Madhureeta Mukherjee (BOMBAY TIMES; May 18, 2017)

On the eve of his next release, Arjun Kapoor is full of steam. Well yes, he has a cuppa coffee (strictly decaf), to keep him going, but when it comes to conversations, he usually has all engines fired. Nothing halfbaked. When it comes to work, he confesses that in the last five years, he has known nothing beyond facing the camera. No half measures there. Ask him about his love life, and he blatantly says that he's so selfish about his work that he has “not been able to make that mental switch to let a woman into his life.“ No half-hearted emotion there, too. Awaiting the release of Half Girlfriend, directed by Mohit Suri, Arjun talks about cinema, competition and and the choices he has made. Some right, some wrong, but always wholehearted. Excerpts...

In Half Girlfriend, you play a guy who comes from a small town in Bihar. However, you appear to be like any other city boy, until you speak, of course. In a way, that is reflective of our country, where you can't tell the divide between people based on how they dress anymore...
During my first interaction with Mohit, we were very clear that we didn't want to go the clich├ęd way and amp up the Bihari babu aspect of my character, Madhav Jha. The Ganga divides Bihar into two, so the boli is different. One side is more Hindi-speaking and the other side is more Thainth. We decided to keep my character more Hindi-speaking. Madhav watches a lot of sports and is a basketball player, so that makes him more relevant. Yes, he is from a village, but nowadays, anyone can get inspired by M S Dhoni and Virat Kohli and style their hair like them. Today, even villages have allowed their children to grow and evolve.

On the surface, we always assume that someone who speaks sophisticated English is smarter, impressive and cooler. Right?
There is a line in the film that I love; it's in the scene where I am appearing for an interview for college admission. The principal tells me that I seem pretty sorted, but my English is not that great. Madhav then turns around and replies, “Sir, chota mooh badi baat, par ek baat kehna chahta hoon. Kya aap ek samajhdhar chhaatr ko lena chahenge ya fir aise chhaatr ko jo doosre desh ki bhasha bahut badhiya bolta ho?“ That dialogue hit me. We are all conditioned to connect intelligence with language. No one has the time today to really get to know a person, so you generally end up judging a book by its cover.

We have all gone through the puppylove phase in college. When you were younger, did you face rejection in love?
I didn't spend too much time in college, but if you are talking about that growing-up phase, I had confidence issues. I never considered myself ugly, and was never negative about the way I looked, but I definitely didn't have the confidence to communicate openly with the opposite sex. I always felt that they would gauge me by the way I looked. That happens when you are young because nobody can convince you otherwise, until you start believing yourself that they will accept you for who you are.

You haven't been in a steady relationship in a while. Or have you?
It's been quite some time since I have been in a relationship. I have always put myself out in the open and said that I would love to be in a relationship; but maybe, my actions don't support it. I am selfish about my work. I don't know if it's good or bad, but it is the only thing I have known for the last five years. I guess because of that, subconsciously, I'm not allowing a woman into my life right now.

There are a lot of successful actors who have a great love life, too. Work and love can always be balanced if your heart is in it...
From the outside, it might seem like I am in a place that is very calm and comfortable, and at times, I feel it too. But while prioritizing work over everything else, I have not been able to make that mental switch to let a woman into my life. When you are with somebody and you know that there is a possibility of it turning into something special, you have to make time for that person and make some changes in yourself for it to work out. People around me know that I am selfish when it comes to my work, and I often take them for granted. They love me and they understand that.

Is it also because you are fiercely ambitious?
I am getting an opportunity to do the kind of work that I have only dreamt of, and I know that I have to work very hard to survive in this business. I will be 32 in a month. Of course, there is a desire to excel in my professional life so that I can eventually excel in my personal life. But at times, I question myself... 'Have I excelled enough, so much that I can totally focus on my personal life and give it my all?' In the beginning, when I had just lost my mother (in March 2012), I took on a lot of work thinking that it was the best way to fill the vacuum in my life. Then, I realised that no matter how hard I try, I can't fill that void, but by then, working had become like a drug. As complex as it may sound, when I am not working, I don't know what to do with myself and my mind. I believe that when you want something badly, you would do anything for it. I guess as far as love is concerned, I haven't reached that stage yet.

The industry is becoming an increasingly competitive space. Do you feel the need to up your game?
I am ambitious, but if somebody else's movie is not good, it doesn't make my movie better. I am aware that every Friday, an actor's fate changes. You can be the next big thing on one Friday and the next week, you could be written off. In the bigger picture, I have always believed that sabki chale, meri thodi zyada chale. I would get worried if there were limited films being made and we all had to fight it out, but fortunately, that's not the case. If I survive long enough in the industry, I can fulfill all my ambitions without really having to cut anyone else's way or wishing ill for anyone. I believe that if your work is not good, aap kitna bhi doosron ke bare mein bura soch lo, film nahi chalegi. Agar aapka kaam logon ko pasand nahi aayega, kuch nahi ho sakta hai. I firmly believe that waqt se pehle kuch nahi milta aur agar milna hai, toh sahi waqt par milega. So, my ambition is to reach a point where I am untouchable. I want to reach a stage in my career where every time I step out to do a film, I create a better benchmark for myself, where nobody can compete with me, but myself.

From a film like Ishaqzaade (2012), where you played a macho man with a certain dominance who sexually violated a woman, to playing more urban roles, the tuning is so different...
As an actor, you have to understand at some point that you won't always agree with your characters. If you want that kind of a deep connection with your characters, it will get difficult to do roles. If Parma (from Ishaqzaade) had not reacted that way when he was slapped by a girl, it wouldn't be him. He doesn't think, he is an animal. In real life, I am not an animal and I would despise anyone who would do that to a woman, but that doesn't mean that I can't play him on screen. Characters can sometimes be risky, but you have to detach yourself from them. I stand by one thing: cinema is inspired by reality and we depict situations that occur in real life. Thankfully, I think that now, the audience is not coming to watch movies for lessons in moral science. They want the truth depicted minus all the sugar-coating. If that wasn't the case, a film like Ishaqzaade would have been detrimental to my career.

Talking about risks, you have taken quite a few in your career - from Aurangzeb (2013) and Finding Fanny (2014) to Ki & Ka (2016), which were a stretch from the regular Bollywood fare. Were you able to make these choices also because you knew that you would get a second chance and had a back-up?
But where was my backing? I bagged my first film after an audition and based on that, I ended up signing 2 States (2014), Finding Fanny and Gunday (2014). I never for once took it for granted that I can do films because I will get them easily. We have seen enough examples of actors who have been one-hit wonders. With every role, you have to assess the merit of the film. Nahi chali toh theek hai nahi chala ...that is not my attitude. Mujhe har film se farak padta hai. So, if films like 2 States and Gunday were not accepted well, would I have got more work? I doubt it. I would have probably got some work, but not the kind that I want to do. I worked with my father out of choice (Tevar, 2015), which everyone seems to forget. I made that choice in my sixth film and it wasn't like money was lying at home so...chalo papa, picture banayein. I did it when I felt right about it, not to just take my career somewhere else. It isn't about anyone backing you, it's about the director believing in you.