RK is Running Again

Sexy beast or mama’s boy? Horndog or sweet babydoll? Who the hell is Ranbir Kapoor?

RK IS RUNNING AGAIN. In the first few minutes of Rockstar, Ranbir Kapoor dashes desperately through Rome’s cobbled streets, escaping a thrashing by locals, and after a quick bus ride arrives to give his impending concert. He kicks brutally at the barricades and roars silently onto the stage ahead of his minders, where, after an apt moment of repose, he unclenches his fingers and swirls his dark face to the mike, still pulsing with the effort of moving so much so quickly.

We see RK as the angry young man for that one electric moment of white noise, a glowering beaut come to burn us, before director Imtiaz Ali cuts to song. As it turns out, the hook is neat and entirely unnecessary — we continue to watch gratefully as now the younger Ranbir, college music enthusiast, smiles and strums and sings under a tree. We’re still quite happy to watch the fresh-faced sections of RK’s oeuvre, thanks very much.

Rockstar is powered by the comfortingly retro idea that romantic angst produces music, and provides its hero Janardhan/Jordan no more outlet, no real musical or performance creativity on stage, than just roaring at his audience, and then roaring some more, till he looks wan. Let the next generation believe that rock-n-roll mostly means making moues into mikes (we did, too).

Compare this retro conception of the artiste to the 29-year-old actor himself — this rather stripped down guy who wants, more than anything, to cut away the angst and focus on the work. On set at Mumbai’s Chandivalli Studio (estd. 1944) where he’s shooting his next feature Barfee, RK is smoothly professional — soft spoken, attentive, relaxed. He masters a difficult shot in one take, and remains unflappable after the 20th one needed for his co-stars. He’s a vibrating presence, quickfingered, loose-limbed, with an open face that has a series of expressions flitting across it. Then the shot’s over and he goes back to his diminutive self again, slumped over his BlackBerry or playing a game on his iPad.

You get two shocks when you meet RK. He’s alarmingly thin — no, flat — almost like a cartoon character flattened by a giant iron (Ranbir, Abhay, Imran: we’re getting an entire generation of stars without any butts). And he has startlingly red lips, like his uncle Shammi Kapoor. He speaks with fluent politenesses, Mr This and Mr That, and is studiously courteous to everyone. He walks with an affable bounce.

After the tentative beginnings of Saawariya (2007) and the somewhat-comic Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008), Ranbir cleared a definite corner for himself in 2009 with three wildly different films — the urbane Wake Up Sid, the manically bizarre Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani and the earnest Rocket Singh. All operate on his piquant comic timing and occasional hamming. In film after film, he has played off his loosey goosey charm and rubber band energy. His flat moroseness in Raajneeti might have given fans a twinge, but in Rockstar, his generation’s best actor finally shows he can do serious, too.

In all his eight films, RK has played the role of the young savant. “I don’t see myself as a superhero personality,” he says. “I can’t be heroic, it doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m a big fan of Roberto Benigni, even his early work. I love the Raj Kapoor movies like Shri 420. I like the bum quality in a person, that’s more endearing. If I can’t do something well, such as picking up a dumbbell, I add a bit of comic element to it, a bit of clumsiness. I salvage it.” He’s interested in people who lose their bug-eyed look and take control of their lives.

ROCKSTAR IS being hailed as the maturing point in a career that has always promised to be long. In one throwaway sequence, RK enacts one of those in-jokes that Bollywood has gotten so fond of in recent years. These jokes only work if you know the actor’s family tree, which is easy enough since everyone’s related to everyone these days. So the scene in Jhoom Barabar Jhoom with Abhishek Bachchan and Bobby Deol riding a motorcycle sidecar. So the sequence in Luck by Chance where a cameo Ranbir tells Rishi Kapoor, “You’re like a father to me.” And so the sequence in Rockstar where Ranbir and Nargis Fakhri dance in shikaras to the song Kashmir Ki Kali, except that the fourth generation Kapoor carefully underhams his uncle.

The day he was born, his grandfather Raj Kapoor received a telegram from a distributor in Punjab welcoming a new hero into the industry. Ranbir says he’s always known that the movie life was for him, no epiphanies needed. He seems more than aware of the accident of fate that makes him who he is, and perhaps that also makes him so supremely aware of the marketing circumstances that elevate the actor over everyone else on a film set. His only moments of anxiety seem to be about his father, Rishi Kapoor. “I’m most nervous,” he says, “when my father watches my movies. He’s only watched two. I did an ad film with him recently and I was really scared because I knew that this is one person who, if I act badly, will see through it. He’ll probably think I’m a bad actor all my life.” Otherwise, RK shows no guilt or embarrassment or the filial sycophancy of other star children, since the enormity of his ambition overshadows any perks of birth.

