His film Heroine was launched with Aishwarya Rai at Cannes last year, and now Arjun Rampal is here to speak about the film, its new Heroine, and his other projects. On the sidelines of the Cannes Festival 2012, where he will walk the red carpet for Chivas Regal, Rampal also joined director Sudhir Mishra in launching the first look of their upcoming film Kaam. Speaking of his presence at Cannes, Rampal said it felt great to be an ambassador for the industry, and to interact with so many directors and actors from across the world. He also clarified that Heroine is still being shot, and that its supposed screening at Cannes was media speculation. As he and Mishra interacted with journalists after playing scenes from Kaam, Nandini Krishnan spoke to them about their new venture, the lead up to it, and the work they’ve done over the years.
Arjun, does your character in Heroine have negative shades?
Arjun Rampal: In Heroine, not really. I play a superstar, and all superstars are human beings, and all human beings have good and bad in them. (Laughs) And I think it deals with that side of the story – it’s a man who has achieved a lot in life, he’s in a bad marriage when we find him, and he’s having an affair with...well, a strong relationship with Kareena, who plays the protagonist.
So, it just deals with what he’s going through at that point in his life, how media speculates about their relationship, his wife is giving him a hard time through the divorce, he doesn’t want the relationship to come out in the open, and that creates the insecurity, which is what I really like about Heroine.
Madhur has been able to catch the insecurity of an actress, because actresses end up being in their vanity vans, with their hairdressers and their whole department, listening to media, planting stories, and that is very much part of the way they lead their lives. Whereas an actor would worry about the production side of it, the editing side of it, the script...
Isn’t that a sexist comment?!
Arjun Rampal: (Laughs) Well...you know, that’s why most actors end up not creating a shelf-life for themselves, and I think Heroine captures that aspect of an actor – it could be a male actor or a female actor – very well. The insecurities of an actor are captured very well.
The reason I asked about negative shades is that most of the roles you’ve played are characters with a dark side to them, even in a film like The Last Lear. Do you enjoy playing those roles, or is it that you think you look like someone who could portray them?
Arjun Rampal: No, it’s not that. I think the reason why I choose a film is...well, I first think, ‘Would I go watch this film if I was not in it?’ Would I go to the theatre, buy a ticket and watch it? How does it entertain? What is it trying to say? Then, of course, your character – how challenging it is, how much it has to do, what is his path, his growth, where does he start from, where does he end.
I find playing just one-dimensional characters very, very boring, because I don’t think any human being is one-dimensional. I think we all have so many different traits in us, and it’s very rarely that you get parts to play like that. So, yes, playing characters that go on the darker side is something I really enjoy at times, but I also like to play complex characters, you know.
People might think, in The Last Lear, okay, he’s playing a negative character, but actually he’s not. He’s just a director who’s selfish about his work – he wants the best of his work to come out, and he wants to push his actor to whatever limit he can, and that’s for the betterment of his film, because he’s obsessed with his film.
In Rock On, I play a character who’s not negative. In Rajneeti, I play a politician who can do a lot of damage to somebody who comes in his way, in the way of his ambition, in the way of his family, if somebody touches or harms his family, but at the same time, he gives his life for his brother. So, you’ve got all those levels in him. He doesn’t take advantage of a marriage, or force his way in a marriage that he knows is wrongly done, and so until and unless Katrina comes and says listen, I see a different side to you now. So, there’s a journey – in the beginning you feel he’s really bad, and then you start loving him. And I think those are the characters I like to play.
Tell me a little more about the making of Kaam.
Arjun Rampal: I’m very excited about showing the first look of the film here, you know. Sudhir and I have worked very closely on this film together. In fact, my wife had got fed up about the number of times he’s come home. (Laughs) We sat for three months, and really worked hard. It’s a topical subject, and again, you’ll ask me whether I play a bad character, no?
Well, from the first look, I don’t think you come across as a negative character at all.
Arjun Rampal: No? Okay! Wow, a lady saying that after watching the trailer is especially surprising to me. (Laughs) But, yeah, Sudhir is obviously a wonderful director and I had a great time working with him on this film, and working on this character especially.
Sudhir Mishra: Arjun’s really contributed a lot, and we worked very well together. You know, it’s very rare for me to find somebody like him, and you have this whole notion of Arjun Rampal. But the way we worked and prepared for the film sort of put us in total sync, so the actual shooting of the film got over pretty fast. It’s quite amazing, because it’s a difficult film to do. It’s inside rooms, it’s two people, and you have to maintain this balance of who’s right, who’s wrong. Because if it’s just a sleaze story, I’m not interested – the woman is right, the man is wrong, end of film. Five minutes, you know it, you know.
