Any Gen Z kid would recall being glued to the TV screen when that little kid in the Shahid Kapoor starrer Vaah! Life Ho Toh Aisi! tries to do a slick magic trick. Little did I know that this was the unintentional acting debut of Ishaan Khatter, and that one day, and a few noted movies later, I’d be talking to that little magician.

If you remember Khatter’s act in that film (or maybe you were too old to enjoy it, and are just realising that it was him who played that kid, I’ll give you a minute here), you’d be sure that he was born to perform. Being raised in a family of actors — his mother Neelima Azeem, father Rajesh Khattar and half-brother Shahid Kapoor — it was natural for anyone to think that his career would be built on the stereotypical launches that the Bollywood pedigree fetches. Khatter, however, had a different plan in mind. Before chasing his first and most substantial passion to perform, Khatter started learning the trade by working on film sets as an assistant director and understanding the nuances of what makes a film a spectacle. He assisted Abhishek Chaubey on Udta Punjab. In conversation, the actor hails this as a special experience to be surrounded by talents like Alia Bhatt, Kareena Kapoor, Diljit Dosanjh, and brother Shahid Kapoor, and to be able to pick Chaubey’s brain. It’s his foundation, he says. To understand his craft better and expand his knowledge of cinema, Khatter toiled with Danish Renzu as an assistant director for his independent film, Half Widow, in 2017.

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He was no longer that 10-year-old boy who was just excited to be on sets. His passion for acting had only intensified, and he poured it all into his first film, Beyond The Clouds. A tragic story by acclaimed director Majid Majidiwas set in the serpentine alleys of Mumbai’s slums, and Khatter ditched the standard massy debut roles and took an avant-garde route to play a young drug-peddler; a murky anti-hero. I remember a few scenes from the film where I was convinced that he is not just a shadow of the family he’s grown up in, he is more than that. With his very first performance, he established himself as a worthy actor, and not just another star kid wanting to enter the world of drama.

It wasn’t too long before Ishaan Khatter made his mainstream Hindi debut as the benevolent Madhukar Bangla in Dhadak, Shashank Khaitan’s adaptation of the Marathi film, Sairat. It could have gone down that age-old Bollywood formula of star-crossed lovers but his rendition stood out, earning the young actor a slew of awards. Khatter quickly moved to expand his repertoire. I was most impressed with his portrayal of Maan Kapoor in Mira Nair’s mini-series, A Suitable Boy. Mutinous, dynamic, and dazing with mischievous charisma, Ishaan Khatter had deciphered what it takes to hold audience’s attention.

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It’s not, however, just glory, as Ishaan Khatter also has an underwhelming Khaali Peeli on his list, but these varied roles and his ease in front of the camera convinced everyone he is capable of combining stardom and his ability to emote, and keep growing. He will be seen in Phone Booth, Pippa, and projects that he still cannot talk about. Over to the actor.

You have done commercial films as well as films that were a bit niche. Has this been a conscious decision, or are you picking up scripts that simply appeal to you?
So far, I have been a part of all niche projects. I cannot take credit for the first two projects because they chose me. Beyond The Clouds and Dhadak were two films that were great opportunities for me to perform, and a great starting point. Beyond The Clouds was especially unique. To be able to work with Majid Majidi sir was special. For me, the story and the script take primary importance. I think the understanding of whether a film is niche or has a wider appeal also comes with experience. The thing I look for in a script is emotional connection. I look for stories that should be told, or something that adds to my repertoire, something where I could bring a character to life in a way that makes it unique, and my own. That is what is important to me.

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Beyond The Clouds was not a conventional Bollywood debut. How did making your debut with a Majid Majidi’s film benefit you?
Conventional or unconventional is something for others to say. For me, it felt like an amazing opportunity. There is no doubt that it was a huge blessing that I got to star in that film because I think it set a foundation for me as an actor. It is very important to have a strong foundation. I had a lot of ideas before I actually got on sets, and started to act for the camera. But had those ideas and my young feeble mind not gotten the right direction, I would have probably been a different kind of an actor. Also, it was a great character. Not often do young actors get to play such layered characters. I was 21 when I shot for that film.


Do you have a roadmap for the kind of characters you aspire to play, or is it a ‘go with the flow’ approach?
I would say neither. I definitely don’t have a roadmap because having a roadmap would suggest that I have a very detailed career plan. To be frank, I love this job partly because it comes with such wonderful surprises. You are able to discover aspects of yourself as a performer that you didn’t know existed. You can expect me to do more varied roles with the next few projects that I cannot talk about. So far, I have been lucky that people have been able to see me in such different worlds and characters. I also feel lucky to be working in a time where newer stories are being told and exciting work is happening out there.

