Ranbir Kapoor is one of the biggest stars outside of the Khanate ruled by the Aamir-Salman-Shahrukh triptych in Bollywood. But his last few movies have not set the cashbox ringing at the box office, the ultimate arbiter of an artiste’s worth over a weekend in a cut-throat film industry. The 35-year-old actor now returns with a biopic on Sanjay Dutt made by a filmmaker with the Midas touch, Rajkumar Hirani, who has never failed in the past 15 years. In a freewheeling interview with Giridhar Jha, barely a few days before the release of Sanju, Ranbir discusses, among other things, the most challenging role in his career and why he does not want to spoil the legacy of R.K. Films by reviving the iconic banner founded by his legendary grandfather Raj Kapoor. Excerpts from the interview:
Going by the response to Sanju’s trailer, your mom ought to be ordering a new shelf to stack up all the awards that you are most likely to win next year. But tell me, what were your initial thoughts when Rajkumar Hirani offered you the biopic on Sanjay Dutt?
A lot of fear. I was being offered a film by Rajkumar Hirani! I had always wanted to work with him. When he told me he is making a biopic on Sanjay Dutt’s life, I was a little sceptical. I wondered how you could make a story on a superstar who is still working. Would I be able to do it? I had performance anxiety. But all my fears went away once I read the script. Raju sir has done it in such a sensitive, emotional, funny and entertaining way. This project has become an actor’s dream come true. It has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me.
Still, some apprehensions must have persisted.
Absolutely! The script was merely the first step. For the next six months, we were doing things like make-up and prosthetics trials. I was trying to imitate him and failing miserably every day—just trying to build this character and do complete justice to it. Portraying Sanjay Dutt! It’s a huge responsibility. Initially, there were a lot of upsets, but everybody associated with the project had faith in the material and a belief that we are all here to make a good movie.
Sanju is not a propaganda film. It’s an honest portrayal of a very flawed man who has fallen down many times, but has also picked himself up. It is also about a complex relationship between the father and son, his relationship with many women and his best friend, his tryst with the law, being in jail, the gun episode...drugs. There was so much drama and so many emotions in this film that it seemed scary and daunting, but I was very inspired to be part of this journey.
Sanjay and you have been neighbours in Mumbai’s Pali Hill. After reading the script, did you realise that he was not the Sanjay Dutt you had known all these years?
Yes, I had known a completely different Sanjay Dutt, a family friend who always treated me like a younger brother and used to spoil me. Six years ago, he gifted me a Harley-Davidson on my birthday. He would pick me up on random nights and take me out on drives in his Ferrari. After reading the script, I did discover a new Sanjay Dutt. And I started admiring and respecting him all the more, not just for the life he has lived but also for the fact that he has given the story of his life to be portrayed so honestly on screen. Tomorrow, many people might judge him for it, but his positivity cannot go unnoticed, it has always kept him alive. That’s why he is so loved today.
While you were growing up in the 1990s, Sanjay suddenly turned into a bad boy who found little support from the industry after the Mumbai riots…
I was too young to remember at the time. But yes, through this film, I have understood that phase much more. He was completely opposite to what his father (Sunil Dutt) was. His father was such a loved and admired man, always helping people, but this guy was gaining the reputation of a boy bad, doing wrong things.
"I went to Sanjay’s house and took his perfume. He uses a strong one called Tom Ford Oud. I always use one perfume for one movie. I do these silly and stupid things."
You’re not just neighbours. You’ve also been a Sanjay Dutt fan through the years. What does it mean to be playing the character of someone you’ve always admired? Does it involve any risks?
A lot of hard work went behind the scenes to make it come alive. But yes, this fear of doing a mere mimicry...making it a joke, was there. I had the responsibility of portraying a man whom not only I love and admire, but also someone who the audience loves and admires so much. There were too many expectations. But when you have a director like Raju sir and a writer like Abhijat Joshi, they really have your back. They guided me through this process very well. I hope, when the audience discovers Sanjay Dutt’s life on screen, they also connect with him and have empathy towards the character. We are not looking for sympathy but for the empathy of the audience.
I am sure you must have had a number of extended sittings with Sanjay during the making of Sanju...
I spent a lot of time with him. Before doing the jail sequences, I would call up and ask him, “Sanju sir, what were you thinking at that particular time? How did you feel when the TADA court verdict came?” What were his feelings during his drugs days, when his mother passed away, when his father died? These are important emotional moments in the film. I wanted to portray and justify them in a very honest way so that when he sees the film, he also feels: “Yeah, I remember this, I remember that.”
What other specific preparations did you do for this movie?
Every film comes with its own preparation. Thankfully, in this film, I was backed by a lot of good storytelling and drama. The script provided that base to me. It was the Bible to make me believe that this is Sanjay Dutt’s life and he actually went through all of this. So, apart from the superficial training of body, prosthetics and make-up, which is relatively easier, it was important to understand someone’s soul and someone’s being, how he is as a person. Sanjay is like a teddy bear, a man-child. He’s a wolf from the outside and a puppy from the inside, and to really get that on screen was very important.
