Am meeting him after two years. And boy has he changed! I want to blow cetees like a roadside… ahem Juliet?
Yes we’ve been privy to Arjun Kapoor’s transformation on social media. But the effect in person is more dramatic. The extra kilos have melted away. The six packs are difficult to miss. He’s lean mean and raring to go. He’s changed in other ways too. He’s visibly calmer, more in control, his personal life is coming up roses and daffodils too. He’s out in the open about his relationship with Malaika Arora. And that’s taken the edge off him.
On the professional front, the praise he received for Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar has put the spring back in his walk. Yes, he’s had more misses than hits. But he’s turned his back on the past. The future holds many possibilities. Things are looking up on all fronts. Like a jigsaw puzzle, everything is falling into place. He’s now determined to put his best foot forward. One foot at a time.
What has however not changed is his whacky sense of humour, his whiplash sarcasm and his warmth… and of course his passion for movies. He’ll still rib you good humoredly of course, about not getting the best debut award, not getting enough covers… it’s all said in jest and he expects you to understand that. As I said he radiates warmth all around.
On the eve of his upcoming release Ek Villain Returns, he’s naturally nervous and excited at the same time. He has plans he wants to put into action. And he won’t be stymied by anything this time around. All I can say is go Arjun go. On this note, I ask him my first question. About his physical transformation obviously. Read on:
You’ve been looking very good these days? Why? How?
Why do I look so good, or how do I look so good?
To give credit where it’s due, I’ve worked hard on myself to ensure that I can reconnect with my audience and gain their respect again; they lavish me with so much love. Making a name and a place in this profession is not easy. I’ve had my ups and downs, but I felt like I’d lost touch with my audience. My first few films set a standard of expectation in the way I looked and performed. I couldn’t maintain consistency in my appearance thereafter no matter how hard I tried. It’s not that I didn’t try but I wasn’t successful in terms of weight loss. Somewhere I did not consistently look the same and it took away from my performance, which became more talked about than the work I was doing. I am passionate about my work. It wasn’t like I was not trying, but I wasn’t successful in terms of weight loss. I had some personal ups and downs. When I first started working, I lost my mother and I didn’t deal with it well. It isn’t an excuse but it was a process. The weight loss journey began during the first lockdown, when I decided that I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. I didn’t want to be a has been, and I didn’t want to give up without a fight. believed that if the audience had shown me love once, they’d do so again. However, I must love and care for myself. Slowly, I went back to the person I was maybe when I was 18–19, built my own confidence and communication skills, and trusted the process. And nurtured the better parts of myself instead of being a hamster on a wheel. My trainer was always around to help me through zoom and in whatever way possible. The biggest thing that happened was that I ended up starring in a film where I had to stand up next to John Abraham, and that became an inspiration.
How difficult was it to fit into this industry, which is all about looks? Did you feel like you had to conform to a certain way of looking?
I was not getting the roles I believed I could do. I believed I could do all kinds of roles, but I was not able to make other people believe in me. That’s not to say I wanted to be Tiger Shroff; I cannot physically be like him. My first few films set a benchmark, so I realised somewhere that if I wanted to do those kinds of films, I needed to be able to look that way because otherwise there are people who look fit and they would be chosen before me. To be the first choice, you have to look the part first. You can’t be sitting at home and saying ‘I will look the part in the film when it comes to me’. Which is what I was doing. So I never felt that I didn’t fit in, but I was not getting the perfect films at that point of time. I believed I was far more capable than what I was being credited. But you have to earn that right. You cannot just demand it, you have to earn it. I’d earned it in the beginning, but I had lost my way. When you are worried about how people are looking at you, you are not able to be your true self. Somewhere, I became guarded about the way I was.
Was it playing on your mind that you were not looking your best?
