You are known for your versatility as an actor. Your respective roles in Mandi, Yun Hota Toh Kya Hota, Corporate on the one hand, and in films like Bheja Fry and Mithya on the other are poles apart and yet excellently accomplished. Then, there’s the role of a film director that you often play in your life, and that to such high acclaim. So do your criteria for choosing a film as a director differ from when you decide to do a film as an actor?
A. As a director I do that which is governed by my sensibilities, in terms of what I think cinema should be. Because also, as a director, first of all you are putting your name in the film – the sound, the visual creations all have to be written in a particular way. Also, as a director, you spend a hell of a lot of time with a film: like one-and-a-half or two years. So, you don’t want to spend two years of life doing something that you don’t believe in, obviously. But as an actor, you can complete a film in 20 days or 30 days, and also as an actor you are part of somebody’s else vision – and not your own vision. So, when I am signing a film as an actor, I look at whether or not I have a good role, have something to do. And I look at the script because if I have a good role and a bad script, then I am not interested. Also, the director has to be good enough.
Q. Do you see yourself as someone who is equally at ease in both commercial and offbeat cinema?
A. I don’t do many commercial films. But when I do, I see the role, script and director as I said earlier.
Q. But what’s your take on mainstream cinema in India? Are we at least making better films now?
A. It is as bad as it used to be. It’s a matter of taste. Bollywood has experimented enough. I have seen enough films to know what I like and what I dislike. So no, we are not making better films. We were making as bad movies back in the day as we are making now. The ’80s and ’90s were the worst, and compared to that, we are having better films made now.
Q. Would you call yourself more of a director’s actor?
A. I am completely a director’s actor. I am fully submissive as an actor. I do what I am told but of course I improvise and sometimes suggest things to my director. But then, it’s up to them to take my suggestion on board or otherwise.
Q. Some veterans of the industry have opened their own film schools of late. What is your take on it? Do you think acting can be taught?
A. Anything can be taught. But the question is whether it can be learnt. I think film acting is an inherent talent, so either you have it or you don’t have it. But what you can learn, and can be taught, is the mechanics for example: how to walk and stand at a certain point; how to hit the mark. All this can be taught. This is like craft. When it comes to the real art of acting, some people have it, and a lot comes through experience. But as I said, it’s not always about the craft; it’s about the technique working out on the camera.
Q. While a lot of regional films are now getting recognition on the national stage, it is also true that multi-crore Bollywood potboilers seem to be making a comeback, in terms of winning critical acclaim. Take for instance, Baahubali getting a National Film Award for best feature film. What do you have to say about that?
A. There is a certain bias even in the National Awards now to an extent. But having said that, I feel that any award anywhere in the world reflects the preoccupation of the jury. It reflects the thinking of the jury, so everything depends on who is on the jury. You understand what I am saying: if you like a certain film you will support it, and if I am the jury member, I will support that. The awards are a reflection of the composition of a jury.
Q. Aankho Dekhi, a film you both directed and acted in, won the Filmfare Award for best story in 2015. Where did the idea for such a story — of a man who chooses to believe only in things that he has directly experienced — come from?
A. This idea has been with me for many years. It’s a film about a man who doesn’t believe until he experiences it. All of us grapple with this question once in a while: what is true, what do I know? Do I know it and how do I know it? Do I know it because I have been told this or I know it because I have experienced it? This idea was with me for many years, and I didn’t know what to do with it because an idea cannot be a film. It has to become more than an idea to be a film, or it would just be propaganda. So, I kept playing with this thought for five or six years. This idea was always there that one day I would make a film on this. And then, one day I just thought of a joint family, and got my movie done.
Q. Do you think there is any particular formula for making a film a big hit? Recently, a well-known director made a statement to the effect that signing famous faces in a film is necessary in order to attract larger audiences.
A. Ye aaj ki baat nahi hain [This is not a recent development]. This has been the philosophy of Bollywood for the last 60 years. That’s the only formula they know. I have nothing to say about this. This is how Bollywood works. I don’t know whether it makes a film a hit or not, but it surely guarantees a certain footfall. It guarantees that people will watch it in the first week at least. They know people will not come after it so a big first weekend is guaranteed.
