It’s late evening in a plush suburban Mumbai hotel. One of the banquet halls on the ground floor is cordoned off for press interactions with actor Ranbir Kapoor. The air bears a whiff of restlessness. Publicists promoting his upcoming Jagga Jasoos barge in and out, occasionally ushering a journalist in. The actor is getting impatient, one tells us; his back has been hurting, informs another.
As we wait, a feeling of déjà vu kicks in. At the start of the year, before an interview with his father, Rishi Kapoor — ahead of the launch of his autobiography Khullam Khulla: Rishi Kapoor Uncensored — we had been warned of his mercurial temperament. In his youth, Rishi was conveniently typecast as a romantic hero, which his son has consciously, and valiantly, steered away from. “Ranbir goes for workshops and takes classes for his roles. It’s something I never did,” the 64-year-old actor had confessed. The older Kapoor clearly takes great pride in his son’s dauntless selection of films.
When we finally meet Ranbir, we see the same shared sense of contentment on the 34-year-old’s face as he discusses his evolution as an actor. Clearly exhausted, he asks his team if he can smoke. And even before he receives an answer, he lights his cigarette. “Long day?” we ask him. “Not long. Just tired after having to say the same thing to eight different people,” he mutters. But as we discuss his role in Jagga Jasoos, his expressions begin to change — fatigue makes way for excitement. After all, it’s a role he has always yearned to play: that of a detective
It’s hardly a surprise that the role of a whimsical detective would be a coveted one. Ranbir has always been a misfit in the traditional Bollywood template. “I find it very hard to play the quintessential hero who punches a person and he goes flying,” reveals the actor, who, unlike his peers (and his father) also prefers to maintain a low profile online. Unconventionality has followed him from his début, Saawariya (2007). Before the Sanjay Leela Bhansali film, it was only the leading ladies who stuck a bare leg out of a foamy bathtub. But he arrived on the scene in a towel and became an instant hit with women and, more so, with the queer community, who embraced him as a gay icon.
Ranbir — who could easily qualify as metrosexual, with his carefully manicured hands and well-moisturised skin — has played characters who have been in touch with their sensitive and feminine side, in his nearly 20-film career. As seen recently in Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, where he sings at a wedding sporting an intricately-done mehendi. But his attempt at playing a formulaic hero in Besharam (2013) failed miserably with an audience that now expects Kapoor to take up roles few other actors dare to. Case in point: Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009)
Needless to say, the pressure to pick the right films has landed him in a series of box-office duds, such as Roy (2015) and Bombay Velvet (2015). And while he earned back critical acclaim with Tamasha (the 2015 release only managed to do average business), it wasn’t until last year’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil that he saw much-needed commercial success.
Despite the number game, Ranbir has remained obstinate in picking unique characters. He has also tapped into an audience often forgotten: children. “Today if you want to take your kids out for a movie, you take them to Spiderman, Toy Story and Beauty and the Beast, but we have such a large industry and we’re not making films for them,” says the actor, who counts Mr. India (1987) as his favourite childhood movie. With films like Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani (2009), Barfi! (2012), Chillar Party (2011) — where he made a special appearance in the song Tai Tai Phish — and now Jagga Jasoos, he hopes to generate more homegrown content for the little ones. “But it’s very hard to entice children. You don’t know what they like and you can’t take them for granted. You can’t say, ‘Oh, they don’t have brains so we can do anything’,” he explains.
An admirer of films like Life is Beautiful (1997) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), and actors like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, he says it’s difficult to perform physical comedy on screen and look goofy, without appearing awkward. “You have to do it with the right intention, with logic and without the purpose of just shocking people.” The actor points out that Barfi! was entirely physical comedy, but in Jagga Jasoos, it’s Katrina Kaif who performs most of it. “Her whole character is of calamity Jane, so wherever she goes disaster follows,” jests Ranbir, who was recently trending on social media for ‘mansplaining’ Kaif’s character to her during a promotional event
What’s relatable to children with characters like Jagga, Murphy Barfi Johnson (Barfi!) or Prem Shankar Sharma (Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani) is the quality of innocence, which is certainly hard to retain in the cacophonous world of Bollywood. “Loss of innocence is loss of innocence. When dopamine gets depleted from your brain, you cannot get it back, right? Innocence is much like that,” he introspects.
With films which cater to the family audiences at large, attention to detail is imperative, because children do have a sharp eye. For instance, Ranbir has a peculiar hairdo in Jagga Jasoos, which is being compared to comic-book hero Tintin’s. “That was unintentional,” he quickly clarifies. He explains that the hairstyle, given to him by stylist Aalim Hakim, is purposefully quirky since, in the film, the character’s father gives him that haircut just before he goes missing. “Jagga maintains this hairstyle, so if his father bumps into him anywhere, he would recognise him,” he reveals.
But the film also hurled an unforeseen challenge: singing. As his character stammers while speaking, he sings his lines to communicate clearly. This trait was inspired by music director Pritam himself, who stammers in real life. “It was very difficult because I don’t think I am musically inclined,” quips Ranbir, who studied method acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York. “But the character isn’t singing for the sake of a musical. If it’s a dramatic, emotional or romantic scene, other people are talking but when he has to answer, he sings. So it’s not the big Hindi film format song. It could be 20 or 10 seconds but every retort of his comes through a song.”
The actor — who started his career assisting his father in Aa Ab Laut Chalen (1999) and later Sanjay Leela Bhansali in Black (2005) — is now making his début as a producer with his latest flick. And like an adept producer, he is aware of everything written about it. When we ask him whether Jagga Jasoos is indeed three hours long as mentioned on IMDb, he sharply retorts, “IMDb also says it has Shah Rukh Khan in it, so no, I don’t think children have the patience to watch a film that long.”
And while the film — after a shooting schedule of three-and-a-half years — is finally going to see the light of day, Ranbir’s appearance seems to have already gravitated towards his upcoming film: a biopic on actor Sanjay Dutt. He is sporting unkempt beard and somewhat dishevelled long hair. As the interview draws to a close, he stands up, thanks us for our time, and in typical Kapoor flamboyance walks up to his team and loudly berates them for packing several interviews in one evening, and then bursts out laughing, as if he is still carrying remnants of his whimsical characters with him