Actor Kunal Kapoor’s latest film, Noblemen, addresses the issue of bullying in schools. The film takes William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice as a subtext for its narrative and features Kapoor in the role of a drama teacher, Murali. In conversation with Guardian 20, the 41-year-old actor talks about Noblemen, the meaning of stardom, and his upcoming projects.
Q. Tell us about your role in your recently released film, Noblemen.
A. I am playing the role of a drama teacher called Murali who is teaching a Shakespeare play, Merchant of Venice, to his students. What I really like about him is that his way of teaching is very different. Murali believes that there is no one way of teaching and that every student should be dealt with in a different way, contrary to the current education system, which is all about making boys tough. You know, we live in a world where the idea of masculinity is that men are supposed to be tough and should be made tougher in schools. If a boy takes up arts, he is looked at as if he is not strong enough. If you are sensitive, you are not strong enough. But Murali is against that and this sets him against the system and against society. He teaches his students that it’s okay to be sensitive, to be in tune with their emotions and to express them. The kids absolutely love him and I think we all had a teacher we loved in school.
Q. Was Murali a relatable character and do you look for characters you can relate to?
A. As an actor, what I look for are characters that are very far away from me. But this one is actually close to me because I come from a theatre background. So I really understood that world pretty well. But I usually look for characters that are very different from me, because for me, as an actor, it’s a chance to discover a new world and that’s what makes acting really exciting for me. I think I’d be bored if I had to live my life over and over again on a daily basis from 9 to 5… The fun is in finding relatability in characters that are not relatable to you.
Q. This is not the first time that you have worked on a Shakespearean adaptation. We have seen before you in Veeram, an adaptation of Macbeth. How important is Shakespeare to you?
A. I do have a soft corner for Shakespeare. My first introduction to Shakespeare was in school, we had Julius Caesar in 6th grade and later we had The Tempest. I have been fascinated by his writing ever since. I’ve read his plays over and over again, and I feel that even after so many years his characters are so relatable. Every character has so many layers. If you look across the world, there are so many filmmakers who’ve made Shakespeare’s plays into movies and so many actors have played Shakespeare’s characters, but each time it is interpreted so differently because he’s written them in such a complex and fascinating way. So I love his writing and Veeram was my first Shakespeare-inspired film. But the first time I actually attempted something by Shakespeare was when I acted in Romeo and Juliet in college.
Q. Noblemen is based on the issue of bullying among teenagers in schools. Have you ever had a personal experience with bullying?
A. Fortunately, I grew up in a school where there was no bullying. Kids didn’t really rag each other. I don’t know if it was the institution that created that atmosphere or it was just that it didn’t happen. Luckily for me, it didn’t happen in my college either. But I’ve had enough people around me who have been affected to bullying and I’ve seen how damaging it’s been to them emotionally and mentally. I had a cousin of mine who refused to go to school because he was overweight and picked on. It is something that can scar you for life and that is why I’m surprised that there’s not enough done about it… I also feel that as filmmakers and actors, it’s important to talk about issues like these, because there’s a possibility that a debate about it would create some sort of social awareness, and then maybe people would actually feel the need to do something about it.
Q. In a career spanning some 14 years, you have played a wide variety of roles. How satisfied are you with your career graph?
A. Well, there have obviously been lots of ups and downs, just like in everyone’s career graph. The good part is that I’ve had a chance to work on some really incredible movies. I’ve worked with filmmakers and actors that I would dream of working with when I was growing up. And, the challenge for me has been that people keep asking me why I don’t take up more work. But the thing is, you can only choose from what you’re being offered. So if you’re being offered less work that you find interesting, you will have very little to choose from. And that has happened to me. What has also happened is that the sort of roles that I have been offered were very similar to things I’ve done before and I don’t find that exciting. So the choices have been limited but I have seen a change in the last few years.
Q. Out of the many films that you have done, which one is your favourite?
A. I was an assistant with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra when Rang de Basanti was being written. So I had read the script multiple times and thought it was a really good script. And then I came to Delhi to work with Barry John [British-born Indian theatre director]. When I went back to Bombay, the script was still being finalised. So I auditioned for it and, well, got the part. It was a dream come true, in the sense that I was given a chance to work with Aamir Khan, who is my favourite actor. I had to pinch myself because I couldn’t believe I was getting a chance to work with Aamir. And Rang de Basanti just went on to become something that none of us had expected. It became more than a movie, it became like a revolution and that was something we didn’t expect. So that was a really important one.
I really enjoyed doing a film called Aaja Nachle. There was another film called Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana, where I was involved in the writing as well. I was involved in the film right from scratch. That film is very close to me. I’m just finishing a film called Koi Jaane Na, which is for T-Series, and I am very excited about it. It’s the sort of script that I was waiting for.
Q. Have you ever chased stardom? And have you ever chosen big banners over quality content?
A. I think I did choose big banners over content initially, when I had started out. You know, when you start out, you want to just have a sense of security. You feel that if a big banner is making a film, then it would to be a good film, a successful film. Over time you start realising what you really want to do and I think that changes you as an actor. So I think if you ask me now whether I’d choose a big banner over content, I’d say, no, I would not. I think content is the most important thing… But stardom is also very important. What stardom does is that it gives you a chance to make the sort of films you want to make. If you have a successful film or a big banner that supports a successful film, then it really opens up avenues to make the sort of films you want to make.
Q. We don’t see you doing a lot of mainstream Bollywood films these days. Is it a conscious decision on your part?
A. It’s strange because I grew watching mainstream Bollywood masala films. Since I was five or six, I have been obsessed with Hindi movies. I had a cassette collection of over 13 movies and I used to watch them over and over again. So I’ve seen every Subhash Ghai film over 50 times. I’ve seen Hum Aapke Hain Kaun almost 70 times. I’ve watched most Hindi films and I really enjoy them. But I think as an actor, it’s very important to try different things and to push your limits.
Q. How is your career as a writer working out for you? Are there any writing projects that you’re currently working on?
A. I started off with Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana [in 2012]. It was the first script that I co-wrote. I’ve been writing stories since I was an assistant director, which was when I was 20 years old. I have a book full of stories. Now I’ve been developing those stories into scripts. In fact, I finished one just a few days ago, which I’m very excited about. I intend to start making it by the end of this year and I intend to produce it as well as act in it. Besides that, there are three other films that I’m writing.