Kunal Kapoor on playing Mughal Emperor Babur in ‘The Empire,’ which releases today

Kunal Kapoor is all set to play a swashbuckling Babur, the founder of the Mughal Sultanate, on The Empire which releases today. The Rang De Basanti actor talks about films, fitness and more...
Kunal Kapoor as Mughal Emperor Babur in OTT series The Empire
Kunal Kapoor as Mughal Emperor Babur in OTT series The Empire

It took renowned artist MF Hussain to bring attention to this dreamy actor with his film Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities. Beautifully choreographed and shot by Santosh Sivan; with Reena Bhardwaj’s soulful voice singing the refrain of Yeh Rishta; and AR Rahman’s music creating pure magic — we all knew this actor was here to stay when he sauntered sensually through a potter’s village; fantasised in a fictional dreamy desert oasis.

Earlier a student at Barry John Acting Studio and later, a part of Motley — a theatre group run by Naseeruddin Shah, Kunal Kapoor began his career in Bollywood as an assistant director of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Aks (2001), which starred Manoj Bajpayee and Amitabh Bachchan. But it was his debut in MF Hussain’s Meenaxi in 2004, where he was paired opposite Tabu, which catapulted him to instant fame.

The Mumbai-based actor has since been seen in several critically acclaimed films including Rang De Basanti (2006), Laaga Chunari Mein Daag (2007), Aaja Nachle (2007), Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana (2012); as Malabari warrior Chandu Chekaver in Malayalam film Veeram (2017); and as the negative lead in Telugu film Devadas (2018).

He now stars as Babur, the founder of the Mughal Empire, in India’s first digital magnum opus, The Empire — a historical fiction streaming series created by Nikkhil Advani and directed by Mitakshara Kumar based on the novel series Empire of the Moghul by Alex Rutherford — that releases today. We catch up with him to find out more about this role, his future prospects in cinema and a lot more. Excerpts.

Tell us a little about The Empire:
How The Empire happened was a bit coincidental, because I had just read the book and I really enjoyed it and the characters within it; and I thought to myself: this would make for a great show or a movie. A couple of months later, I got a call from Nikkhil (Advani) saying that he had bought the rights for the book and that they were looking to make a show. I read the script and I was on board immediately. There were a bunch of things I really enjoyed about the book — the character of Babur was very fascinatingly written, because this was a character of many contradictions; a character with many layers. This was a character that was very strong, but could be very weak as well. He could be poetic and brutal as well. This is a character that eventually becomes the emperor, but is riddled with self-doubt, as well. It was a chance to play a character I had never played before. It would give me a lot of material to play with. The other thing I found really fascinating was that the script and the book revealed that the women behind the scenes in this story wielded a lot of power. Whether it was through emotional manipulation, the decisions they made or the politics that they played; I really wanted to see how that panned out.

How was it working with Shabana Azmi?
It was great. Shabanaji is someone I have always had a lot of respect for. The thing with her is that you think she’d be someone with a lot of gravitas, and she is, but she’s also a lot of fun to work with and be around. She’s filled with stories, anecdotes and jokes and it’s always wonderful and light when she’s on set. But, when you’re acting with her, it’s a whole different experience. There’s a part of you that’s in character, but there’s also a part of you that’s looking at her in such absolute awe. It’s like going back to school and learning. There were so many times when I wasn’t needed on the set and I would turn up just because I would get to watch her perform. It was absolutely fantastic.

Poster from <em>The Empire</em>
Poster from The Empire

How was it working with Dino Morea?
With Dino, I’ve known him for a very very long time. I’ve even forgotten how long we know each other now, it’s been that long! We’ve always been very fond of each other. This time, however, we had to play the exact opposite on screen (Dino Morea essays the role of Muhammad Shaybani Khan, Babur’s foe). That was interesting and kind of ironic.

