Shahid Kapoor began his Bollywood journey in 2003 as a romantic hero who seemed tailor-made for dancing around trees. But over time he has emerged as one of Indian cinema’s most versatile actors—someone who can handle complex roles and surprise the audience with each performance. Bulbul Sharma speaks to him about the hits and misses of his career and his latest film, Kabir Singh.
Q.Your recent film, Kabir Singh, presents you in an aggressive avatar, of a rather violent man who is in a very intense relationship with a girl, played by Kiara Advani. As a youth icon, were you at all apprehensive about signing this film, as it portrays you in a slightly negative light?
A. I actually give a lot more credit to the youth than a lot of people do. I think youngsters are very intelligent and if you look at the kind of content they like, they are probably way ahead in terms of their understanding, expectations and interpretation than the generation before them…
I choose to believe that we are making films for very intelligent people. The audience is ahead of their time, and sometimes we [the film industry] fall short. This is why many films don’t do well. There was a time when people believed that they needed to keep things simple for the audiences. But we are beyond that now. People are exposed to all types of stuff these days, on Netflix and international cinema. Everything is out there for people to watch and the Indian film fraternity needs to compete with that kind of content. Films that are not up to the mark fail.
Also, I have always felt that you don’t need to be literal about things. Youngsters have the intelligence to understand that it’s a performance and they appreciate it for its merit. Even six-year-olds and seven-year-olds are smart enough to say yes or no. I see it in my three-year-old daughter; she doesn’t necessarily say yes to everything that I tell her. She has a mind of her own and she understands what she agrees with and what she doesn’t agree with. So how can you not expect that from adults? We must remember that cinema is a representation of life. If you don’t engage with all aspects of life then you will be cheating the audience.
Q. Does it get emotionally exhausting for you to play such complex characters—like the role of the protagonist inHaider, or of Tommy Singh in Udta Punjab, and now Kabir Singh?
A. It is very draining. It is both physically and mentally tiring. They [these characters] are like black holes. They need so much from you that you feel no matter how much you give, it would still be less.
Q.In what way was it emotionally draining for you to perform these roles?
A. They are intense and layered. So you need to keep delving deeper and deeper to be able to understand, hopefully at some point, the character you are playing. It might not always happen—you don’t always understand them. And they are very different from who I am. So they need a very convincing performance to come alive. They are not one-dimensional. It’s not about getting just one sur[note] right for others to follow. It is a constant struggle and a complex process. The thing with playing these characters is that you feel you might fall short. You feel this constantly when playing such characters.
Q.Are you the kind of actor who extracts some elements from the characters he is playing, taking them from screen to real life?
A. Not really. I am actually quite disconnected from the characters I play. I am happy with who I am… As a professional actor, you have to learn to switch modes. When you are acting you have to be in it, and when you are done with it, you need to learn to get back to real life. That separation is very important. And maybe I have developed it because I have played quite a few complex characters. Over time, you understand that you need to learn to switch modes according to the place and the situation you are in.
Q.So the first time you played a complex character in a movie was more challenging than it is today?
A. It depends. There are pros and cons. When I did it for the first time, I didn’t know what the hell was happening. I had no experience. I had no idea if people would like it. I didn’t know if I would be able to pull it off. I was just excited and passionate and I wanted to do it. There was a desire to do something different. Now, when I look back, I think that the challenge is that people have already seen me doing certain things. So how can I surprise them now? The audience has already experienced the things I have done in the past. So it’s not a shot in the dark anymore.
Q.You started out as a romantic hero before establishing yourself as a versatile actor who has left all the labels behind. Do you feel you have been lucky?
A. I feel fortunate and at the same time I feel vindicated, because I have worked very hard. I had a deep desire to get out of the cage that people had been putting me in. I used to feel claustrophobic and angry all the time. I would feel that nobody understands me: “Why is everyone taking me at face value?” There is so much more in people than what they look like. I wanted to act and I would look out for roles that I could act in…
My definition of an actor is not someone who represents himself in the roles he plays; it is about becoming different people. This is the fundamental understanding of acting that I have. So I had to cross a huge barrier… There was a time when I used to feel that I would never be able to get there, because people wouldn’t give me that chance. It was a huge fear.
Q.Despite your successful debut with Ishq Vishk in 2003, it took you quite a bit of time to make a name for yourself in the Hindi film industry. Why do you think it took you so long to succeed?
A. When I started doing movies in 2003, everything used to work in a different way. There was no social media and Instagram. You couldn’t become an Instagram sensation and have people follow you and your style. It used to be difficult to even showcase yourself to people. You had to go to offices, meet people and get photo shoots done. And if you were lucky, some assistant would take your photographs. If you were luckier, those photos would reach the desk of the director. It was a very different process.
A lot of people think that I am from within the fraternity, and that it must have been easier for me. But the truth is, nobody knew who my father was until I did Ishq Vishk. My parents were separated and I never used to harp about that. So getting access took a lot of time. When my first film happened, I didn’t know how to go about things. These days, actors arrive as if they have done their PhDs in the way the industry works. Even before you become a star, you know everything about the process. But with me, it was the other way around. I discovered what was required while I worked. It was a learning curve, a hands-on experience… You made mistakes and you learned from those mistakes. It took some time to settle in but now things have become a lot smoother.
Q.Content-driven films are reshaping Indian cinema, benefitting the audience, directors, scriptwriters and all those associated with the industry. What effect has this had on actors?
A. I think earlier there was a lot of value attached to how much experience one had. Today, there is no difference between a newcomer and somebody who might be 50 films old… It is relatively easy for something new and somebody new to make an impact. Earlier, it used to take a few years for you to get that kind of exposure and to reach out to people. The gap is shrinking now. So it’s good for the new kids on the block, but not so good for the people who have been a part of the industry for long…
Also, what has come down is “persona value”. People are not going to watch movies for somebody’s personality. I think people go to watch the movies looking for a great experience. This is a great time for people who want to become actors and not stars.
Q.You have become more selective of late in choosing your projects. Films likeHaider,Udta Punjab and Padmaavat (2018) among others prove that you have matured as an actor. So what triggered this change in you?
A. I am just being more instinctive and sticking to what I really enjoy doing. I want to do films that genuinely make an impact and hold potential for me as an actor. I am actually going back to the basics as opposed to over-thinking… I didn’t have this clarity ten years back. I was all over the place. And there is still more clarity to be had. This clarity comes to you when you accept your strengths and weaknesses. It is also important to become realistic about your opportunities. You don’t need to try to emulate other actors’ career graphs. Instead of observing and following others, you should look inwards, go within and try to find yourself.