Almost a decade into his Bollywood career, Arjun Kapoor has not only delivered a variety of performance-driven films, most recently in Dibakar Banerjee’s gender-bending Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, but has also reclaimed his sizzling hot physique that he had wowed the audience with his debut. Chhokra is still jawaan – and ready to kick some ass.

“On October 1, last year, I finally became free of Covid. But after that, my mindset towards my health and fitness changed drastically. I wanted to make sure that I come back stronger and fitter,” says Kapoor, sounding genuinely healthy and happy during this interview for this cover.

Although he had a mild bout, the road to recovery post-Covid wasn’t an easy one. “The first two months were extremely difficult. I went into shooting Bhoot Police still trying to figure out how to take care of my health, my breathing, and I was getting easily exhausted. But credit goes to my trainer Drew [kickboxing champion, Drew Neal] and Akshay Arora who looks after my nutrition – they both were a solid support system. Also, the support from my family members and having the right partner in life helped a great deal in pushing me into this groove of getting fitter and keeping me there.” But it wasn’t a moment of epiphany, the actor points out. “In an actor’s life, it is crucial to take care of oneself. I was already on the path to fitness, but I started to work doubly hard to first recover from the side effects of Covid, and then to look a certain way,” he states.

Velvet teal peak label blazer and Pure cotton V-Neck Jumper by Marks & Spencer; On the wrist: Octo Finissimo Skeleton watch from BVLGARI

Having worked non-stop over the past 7/8 years had also impacted his health. “I did 13 films in a row. This break from work during the lockdown gave me perspective that I need to work on myself and my health, and then when I got Covid, it gave me a much deeper perspective on the same. I would say that whatever happens, happens for the best, and I am glad that the hard work I have put into this, every single day, over the past one year, is now showing results and people are appreciating it” he adds.

But for the 35-year-old who has had a history of obesity owing to a medical condition, this fitness journey wasn’t easy and there are still some bad days and some terrible days. “My fitness journey has been a bit different from most people. I have been fighting obesity from an early age. I have always been on the journey to be fit. I have been doing it since I was 18. I had lost 50 kgs (he weighed 140 kgs at his heaviest) before I started my career in Bollywood,” he says. Arjun always knew that it would be extra difficult for him to look a certain way or maintain a certain shape. “When I started off, I was told that it would be a struggle because of my genetic makeup and my medical issues. But if you have decided to sit for a game of cards and you have been dealt a hand, you have to play it. You can’t mope around and complain. Whenever I am faced with a situation where people say that I can’t do something, I make it a point to definitely do it. It might take me more time, but I achieve it nonetheless.”

Kapoor has proved himself not once, but twice. But this time around the journey was a bit different from the first. “My outlook towards fitness had never changed, but what has changed over the years is how my body reacts to the training routine — what I could achieve when I was 25 in six months, today at 35, it has taken me 12 months. When I was doing Ishaqzaade, I could eat a jalebi before shooting for Chhokra Jawaan and my abs still looked great. Today, it is different. Now, if I need to show my abs, it’s a different trajectory, a different journey altogether. Also, the recovery process is different when you are 25 and at 35. You can’t expect the same results,” he explains, adding that today he can train at a level he couldn’t even 18 months back. “So, it is not just how much weight I have lost. I am fitter, stronger, and sharper. I am able to move better, I feel better, there are fewer injuries. It is starting small and building from there rather than aiming for six-pack abs or putting on a particular weight as your goal.”

Autograph Slim Fit Paisley Print Shirt by Marks & Spencer; On the wrist: Octo Finissimo Skeleton watch from BVLGARI

Although, it is part of his profession to look a certain way, Arjun says it is incorrect to say that Bollywood is setting unrealistic beauty and body standards. “It would be grossly unfair to say that Bollywood is peddling this image. One look at social media and you would know how much people are obsessed with the way they look. Everyone wants to look great, everyone wants to flaunt their abs and biceps, and it is a camera-obsessed generation. Vanity is very much a part of our world today, and Bollywood has nothing to do with it,” he points out.

However, according to him, this is also a generation that believes in #BodyPositivity and is woke enough to accept all kinds of beauty. “Today, there is no pressing need to look a certain way in movies. This has allowed actors to go beyond the conventional aesthetics. Today, if you talk about a Manoj Bajpayee or a Pankaj Tripathi, they don’t need to show off their abs to deliver a magnificent performance in a dramatic role.” But having said that, Arjun acknowledges that there are certain roles where you are playing to the gallery that requires you to look a certain way. “If I am going to choose to do a Dhoom and not show up looking a certain way, then I think I am being unfair to my profession and to my audience. If the character demands you to look a certain way, then it is my duty as an actor to deliver that. When I played Pinky in Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar, my character didn’t require to look ripped. He was a character that had to blend in. It was in a very different space from that of Gunday or Ishaqzaade. The good thing is that now the audience is evolving to appreciate both.”

