Shahid Kapoor has been on a break for the last few months. That’s meant long reading sessions with his three-year-old daughter Misha, playing in the garden with Zain, who is just a year old, a biking holiday with his brother Ishaan Khatter and friends and, of course, listening to scripts.
The 38-year-old was last seen in the summer blockbuster Kabir Singh. On the Monday after the release in June, the actor knew that he had a hit on his hands. How big, even his director Sandeep Reddy Vanga couldn’t have scripted. The film has already crossed the Rs 300-crore mark and has become the biggest film of Shahid’s 15-year-long career. A remake of the Telugu film Arjun Reddy, the effort is one of the biggest hits of 2019 and it also sparked off unprecedented chatter online and offline. Even as Preeti (played by Kiara Advani) and Kabir’s love story played out in front of packed theatres across the country, there were those who hated the film enough to think that it shouldn’t have been made at all. In the months since the release, even as he celebrated the film’s success, Shahid has also been trying to understand these polarising reviews.
My first memory of the actor is from the early days when we were both a lot younger and fairly new to the industry. His debut film Ishq Vishk’s runaway success had caught the industry unawares and everyone wanted to know who this boyishly handsome, twinkle-toed actor was. Some mentioned his father, the legendary Pankaj Kapur, while others talked about him as one of choreographer Shiamak Davar’s dancers.
For a feature I wrote at the time, I invited Shahid out for a meal to know more about the then debutant. Since that night, I’ve talked to the actor about his hits and flops, rumoured girlfriends, marriage and fatherhood but there are two things that have remained a constant — his belief in himself as well as his ability and need to analyse his work.
On a very rainy evening in Mumbai, The Telegraph met with the actor at his office in Juhu. Shahid is dressed in roomy and slouchy grey sweats with a neon jacket to keep him warm. He is seated on an oversized sofa that seems perfect for lounging and brackets a large coffee table laden with dry fruits and healthy bites that he ignores through the hour that we chatted. Once he shoots off a long message on his phone, cranks up the air conditioner and offers me a beverage, it’s time to get talking. Nothing is off limits but Shahid’s eyes light up when the conversation revolves around the craft that’s kept him in the public eye for almost two decades and his two lovely children.
The movie star
You haven’t signed a film yet...
It’s been a few months since Kabir Singh and I’m still trying to figure out what I’m going to get on the sets with. Not that I’ve planned it like that or that I’m taking too much time, I tried to find something that I really liked before Kabir Singh released because no actor wants nothing to do in case something goes wrong with what they have on release. It’s an insecurity we all live with. I just didn’t find anything that was hitting home for me and now it’s just about taking in everything that’s there.
I love the fact that I’m getting to spend time with family... I have been working since I was 16. But I want to get on the sets and get on with stuff. I become a grumpy person when I’m not working. It’s good to think before you do something but it’s worse when you start overthinking (laughs).
When do you see yourself back shooting?
In the next couple of months, I think. There are a few scripts that I’ve liked but it’ll take a few days for things to get finalised… once I’m ready to make the final announcement and everybody is ready as well.
In the last couple of years you’ve only been doing one film a year.
Yeah. That is crap! I feel I should be able to do two a year. Somehow it’s important for me to manage two a year because I’m 38 and have hopefully 15-20 years of work ahead of me. I’m going to make another 15 movies for sure because I think I’ve only made six or seven memorable ones so far. I need to play the catch-up game for sure.
In all these years, have your reasons for picking a film changed?
Yes and no. After having tried different versions of it, I’ve come back to the basic reason — if it hits me in my gut, I do it. And even if it seems to tick all the right boxes but something doesn’t hit home, I don’t do it. It needs to have some impact on me beyond just the mind. Because films, I think, are not just a cerebral medium… it is essentially an emotional medium. So I have to connect with it at some level because I’d be giving seven, eight or nine months of my life to it. I usually end up taking the long route because I end up changing my silhouette with every film that I do. I need at least three months of prep before I get into a film and the character. Nine months is a long time and I need to be driven enough for that time because I only work from that place.
Do you have a process for picking a script?
People walk into this room and narrate it to me. It could be one person or maybe a couple of people, but it’s very direct. They don’t need to go through a big machinery to get to me. And I usually know immediately — if I have to mull over it, it’s usually not a good sign. Mulling over it is a waste of time because I always go back to feeling how I felt as soon as I heard it the first time. Even with Kabir Singh I did mull over it for three months but felt exactly how I did after watching Arjun Reddy, which I thought was insanely good and I wanted to do it. It was so good, I didn’t want to mess it up and then other things happened, the director was travelling. Then I forgot about it and was about to do other things, but it came back after three months.