But this is a more complex story – an urban love fable, I would like to call it. Is love possible when people have ambition, when they want more than just love, what is the right of a woman in that context, does she have a right to be ambitious, and when she’s ambitious, if she’s a bit dodgy at times, isn’t everybody? So those are the issues I’m looking at. And then there’s the man’s point of view, the feeling of a mentor, of a person who’s wronged, and there’s a lot of layers to it.
And I think both Arjun and Chitrangda have done really well, worked really well together in the film. It’s not exactly just sexual harassment. In one sense, it’s like a breakup. I think the film will surprise the hell out of you. For me, to walk that path is more interesting, that edge is more interesting. And I think through the other 12 films I’ve done, I don’t think being anti-woman is an allegation that’s going to be thrown at me. So I can take that chance. I’d like to take that risk; it’s interesting for me to look at that point of view, and it’s interesting for Arjun to play that kind of character with another dimension, just as it is for Chitrangda to play the woman, not to just play victim.
More and more in India, it’s becoming possible to merge the textures of film, you know – earlier, there was a dichotomy between the kind of film that came to Cannes, and the kind of film that could be shown in India. But now, I think there is a new kind of Indian kid, young people who want their own stories told, who are not satisfied with watching Western films, who want our stories told, and they’re demanding those films. Actually, they’re a bit ahead of us, of the filmmakers and producers, and there’s a lot they’ll accept, you know. And so that divergence is slowly fading.
Arjun Rampal: I think that’s absolutely right. I think there’s a very strong audience now for films which are more serious, more like world cinema, which don’t necessarily have the routine formula of song, dance and everything, and they exist very parallelly, and people are backing them. Studios are getting behind these films, and giving them big releases, they’re doing big business. And it’s very exciting for all of us to be in the industry at this time, because there’s so much you can do. You know, I love doing the commercial thing, and I really thrive in working in cinema which is challenging.
How would you say this merging of cinema, films like this having big releases, have impacted your career?
Sudhir Mishra: I think for Arjun, you know, a very interesting thing has happened, because a lot of people would have said oh, Arjun Rampal, model not actor. But you know, the kind of films that were being made when he started out as an actor were not films that suited the kind of actor he is. But suddenly there is a kind of film being made that works for him, and so suddenly everyone is saying Arjun Rampal, actor. It’s just that he wasn’t very comfortable in the total Bollywood masala.
Arjun Rampal: And I was also learning. I think before you learn, you have to fall, take your baby steps. I think those films that didn’t work in the beginning, I learnt a lot from them. You don’t make a film thinking that it’s not going to work. But also, you’re influenced in the early part of your career by people who are around you, managing you, who tell you to do this, this is a good set up, this is the thing, and you kind of get into a film for the wrong reasons, and those films will never work. So I had to take a step back, and evaluate what I wanted to do, and say this is the kind of stuff I’m comfortable with, these are the filmmakers I want to work with – people like Farhan and Sudhir, Abhishek Kapoor, Prakash Jha, Madhur.
Sudhir Mishra: But he always was an actor, you know.
This transition of yours, Arjun, from model to actor – as a model, you’re taught to be completely unfazed in front of the camera, to walk the ramp and back even if the roof comes crashing down. Of course, as human beings, we react to events, we have a set of expressions. But when you started out as an actor, was it hard for you to bring out those emotions in front of the camera, to switch out of model mode?
Arjun Rampal: I think that’s a very sexist statement that you have made now. (Laughs) If the roof falls down, a model’s not going to be blindly walking the ramp! I mean, a model also gets hurt if you pinch him or slap him, you know, and he’ll definitely run from there if the roof is falling! (Laughs)
But, yeah, you’re right, the medium is more or less very similar – you have a director, you have a camera, you have lights, and people say the same thing, ‘action’. But the training is completely different, you know. As a model, you’re told to give your best angles, you know what your best angles are, you know what’s going to look good on you, because you’re selling something glamorous, and you have to sell it in a matter of 20 seconds or 30 seconds, or just one photograph has to entice someone to buy the product you’re endorsing.
I felt that when I started doing film – when I saw the rushes of Moksha for the first time, I knew that I was not moving easily and freely, and there was a little bit of stiffness, which as an actor, you don’t need to have. You need to flow, and not be bothered about where the camera is and what angle you’re showing. You need to be completely into your character, and go with that.
So, I stopped modelling at that time. I completely quit as soon as I saw those rushes, and said no, I have to unlearn everything that I have learnt in front of the camera to be able to do this. And I didn’t know it would take 6 years for my film to get made, so I was quite broke. And after that, I didn’t know it would take me 8 years to get my first hit, so I was very broke. (Laughs) But, yeah, it’s been a nice journey. I wouldn’t change anything. I think whatever’s happened has taught me a lot, made me a much stronger person, a much stronger individual.
We spoke earlier of the dichotomy in Indian cinema. Do you think that will ever completely disappear?