You were said to be eating, sleeping and breathing Sanju for over a year. Is this the most difficult film of your career?
Most challenging, for sure. But I was also very happy and inspired to be on this film, so the challenges were happily taken. When you love what you do and are happy doing it, the challenges become easier.
You were trained in method acting at the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, New York. Did that experience come in handy while portraying Sanjay Dutt?
Subconsciously, yes. Method is something which every actor has to discover on his own. Every film has a different method. There are no fixed things that I do. You know one thing that I do—I always use one perfume for one movie. Very often, when I shoot intermittently for a film for a year, a particular perfume helps me stay connected to my character all through its making. My sense of smell is very strong, somewhere, subconsciously, it connects me to the part.
So you had a distinct perfume for Sanju as well?
Of course. I went to Sanjay’s house and borrowed his perfumes so I could smell like him. He uses a strong one called Tom Ford Oud. I do these silly and stupid things. Shoes are also very important. I borrowed his boots too, but he wears two sizes smaller than me. So I told the designer to make similar boots for me. Even the jeans he wears are specific boot-cut ones; his kurta-pyjama too has a ‘Sanjay Dutt’ style. Certain things do help you to get into the skin of the character, but more than that, you have to understand the heart and the mind of a character. Superficially, people will like one or two scenes, but it is ultimately the nature of the character that people connect to.
"What my grandfather has done is very close to my heart but I don’t want to pollute it. I don’t believe in revamping the banner and all that."
A slice of Bollywood history is also going into this movie. Nearly seven decades after R.K. Films’ Barsaat (1949), which starred Nargis and Raj Kapoor, the grandson of Raj Kapoor is portraying Nargis’s son in a Hindi film…
I guess somewhere, it’s all our genes. We are all connected. Everybody has worked so closely and has had such great creative collaborations. Besides, Sanjay Dutt is a very special man in my life. Apart from being a fan, I really respect him. I am happy that after seeing the trailer, they (the audience) seem to have accepted me as Sanjay Dutt, so when they see the film, there will not be any conflict in their minds whether Ranbir will be able to portray him. I have never received such a response for any other film.
But how much of Ranbir will we see in this film?
Of course, it is me portraying Sanjay Dutt. It is my personality, my being. It has my emotions channelled through a character. Every film has a lot of me, only the characters I play are different. You will see a lot of me.
Which part of Sanjay Dutt’s life did you find most difficult to portray?
I think the whole drugs phase was the most difficult—how deep he went into it and how hard it was for him to come out. The movie has a brilliant message for the younger generation as to where drugs can take you. Drugs can destroy your life and Sanjay is a prime example. Everything was over for him and he really had to fight it hard to come out of it. There is a lot of learning from his mistakes.
You have been doing movies of different genres from the very outset of your career. Was it a conscious decision to not get typecast in one particular image?
No, the opportunities came to me and so did the kind of stories I connected with. Whether the film has been a success or a failure, I don’t regret anything that I have done. I have been very lucky to get such opportunities. These days, cinema is evolving and a lot of people are doing good work. It drives me that I have been given the opportunities. I am grateful for that. But there are thousands and thousands of guys who are way more talented than me. I don’t want to take advantage of that or take it for granted. I want everybody to believe that I deserve to be where I am. It took me a while to take out the tag of a star son, someone born with the silver spoon in his mouth. Yes, I am a product of nepotism and it became easier for me to be in films because of my family. But I want people to understand that I love my job and I am doing it for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.
"My father used to get really affected. I am more detached with my projects than him. I have never gone into deep despair from failure."
Your father (Rishi Kapoor) had to play a lover boy for years after the success of Bobby (1973). It took him years to shun his image. It is only now that he is getting diverse roles...
I guess things were different in his times. Also, his ideologies and his philosophy in life are very different from mine. I could not duplicate what he did because it did not come naturally from me.
Many of your films have not worked. Still, you do not seem to ‘plan’ a movie the way some of today’s big stars do. Don’t you think it would have been better to try and follow the usual commercial track and be part of the elite Rs 100-200 crore club? Have you ever regretted it?
Not at all, I feel every failure is a learning process. I take full responsibility for the failure of my films because I chose them all. I don’t blame it on anybody. Failure has taught me a lot. Yes, the last two years have really been hard in this respect. But then, I have grown up in a film family where every second person is an actor or a director. I understand that success cannot go to your head and failure to your heart. This is the prime rule. All you need to do is a good job.
Your dad would get depressed. He took the failure of Karz (1980) and Zamaane ko Dikhana Hai (1981) very badly…
My father used to get really affected. I am more detached with my projects than him. So I have never felt successful even when a film has been successful. I have never gone into deep despair from failure either. Actually, nobody has a formula for a hit. It is in a very indescribable way that a film clicks. While we were making Bombay Velvet (2015), we thought we were making a very good film until we finally saw the final product and realised that the story did not come together. This is something you don’t realise while you are making it; it is only in retrospect that you know it. Similarly, Jagga Jasoos (2017) too has brilliant moments, but the whole story seems episodic. When a film is successful, everything works, when it is not, nothing works. You have to understand the fact that the audience is the king. You cannot challenge that and say that they did not understand a particular film or that it was ahead of its times. No film is ahead of its times. If the audiences connect with a film, it will definitely do well.
