October 22, 2021

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‘The Empire’ Actor Kunal Kapoor On Being Typecast After ‘Rang De Basanti’; Turning Down Roles For 15 Years



Kunal Kapoor might not have only done a few movies but the actor has always managed to make it memorable. Be it Rang De Basanti in his initial years or The Empire which marks his latest, the actor has left critics wanting a little more. This time around, by playing the character from the pages of history, with Babur. In fact, with the Disney+ Hotstar show’s resounding success, Kapoor has cemented his place in the OTT arena that finally does justice in showcasing his caliber.

And it seemed like the right thing to catch up with the actor who confessed he doesn’t like to watch himself after. But even he binged through The Empire, just like us. After going ‘bloody hell’ and criticizing and scrutinizing his performance obviously. He also opens up about bringing Babur to life with vulnerability and working with co-stars like Shabana Azmi, Dino Morea and Drashti Dhami. He also bares his heart about the film industry’s typecast problem and how he has struggled with the same since the Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s directorial.

Read excerpts from the candid chat below:

Congratulations on The Empire. The response has been so overwhelming. How does it feel? Did you, did you expect this reaction?

KK: Well, I was hoping for this, this kind of reaction. It’s been fantastic. The amount of messages I’ve got from within the industry and outside the industry is just overwhelming. We also live in a time of social media where the reactions are instant. So (if) people like it, you get feedback instantly and if they don’t like it, you know, they don’t like it. It has been especially good because it was quite risky to make a show like this one because you’re taking people into a world, which you don’t know whether they’ll enjoy or not. Also, there’s never been a show like this in India, so it was risky. We are obviously very happy that it’s paid off.

Your character, I don’t think we have ever seen such a portrayal of an emperor or of a ruler. What is the best compliment you’ve gotten so far?

KK: Well, there’s been so many. I don’t want to name people, but a friend’s mother called me up and she was so overwhelmed by the show, she was crying on the phone and she spoke to me for 40 minutes and told me about how much she loved the show and how much she loved what I had done. I’ve just had people call and say that I’m watching it for the third time. I’m especially sort of happy because like you said, we had decided to approach this character, not in a typical sort of way because, usually when you play an emperor he’s portrayed in a certain way – he’s commanding, he’s authoritative. What I found really interesting about this script was this character was a, was somebody that falls apart as vulnerable meets a woman in his life to put him back together. Just filled with self doubt, not sure whether he’s the right guy for this or not. But I was also scared because it could go horribly wrong when you are used to watching a particular character in a particular way.

It’s been a while since the release, have you watched it yet?

KK: Honestly, I don’t enjoy watching myself at all. What happened is I watched it once just as soon as it was released. I started watching at 12; I think I finished at five and I was like ‘bloody hell, I’m not happy. I don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t know what the show’s about.’ And, then once that was out of the way, at 5:15 I started the show all over again (laughs). Once I got all my criticism out of the way, then I decided to watch it as an audience. And then I have to say I really enjoyed it.

But were you always confident about the material? Any second thoughts while your preparation or shooting about how it might be perceived?

KK: No. For me, the exciting part is that there’s a chance to play a character…where everybody has a sort of image in their heads of who this character is. And then to play it in a way that is completely different from that. Like I said, it could have gone horribly wrong, but I was never doubtful about the show because I had spoken to Nikhil and Mitakshara. And I knew the vision that they had for this and the ambition that they had for this. Also, every character’s written so beautifully. I remember when I read the script I went to Mitakshara and I said ‘I was skipping through Babur’s scenes and I was waiting for Shaybani and Khanzada’s scenes. Lovely characters, beautiful love story.

I was rushing through Babur’s scenes to read their scenes. Then you have Shabana Ji’s character, who’s the king maker but (she) kills the father because she believes the son is meant for the throne. So there were so many interesting characters. Secondly, each time you see a period drama, the women are portrayed as somebody really weak and vulnerable and the men have to protect them. It’s always, the woman is at the stake and the men have to do something to protect them now, especially historicals.

But when I read the book and then I read the script, I was like, ‘wow, the women characters are really strong. The men are going out there and fighting the wars but women are actually pulling the strings from behind the scenes.’

Now, we have seen Babur and how the women in his life influence his decisions. How similar or dissimilar is it to your life?

KK: Well, the women in my life played a really important part. There’s my mom and my two older sisters. I grew up in a joint-family set-up, like a huge extended Punjabi family. I think about 40 cousins and everyone’s older than me and lots of older sisters. And then my wife, she’s been a huge part of my life. In school, I was one of those boys whose closest friends were all girls. I think the women in my life have played a huge part and have had a huge influence in my life. In that sense, there’s a huge similarity similarity

How was it like working with a stellar cast like Shabana ji, Dino and Drashti?