It’s your 16th year in the business. What does a success like Kabir Singh mean to you at this stage of your career?
There was a phase I went through… where I began questioning my self-image and goal. I thought I was overestimating my potential, and maybe I’d never be that Rs 200-300 crore big-ticket hero. I thought I needed a reality check because I’d hate to be delusional.
Before I became an actor, I believed I had the potential to be the best of the best. I was an outsider because I never got a meeting because of who I was. I did auditions, distributed photographs, believing that one day I’d become a big, huge star. From one perspective, it’s about being driven and aggressive, and from another it’s about being slightly delusional. A part of me began asking whether I’d been delusional all these years. With Kabir Singh having done these numbers I feel like the thought I set out with wasn’t all wrong. It just didn’t happen the way I thought.
I’m honestly happy that it happened now because I think I’ve found myself in these 15 years, whether it’s personally or professionally. I’ve found my fundamentals — my philosophies are clear, my thoughts are clear, my reasons are clear, I’m formed. Wherever I go from here, it’ll be in a direction I want to go as opposed to flying around with no control or perspective. I’m a lot clearer about the reasons for my choices. I feel humbled and undeserving in certain ways because I’ve worked really hard on some films that didn’t make one-fifth the money, and I feel I was equally good in those films. But this one did, so I can’t justify to myself that it’s because of me — I can’t take ownership of the success. As good as you might be, you need to have a blessed destiny to make that kind of impact or go wide as an actor.
The film got a lot of criticism as well. Did that dull the shine of the success for you?
It didn’t dull the shine, to be honest, because I was just too happy and I knew that 95 per cent of people were loving it. There was a certain section that had reservations on some issues and felt it was out of context because the term that was used the most was misogyny. Having played Kabir Singh, had I been prejudiced against women, it would have been in my head when I was giving my shot. But he’s badly behaved across the board — he behaves badly with men and women, be it his father, his best friend, his teacher, his mother or girlfriend. In fact, he’s badly behaved with himself. His behaviour is not driven by gender — he’s attacking everyone and himself because he’s self-destructive.
You’ve had films in the past that have been criticised for different things by different people. This one seems to have rankled you at some point...
No. I was just surprised. When we watched The Wolf of Wall Street, we celebrated Leonardo DiCaprio. I think that character was far worse than Kabir Singh, he had issues at various levels. But he was celebrated in the film, there were moments you’d want to be him and there were others where you’d not want to be him. That’s what great cinema is about — it’s not meant to be one-dimensional, it’s meant to be complex. I have no problem when someone says: “I didn’t like Kabir Singh.” What troubled me was when people said: “You can’t make a film like Kabir Singh.”
The family man
Does Misha have a sense of what her dad does?
She does. Sometimes, she gets surprised when people run up to me for a photograph, if we’re walking out of a restaurant or her school. There’s this song of mine — Hard hard from Batti Gul Meter Chalu — that she really likes and I’ve shown it to her on YouTube. And I explained to her that a lot of people like that song, which is why they like to meet me. So, that’s how she knows that people know me — that’s how much I’ve managed to explain to her so far. It’s funny because she saw my picture in the paper a few times, and then she saw (wife) Mira’s picture, she assumed that we should be in the paper every day. At times she would ask why we aren’t in the papers and who are all these other people. And then I started telling her their names, so that there’s an identity attached to them, and that not only her dad deserves to be featured in the papers.
What are the kinds of things Misha and Zain like doing with you?
We have a nice little garden and the beach in front, so we spend time there. She likes me to read a lot of books to her. Zain also likes books being read to him but his are mostly about words — ‘ball’, ‘car’, ‘crow’ kind of things. With Misha, the books are getting longer. Earlier, I would get done in 15 minutes and now it’s 20-25 minutes. Sometimes she likes reading the same book many times over, and I used to find it weird and tell her to get another book. I read somewhere that children are literally memorising everything that you tell them and the more you repeat the same thing to them, the better it gets embedded in their minds. That actually gives them more clarity and they begin understanding it a lot more — repetition is actually very healthy for them.
Is there a lot of Peppa Pig?
(Laughs) The issue with Peppa Pig is it’s very addictive, so we try and restrict it to once a week.
Misha and Zain are photographed very often by the paparazzi here in Mumbai. Is that a concern for Mira and you?
(Shrugs his shoulders) It does concern me and I cannot stop it but I can try and minimise it.
How do the kids react when it happens?
It happens a lot less now. I’ve tried to keep it in check, and so far it’s okay. In between it was a little bad, but it’s become better. I personally made a couple of calls to the photographers, literally asking them not to arrive everywhere, especially places like playschool. It has helped and most of the time they tend to listen. Of course, there are always the more desperate ones who would do anything for money.