I am practical, so I won’t deny that I was not aware. But I always thought I was a few kgs away from my ideal weight. It’s is a vicious cycle, you believe it is a little bit, one or two kgs here and there. You think you’ve worked hard, but it’s not showing, so screw it. The audience still likes me because you are being offered films. And you believe something will click and fall into place. It doesn’t happen like that where taking care of yourself is concerned. I’m not talking about just weight, it is also mental health. Especially in a profession like ours, which is so draining. It is so impersonal, like people come into your life and see only what they want to see. They will not understand the story behind who you are. I can’t tell every one that I have health problems. That is why I look like this. I have been shooting 18 hours a day nonstop for four films. That is why I look like this. There can’t be subtitles when people are watching you. So you have to accept that they will not know and that it is not their business to know beyond a point. And when there are 15 others who are doing it, you seem like the odd one out who is not able to do it. I didn’t want to be known as the guy who is not working hard or not interested, because I am interested. I am very passionate about my work, but somewhere I felt lost. Here, your physical being is perceived as your personality. It is an Indian thing. If you are not looking your best, it is perceived as you’re lazy or not interested. My aspiration is to do mainstream work, so I cannot deny that I need to look the part. I had to make this change, otherwise I was not going to survive.
Malaika is all about being fit. Was she also an influence on you?
It is not about being as direct as that. That would be taking away from the equation I share with her. It is more about being around someone who makes you happy. And when you are in a relationship, the equation allows you to talk about everything. There are so many things that make you realise the quality of life she has led, she has taken care of herself, the way she conducts herself, the way she is disciplined and dedicated. That’s not to say that I am not, but somewhere she still is. Perhaps in the middle, I had not given the consistency she had given. You learn from your partner and that is the biggest strength of a relationship where you can learn without having to tell each other directly. She has always influenced me. And because she is someone who is inspirational to many people, I am always inspired by her. She has always been supportive and has always understood my shortcomings and feelings. The nicest part about being with her is that she has a sense of understanding of this profession. She knows what I am going through. She has been able to silently be there and she tells me the right things that keep me in the right frame of mind. The calmness in my personal life has definitely helped me push myself professionally.
Okay. Coming to your upcoming movie, give me one reason why I should go watch Ek Villain Returns?
Ek Villain Returns is perhaps a return to the good old folklore of ensembles, to have faces playing characters that have different shades. Mohit Suri’s music allows you to know that there is definitely going to be emotional depth in the story, even though it is about the grey shades of life. There is action. There are two men going after each other, and two women who might be playing with the men, with each other, or not with each other. A trailer that creates more questions than answers is a good starting point, so this film definitely has a lot of layers to unpeel. It is a cinematic experience. Mohit Suri has managed to make a film which deserves to be watched on the big screen. If you are someone who enjoys the mainstream but still does not want it to be in your face then this movie is for you. There is a certain coolness and energy that Mohit has. So, for that reason, Villian stands out as a theatrical experience. It builds curiosity. This is a film you will be able to enjoy with your friends. The film also has those trappings that will make you want to whisper to each other; it keeps you curious throughout. If 300 people watch it together, it will be a very fun experience. It is a return to that kind of cinema.
Ek Villain was a big hit. Are you nervous about your movie measuring up to it?
If Mohit wasn’t directing this, I would be far more nervous. The franchise model has now adapted well in India, and the audience too enjoys it. Mohit has also kept certain things intact from the first one, like Galliyan, which is there for a reason. There is a sense of that story starting in the same world after 8 years. So if you liked that world, you will like this too, because it is not disconnected. At the same time, if you have not seen the first one, you will still enjoy this one. That is a difficult scale to achieve, which he has done. The nervousness is also not there because Mohit is one of the most underrated directors we have in the country in terms of the use of music and romance. Mohit is the master of using music for performance, emotion, and story-telling after Sanjay Leela Bhansali. He has a brand. You know his music when you hear it. I may be nervous about releasing a film in theatre after two years. On OTT, the feedback is scattered over time because someone has seen it on a Monday, someone will see it after two months. But in theatres, you see it on a Friday. That Friday feeling always makes you nervous, but the trailer reaction makes me confident. When we do city tours and media tours, they ask the right question, ‘Who is the villain?’ That means we have given them enough fodder. When even strangers are meeting you and asking about the twist, that means you are somewhere hitting the sweet spot of curiosity.
I believe that the film will satisfy this curiosity.
You have been in the industry for 10 years, whereas Tara is a newcomer. How was the connection and the chemistry between you two?
I have this innate sense of wacky humour and can disarm people with it; people are not able to give it back and they kind of go into their shell or go silent. But she was able to give it back. I really enjoyed that and thought, now I have someone to banter with. That is when we started to share a mutual admiration for each other and a mutual hatred and irritation with each other too. That is how the best friendships blossom. Mohit saw this back and forth between us and said, “Let’s use this.” What we were doing offscreen, helped us onscreen as well. I have to give credit where it is due. She really stuck to her guns, even in the scenes. She was able to give it back to me with the same gusto that I hoped she would. There is a very good actor hidden under the garb of her being a stunning girl. The fact that she sang in the film just shows the range of talent she has. She has not gotten the right films to show her talent, and this is a starting point. I hope she builds on this. But my equation off camera with her is very solid today. I can pick up the phone and speak to her anytime and vice-versa. We bond over food and humour. We are both old souls by nature. I definitely look forward to working with her again. She is going to read this and think I am complimenting her, which I never do. I always make fun of her and trouble her. When I care about people, I do go out of my way to compliment them when they are not watching. I hope she feels happy when she reads this and she better cook some good food for me because she is a good cook, apparently. But that is a rumour that I’ve heard. I wouldn’t know if it’s true because she hasn’t cooked for me, she only sends food photos to me.
Do you think the era of heroes and villains is over as actors now prefer playing grey characters more?
Today’s world is different. it’s not just white or black. There are a lot of people now who are living in the grey. They are selfish and indulgent and only do what they want to do without caring about other people. People now don’t believe in right or wrong; they believe in what is right for them and what suits them, what is right in that moment. In the social-media generation, grey is the new white. If you have your reasons, you will do it. Loyalty and trust are words which are not as hard bound, not only in our profession but around the world. Then what happens is that your heroes and villains are not what they seem. The villain is the hero in his story, right? Today we have given a logic to why a person is black or grey. Earlier villains were just introduced, out of context. Today we do not have villains that are so typical, who are behaving badly with the opposite sex or being violent. Now you make choices that make you negative. A good person can also be a bad person in the moment. It is a choice. I have been lucky to have explored such characters. It is exciting to play grey characters because that is not an extent you will go to every day in your life. So when you get to do it, you get to live that part of your life that probably exists within you already.
Has there been a villain in your life? Or have you been a villain in someone’s life?
In my own story, I will always be the hero. But in somebody else’s, I might be the villain, right? I might be aware of that also but I have my reasons for what I do. I will not always be liked by everyone. But my choice is to make myself the hero. I cannot look at others and be worried about what they will think of me. Sitting on the fence, it is easy to judge. There are always two sides to everything. But the biggest villain in my life right now is my trainer. I have to keep in mind that I have to take care of myself. Sometimes my body is my own villain. My greatest strength is my perseverance and my emotional honesty. And my greatest weakness is what I believe I can do physically. What Ranveer or Vicky can do in two months, I might need six months to do. It is my genetics. When I was growing up, I did not take care of myself and was an overweight kid, so my body functions differently. My mind is not my villain, my body sometimes becomes a villain. My mind is stronger than my body. I am aware of this and that is why I am working on it. Maybe Ranbir Kapoor can eat three nights a week and he can be okay, I need to eat only once a week. Tara can eat three burgers for lunch and be fine. I will have the burger, but I will have to workout afterwards.
What do you do about your love for food, when you on a fitness regime?
When I went on holiday to Paris, I told my trainer that for these five days I would cheat and he said please have fun, you deserve it. When I was shooting for Ladykiller, he was with me and kept my diet clean. During Ladykiller, we were shooting long hours in the cold, and in that cold, you do need fuel. Otherwise, you feel hungry and you keep eating rubbish. I was eating oats, rice, and wraps at night, it was not like I was only on grilled chicken the whole time. I was not torturing myself. They used to give me maple syrup with pancakes, so I had a little sugar in my body.I used to have a healthier version of biryani with raita. I could have chilli chicken with fried rice, but the chicken was not fried. I take care of myself, but I still enjoy what I eat. I eat whatever I want, but I don’t order it from outside. I have a chef who cooks for me. The food comes every day, packed from his kitchen. When you are doing promotions, the stress is a little more, but when you are shooting, there is more consistency. But I eat well. It makes me happy. In life, I care more about my work than I care about food. In moments of weakness,I care more about food than anything else. But I have overcome that too.
How do you assess your time in the industry?