In the past few years, RK has been constantly touted as the next big thing, which suits him just fine. He’s in it for the long haul, he says in direct tones. “I feel I’m pretty talented. I have it in me to become the best actor in this country. I know it requires a big body of work, a lot of years, a lot of sacrifices. I’m prepared for it. I’ve conditioned myself for it. My idol is Mr Raj Kapoor and that’s a very big idol to have. Even though he’s my idol, I want to be better than him. He was my grandfather. He was the biggest. There is a time for another big actor or big filmmaker. I aspire to be that.”

Rockstar is key to this ambition. Playing the chocolate-faced hero has gotten him this far, but now he is ready for a shift as he approaches his 30s. “I got tired of it after Anjaana Anjaani. Now with Rockstar and Barfee, I’ve progressed from a young boy to a young man.” As a younger tyro, RK returned home after film and acting school stints in New York and dutifully took horseriding and diction and dance and action classes; he remembers this time with an apologetic grin, given his more relevant armour now. Ask him about acting and he gives you James-Liptonesque lines about the joys such as you never heard in Bollywood. “Many people have the misconception that acting is about making your body and going to dance classes — that if you look good, you can make it. It’s way beyond that. All the experiences you gather in your lifetime with your intelligence, how emotional you are, how sensitive you are… that just builds your reservoir as an actor. Because when you come to work you can give so much. Unless you give, if you only give upar upar se, then they will see it — there is a strong disconnect, a facade, you won’t have longevity as an actor because people will see through you.”

There is a strong flavour of American craft in his approach. His emphasis on how the director needs to be “in love” with his actor, his own effusions of deep bonding with Imtiaz Ali. Or his personal prompts: “We gave Janardhan in Rockstar really tight jeans, tight sweaters, to constrict his gait. I use shoes a lot. For Wake Up Sid, I wore these really loose shoes and I felt like my feet were dragging, like a slacker’s. For Raajneeti, I had tight ones, sometimes I’d put stones in them for a sense of discomfort. Also, I use a different perfume in every film, since the smell always brings you back, even if there has been a long break.” (Tom Ford for Rockstar, in case you were wondering.)

As enthusiastic as he is about his prompts, he’s also dismissive of method acting and detailed scripts: “In Rockstar, it’s my duty as an actor that when I play the guitar I don’t look foolish. So the audience connects with my character and the guitar doesn’t distract them. Stuff like that isn’t intelligent work, it goes with the territory — but there are things beyond that. To understand the psyche of a character, the shallowness, the deepness. I don’t believe in doing backstories and paperwork. It’s just the understanding of the person.”

Below the articulate, smooth sentences, there’s a bone-deep understanding that acting is about empathy. “It is the ability to surrender. I think that’s what is important. Surrender to your work. That’s what I’m concerned with when I say ‘talent’. I mean: I’m not afraid to surrender. I’m not afraid to be called an asshole, to be shouted at by the director, to be laughed at, because I know this work demands it. I’m quite shameless — physically and emotionally. I dropped the towel in my first film. I was actually butt naked. It didn’t embarrass me. Emotionally, if someone is taking me to a place of great pain, I’m game for it. I’d like to experience it.”

RANBIR’S RELATIONSHIP with his body is key both to his self-confidence and his acting approach. He dislikes sharp outlines. “If I build my body I’ll be more Ranbir and less my character… I don’t like perfection. I think it makes it too surreal. I like the rough edges, the faults. I don’t like the pretty faces and perfectly sculpted bodies. Coloured lenses. Lipstick.” He’s refused to erase the scar on his right cheek, though the media routinely airbrushes it in photos. He talks with detachment of an ugly face and bad hair. He has a deviated septum, which means he can only breathe through his mouth, and has refused to fix it because it’d look like a nose job. Even though the mouth breathing “makes me look duh”. His deviated septum also makes him breathe faster, eat faster. Perhaps this is what keeps him in constant motion.