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You have also talked about how being privileged makes you want to overdeliver. Is there a burden you feel of being a star kid?
My definition of privilege is personal. The way I see privilege is just to be able to have a steady job, a roof over your head, and be able to make a living out of your passion. To be able to go to work every day, especially if you are excited to get up and go to work, is a privilege for me. Also, having good work experiences plays a part. You feel a sense of belonging, you feel a sense of satisfaction. I like to associate myself with all the positivity that comes with this privilege, and not confuse my own sense of self with how other people perceive me in the early years of my career. I have a long way to go. I don’t feel too pressured. I think it is a part of my personality that I am just enthusiastic, and it’s my tendency to overdeliver.

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You have worked with some really good directors. Are you a director’s actor?
I am a director’s actor, I am an audience’s actor, I am an actor’s actor. Whatever you need me to be. It’s an act of sharing. There is no such thing as a one-man show. Us actors are only able to create memorable characters because they are written that way. The foundation is set by the writers, there is a lot of thought put in by the directors, there is an entire world that is created by the technicians and the crew to support that one moment of honesty and truth that you are trying to achieve. I am a team player. I love my directors and I love picking their brains. I think it is very important to know who you are working with.

Every single director I have worked with, including Shashank Khaitan, Mira (Nair) di, Maqbool Khan, Raja Menon, Gurmmeet Singh and the directors I am going to work with, I am very fascinated by their minds. I like being around to an extent where I am told ‘yaar ab to ghar jaane de’.

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How did working on Udta Punjab shape your thoughts and craft?
I think that experience was my induction into what it means to be a film person, even though I have been on sets before. I was never a part of the working process the way I was in Udta Punjab, and I feel lucky that I got to work with Abhishek Chaubey. Also, the fact that I was around such fantastic actors that I got to watch and learn from, including my own brother, Alia Bhatt, Kareena Kapoor Khan, and Diljit Dosanjh.

I also remember watching you in Vaah! Life Ho Toh Aisi!
I was never cast in the film officially. But because I was so wide-eyed and excited to be on the sets, the director asked me to shoot a scene. He felt that I would be comfortable in front of the camera, and he gave me a very random scene. Eventually, I started getting more scenes. But as a child, shooting for the film is much more of a pure experience than as an adult. When I became older, I just became more serious about it.

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You are surrounded by a family of talented actors and now that you have an established career too, what are dinner table conversations like?
My sister-in-law (Mira Rajput), does have a yawn because we get a little carried away. She brings a different perspective to the table, which is distinctive from ours because she sees things as a non-film person. Now, we can talk about anything. It’s very refreshing. We do talk about films a little too much. It’s mostly about nuances, creative film-making, a scene that somebody did or how somebody delivered a dialogue, music, and more.

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What are the acting lessons that you’ve learnt from your brother?
I think he is becoming more pure and honest as an actor. He has been in touch with himself in so many ways, and he has a lot to give. He is at a very interesting phase in his craft. I am encouraged by all the work he does. It was so heart-warming to see him as a father in Jersey, because I have seen him as a father to his beautiful babies and he is just pure.

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You have consciously separated your identity in the industry from that of someone’s son and someone’s brother. How liberating is it? Does it have any drawbacks?
I don’t think there could be any drawbacks to this. It is, however, always important for somebody who is
expressing themselves to be known for their own personal expression. You don’t want to be clubbed with someone else. It would be wrong to generalise, and we do that often. For me, it wasn’t something that was a driving force that I needed to identify myself differently from my family. I’d rather focus my energy on growing as an artist, and I don’t want to get distracted by negative opinions.

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The OTT space is ever expanding, and you have already made your debut with A Suitable Boy. Are you looking at exploring more on the web in the future?
For sure. I think there is a lot of exciting work happening. I think it has enabled creators to also look at their work differently. It’s an exciting thing for an actor. I would be interested in work regardless of the platform, but as an audience, I think the community experience of watching a film in a theatre is far more exciting. You have also talked about how you’ve always been very engaged in everything that is happening on the sets of a movie.

Are you looking at directing or producing films in the future?
I have always had an interest in different aspects of film-making, but it is still a growing fascination. However, my first passion still remains for performing and right now, I am putting all my energy into that.

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How are Pippa and Phone Booth going to showcase your versatility?
Phone Booth
is very different from anything that I have done before. It is a madcap. That was something I was always curious about — I was looking to break into comedy and I took it as a challenge to see what I can do. Pippa is a really strong subject, and a very intense film. It has a really personal story at the heart of it. I am playing a young captain in this film based on a book that was written by Brigadier Balram Singh Mehta about the time he was a 26-year-old captain. The film talks about bravery and more than that, about what they were fighting for. It’s a film that I identify with in many ways. I am really excited for both, and I really hope everyone likes them.

(All Image Credits: Gucci)