Bollywood dynasty: Ranbir Kapoor joins his parents in Hindi action comedy 'Besharam'
Few Bollywood families are as esteemed as the Kapoors, which makes the new Reliance Entertainment release Besharam one of the most eagerly awaited Hindi movies of the year. Starring Ranbir Kapoor, the fourth generation of his family to pursue a career in Bollywood, as a "shameless" mechanic who lives in an orphanage, the movie also features his father Rishi Kapoor and mother Neetu Kapoor, playing bickering cops.
The casting coup, a first for Bollywood cinema, is one of the reasons why Reliance is giving Besharam one of the largest worldwide openings yet for a Hindi feature. On top of the 4,000 theatres that will screen Besharam in India starting Oct. 2, some 700 additional theatres—including 200 in North America—will also show the movie.
Over a hundred journalists gathered at the Consulate General of India on Manhattan's Upper East Side for a press conference featuring the Kapoors, Reliance executives Sanjeev Lamba and Mahesh Ramanathan, and Besharam producer Himanshu Mehra. (Director Abhinav Singh Kashyap was still editing in India.) Consul General of India Dnyaneshwar Mulay opened the conference by honoring the Kapoor family and their contributions to Indian cinema.
Talking after the conference, the soft-spoken, self-effacing Ranbir Kapoor downplays news stories that identify him as a rising superstar. "It's dangerous to fall into the publicity trap," he says. "It's very important that you find joy in your work, that you constantly challenge and surprise yourself."
Kapoor has only starred in ten features, but he has been working in film for years. He trained as a director at New York's School of the Visual Arts, and studied at the Lee Strasberg Institute before taking a variety of jobs behind the camera. His first roles won immediate attention, and he has gone on to star in significant films like Barfi!, India's entry for the 2012 Oscars, and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, which opened this May and is already the fourth highest-grossing Bollywood film in history.
Babli, Kapoor's character in Besharam, is a change-of-pace role. "He's a bit over the top," the actor says. "He's loud, vulgar, on the lines of an Austin Powers. You know in real life I think of myself as an introvert. I bottle up my emotions, I'm not what you would call a 'people person.' But in a weird way the camera gives me an outlet, a purpose. Then I just have to find a key to the character, a way to make him believable for the audience, and it doesn't matter how outrageous or aggressive he becomes."
Kapoor insists he didn't feel any pressure performing with his parents, even during a scene in which he has to gag his revered father and roll him up in a carpet. "It was amazing to have my parents on the set," he admits, "but once we were on our marks, we were all in our characters. If there was any pressure, it was from my own expectations for myself."
Coming from a family of actors is in some ways a burden for Kapoor. "I'm under a sort of shadow in which I'm constantly reminded of my family. There's an inner struggle to make my own identity, which I think makes me a bit of a selfish actor. But the only way I can rise, come out of the shadows, is to work for myself."
Kapoor is especially careful not to be typecast. "I'm fairly new," he says. "People don't have preconceived notions about me. In urban areas they've accepted me somewhat in romantic comedies, something I'm terribly bored of. As an actor I don't think I have anything to offer to that genre."
His future roles include a detective in a project with Barfi! director Anurag Basu, which Kapoor is also producing; and a street fighter, or gangster, in the period drama Bombay Velvet. Kapoor admits he is attracted to underdog roles. "I'm a real fan of Roberto Benigni," he says, also citing Hollywood filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin and Frank Capra.
But for Kapoor, the key to making good movies is simple. "I'm producing my first film right now," he says. "I think the whole process of making a movie is to get a bunch of talented people in a room. It's a collaboration, not a dictatorship."
Kapoor remembers reading in Marlon Brando's autobiography Songs My Mother Taught Me how the actor would test his directors in the first days of a shoot. "Now, I don't try to interfere," the actor avers. "I don't try to take control. Film is a director's medium and I choose my directors very carefully. He has to know more than me, but still allow me to contribute."
But he admits that some directors have failed him. "It's happened to me twice in the ten films I've done," he says. "It usually happens in the first week of shooting. You don't catch him in preproduction, but once you start shooting you realize this guy doesn't know what he's doing. It's the worst feeling in the world. I'm already a bit of a self-destructive actor, so when it happens I pull back and not give as much as I would like to give."
Besharam is a big-budget film by Bollywood standards, with a shooting schedule that stretched out over a hundred days and production numbers involving hundreds of extras. Each of the dances took five or six days to shoot.
Director Kashyap's advice for playing comedy started with "Be happy." For Kapoor, "Comedy comes more from the situation than from the actor projecting himself. You don't try to 'do' comedy, it's more a sense of harmony. I'm not doing stand-up out there, there's a character and a predicament and the key is to be honest in the moment."
It's also the first time Kapoor worked with digital cameras. "Digital allowed us to use more cameras, shoot more material," he notes, "but I don't think our cinematographers have mastered it yet. I think it's going to take two or three years before they understand the format. I'm still a big film lover. I go back to working with 16mm in film school, and there's a sense of connection you get with film that's missing from digital."
To some observers, Indian cinema is at a crossroads. Although it churns out a thousand features a year, the industry as a whole does not make much of a profit. Kapoor's father Rishi worries that the country is losing ground against both an old enemy—Hollywood—and a newly emerging Chinese cinema. "We are inching forward," he complains to reporters. "Not marching ahead but inching forward."
But for Ranbir, Bollywood is changing for the better. "I think opportunities have increased, for directors and actors. If you have a good story, producers will give you a chance. Directors are trying new ideas, actors are more fearless.
"Films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Life of Pi, films that have really made a noise worldwide succeed because they are true to their culture, their characters, their land," he continues. All these years we've been so heavily influenced by Hollywood, either in technique or content. But now we are slowly breaking away, we're starting to be more original."
At the same time, Bollywood has to keep its audience. "Sadly, Indian society, with 1.2 billion people, has a lot of problems. When moviegoers come to the cinema, I want to make them laugh, cry. I'm not interested in doing a dark movie that starts a social debate. Our work is to entertain. In the end, it's for the audience, and they just want to have a good time at the movies."