As far as public perception goes, RK is certainly in constant sexual motion. He’s been offered up as an erotic object ever since that towel drop in his first movie. His relationship with actor Deepika Padukone was conducted in the open, and after their break-up he’s retreated into the more conventional column inches of speculation and wishful thinking. Did he date Sonam Kapoor? Nargis Fakhri? It follows RK everywhere — this media/PR bullshit of him simultaneously being a sexy beast and a mama’s boy, a horndog and a sweet babydoll — all for us. I ask him about this aspect of his persona, about his rumoured hook-ups, about his reputation for teen randiness, and wonder aloud why the entire nation considers him such a horny bastard. RK replies evenly, “A lot of it is the truth. I’m not saying everything is a lie. It’s just exaggerated and glamourised. I can’t feel bad all the time because I know it’s the truth. I’m not a horny bastard. I did look up my teacher’s skirt in school. A lot of kids do it, it’s part and parcel of growing up.”

He’d like to date with the same openness with which he talks of losing his virginity at 15, with the same enjoyment with which he makes a dirty joke about his moustache to his assistant. To be open and not “hide a girl in my house”. Then he adds, “It’s a misconception that actors date a lot. The only women they meet are on film sets — actresses, costume designers, staff. I guess that’s why actors get married to actresses.” (It’s easy to see how Ranbir and Deepika Padukone might have matched temperaments, but no relationship can survive such talent imbalance.) He also acknowledges the extreme insecurity and competitiveness in industry relationships that leaves you hungry for the uncomplicated. “There’s a very thin line between reel and real. Sometimes you give in and cross it. Sometimes you’re doing a love story with an actress. I know it’s very easy to give into it, go with the flow, which is probably not real, which is probably not right. I meet a girl and she could like me for being a star. She could like me for who I am. But I don’t really know. You don’t have the time to invest in someone to know that.”

As a corollary, he says he still finds himself unable to nail the romantic comedy genre.

IN HIS teens and in film school, Ranbir made many short films with friends, films that he refuses to show to the world. “You only have five minutes, so you lean towards ‘dark’ subjects,” he laughs. “They were really shit films.” On the perennial question of whether he’ll revive the RK Studios banner, he says, “I do have a burning desire and a very immature dream of directing a movie. I also believe that unless you have a story to tell that inspires you, you shouldn’t. I think my biggest disadvantage is that I’m not a writer [he admires Almodovar’s dark scripts]. And that’s really hard. For a long time I was toying with an idea of a love story with a war backdrop. These are just immature ideas, they come and go. They’re just fleeting shadows.”

He maintains several premium product endorsements but RK is clear that money isn’t the main thing. “I’ll never dance at a wedding. I’ll never do a ribbon cutting. I don’t want to leave my kids crores to blow up in Las Vegas.” He won’t endorse fairness creams, cigarettes or alcohol. He thinks actors should use their celebrity to support charities. But finally, it all comes back to the films for him. RK calls himself a film groupie, a fanboy. He tracks big productions on IMDB, reads Hollywood trade news on Variety. He says he watches two movies a day. He loved La Haine. He thought Inception wasn’t juiced out enough. He enjoyed Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara.

He wants to do many more films but has limited himself to about two a year. And as he works steadily, he continues to attribute some of his success to being at the right place at the right time. “I came when certain leading heroes were crossing a certain age so a lot of young roles came to me.” He can’t be like the actors of his father’s generation, he adds, “who’d arrive at a set and ask for the name of their character.” He’s a much more American worker. “I believe there was a certain time when heroes did certain kinds of roles, they looked a certain way. They had to have dialogue delivery, the way they romanced the girl, the way they walked, it was all pretty much the same in all their films. It was just an extension of their personality. I think today actors are a little more fearless. They’re ready to lose themselves and try something new, try something less glamorous, try something true. There are more actors who are fearless right now.”

And as for the smaller pleasures in the bucket list on his phone, such as taking a road trip or spending more time with friends, he’s still unsure about how to balance the trade-offs of his career. “Sometimes you’re caught up, your head is up your ass, you forget it. You lose the value of it. I aspire to it but it’s difficult because my head is up my ass right now.”

We finished our conversation and he returned to his shoot. As soon as pack-up was announced that night, he was the first one off, jogging away with his three assistants and bodyguard close behind. There he goes, he of the vast appetites, loping swiftly and silently, his charmed shoelaces lifting him, head held shyly straight, easy runner, pursued by the hot adoring hordes, and here they come, they’re coming for him, everyone turning fast corners, descending hard, here comes everybody! RK wants it. He’s game.