Interview: Rajat Kapoor

Posted on October 22, 2007


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Rajat Kapoor pinches himself to confirm his indie-film success story, while talking about everything from gangster films to gurudakshina.

SEPT, 2007 – IF BMW MANUFACTURED MEN, their assembly line would be littered with likenesses of Rajat Kapoor. Looking down from six feet above ground level, with a face so angularly contoured it doesn’t seem a result of genetics so much as German engineering – and in a metal-black jacket matched with pants with the sharpest crease this side of military school – the actor is just a fedora short of becoming a singularly dashing ladykiller from a noir film. It’s a frightening image of perfection, not a well-slicked hair out of place. And then you see the eyes – the bleary eyes, reddened from lack of sleep and interview fatigue. He may be human after all.

In another life, Rajat could have parlayed these good looks to a long, sturdy acting career. Not as hero, of course. There’s that measured diction, for one, a cultivated flatline of a speaking voice that could never lend itself to fevered fulminations about lapping up the lifeblood of mangy-dog villains. Besides, you cannot imagine him running around a tree so much as taking a relaxed stroll around it, one hand holding out a fob watch while the other clutched at a pipe.

But he could have embodied the moneyed elder, like the Mahesh Uncle he played in Dil Chahta Hai. It’s the performance that everyone remembers, the performance that launched his career, the performance that could have led to a steady stream of paycheques for essaying uncles named Suresh and Ramesh, perhaps even D’Costa. But that was not part of Rajat’s plan. “I look at myself as a filmmaker,â€? he says. “Acting came by chance. Somehow, I got one ad. Then somebody saw that ad and gave me another ad. Then somebody saw that and called me to audition for Dil Chahta Hai. It went on like that. I never went out looking for work.â€?

But work comes looking for him – work like the recent autistic-teenager drama Apna Asmaan, where Rajat plays a neurologist who manages a near-impossible feat, that of not reducing the audience to fits of giggles upon lines that go, “There’s a distinct aura that permeates into the neurocortex and the hypothalamus.â€? Rajat readily confesses that this was one of the most difficult things he’s ever done on film. “To make it sound like you’re saying it, meaning it, that these are not just lines you are reading out, is not easy at all.â€?

But that’s what the job of an actor entails, not just fancy locations and fat paycheques but line readings involving neurocortices and hypothalami. And Rajat does not question that aspect of his secondary career. (He’s a filmmaker, first – remember?) “I don’t ask to change it. I’m quite a submissive actor. It’s also my theatre background. We were taught that whatever the lines, you have to find the meaning in them.â€? And finally, he admits that some part of him did want to become an actor. “Yes, I knew I could act.â€?

“I remember seeing Godfather, and for three years I thought I was Michael Corleone. I used to walk like Al Pacino, talk like him.â€? Rajat wanders off into space as 46-year-olds are wont to while remembering things from when they were in their teens. He returns to earth with a goodish amount of actorly angst. “But I never pursued acting. I was scared, maybe. Scared of rejection.â€? But after studying film direction at FTII, Pune, Rajat assisted Mani Kaul on Nazar and Kumar Shahani on Khayal Gatha and Bhavantarana. And while working on Khayal Gatha, “I did one of the lead roles. It was my first acting job in film.â€?

“But whatever little sensitivity I have as an actor, I told myself I didn’t want to repeat what I’ve done. The tendency in Bombay is, if you do one Corporate, they give you twenty Corporates. I think I made a wise choice by saying no to a lot of films. I try to not get slotted.â€? He’s back to talking about playing (rather, not playing) Mahesh Uncle clones. The suggested example of Orson Welles, a filmmaker who lent his name to the cast list of some of the worst crimes ever committed on celluloid – all so that he could channel those monies into making the films he really wanted to make – doesn’t cut much ice with Rajat. “I am making the films that I want to make, without having to whore myself out.â€?

An instant later, he remembers Raghu Romeo and retracts that assertion. “Actually you are right. I made a film called Private Detective – with Naseeruddin Shah – in 1997. But nobody has heard of it. It was never released. And then, for six years, I had two scripts with me – Mithya and Raghu Romeo.â€? Rajat pitched these ideas to every producer in this country. They all said: Very good, but who’s in it? And that was it. “But by 2000, my acting career had started. Every year, I began putting aside three lakhs. In five years I had fifteen lakhsâ€? – and that was enough to make a cheerfully demented absurdist comedy that starred Vijay Raaz.

Raghu Romeo was born in 2003. He died a week later. “I went into complete depression when Raghu Romeo bombed. I had lost all my money, and I thought I’d have to wait another six years to make my next film. But, luckily, that didn’t happen.â€? Rajat went on to do Mixed Doubles, which came out in 2006. “And after that, I got to do Mithya, which I’ve just completed.â€? And for the first time during the conversation, there is a discernible excitement as the voice pitches itself a whole fraction of a decibel higher. “And I’m pinching myself. I’m saying: Is this truly happening?â€?