KK: Dino is somebody who’s been a friend for a long time. That was really easy of course, we’ve known each other for a long time. We’re really fond of each other. So, off screen, we’re fond of each other and on screen we have to hate each other. Unfortunately we had very few scenes together, just two scenes. With Drashti, what I really enjoyed was that there is no nonsense. Yeah. Uh she’s uh, you know, I’ve worked with actresses that have more drama off screen than on screen and here she was just completely normal. And then when the camera would turn on she’d come alive and it was great. Shabana ji is completely different from what you expect her to be. She’s so much fun. She’s full of stories. She’s full of anecdotes, jokes. Whenever she’s on the set, it’s always light and there’s always laughter and she’s wonderful to work with.

When you’re working with a wonderful actress, as an actor, you have an actor out body experience. Which means that there’s a part of you, which is the character that is responding to the character. But there’s also a part of you, which is the actor, which is like, how is she doing this? You know what I mean? There’s a part of you in the scene and then there’s a part of you, that’s just, you know, you as a person that’s watching amazing.

You were speaking about Dino…he recently opened up about his struggles of doing odd jobs to stay relevant. And how he has turned down films that didn’t do justice to his work. Have you ever been faced with such a dilemma? Have you ever had to turn down roles?

KK: All the time (laughs). For the last 15 years, I feel like that’s all I’ve done. Turn down work, which I didn’t think that I would enjoy. The biggest problem and that’s changed thankfully in the last 2, 3, 4 years, is that, you know, when you start off in your part of something that’s very successful, everybody wants to first of all cast you in that same mold.

When I was starting off, I didn’t get the (good) characters at all. I started off with two films, Meenaxi and Rang De Basanti which were very…I wouldn’t say real, but the characters were interesting and they were not heroes. They were just interesting characters. After that all the parts that I got were either the characters are heroes or the characters are villains. There’s nothing in between. And I couldn’t understand those parts because I didn’t relate to those people. That’s changed now in the last four or five years because, I think audiences have changed and filmmakers have changed and you now see characters that are flawed. You see characters that are real. Those are the parts that are being written now which is why I think this is a really good time for actors. I see myself doing a lot more work now than I’ve done in the past.

Yes, OTT has put talent back on the map again.

KK: Absolutely. I feel like it’s the democratization of talent.

In a recent interview, you said you wished for a time where Rang De Basanti would cease to be relevant. But don’t you think, given the times that we live in where boycotts and bans are the order of the day, we are the farthest from it? Because even The Empire received some flak..

KK: I don’t mind the people reacting badly to a show or something. That’s fair! Because of social media, everybody has access and everybody can express their opinions. And as long as we don’t get into a place where theaters are being attacked by people. Protesting or saying that you shouldn’t have made this saying that we don’t like, what you’ve made is fair. As a creative person, I think it would be very silly for me to say that just because I’ve done something there should be no sort of negative reactions to it. But like I said, as long as the line is drawn at a place where it doesn’t go into a place where it’s like ‘ban this or pull this off the theaters or attack the theaters’.

But it’s trending on Twitter, people are putting out their opinions about what you’ve done, I think that’s fair. And you, as a creative person, you can’t shut yourself and say that, ‘no I’ve done this. It should be right. And no, it should be acceptable to everybody.’ It could end up being controversial. It could end up not being acceptable to a large part of the audience. And that’s fair.

I think it’s a two, two edged sword, like you said, there’s instant gratification and there’s instant rebuke also.

KK: As actors, like you’re saying, with all the praises that come our way and the image that people have in their heads and they sort of look up to…it is not necessarily true. It’s also exaggerated. None of us are as good as we make ourselves out to be (laughs). And we obviously are not as bad as sometimes it’s made out to be either. Yeah. So, If you’re willing to take in the good, even if it’s a lot and it’s exaggerated, then you should be accepting of whatever bad comes your way as well. Like you said, it’s a double sword.

What’s next for Kunal Kapoor, the actor?

KK: ’m excited for Ankahi Kahaniya. I’m looking forward to seeing how people react to that one. Besides that, there has been a lot of work that’s come my way. There is a script that I really liked. Hopefully in the next couple of weeks, we’ll be able to announce. I’ve also been writing and co-developing scripts for the last couple of years. Some of them are almost ready to go now and I’ve turned producer! So, I’m looking forward to that innings as well. What I’ve realized is that stories are what I love telling and yeah, whether that’s an actor, writer, producer, hopefully one day, director.. I’ll tell the stories that I wanna tell.

SEE ALSO: ‘Jungle Cruise’ Review: Good Old Disney Escapism Held Together By Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt’s Chemistry

Cover Image: Kunal Kapoor/Instagram





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