Today it is tough for newcomers to get in. You have to be very talented from the get-go. The audience is not as forgiving as they were when we came. I am fortunate, I don’t want to lose this. It is the most amazing profession. It has its downfalls from time to time but such a profession where you get so much love will always have a downside. And you know that before coming into this. After 10 years, I feel a sense of belonging and ease which I did not feel before. But it takes time. Fame hits you in different ways; your loneliness at home can bother you because when you are around people you do not know how to behave. I have dealt with all of that, and today I feel a sense of belonging in the wholehearted way I wanted to feel. When I meet the audience, I don’t want to say no to a selfie. I don’t want people to dislike me without knowing me. People used to think I was always upset and angry. Maybe I was not feeling well and I was still finding my place here. Failure made me realise that I want to be warm to people. I’ll give you a small example. It will put things into context. It was the lockdown and we had to step out to film Bhoot Police in Dharamshala and Dalhousie. Saif (Ali Khan), Jacqueline (Fernandez), Yami (Gautam), Rameshji (Taurani), and myself all went together. We were all in separate cars, driving up to Dalhousie. We were at the checkpoint. I’d had a tough phase before the lockdown because I had three flops. I was in a very vulnerable phase. The security at the checkpoint saw me and exclaimed, “You are Arjun Kapoor!” I nodded. And they started talking about how they’d seen me inTevar. And they mentioned the song Tune mari entry. They praised me a lot.That felt so good. All those emotions of feeling empty and wondering whether I should continue to make films or not vanished. That one interaction and the warmth I felt from it allowed me to film Bhoot Police nicely. I will never forget that because I needed that reassurance at that point. That is the real audience because they are not judging you for how many flops or hits you have had. They remember you for your entertaining qualities. They reminded me that I had connected with them. There is nothing more powerful than that feeling, and it gave me so much strength.
How did you survive that ‘bad phase’ as you call it? How did you swim through it?
Like I said before, I am a very practical person. I was not deluded about why my films weren’t working. I wasn’t deluded about what my shortcomings were. That aspect of mine allowed me to deal with failure. Nobody deals with failure well but it is inevitable and comes in every person’s life. It hurt me a little more because during that time my physicality came into question, my attitude towards work and my acting came into question along with my script selection. And suddenly I became known for all the wrong reasons. My personal life came into question at the same time. I had to deal with everything all at once so it was a lot more to absorb. When films work and you are doing things, you can get away with it. When your films are not doing well and you are looking good, you can still get away with it. But when your films aren’t working and you are not looking great and your personal life and work ethics are being questioned and you are coming across as someone who doesn’t care – that’s a lot. The best way to deal with failure is to put your head down, accept it, understand it and work. You have to have confidence in yourself and believe what you are doing is right. I got slightly lucky in my failures because the moment I got into my lowest of lows, the lockdown happened. I was able to slow down. I’d been written off. I was called a has been. I knew those were the whispers. And I had given them no reason to say otherwise. It wasn’t me trying to prove anyone wrong, it was me going back to the people who believed in me. I knew there was a lot of goodwill and positivity for me but all those people did not have any ammunition. I needed to give them something. I was letting my fans down. My work was not allowing them to bat for me. I thought I have to change and then I will be able to reconnect and win people over.
Did you expect that kind of praise for Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar?
I was shocked. I was shooting Kuttey recently, and these are the moments that define your career when you look back. I was shooting with Naseeruddin Shah.So he entered the set and there was pindrop silence. I went to shake his hand. But he hugged me and said, “Maine teri picture dekhi Dibakar ke saath, bahut achhi thi.’ Now Naseeruddin Shah does not speak more than necessary, he will not praise you when it’s not required or it’s not genuine; and he said that he loved me in the film, with Kumud sir (Mishra) adding from behind ‘maine kaha tha na.’ Because Kumud sir had told me a few days before, ki ‘main wait kar raha tha aap kab chukoge film mein. I was waiting to see when you would break character or mess up the dialect.’ What more do you want as an actor? Maybe it is my destiny that I surprise people when they least expect it. I should maybe follow my instinct. It never pans out the way it is supposed to. Today I can tell someone that if you doubt my acting credibility, vo dekho jaakar. It’s there, I have it. It’s mine. When you see that film, no one can question me as an actor. You can question my physicality and my script selection, but you can’t tell me that I don’t know the job. And Sandeep Aur Pinky Faraar was a firm reminder of that.
How important is it to work with a good director?
Today, a good director and a good producer are the difference between a dream and a nightmare. If the director has a vision and the producer does not, it will not work. Producers need to back the right subjects and have conviction. You cannot just make something because the hero wants to do the film. You need to back your filmmaker with his vision. The director’s vision should not be undermined by the producer; his audience is very specific. So the director is important, but so is the producer. The wrong combination can destroy the film. Sahi director ko sahi producer mil jaye toh they can create magic.