Your next three movies—Brahmastra, Shamshera and Luv Ranjan’s untitled venture—also belong to different genres. How important are they for your career?
I am looking forward to the next phase of my career. The coming two-three years are very important. It’s a period when I have to consolidate my fan base and move to the next level as an actor and a star. I am again working with my best friend Ayaan Mukherjee, who has worked on Brahmastra’s script for five years. It is part of a trilogy woven around an amazing idea. I am also excited about the star cast consisting of Amitabh Bachchan and Alia Bhatt in this film.
You are working with Bachchan and Alia for the very first time.
Yes, I shot a scene with them two days ago. They have an amazing flair as actors. Lots of energies. Alia is new and young, but she is such a terrific actor. Amitabh Bachchan is the Amitabh Bachchan and it is an honour to work with him. You realise the value of Mr Bachchan when you work with him. He is no ordinary human being. He is a talent of a rare sort. He is the world class, he is not just the best in India. Men like that are not born in this world. I am quite honoured and privileged to be around him.
You are a fifth-generation Kapoor in films if we include your great-grandfather Prithviraj Kapoor’s father, Diwan Basheswarnath’s cameo in Awara (1951). It is but natural that you are also expected to carry forward the legacy of R.K. Films founded by your grandfather Raj Kapoor. But no movie has been made under this iconic banner in the past 19 years, since Aa Ab Laut Chalen (1999), your dad’s directorial venture. Do you have any plans to revive it?
To be honest, I have a very different take on it. R.K. Films was R.K. Films because of the films that my grandfather made. It was his brilliance that made R.K. Films what it is. I do not think I have the talent or the experience to direct a film now or to produce something under the R. K. banner. It is a legacy that I don’t want to spoil. That is why I made Jagga Jasoos under a new production company. I feel I should not touch his banner. It is something which the world respects and I value it a lot. What my grandfather has done is very close to my heart but I don’t want to pollute it by riding on that legacy and continuing it in a different tradition. I don’t believe in revamping and all that. R. K. Films was born, and it died, with Raj Kapoor.
A day might come when somebody asks you to do a biopic on Raj Kapoor. Will you do that?
Absolutely. 100 per cent. It would be an honour to play him. But I feel a biopic should be made only when you can honestly portray a man’s full life. I hope my family can give that permission to portray the real person that Raj Kapoor was. Not many people know who he was beyond his movies. They do not know him as a person who had such an interesting life. Two biopics I really want to do are Raj Kapoor’s and Kishore Kumar’s.
"Two biopics I really want to do are Raj Kapoor’s and Kishore Kumar’s. Kishore’s is a very interesting personality to portray."
There were already talks about you doing a Kishore Kumar biopic...
It did not materialise. We did not get the permission of certain families to use their names, which was integral to the story. We hope to bring them in, though. Kishore Kumar’s is a very interesting personality to portray.
You are a celebrity child of popular parents (Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh). Was your childhood anything like that of Taimur, the son of your cousin Kareena Kapoor, who is hounded by the paparazzi all the time these days?
It is crazy. I also had a lot of attention during my childhood but there was no camera phone, no paparazzi or social media back then, so I could have a little bit of a free life. Today, it is very hard, the more popular you are the more isolated you get. I understand the nature of the game has changed and so has the show business. They need data, to be consumed as a product, and we are the data. So any gossip, any photograph, any information is consumed very fast. It is like that now. It has to be accepted, not cribbed about. To be honest, I love watching Taimur’s pictures myself. I am his fan.
You have talked about consolidating your fan base but you are still off social media. Do you have plans to hop on to any such platform in the near future?
No plans, as yet. Going by the example of many yesteryear actors, I believe that the mystery around an actor is very important. Once that mystery dies, people get bored of you and stop believing in the characters you play. I just want to build a mystery around me as an actor. I want people to judge me as an actor. I am not interested in telling people about how my body looks or what food I eat or where I am refilling my car with petrol. I am only interested in telling them stories, giving them aspirations and inspirations through my films.
Social media can help you voice your opinion on social issues or other matters close to your heart?
Social media is not the only platform out there. You can do so through other media as well. Yes, it is great to raise social issues and connect with your fans. I don’t look down upon social media at all. It is just something that I have consciously steered clear of.
You are a big soccer enthusiast. What are you looking forward to in the ongoing World Cup?
I am a huge fan of Messi and I really hope that he takes the World Cup trophy home this year. He deserves it but I don’t know if he has the support system with his team. In fact, Argentina is my first choice for the trophy followed by France, Germany and Spain in that order.
Oh, that means you are not a Cristiano Ronaldo fan?
No, Messi is way ahead than Ronaldo. I am not a Ronaldo fan, I am a Messi bhakt. What about you?