Sudhir Mishra: No, as I say often, there will always be the big Indian blockbuster. In fact, I think the Indian blockbuster that will really succeed in the west is waiting to be made. And I think there is a specificity, a form that is there in Indian cinema that is not just business, but intrinsic to Indians. And there’s something there which is very interesting, and all of us are a bit influenced by that. You see, the filmmaking of an Anurag Kashyap is different from that of a Quentin Tarantino. There is a moment of hold, a pause, of affection – the emotion is held a little bit, even among gangsters love finds a place, a mother cries. There is something about it that is the Indian way, and you shouldn’t leave it, because that’s your uniqueness.
Arjun Rampal: Yeah, our films all have it, and there’s no need to be apologetic about it. Now, actors have started singing in their films, so it’s become a place where you get so many choices to play so many kinds of characters. You play such larger-than-life characters in your cinema, which are great, but we are like that. And it’s there even in the way we eat, you know. Here, you come and they give you one small snack, and that’s why they’re so fit. But back home, we like our dal also and our chapatti also, and our chawal also, and our sabzi also, and that’s our culture, and that reflects in our films too. I think we like a bit of everything in it.
And I think songs can enhance a film too. No one speaks of Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi without also speaking of Baavra Mann.
Sudhir Mishra: Yeah, true, precisely, music can really enhance a film. I’ve lost count of the number of young people who’ve come up to me and told me they really loved the film. And most of them have now seen it on DVD. I think if it were made today, it would be a much bigger commercial success. It’s changing, and all sorts of films will find a place.
I’d like to ask both of you a question about the process of preparing for a film, and how much focus there is on it now. There used to be a time when people were so paranoid about their scripts being stolen that they’d walk up to the actor at the shoot and give him his line, which doesn’t allow him to feel the character, or the emotion, or anything.
Arjun Rampal: No, that doesn’t happen anymore. I would never work with a director who’s been writing his lines on the set, or who’s giving his actors their lines on the set. It can’t happen like that – you can’t switch on and off like that. You’re either going to be hamming, or be wooden.
Sudhir Mishra: Arjun and I have sat through some 24-25 readings of the script. We spoke about what the character should say, why he should say it. Of course, at the last minute, one or two words, you feel like improvising a little bit.
Arjun Rampal: Yeah, but you have to be thorough with your script. With this film, it wasn’t the script that was that exciting when it first came. (Laughs) It was Sudhir who was exciting for me, because I’m a fan of his work, and he came up to me and said I have an idea, should we be working on it? And I wasn’t doing anything, I was quite free, so I said come on, let’s spend some time, and jam, and see where this goes. And the more we sat and explored it, the more we saw a different dimension to where this was going. And that’s what made it really fun for us – because then you’re like team players who come out on to the set, and you know exactly what’s going on, and that’s why we could shoot the film in the span of time we could shoot it in. And I’m very happy when I watch it now, and I think it’s come out even better than we hoped.
Sudhir, what film of Arjun’s did you see, or what work of his did you see, that made you want him for the role? Because you tend to work with actors whom you find and pick up and project.
Sudhir Mishra: When I saw Rock On, I remember going to him that day at the screening to tell him he’d done really well. And then there was Rajneeti. So both those films, and then you see something in that actor that tells you he’s the one for the role. That’s what makes you either a director, or not-a-director, you know what I mean? (Laughs) He’s not playing either the Rock On character or the Rajneeti character here. Somebody said it’s like a divining rod, which starts trembling when the right person is in front – yes, it was Philip Kaufmann who said it. You can’t intellectualise it more than that, it’s an instinct that you feel.
Arjun Rampal: Also, what happens is when you discover these kinds of relationships, you start working together. We’re already discussing the next film we’ll do. You’re not bored of each other, the experience had been good, whatever the fate of the film, regardless, we’re saying chalo, let’s do one more film, because the experience was nice. And that’s what’s important in filmmaking, that the experience should be enjoyable, because otherwise you can’t make a film that people will enjoy.
People tell me when they see the trailer that they don’t see Arjun Rampal, they see the character. And that’s what you want, you know. And that’s what I like about working with Sudhir, he’s a director who sees me in a different way, in a different light, and will bring that forward.
The tagline of the film says ‘The Unofficial Story’. What is that about?
Sudhir Mishra: Well, it’s just that Kaam means work, and sex too. So, the unofficial story is what goes on behind closed doors. But that’s more of a marketing thing. (Laughs)
All over the world, you have films released with taglines these days. It’s very rarely that a film doesn’t have one. Why has this trend come in?
Sudhir Mishra: I guess, in a sense, you want to direct the audience towards how they should see the film. You’re telling them ‘View my films like this’. But in some marketing things, you’re even trying to fool them. But no, mostly, the director and producers want to prepare the audience because there are hundreds of films releasing, and you want to give them some motivation to choose yours.