Q. Certain offbeat actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Irrfan Khan are now famous Bollywood figures.
A. But they don’t guarantee a mob to the cinemas. Which Irrfan Khan guarantees a mob? It has to be Akshay Kumar, Salman Khan or Shah Rukh Khan.
“I don’t think things are getting any better for independent filmmakers. In that list of struggling filmmakers, you can add my name too, as I am also struggling to raise money to make my next film. I don’t think much has changed in this regard. If you want to make an alternate film, then you have to face the struggle.”
Q. In 2007, you played the role of Muhammad Ali Jinnah in a television film made in the UK, called The Last Days of the Raj. What is the perception of Indian cinema in the West? And how does Hollywood regard Bollywood?
A. I have not done any Hollywood films. But I think we don’t exist for them. There are African actors, Chinese actors, Korean actors working in Hollywood so what’s the big deal in having Indian actors work there. Agar aap ke Hindustan se do actors chale gaye toh kaun si badi baat hain [What’s the big deal if a couple of Indian actors too make their way to Hollywood]. I don’t know why we feel so elated about making it to Hollywood? And if Hollywood is offering a film to an Indian actor, it doesn’t mean Hollywood has any awareness of Bollywood.
Q. Independent filmmakers in India are impacting the mainstream like never before. There’s Anurag Kashyap, Hansal Mehta, Anup Kurien and many others. Yet these filmmakers struggle to generate enough funds for their films, let alone make money off them. Some now depend on funds from abroad. But despite the struggles, are things getting any better for independent filmmakers here?
A. I don’t think things are getting any better for independent filmmakers. In that list of struggling filmmakers, you can add my name too, as I am also struggling to raise money to make my next film. I don’t think much has changed in this regard. If you want to make an alternate film, then you have to face the struggle. Struggle to get money, struggle to get it released, struggle to get enough cinema houses. And it has always the scene. Coming to the point of getting funds from abroad: we don’t get it. One or two films might, out of the 900 or 1000 that are made. Even abroad, they don’t have funds for their own films. Europe is struggling with its own films. We have more money than Europe.
Q. What would be your advice to struggling independent filmmakers of our age?
A. Do not stop making films. There is no cure for this. The only cure, and long-term cure, is that your audience should be educated. It will take at least 30 years to bring some change. Because education doesn’t mean only to learn and write but it also means to appreciate the arts. More than 65% of our population is illiterate and the remaining is artistically illiterate. So, we have a very small percentage of the audience that watches plays and goes to the theatre. If people are educated enough they would watch good films. Till that happens, there will be a struggle for all independent filmmakers. Even if the film is watched on YouTube, there is no money in it. It is true that people are watching films. Aankho Dekhi is still being watched a year after it was out, and I regularly get tweets saying it is an amazing movie, but my question is why didn’t you watch the same film in theatres? For our kind of films, the audiences wait till it is released on YouTube to watch it, which affects our revenues. But if it’s Fan or Dhoom 3, or such kind of films, people would go and watch them in the cinemas, even if they know that it’s a bad film. This is lack of education. It would take 50 years before people would say, “I should go to the museum to watch an art work”, or “I should go to a concert to listen to music”, or “I should watch films like Aankho Dekhi”. Then, perhaps, the mindset would change. The good thing now is that the audience for theatre has changed. There is a huge demand for theatre which did not exist earlier. Cinema will take time.
Q. Speaking of theatre, tell us more about the recent stage adaptations you did of Shakespeare’s As You Like it and Macbeth.
A. As You Like It is my fourth Shakespeare play in the last eight years. [Kapoor’s version is called I Don’t Like It As You Like It]. So, I am enjoying taking these classical texts and destroying them [laughs]. I like comedy and I am doing these plays entirely with clowns – all the characters are clowns. The Macbeth adaptation [titled What Is Done Is Done] will be premiered in Mumbai in June and this is the play I am very excited about. It is also done with clowns but they are dark, scary clowns. We have moved away from funny clowns to dark clowns. Macbeth is a dark play: it’s about power and ambition. Ranvir Shorey is playing the Macbeth and there’s Kalki Koechlin as Lady Macbeth. We also have Vinay Pathak in it.
Q. When and how did the transition from the stage to the screen happen in your case? And which among the two fascinates you more?
A. There was no transition. I always did both. Both give me a different high. And I love making films. Because films stay forever. Films like Pyasa, for instance, has been with me since forever.