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"You cannot quantify stardom by Instagram numbers"

As India’s Most Wanted hits the screens, Arjun Kapoor talks to Bhakti Mehta about getting under the skin of his character, the importance of the storyline, the digital boom and more

Arjun, when we met during Half Girlfriend, you said that instinct played a huge role when you choose a film. Is it still that important?

Yes, and I think now more than ever. You get corrupted as time progresses; sometimes, you make choices based on what other people would like you to do and what is relevant to the audience at that point in time. But then you have to go back to reminding yourself that you are also the audience. You also have to be convinced, impulsively, if something excites you. You can’t overanalyse the plan and be nit-picking about it. You have to take chances. Some will go wrong and some will go right. That’s just how films are. We see that often even now than earlier.

You can’t just put projects together in their entirety. So both impulse and instinct have remained intact for me. You may question your own instinct and be wary of being impulsive. But that’s good because it means you are constantly trying to improve yourself and learn from your mistakes. You should introspect. You should not stop backing yourself. You can have moments of weakness. But if you made it so far backing yourself, have a little more faith.

How did instinct kick in when you heard the script of India’s Most Wanted?

Raj (Kumar Gupta) sir gave it to me without giving me a brief or anything. I called him to congratulate him on Raid as I really liked the trailer. You generally say ‘we will work together in this next film’ etc but he asked me, ‘Tu kya kar raha hai?’ I said I was not doing anything. So he said he was sending me a script. He sent me that script at 2 o’clock and I replied to him at 5 pm, saying I was doing this film. I was taken by surprise at how simple the story was and it was exactly the way it was needed to be told.

What excited me was that the heroism came from deeds and actions, and not my character. It’s not that I am beating up 20 people to get to a terrorist. That is what intrigued me. I thought it was very real and believable. That is how it transpired. I wouldn’t use the word ‘documentary’ but it is a true documentation of what transpired to bring this man to justice.

Some stories get lost in time and some get hidden for a reason, some stories never make it to the forefront because there is so much chaos all around. So once the dust settles, six to seven years later, this story can finally be consumed with its reality. There was a covert operation that was unofficially undertaken to bring to justice a man who is responsible for killing 400 people. That is a very big deal and I felt it would be a big deal to any Indian who loves his country.

On the surface, your character looks simple and unidimensional. What kind of nuances did you add to your character?

Raj sir and I worked on the film, the script and the performance for about 10 days. What he said to me was very fascinating. He said, ‘If from the first scene I know that you can catch him, I wouldn’t be interested in knowing the story. I want to feel that we won’t be able to get these guys and I want to show that you are helpless. And for that, we need to shed your impression of being a mainstream commercial hero.’

I agreed and I chose that film because it is a story of the underdog. He said, ‘Exactly. So be the underdog.’ Psychologically, an intelligence officer has to be very different from the uniformed officer. You have to learn to disappear in the crowd. You have to operate very subtly. Your interrogations, your suspects, the way you get information… you do it all with a smile on your face. It’s almost as if you need people-pleasing skills. It is a very different psychological play than being a uniformed officer who is investigating and interrogating and who can bang your head down on a desk while interrogating you.

Here, you need to play with words. To put on that is altogether different. You need to be very sure of every move you are making. You cannot come across as fake. And the fact is that these people do a job where they get zero credit and a very basic salary. They do it without expecting to be thanked. They stay away from their families for long periods of time and when they do, it could be the last time.

And the country can wash its hands off them many times…

Yes, and that is what the deal is. If you are caught, your family will not even get mentioned. That is the reality that we, sitting in Bombay, take for granted. When we see it in Hollywood films, we are intrigued. I think it is about time we show such things in a Bollywood film, in a realistic fashion.

We just discussed how it is very important for a story like this to be told. We have watched films based on real people and real incidents. As an actor, do you fear that films like that can become jingoistic?

The tonality of the film, the teaser, the trailer and even its posters are simple. It is more about the internal angst of the people. That’s how we have made it. We have talked about the damage that the man caused to his country. We have not spoken about bashing someone up; we have not gone into blaming or pinpointing someone. The dialogue is crisp. Patriotism, in this film, comes from telling the story of the common man in India. We represent the common man, the nine-to-five, middle-class, working generation. They are the ones who run our country.

My blood boils when I hear that there is a terrorist on the move. We have brought him to justice but he is still getting away by saying that he has not done it. Jingoism aside, patriotism is a feeling that comes from within. Jingoism is thrust upon people. It is about bhaashan and dialogue-baazi. This film is internal. You cannot bring back the 400 people that our country lost. We don’t need to say much. You have to have that emotion within you and understand what loss is and what our motherland is.  If you watch this film, you will understand that there are men who sacrificing their lives for our country and they deserve credit. It is about shouting out loud that we will destroy other countries; it is about respecting the people who are defending us.