“Now, I can easily get up to two crores, which is – for me – huge money.â€? But that’s just money. What convinced Rajat that he’d really arrived was a recent conversation with a producer. “I told him: I have this idea. This is the first scene of the film. I don’t want to write the rest of the film. I’ll improvise.â€? The moneyman replied with two of the sweetest words in the English language: “Go ahead!â€? Why? “Because the world has changed,â€? Rajat says, “as recently as the last two years. People don’t give a [expletive] whether you have a Bachchan or a Saif. They’re saying: You have a good film? We’ll come and watch it.â€?

And if they hadn’t come and if they hadn’t watched it, Rajat would have still soldiered on. “Even in a non-multiplex culture, I would have made the same films. I would have made films I believe in.â€? Belief in their art is an over-bandied concept among artists, but Rajat feels he is among the few who have escaped unscathed from compromise. “I’ve been very lucky in the fact that nobody has asked me to change even one frame of any of my films. I’ve had complete creative independence in whatever I’ve done. That is what I value the most. And that is one thing I want to keep for life – multiplexes or no multiplexes, money or no money.â€?

He doesn’t add: mobile phone or no mobile phone. But that’s one of Rajat’s little actorly (sorry, filmmaker-ly) quirks. Naturally, he offers an explanation – one part philosophy, one part practicality. “You become slaves to these things. I don’t feel the need for that dependence. And finally, it’s about your convenience, not other people’s convenience.â€? He will allow that when directing duties take over, it’s not exactly a flock of carrier pigeons doing the communicating. “Of course, when you’re making a film, you need a mobile phone. But then, someone on the set always has one.â€? Otherwise, Rajat brushes aside the hypothetical scenario of a producer with a now-or-never cheque for ten crores. “That can wait till tomorrow. There’s nothing so urgent in life.â€?

If that sounds like something someone in Spain would say before retiring to a two-hour siesta during the middle of a packed working day, it’s perhaps not entirely coincidental. Rajat’s cinematic sensibilities are quite European. Not his first few films – like the National Award-winning short Tarana or Private Detective – which showed “a huge Kumar Shahani influence, but then I made a short film called Hypnothesis and did a play, C for Clown, and with these I started to discover my voice.â€?

Raghu Romeo featured a distinctively Almodóvarian mix of grand passions and grander eccentricities, and the feel of Mixed Doubles, Rajat says, “could be Eric Rohmer.â€? Though he lists as favourites American filmmakers like Scorsese, Coppola, the Coen brothers and Woody Allen, “If you go slightly deeper, all these filmmakers like European filmmakers very much. Coppola’s early influences were Antonioni and Fellini. Woody Allen – of course, Bergman. My all-time favourite is Charlie Chaplin. And Fellini liked Chaplin. So it’s all interconnected.â€?

For his new film, however, Rajat has looked towards the New World. “Mithya is an ode to the old Hollywood gangster films – like Little Caesar and Scarface.â€? And if those names will mean nothing to the vast numbers that enjoy commercial cinema, Rajat has made happy peace with the fact. He mentions watching – and enjoying – parts of Chak De India (in between shots, while shooting at a multiplex). “But I think people should respect their own judgment and their own sensibilities.â€? But he does remain fascinated with at least one aspect of commercial cinema. “I would like to do a musical. I’ve done the gangster film with Mithya, and it’s out of my system now. And at some point, I’d like to make a horror film.â€?

And he’d like one of his teachers to make a film too. “I am hoping to produce Kumar’s [Shahani] next film, based on Anna Karenina. If I can make that possible, I’ll be so happy.â€? That’s his gurudakshina – based as much on appreciation for a great filmmaker as anger for the way he’s been treated. “That is the sad part of this multiplex culture. Twenty years back, people hated Mani [Kaul], they hated Kumar – but at least they were important people. Today, they are nobodies. People don’t know Ritwik Ghatak. They know nothing except Heyy Babyy – the latest hit. And it’s such a B-grade film.â€?

For a moment, it sounds as if Rajat is biting the hand that fed him – to the tune of ten-odd crores at the box-office. (That’s how much the fifty-lakh Bheja Fry wound up grossing.) “First of all, Bheja Fry is not my film. I was associated with it. I (associate) produced it. But I would never take another film (in this case, Le Dîner de Cons) and copy it.â€? But it’s certainly the kind of film he tends to get slotted with, and for that he’s grateful. “I’m lucky. What I like, people are somehow able to relate to.â€?

Besides, somewhere in there is the profoundest of ironies, that this unoriginal work could make possible the work of an original. “The important thing is that Kumar makes his film. And he should have the choice of making that film, even if nobody comes to watch it. It will inspire a lot of people to do their kind of cinema. It’s part of a movement that needs to keep building.â€?

Copyright ©2007 Man’s World

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi