he has got the opportunity to learn and develop his skills as a filmmaker while being on film sets, the situation is very different for actors. “When it came to acting, you don’t have that freedom or opportunity to hone your skills as much, prove your mettle, and gradually get into the position of playing a lead character. Yes, many actors have managed the transition, but mostly, you start off as the ‘hero’.” And it is especially true for someone with a famous family name.
“I was nervous about taking such a gamble and starting as a hero in a big-ticket formula film that would require you to get big numbers at the box office in order to legitimise your status as the ‘new star in town’. But, not many people become stars overnight and most get promptly written off. I was cautious and wary of this situation,” says Zahan.
“Also, my interest was never in the dikhawa of being a hero… in commanding the image space of a ‘hero’. Of course while growing up we all wanted to become a Bollywood hero because you fall in love with cinema as an audience first. I wanted to do those fight sequences, those romantic scenes, live and feel those big emotions I would watch unfolding on screen—and that’s the beauty of art, it sweeps you off your feet and transports you into another world. But I was never really smitten by the trapping of being a star, mushhoor hona, to have my face plastered on billboards, was never the dream. I enjoy acting, reading scripts, rehearsing, creating something, telling a story, to show what it is like for a human being to experience certain things—each part of the process of being an actor. On a selfish level, I was interested in acting because it is an exciting way to learn new things and pick up new talents. Whether I can act in a big-ticket commercial cinema or be good enough to sustain myself is something that will depend on the opportunities but I want to make sure that as an actor I am prepared for it by focusing on the craft. I would definitely want to grow into those kinds of movies and play the larger-than-life heroes as well,” he adds.
Zahan, a movie buff since childhood was born also into the world of theatre. With Prithvi Theatre being his playground, it didn’t come as a surprise when like his grandfather he too decided to start his acting career on stage instead. While Shashi Kapoor had started off by performing in plays put together by his father’s travelling theatre company, Prithvi Theatres, Zahan gave his maiden performance on the stage of Prithvi Theatre, built by him, in 2019. The play was Makarand Deshpande’s play Pitaji Please. Again it was not a planned career decision. But Zahan is determined to carry forward his family’s twin legacy of theatre and cinema and he along with his sister Shaira has been the backbone of the annual Prithvi Festival since 2012.
But how does he respond to already being compared to his legendary grandfather? “I don’t mind it at all. Dadaji did everything. He was way ahead of his time. He started on stage with Prithvi Theatres, then he fell in love with my grandmother (Jennifer Kendal) and joined their theatre company Shakespeareana and did Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw and Pinter, and then went on to act in movies, where he did the out-and-out commercial films, arthouse movies, world cinema, he did it in Hindi and in English, produced movies he believed in, and he built a theatre. I would love to have such an incredible career and legacy, who wouldn’t?
“But I have just done my first film, I am next doing a webseries, going forward, I would love to do a big commercial movie and also be part of indie cinema. Of course, I would also love to work abroad, Dadaji did it when nobody was doing it, but now things have gotten much easier. As of now, I am trying to put together a play, I am writing some stuff, and I am looking to jump into another movie… I am open to doing everything. But my career would be my own. I am not in any rush.”