Did you have any reference point for the character you play in this film?

I relied on the writing. It was very clear. Raj sir and I spoke at length about it. We met some officers to get into the mood of the film. We did some workshops with other actors who are in the film, for a week. And then we went into shooting. The best discovery is in front of the camera, where you can find your sur and rhythm. We have tried to keep the conversation mature in the film. My character is not a hot-headed officer who beats up people. He has a calm demeanor, so you can’t tell what he is thinking. And that is important too. I liked that my character wanted to play without showing too much and giving into much of what he was thinking.

Raj Kumar Gupta specialises in his genre…

(Cuts in) Oh, he is fantastic! I loved working with him. I wanted to work with him. We were supposed to do Revolution 2020 together at one point but that did not transpire. I have been dying to work with him. I am so glad that I called him after I watched Raid. He is a great person. He gives you so much love on the set. He is a master craftsman. He knows exactly what he wants from every shot. He is getting better with every film.

This film might seem verbose but it is a thriller. He is very thorough. We have shot the film in difficult conditions but not once did it feel like he was not in control of the situation. He has done a fantastic job. He, his wife and his entire team are fantastic. He was happy to get people who were collaborative and wanted to tell the story. The preparation for this film was so thorough that I was taken aback. He has been writing this for three years. And that shows in the way he shot the film. It has been an absolute pleasure and honour to work with him.

You have shot the film at real locations. Is that a different experience?

You respond to the ambience around you. If there is traffic and people are shouting and screaming around you, then the way you perform is more real because you are talking above them. If there is chaos when you are shooting in a market place, you have to glide through it without being noticed. Then the weather plays havoc. It may be a sunny, hot and sultry afternoon or a humid evening.

We shot the film in Nepal at a time when it doesn’t rain there. But it started raining on the first night. We had two options, to wait for the rain to stop or shoot while it poured. We would be shooting the climax over the next seven days. We improvised the scene and thought of shooting in the rain. It rained for the next seven days. We managed to shoot because we were reacting to what was happening around us. That worked in our favour because we were in the zone. If you work with a team that is ready to operate under pressure and thrive on it, the results will be fantastic.

A lot of your contemporaries are foraying into the digital space. Are you open to the web space?

I am not one of those who believe that working in the web space would shrink my core audience. The story has to resonate with me. At the end of the day, when you are listening to a story, you have to consider that is should be told on a certain platform where it will get maximum attention. There are certain themes that we cannot tell on the big screen. There are certain themes that make family audiences a little uncomfortable. It is a little risky making a film on `70-80 crore and making a film with themes that might not appeal to the common man. You would rather take that risk and spend it on the digital platform and tell the story exactly the way it is, without toning it down. Then it will definitely find its way to its audience.

Full credit should be given to digital producers. At the end of the day, Netflix, Amazon and Hotstar deserve credit because they are making content without thinking about the repercussions of, let’s say, leftist or right-wing supporters. That is the beauty of the web. If you take that away, then it becomes television, where you are reaching out to the common man. I would love to be part of the web. I would never say ‘never’. I did television and I enjoyed it; I loved hosting Khatron Ke Khiladi. It has to be the best content that I feel is available to me to explore in comparison to doing a film. The time spent doing a web project or a film is the same. You cannot quantify stardom. Is that measured by the number of followers that you have on Instagram?

Has your perception towards box office numbers changed?

Rs 70 crore is not a big deal today. Rs 100 crore is not a big deal either. Numbers constantly change. What is exciting to see is that the volume is growing and so you know that there is money to be made, which is important for producers and investors. But what is more exciting and challenging is that your films can make Rs 100 crore and still not be memorable; your film can make less than that and be more memorable. The challenge is to be relevant and stay memorable in all aspects.

I am not talking only about the classes or the masses or the niche audience. I am saying that all kinds of films are working. For example, Badla. It is not about how much business it made, it is a film that breaks the notion that you can’t do these whodunits. It is above a Rs 100 crore film for me.  When I see Gully Boy do that kind of business, I thought it was outstanding. I realised that now we can tell the stories that we have been scared to tell. Mumbai ke slums ki kahaani kaun dekhna chahega? How would a person sitting in Jabalpur or Kanpur understand rap? But they do.

At the same time, Kesari does well. That will make you go, ‘Okay boss, if Akshay Kumar does an action film, we want to go and watch it.’ He is being patriotic in his own way, which is unique. There are films giving you indications all the time that business is ever expanding. That is the only constant. The business is changing every day, every week, every month. Simultaneously, we are still making the films that we want to make, which is grabbing the audience’s attention. That is very exciting.

Especially with the smaller gems that are being made.

Right! The divide is now breaking apart. It is not the face on the film poster that dictates the performance of a film; it is all about having a good story. It takes the pressure off and also adds pressure.

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