Velvet teal peak label blazer and Pure cotton V-Neck Jumper by Marks & Spencer; On the wrist: Octo Finissimo Skeleton watch from BVLGARI

In fact, Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar did see a very different Arjun Kapoor. “I have somehow gotten bracketed as a “mainstream hero”,” he breaks into a hearty laughter. “Sandeep Pinky was essentially Sandeep’s [played by Parineeti Chopra] story. But I proved that I am a secure enough actor who can hold his own without being the point of focus.” When talking about the film’s role-reversing climax, Kapoor mentions that it was one of the biggest risks he has taken in his career. “Any hero can look good holding a gun, but I wonder how many would look that good wearing a ghagra choli! But yes, I was initially concerned how Dibakar [Banerjee] would pull it off as I didn’t know how I would look, and we didn’t have a chance to try out the look beforehand. But I had absolutely no qualms doing it, simply because I don’t think being feminine is something degrading or inferior to being masculine. I don’t think being a woman is a negative,” says Kapoor, who even in his earlier film, Ki & Ka, was seen challenging established gender roles. “I have been brought up in a family of some very strong women. I have very high regard for women, it is something I can’t really express in words. My mother was a single mother bringing up two kids on her own and never ever letting it show. My mother, apart from being my mother, was my friend, whom I could confide in and was probably that one person who always understood me completely. Now I have my sister, and my other sisters, being that support. Also, I have had some terrific women, like Parineeti [Chopra] and Alia [Bhatt], as my co-actors, I have Shanoo in my life [casting director Shanoo Sharma], and also the partners I have had in the course of my life. I look at women with a huge sense of respect and admiration, which probably also shows up in the kind of roles I select for myself. I did Sardar Ka Grandson because the character reminded me of my Nani. I have never looked at myself as an overly masculine man. I owe my “macho man” image to movies like Gunday, Tevar, and Ishaqzaade,” he explains.

We go back to talking about his fitness journey, and Kapoor candidly talks about the body shaming he has faced. “I was looking fine in the first three years, but then, I was putting on weight and people were not happy with the way I was looking. And that is because they had certain expectations from me. If they were voicing their displeasure, it was only fair, because they were paying money to watch me on screen and if they didn’t like what they were seeing, they have every right to say so. Some of my films have also not done well at the box office and, when a film doesn’t do well, there is a tendency to find a scapegoat. Yes, it does hurt sometimes, but if you are spoken of in a certain manner, you need to introspect.” But, Kapoor has zero effs-to-give for trolls. “My audience is not the same as trolls. If you are body shaming me for the heck of it, then I can’t give you too much importance. Life is far more challenging than letting just some trolls affect you. I have been trying to make my career, earn my own money, sustain my family on my own. There are far more serious things in life than what’s happening on social media.”

Redwood velvet bandhgala; White mandarin collar shirt; black denim trousers by Marks & Spencer; Boots by Pelle Santino

Having seen the highs and lows of the profession from close quarters has probably made Kapoor the pragmatic person he is today. “The ability to survive failure is what makes you a star. Hit toh sab de sakte hai, par ek Friday ke flop ke baad jo Monday aakey ek achcha shot de pata hai woh ek achcha actor or star banne ki takat rakhta hai,” Kapoor wisely adds. But, of course, box office numbers matter. “Box office numbers are a barometer of how much the audience has liked your film. What box office success does is that, it gives you better opportunities and funds to try out different content and reach out to a much wider audience. I want to do films that have the potential to be safe – nobody should lose money to make a film. I want my producers to make money, or at least recover the amount they have invested. That’s the starting point.” Arjun has no qualms accepting that deep down he is a sucker for box office hits. “I have grown up amid commercial cinema so I love a good box office hit. But, every once in a while, a Finding Fanny or a Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar will excite me because I also want to be part of nuanced stories.” And how does he feel about the web space? “I love OTT platforms. Certain intimate stories, certain darker tales, which are not really meant for community viewing, do very well on OTT. Also, today, you have such great actors, directors, technicians, and DOPs working on OTT,” he exclaims. But Kapoor is quick to point out that the rise and rise of the OTT during the pandemic-induced lockdown, is hardly a threat to the movies. “Theatre viewing will never go out of fashion. The day the theatres open and the big movies release, things will start to change again. The cinematic experience of watching a movie in a theatre is unparalleled. Film watching is a community experience in most cases. OTT platforms can coexist with the movie theatres but commercial Bollywood cinema as we know it will be back with a bang.”

Kapoor’s next, Ek Villain Returns, which will see him rocking a “six-pack abs” body, is scheduled to release in theatres on Eid next year. He is also part of an exciting ensemble cast of brilliant actors that includes Tabu, Naseeruddin Shah, and Konkana Sen Sharma, for Rekha and Vishal Bhardwaj’s son Aasmaan’s debut, Kuttey. It seems Kapoor is definitely having the best of both worlds.