Friday, March 17, 2006

The polite deviant

Steel girders hold up a sagging ceiling above Rajat Kapoor in his Willingdon Colony office but still, these are less precarious times. He once lived here for two years as a paying guest, and the ceiling was propped up by bamboo sticks then. He now resides in Andheri with a young family, but addresses are usually temporary. “It’s a 11-month thing. I’ve been shifting ever since I came to Bombay. I still don’t have a place. And I’m still a PG here.” The only residence of permanence for Kapoor, who wandered into theater before arriving in Mumbai, is Prithvi Theater. His group, Chingaari, performed here, and he has directed C for Clown and The Blue Mug here. “I love that space. I’m an honorary member there,” he says, smiling.

Framed movie posters hang on peeling pink walls above a neat bed. In the hallway outside, the cricket commentary is turned down while a new director auditions a model for his first movie. This particular director had helped with Raghu Romeo (2003) and Mixed Doubles (2006), which deals with the boredom of a married man. His own movie could only be made if Kapoor produced it. “It’s so hard for people who want to make their first films,” says Kapoor. “Until I started acting in 1999, I had no money at all.” The break came when a friend pulled out of an advertisement and asked him to audition for the role. Within four years he had saved 16 lakhs, which eventually helped to finance Raghu Romeo. Until then he wrote scripts, among which was Mithya, about a bad actor desperately seeking work, as well as reviews for Mumbai’s Mid-day, and kept writing, earning just enough for sustenance. “I don’t want to go back to those days of poverty,” he says silently. “It was a lot of anxiety and stress. The electricity bill had to be paid, and there were mental debates over whether to take the limited bus or the next one, which cost 50 paise less.”

Kapoor, now in his early 40s, was 15 when he decided to make films. The family accommodated his wish after two half-hearted years at his father’s printing press. “They said, ‘Okay, let him go for three-four years’”. Money was not an objective. He then spent three years in Bombay, assisting directors. But even then. Upon returning home after years of training, he says his unconvinced father asked, “Have you decided what you want to do?” The doubts would only subside when Kapoor’s 1994 film Tarana won a national award. “15,000 Rupees and a piece of paper”. The award was notional. It brought no respite and the rough years continued. Private Detective, for which Kapoor was paid Rs 50,000, did not release. This, coupled with his insistence on creative control, proved difficult. (His opinion of Syed Mirza is telling: “He made films that he wanted to. When he could not, he did not.”) Producers would ask why the movie had not released. It was excess baggage.

When Kapoor showed them the Mithya script, he came across a particularly avoidable breed of producer. “’Mindblowing!’ they would say.” Kapoor leaned back and threw his hands up. “And then they’d say, ‘Don’t take Naseeruddin Shah.’ They were very clear. If I took Madhavan, they would give me 1.2 crore. If I took Aftab Shivdasani, it would be a certain amount.” Money had not been important but it was necessary, and Bollywood’s soundtrack was the cash register. For Naseeruddin, they offered him 80 lakhs, but Kapoor required almost twice that. He also met reluctant actors in those days, weeks, and months of meetings, but nothing transpired. All the while he grew closer to Naseeruddin, who watched him work at Prithvi. This led to Monsoon Wedding.

“I was horrified when Mira [Nair] offered me the pedophile’s role.” It provoked an introspection equivalent to that of a homosexual come-on. Do I look gay? Do I look like a sex offender? “If it wasn’t for Mira and Naseer, I wouldn’t have done it.” His first impression was that doing the role was a big mistake. “I thought, fuck, people are going to beat me up.” But his advertising image of the gentle father was powerful, and this balanced things. Just then, on cue, roles landed at his doorstep - parts that only he could apparently play. “I got offers for roles like that. It was either the sexual deviant, or the bad guy, or the ‘very sophisticated guy who turns out to be the villain.’ This was continuous. And I kept saying no to everything, except Kisna, which I did a few years later.” Kisna was a turkey. He shrugs. “The role was good.”

Big-budget films do nothing for Kapoor. “How do you spend 8 crores?” he asks, wide-eyed. Life on the periphery does not make allowance for large budgets, and he accepts this. “I came in knowing it would be tough. Bollywood made a certain kind of film. So you prepare to be marginalized completely.” But since Mixed Doubles a door has opened, and offers for low-budget films are more frequent. The proposals moved him to address a note to his brother: “Finally I’m a practicing filmmaker.”

Kapoor is convinced that every gesture made, word spoken, and breath taken, has brought him to this point. He describes his life as a series of accidents, but hastily adds that willpower has also played its part. This is how he met at Churchgate Station the woman he would eventually marry. The theory thrills him. “Aren’t all lives like that? I’ve seen it in my life. Lennon says that life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”

There is something in this. Mithya, languishing for years, is ready to go. It will be filmed in July and August this year during the rains.

(This appeared in Tehelka, March 17.)

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