Ranbir Kapoor: I’d typecast myself in my head; not anymore
Ranbir Kapoor comes of age in 2022, with two massive films and fatherhood on the cards. The actor and director Karan Malhotra talk about Shamshera and more
Ranbir Kapoor sits in a black tee, blue jeans and a dark textured bomber jacket, smiling, fraternizing, cool as a cat before his first release in four years. We’re at Stage 3 of Yash Raj Studios in Mumbai; it’s a typically gloomy, rain-lashed July afternoon. Outside, along the studio premises, Yash Chopra leans musingly on a vintage movie camera. The filmmaker’s glistening bronze statue is so lifelike you’d be tempted to pause and click a picture, to the annoyance of alarmed guards.
Yash Raj is an old home for Ranbir. Two of the actor’s early films, the hit Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008) and the critically-acclaimed Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009), were produced by YRF, while his father, late actor Rishi Kapoor, was a veteran of the banner.
One can imagine both Rishi Kapoor and Yash Chopra approving of Ranbir’s latest tryst with YRF. Shamshera, a big, broad-canvas action adventure, is meant as a tribute to the glory days of Hindi commercial cinema. It’s also a major turnaround for Ranbir, who seemed stuck, by his own admission, in a loop of comparable coming-of-age roles.
“Shamshera came at the right time in my life,” Ranbir says. “When I had started working, cinema had changed and directors were seeing me in certain roles. Somewhere in my head, I’d typecast myself.” He was offered Shamshera in 2018, a few months before the release of Sanju, and he immediately agreed. "I knew what opportunity it had for me as an actor. It’s a multi-genre film. The script had this all-out, roller coaster action bonanza amusement park vibe.”
It also had history and context. Set in 1871, Shamshera unfolds in the fictitious city of Kaza, where a rebellious warrior clan is imprisoned under the Criminal Tribes Act of the British Rule. Ranbir essays the double role of Shamshera, a dacoit leader, and his son Balli. The antagonist is Shuddh Singh, a brutish and conniving ‘daroga’ played by Sanjay Dutt.
“We latched on to the idea of a historical point and created our own world,” shares director Karan Malhotra, who co-wrote the screenplay with his wife and collaborator Ekta Pathak Malhotra. “The story takes off from some unexpected incidents that happened in our country.”
With its evocation of train heists, banditry and despotic overlords, we ask Ranbir if he sees Shamshera as a Western. “I may see it like that because we watch those films but this is actually a very desi story. There were tribes in our past who were enslaved and leaders who fought for freedom. There is a back-story to every layer in the film. It’s not some random dystopia.”
That world-building meant a 140-day shooting schedule in Mumbai and Ladakh, hundreds of cast and crew, and a reported budget of Rs. 150 crores. Shamshera, one of YRF’s biggest bets since Thugs of Hindostan (2018), is being viewed as Hindi cinema’s response to the KGFs and RRRs of the world. It’s another outsized period gamble for Ranbir, who had a disastrous experience with Anurag Kashyap’s Bombay Velvet back in the day.
“All filmmaking is a risk,” he says of his growing commercial acumen in picking projects. “The kind of work I put into Bombay Velvet or Sanju…. I can’t say I worked less there and more here. But as I’m growing older and spending more time in this profession, I am realising that you need to know your people, your audience. It may be a late realisation in my case but I am understanding it more and more.”
Ranbir, however, is loath to use the term ‘commercial Hindi film’ lightly. In the Bollywood context, it has long meant an indication to the viewer to ‘leave their brains at home’. Shamshera, he assures instead, has a ‘thought and design element’ behind every aspect of the filmmaking. This extends to seemingly conventional characters like Sona, a dancer played by Vaani Kapoor. “There’s a whole arc involving her as she becomes the strength and weakness of Ranbir’s character Balli,” Vaani shares. “She is not a prop in the film.”
As a belated action hero, Ranbir is thrilled to add new shades to his acting persona, from a young boy to seething rebel. It’s an admittedly big year for the actor. Famously absent from social media, he is presently all over it, with two separate news cycles hyping up Shamshera and Brahmastra. Overpowering both, of course, is the interest in his personal life. Ranbir married girlfriend Alia Bhatt in April this year; last month, the couple announced their first pregnancy. The feeling of approaching fatherhood consumes his every waking hour. "There is no other feeling I am looking forward to,” he says, chuckling a bit as he strains for fresh adjectives. “It’s the greatest gift. Both Alia and I have been blessed with it and we are really, really looking forward to it.”