Kunal Kapoor Takes Us Inside His Journey From ‘Rang De Basanti’ To ‘The Empire’
20 years into the film industry with quite a few hits in his pocket, actor Kunal Kapoor feels his journey has just begun. Kapoor talks projects, the importance of not being typecast, and the way forward
Kunal Kapoor’s slow-motion walk sporting a beige shirt and trousers with a long black overcoat in the song Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlaata Hai from his debut film, Meenaxi-A Tale of Three Cities, is still fresh in my memory. Everybody wanted to know about this good-looking man, and his whereabouts. He was never just a handsome face with a fabulous body. He proved his acting mettle with films like Rang De Basanti, Aaja Nachle, Lamhaa, and more. In fact, The New York Times gave a raving review to his Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana. Kapoor is back on screen in the recently released series, The Empire, where he plays Mughal king Babur.
Kapoor believes he manifested the role of Zahīr ud-Dīn Muhammad, or Babur, — the Mughal Empire’s founder and the First Emperor of the Mughal dynasty during 1526– 1530 in the Indian subcontinent. He explains, “The show is based on Alex Rutherford’s historical fiction book titled Empire of the Moghul: Raiders From the North. I had read the book a few months before I was approached for the role. Whilst reading the book, I felt it would make excellent content for a movie/ series, and Babur is a fascinating character. Nikkhil Advani called me a few months later, and said he had bought the book’s rights for the screen. I was quite surprised because I had just read the book. So, I completely manifested it. Often, you might have a great book and great source material, but the script might not turn out as good as the book. Here, I felt they had enhanced the script, and it was even better than the book. So, it was an obvious choice to do it.”
Kapoor ended up living this character for two years. The shoot for the show began just before the pandemic hit, and post that, the shooting pace slowed down. When you live with a character for such a long time, you tend to take it home. You find it difficult to shrug it off even after the project is done. But Kapoor isn’t that kind of an actor. He reveals, “I spend a lot of time working on the character. When I’m on the set, I try and stay in character, but once the project is over, I move on very quickly. I thought staying with the character for two years was challenging, as you expect the shoot to get over within five or six months. When it extends, it becomes difficult to be in that space and zone.”
I enjoyed Kapoor’s performances on the big screen, but we haven’t seen much of him in recent years. Why? The actor say it was because he wasn’t finding scripts he was looking for. “I love being on a set. I’ve been on sets since I was 20. I began as a production assistant and went on to become an assistant director, and an actor. But at the same time, you know you can’t work just for the sake of working. I put my heart and soul into my work. Unfortunately, the sort of material that I was looking for was very, very sparing. So, I was doing less work than usual. The good thing is that I’ve also spent the last couple of years developing work that I like. The idea was if I’m not getting the sort of work my heart desires, I will create it instead of waiting for it. Fortunately, I’ve had an inclination towards writing.”
He elaborates, “I’ve had a chance to actually develop a lot of work in the last couple of years, and now I have a lot of work to choose from. Luckily, we live in a time where there is democratisation of talent because of streaming services. Different kinds of content are being made with new directors with different ideas, and producers willing to fund them. There is an audience that is now open to new subjects. I think this is a great time to be in the industry, and fortunately, I have enough material to draw from.”
Acting is not the only thing Kapoor excels in. He’s a trained pilot, a tech investor, and runs Asia’s biggest crowdfunding website called Ketto. Ketto has raised funds and helped thousands of people. “We are constantly bombarded with bad news, from news portals or social media because of the world we live in. You feel the world is really a bad place where you have anger, people are fighting with each other. Then when you come on a platform like Ketto, and you realize there is so much goodness. People from across the globe come together to help a stranger, just out of the goodness of their hearts,” he says.
He passionately delves into this conversation about Ketto, and shares an anecdote. “While watching television, my friend’s daughter learnt about the migrant crisis. She felt that she didn’t want to sit around. She is just 10 years old, and she decided to make a difference. She called me and started a campaign. She raised 10 lakhs. Every day, you see goodness, and you see people contributing to make a difference.”
We take a pause, and talk films again. Kapoor is currently working on four scripts, out of which two are complete, and he is all set to launch his own production company. In all probability, his first project will be on the life of Shiva Keshavan, a six-time Olympian and the first athlete to represent India at luge at the Winter Olympic Games. He’s considered to be the fastest Indian on ice. “I met Shiva when he was crowdfunding on Ketto. He needed money to go to the Olympics. At that point, he was looking for about seven lakhs, which were raised. I found his story very fascinating. We spoke, and I told him, if I ever turn producer, yours would be the story I would love to bring to the screen. We’ve been in touch ever since, and now that I’m turning producer, this is the story I would want to tell. Eventually, I would love to direct.”
He further adds, “As a producer, I’m open to anything, be it films, or web shows or TV. I just want to tell stories as a producer-actor-director in a short film or a feature film. When I was young, I was very introverted, and painfully shy. But the moment there was a chance to tell a story, I would feel infused with life. Stories have been a significant part of my life.”
Kapoor enjoys doing new things, and knows how to divide his time judiciously. In fact, he calls himself “very inquisitive about things”. Sometimes, he feels He has taken more than he can handle, but feels “you find the time when you enjoy something. It doesn’t become a burden, or you don’t question it. It’s only when you don’t enjoy something that it becomes frustrating.”
Fitness has always been synonymous with Kapoor. But did you know that the primary reason he joined a gym in his teenage years was to put on weight? “I was 16, and because I was very skinny, everyone used to ask if I ate at all. People believe that only overweight people are body shamed. Underweight people face an equal amount of body shaming. Once I joined the gym, I really loved it. It wasn’t something I did only for professional reasons. Thankfully, my metabolism is faster than Usain Bolt (laughs). I eat a lot. I love food, and it doesn’t show on my body. I have a healthy lifestyle where I sleep early, I start my day with yoga and meditation. It has been a routine that I’ve had for many years.”
Kapoor even did a series of articles for a publication on different fitness forms he has learnt over the years. Though, it was only in The Empire that he could put some of it to good use. In fact, for the role of Babur, he had to lose weight, and there was no time, so he went into overdrive and cut out on water and salt, and took to cardio to get the desired result.
Kapoor also happens to be a part of Bollywood’s biggest family, the Bachchans. He is married to Naina Bachchan (daughter of Ajitabh Bachchan, and niece of Amitabh Bachchan). The couple had a fairytale love story, and destiny played a significant role. “She is always learning something new, and so am I. Naina is not only a banker, but she’s also a classically trained pianist. She’s intensely into yoga and pilates. I also believe that when you grow individually, a relationship becomes more interesting as you have so much more to share and contribute to the relationship.” Words of wisdom indeed.
Kapoor has been part of the industry for more than 20 years now, but he feels this is just the beginning of his journey, and that he’s understood acting and himself very recently. “It is an exciting time for actors, and my journey has just begun. Makers are not casting, depending on who is saleable or has the biggest market, but who is most appropriate for the role. So many actors from across the world are coming up with stunning performances, and playing incredible characters that we’ve never seen before. All this has been possible because of streaming services,” he signs off, and we agree, it is indeed a new journey for Kapoor with OTT.