Can we say that you are in a happy state of mind right now?
Touchwood, I want to say that but I am scared.I would like to say that I am secure. It is good that I am able to portray the energy of a solid human being. I think I am at ease. Happy is a vague term, but it just makes it seem like ki sab kuch acha chal raha hai.
I am definitely more focused and able to find clarity in my life right now.
You talked about being secure. Have you ever felt competitive towards your contemporaries?
I’ve never felt competitive, I have always wanted to be collaborative. I’m not one of those who came here to be number one. I have grown up around cinema, so I wanted to be collaborative with people. I am Varun Dhawan’s biggest cheerleader. Me and Adi (Aditya Roy Kapur) get along very well. When Tiger Shroff’s debut happened, I called him up and spoke to him. Whether it was Gunday with Ranveer Singh, for me it is never about competition. We are not race horses who are running to get that win. Because eventually, it is temporary. The race horses will change from Friday to Friday This number one or number two does not improve the quality of your films. Your quality of work will make you number one. Ranbir Kapoor’s quality of work is outstanding. He never behaves like he is a competitor or says anything that makes him seem like one. When you see other actors doing well, you have to raise your game. You want to push yourself. When you see Ranveer Singh do Gully Boy and Simmba, you think ‘mujhe bhi karna hai.’ But that is not saying ‘I will show him that I am a bigger star.’ That is where the industry goes wrong. There are a lot of people pitting us against each other. People ask, “Why do you guys not work together?” Because there is this feeling that we should not keep helping each other to do better work. Competition is not about outdoing someone, it is about wanting to match them and being inspired by them. That is how the industry will be able to deliver the bigger films that everyone is talking about. People in the ’60s and the ’70s had this; people were working together. The problem is that the industry is also caught up in this. They don’t allow us to share the same space, and you see the camaraderie we all share. I do believe that this camaraderie is not being used to its optimum to make better films. When I was growing up, that was the best part to see —posters with faces. When we look at the Avengers, we get excited because there are faces. Competition is healthy as long as it doesn’t get in the way of you being able to coexist and do good work together. For me, to work with Saif Ali Khan was a dream. He is above my league and I have so much respect for him. I knew while doing Bhoot Police that he was the funnier one. But I said, “Let him be the funnier one, I will be the calmness of the film. I learnt so much from him. We, as an industry, need to stop taking ourselves so seriously and start having fun with one another.
Does that mean you don’t feel jealous when someone’s movie does well?
I am sure I’ve felt it temporarily. That exists in all of us. The profession brings it out. But you have to respect and regard it. But it is a process. And it should not supersede your respect for the work that has been done. Even if you don’t like it, you have to respect the audience’s liking it. You have to understand both sides. If you are jealous of something, you cannot say that the audience is stupid.
In an industry that believes in hiding its relationships, which you did for a long time; what made you come out?
Now we are in a phase where there are a lot more relationships that are not so hidden. It is something that is very new for me within the community and outside. I believed in my relationship, I believed in my love, and that is the reason I was able to come out. First you have to solidify that foundation. Secondly, you have to understand that there are other people involved in this, it is not all about you. Growing up, I have seen those repercussions when the media did not exist to this level. I have grown up as a child on that end of the spectrum. Most importantly, when I took baby steps, i respected the relationship, and the media also respected my space. Until I did not give them anything, they wanted to barge into my house. The moment I opened a small window and gave them a peek, everybody understood because the media gave me my space I was able to let them in. They also made sure it was written with dignity. Some things are private regardless of who I am dating. At the same time, there is something very real and true between us, so why should I hide that? I wanted a certain dignity for the relationship, and for that you have to come out with it in a dignified way. I never wanted to prove a point, I just wanted to nurture it.
Did the age difference matter to the people around you?
Today, we should be very proud that we are being made out to be an example. But to be an example, you need to be true to the relationship first and not just be a visual. There are various people who think various things. You cannot appease everyone. But if you are true and honest, you will pick up all the right things from it. You cannot please everyone. The age difference is not relevant to her and me, so we don’t care what people think about it. At the same time, we know that it’s a question that’s going to be asked. It is there, but it is a question, and we can answer it by being as solid as we are. We are solid enough by showing that we are together.