Bollywood actor Kunal Kapoor made a splash 15 years ago when he debuted in the cult hit Rang De Basanti and a decade and a half later, Kapoor’s charisma continues to draw in the viewers. Recently seen in the Disney+ Hotstar series The Empire, Kapoor received an “overwhelming” response from the audience, which, in his words, was “probably the best sort of response that I’ve gotten to my work since Rang De Basanti.” In a conversation with indianexpress.com, Kapoor shared that the times have changed since he first started out and with the advent of social media, the feedback is immediate and looks like it is working in his favour.
Playing a fictionalised version of Babur for the web series was a unique challenge for the actor. While emperors and kings have often been shown as authoritative and commanding, the interpretation of the character here was quite different. “Here, I found a character who is very insecure, who is not sure whether he deserves the throne or not, he is constantly falling apart and needs the women in his life to put him together and show him the right way,” Kapoor shared.
The series is based on Alex Rutherford’s book series Empire of the Moghul so Kunal chose to stick to the book, and the script for research, rather than delving into how Babur has been written about in real life. Director Mitakshara Kumar asked him to play Babur in a “vulnerable way, not in the way we see people play kings” and Kunal stuck to that.
It is evident through the show that even though Babur is the one on the throne, it is the women around him who run the show. “This is a character who is not really in charge of his destiny. It is not about his genius or his brilliance, it’s just about some things falling in place and other people taking the right decisions for him,” Kunal shared. In the Empire, it is Shabana Azmi’s Shah Begum and Drashti Dhami’s Khanzada who are really making decisions for Babur’s kingdom and while the gender dynamics set in this 16th century-set show are much in accordance with the patriarchal times, Kapoor’s next project also takes a closer look at the perception of men and women’s roles in present-day society.
Kapoor will next be seen in Netflix’s anthology Ankahi Kahaniya. Here, he shares screen space with Zoya Hussain in the Saket Chaudhary directorial that talks about the not-so-perfect love story. “We make movies about successful relationships, this was a movie about somebody that failed,” and it was this concept that intrigued Kunal.
Talking about the gender constructs at play in our society vis-a-vis Ankahi Kahaniya, Kunal explained, “No matter how much we move ahead in society, as a man, when you fail at your profession, then nobody takes into account whether you are a good father, husband or brother. Professional failure is failure. And conversely, with women, you might be fantastic at your work, but a lot of people judge you on how much you are doing for your house and how you are in your personal relationships, and I found the exploration of that was put in a very interesting way,” shared Kunal.
Ankahi Kahaniya would mark as a second outing for Kunal in the OTT space and the actor believes that the new medium “is the democratisation of talent” as the casting isn’t done “according to market forces but according to who is appropriate for the role.” Kunal recalled that when he started in the film industry, the lines were clearly drawn as “the hero was the hero and the villain was the villain, there was nothing in between” but now characters are written as real and flawed and the audience accepts them.
Talking about the early days of his career, Kunal remembered that he first read Rang De Basanti as an assistant director to Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and never thought he would be a part of it as an actor. In the film, he played Aslam, who comes from a conservative household but holds a liberal opinion. While in the last 15 years, the world has evolved in certain other matters, Kunal believes that the core issues addressed in Rang De Basanti still ring true. Talking about why the film still feels relevant, Kunal shared, “I think it talks about issues that we are still dealing with, unfortunately. Whether it is corruption in society, whether it is certain cynicism, those are things that we are still dealing with as a society.”
It is Kunal’s hope that there will come a time when Rang De Basanti wouldn’t feel relatable but would rather look like a dystopian nightmare. “I often say that I hope we evolve, as a society, to a time when Rang De Basanti is irrelevant, where people look at it and say this is not applicable anymore. Unfortunately, it is still as relevant as it was 15 years back,” he concluded.