I wrote this profile for Verve's October issue, as a cover story to the men's special supplement. As the October issue is Verve's annual Best Dressed number, the supplement's theme this time was 'Best Undressed.' I had to ask Kunal Kapoor several questions that outraged my modesty. A true hardship.
I discover a wide sample of his fans when word gets out that I am to interview Kunal Kapoor. Friends call to tell me they hate me. Male friends enquire anxiously about my cardiac health. Colleagues suggest remarkably unprofessional questions for my list.
"Ask him if you can bring your mummy along," my otherwise stolid mother suggests when I tell her I will be meeting the actor she liked so much in Laaga Chunari Mein Daag.
For some people, the threateningly good looks might work against their favour with the teenyboppers or the mom crowd. But this is not so in the curious case of Kunal Kapoor. But for all the smouldering allure, there's something reassuring about his screen presence. To borrow the cricket motif from one of his least-seen films, 2007's Hattrick, the Kapoor aura is more Flintoff than Botham: the animal appeal is there, but it's just as easy to fantasise about getting an afternoon coffee with him as about rum and ravishment at midnight. No wonder parents approve.
We meet at the right time to discuss animal appeal: one of the three major projects on which he is working is Anurag Kashyap's next film, about the iconic Hindi comic-book superhero Doga. Doga is an anti-heroic figure who, in the comics, fights crime in the sewers of Mumbai, resolves his problems by killing them, wears a purple-and-yellow costume and, distressingly for admirers of Kapoor's face, a dog mask.
"We haven't discussed costumes yet," he says, grinning as I venture the question. Other things seem to have been worked out well in advance. On the comic's website, Doga is described as '95 kgs of steely bones and rippling muscles swathed in anger.' and since the greenlighting of the project, we've heard regular reports of the punishing diets and gym workouts (Aamir Khan lent him the use of his personal gym) Kapoor undergoes to achieve the Doga bulk.
The effects are evident when I meet him: this is not the frame of the Aslam of Rang De Basanti, a dreamboat whose kurtas billowed about him as the winds of change buffeted his beanpole frame. There is, however, no muscular explosion à la eight-pack happening here. "Physically, I'm trying to get to a place from where I can take about five or six weeks to really get the Doga look," he explains. "I'll be taking a couple of months off before Doga. But I don't need the bulked-up look for my next film." This is the untitled project by Navdeep Singh (who directed the cult Manorama Six Feet Under) about Punjabi music and the rebellious men who (presumably) play it.
You can play a six-degrees-of-separation game here with his last few roles: he played a Punjabi Sikh in Bachna Ae Haseeno, in a beautiful little cameo that was all marshmallow heart under gruff exterior; so was his Irfan in Aaja Nachle, a ruffian who melted under the influence of Konkona Sen Sharma; Sen Sharma, again, tamed the beast in Laaga Chunari Mein Daag when she berated his creative, wild-haired adman for his table manners. It's not too long before you get to Rang De Basanti, in which his character leaves you with the distinct impression that he could have been an artist, had the business of bloody revolution not called first. From there it's a short step to the Kameshwar of MF Husain's Meenaxi, in which the debutant Kapoor, playing a car mechanic who yearns to be a singer – among other things – is as much an objet d'art as the woman he worships.
Try and order all this into some kind of character arc, and what you get is not quite Mr Nice Guy. It’s something more subtle; less charming, perhaps, but also more fulfilling. He’s more like Mr Fringe Player; nonchalant about the niceties of polite society, bears the brunt of his idealism, can’t or won’t compete with the dandies and the smooth operators, but more than usually imbued with finer feelings. It’s a character that makes the question of whether he gets the girl in the end almost irrelevant.
The aspect of dreamer-idealist perhaps develops into something fuller, more real and troubling, in the third film currently on his plate, and the one that will release soonest, Rahul Dholakia's Lamhaa. Kapoor plays a character whose "story begins after he has turned his back on a violent past – someone with a history."
Why did he choose to do it? "It's a film on Kashmir that isn't jingoistic, and that interested me. I loved Parzania (Dholakia's last film). Rahul is extremely passionate about his work and his research, and it's a film he's worked on for years. It tells a Kashmir story without making judgments about who is right and wrong. It's also about how a lot of people profit from conflict." The same search for justice shades into something very different in Doga. "Doga is Batmanesque – a character who lives on the edge, whose world is dark and unruly. He's more human than most superheroes."
What do these roles reveal about him as an actor? "I love to be surprised," he says. "I always look for roles that allow me to experience playing roles that take me out of my comfort zone, out of my usual thought process. I like to work getting inside the head of someone like that. I wasn't Aslam from Chandni Chowk. I'm not the typical Punjabi I play in Navdeep's film. Doga is an alien character. Going to Kashmir, learning to play my role in Lamhaa – these are experiences that allow me to push my own boundaries as an actor."
They also reveal something of his sense of self. I ask him what he does when he's not shooting, and his answer tallies closely with the general ambition to delimit himself, as a person and an actor. "I spend a lot of time working on the acting thing – going to workshops and so on. I also do other things. But for an actor, everything serves the job, in a sense. What you do in front of the camera is all about who you are." So the flying lessons he's been taking recently, what are those about? A lifelong passion that he's recently had the time and space to fulfil. He is visibly excited to talk about it. "And math. I'm seeing a lot more numbers than I have since school. Oh, and bikes." Evenings after class are dedicated to racing BMWs and vintage Triumphs on the deserted runway. "All that's missing is the women." Women reading may testify to the tragedy of missing something like that, alright. Someone put in a request for a Top Gun remake, quick.
The conversation veers from serious to silly with disarming swiftness. He's good at that. I ask him about his voicing Rama, in a new animated feature Mahayoddha Rama (out soon), but what I really want to know is whether there's any chance of him appearing in a mytho-historical film. Confession: I don't just ask because I think he would bring depth and mystique to any hero-legend that he might play.
"What?" he says in mock-indignation. "One minute you ask me about playing a God, the other about being topless? What is this?" I can't quite explain why I think it would be good for national morale, but he gets the point. "We end up looking like clowns instead of heroes in the way we now do mythological films," he says, gently steering back to serious talk. "I'm not fond of that. Although I am looking at a project which wants to take a mythological story and adapt it like a graphic novel – like Sin City, but in colour." We jump to Frank Miller, just like that. In the topless warrior-god mould, would he rather be Pitt in Troy or Butler in 300? "Oh, 300," he says, all macho relish.
Now that we've crossed over completely into topless territory, the usual 'underneath your clothes' questions seem good to go. Are the ladies falling for the muscles more or less than they did the lean look? There's a moment of bemusement. "It depends on the woman, doesn't it?" he says. "Different women do different things. They like different things. There's no formula."
He warms up to the subject. "It'd be really boring to have everything figured out," he says. "It's nice to meet someone surprising." And what about his own personal style – what works for him? "Boxers," he laughs. (I cross off one of the inappropriate questions further down my list.) Isn't it a constant danger that a woman faced with the sight of a boxers-clad Kunal Kapoor might, say, faint?
"In front of me?" he says, just a dimple short of deadpan. "No. She'd jump me." Oh snap, Kunal. But then there's a core of seriousness to the acknowledgement that he has, in his own words, "always got attention." You can't help but think of quiet young Aslam, a presence that draws your eye repeatedly over a power-packed ensemble cast; of Joginder Singh, who breaks your heart when he silently offers his wife a handkerchief as she weeps over an ex-boyfriend. "Anything that's radically different from my life," he says of his major criterion for picking films.
The attention, as the long list of messages on my phone proves, remains the connecting factor.