You come from a theatre background, did that help?
As an actor, coming from a theatre background, definitely always helps. Acting, irrespective of the medium, is always about concentration, imagination and observation and theatre sort of trains you for that, constantly. What was very important for me was to not allow myself to make the character theatrical. There’s a tendency to do that, especially when you play a historical character. You feel like you have to take the acting a notch higher and therefore you tend to go all-out theatrical. But, in my imagination — people at that time, spoke like normal people do. So, I resisted that temptation and kept it as normal as possible… as real as possible.

A lot of people are drawing parallels between ‘Game of Thrones’ and ‘The Empire’, your opinion?
I honestly find it strange because this is a whole different time period, a whole different story and a whole different world. Yes, there might be a commonality because both the shows deal with kings and kingdoms, but it’s not like we were trying to make the Indian Game of Thrones or even compete with them. And GoT is completely fictional! The Empire is being presented very differently and has been shot very differently too. However, if people are saying we’ve matched the production quality of GoT, then that’s definitely a compliment.

You’ve needed to beef up again to play Babur. How did you manage this?
I actually joined a gym when I was 15, because I was incredibly skinny and faced quite a bit of body shaming for that. Especially when you come from a Punjabi family, people are always like: you aren’t feeding this boy enough, and the likes. And somewhere in that journey of beefing up, the focus changed into getting fitter. It wasn’t about the aesthetics anymore; it was more about being as healthy as I could be. Over the years I have experimented with different forms of fitness, including yoga, pilates, martial arts and now I really enjoy staying fit. I get bored with just one kind of fitness routine, so I keep changing it and trying new things. So, I was pretty fit when I was offered the role, to begin with.

Kunal Kapoor as Babur in <em>The Empire</em>
Kunal Kapoor as Babur in The Empire

What else do you do these days, especially when you’re not shooting this historical fiction?
I am a very curious person. I always look at learning new things. I run a tech company, so that takes up a lot of my free time. I also enjoy flying, whenever I get the chance… I am a trained pilot. I love writing and am working on some scripts that I am co-developing. I’m also learning how to code right now, as everything IT (information technology) and AI (artificial intelligence) intrigues me. And, I’m learning to play the guitar.

So, do you also sing?
I always thought I could. But I have been very clearly told that I can’t. Hopefully the guitar will make me sound better.

You’ve been known to select your roles very wisely, looking at your track record — what has changed with the kind of films Bollywood is offering its heroes these days?
The definition of the hero has changed and what I enjoy now most as an actor is that the audience is beginning to accept flawed characters. Earlier, it used to be so black and white. You were either the hero or the villain. I found that very un-relatable. Because when you look at life, you don’t see heroes or villains, you just see people with flaws or positive sides to them. And I am very happy that when you look at characters on screen, a lot of the heroes are very flawed. They are people with real issues and real problems. And to me, it’s honestly more heroic to see them deal with those issues and problems. Also, till even 10 years ago, all the films we made were focused on an NRI audience and very aspirational. Today, however, it is stories from the heartlands of India, rooted in our culture.

What about South Indian cinema, you’ve been very choosy about your roles here too?
I watch a lot of content from the South. In fact, I think the best content is coming from the South. I’ve got a lot of offers, but unfortunately they are often roles where I’m asked to play the antagonist to the male lead, and that’s definitely not the kind of roles I want to play in films being made there. I already did that once with Sriram Adittya’s Devadas in Telugu. I’d rather play roles that are more integral to the story and are more normal and closer to real life. All I am offered are roles to be the buffed up villain who is beaten up by the hero. Jayarajan Rajasekharan Nair’s Veeram was the only decent script offered to me from the South and I enjoyed doing it. But, I have to admit, the content coming out of the South is insanely good. I just watched Karnan and I thought it was one of the most incredible films I had seen in a very long time.

Will we ever see you do non-serious roles?
It’s funny when writers come to me to present roles or scripts; they’re always surprised by the jovial and funny Punjabi side of me. I would really like to do a comedy like Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana again.

What next?
There’s another anthology that’s all set to release on Netflix. It’s called Ankahi Kahaniya and I am working in the story being directed by Saket Chaudhary. I’m super excited about that. I’ve also just started my production house and my first project will go on floors next year.

‘The Empire’ releases today on Disney+ Hotstar.


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