Arjun Rampal
Arjun Rampal Image Credit: Supplied

Indian actor Arjun Rampal, who has survived in Bollywood for nearly two decades with a string of remarkable films like ‘Rock On!!’ and ‘Om Shanti Om’, had just recovered from a nasty bout of COVID-19 that almost ‘wiped him out’. But the former model, who remains one of Hindi cinema’s most criminally-underrated actors, isn’t dwelling on the negatives.

Perhaps, it was his brush with the virulent strain that gave him a level-headed perspective on his wholesome life and career.

“I can never be disillusioned with the industry. I owe a lot to this industry and it has made me who I am today. It has given me so much. I was a guy from a small town and I never thought I would be in such a position. I have the utmost respect for my industry,” said Rampal in an exclusive interview with Gulf News.

His last release ‘Dhaakad’ with Kangana Ranaut failed spectacularly at the box-office in May, but Rampal isn’t letting its hostile box-office reception dampen his spirits.

During the time of this interview, Rampal was in the study at his home in Goa, and despite his dishevelled hair and his casual white T-shirt, this actor cut an arresting figure.

We could hear his dogs bark in the background, giving us a clue that he doesn’t take fame, fanfare or the media circus that follows every talent that seriously.

“But it’s also a space that takes a lot from me,” he remarked when asked the same. “It can swallow and consume you wholly … And I that’s not just your work side, it can consume you on a personal level. So as you get older and wiser like me, it’s important to create your own spaces where you can go, relax, and rejuvenate yourself.”

The 49-year-old actor caps 21 years in Bollywood this year and boasts a body of work that’s filled with cinematic gems (think ‘Rajneeti’ and ‘D-Day’) and a clutch of spectacularly underwhelming features (‘Housefull’ and ‘Heroine’).

The notoriously reclusive talent was on a self-imposed sabbatical. He claims he had a lot going on in his personal life (dealing with divorce and embracing fatherhood/welcoming a child with South African girlfriend Gabriella Demetriades) and took this calculated call to focus on getting his life back in order. Work, naturally, became casualty.

But now he’s back with a bang in Bollywood. From working with auteur Aparna Sen in the stirring film ‘The Rapist’ to playing a villain in ‘Dhaakad’, Rampal is ready to roll. Excerpts from our interview with the actor as we talk about the highs and lows in his career …

Arjun Rampal
Arjun Rampal Image Credit:

If it makes you happy, I enjoyed your performance in ‘Dhaakad’, but it didn’t do well at the box-office …

How can I be happy when it was received so badly? It has not done well and that’s a known fact because the audiences didn’t go in to see it in the cinemas. And, that was the most disappointing part. But now that it is streaming on Zee5, I have hope. It’s such a lovely film and it was so different. And that’s precisely why I did it.

From the action team to its director to its cinematography and our performances, it had everything going for it. It’s unfortunate that it was not received well. But I believe every film has its own destiny and whatever said and done, it is going to be there for posterity. And once people see it and the film will get its due.

The film definitely didn’t deserve to go through what it went through and that was disappointing. Honestly, I have never seen something like this where audiences just have not stepped into the theatres to watch a film. I don’t know what it was, but hopefully they will watch it on OTT [streaming platform] and everybody will get their due.

Interestingly, South Indian films are doing incredibly well but Hindi movies are not just cutting it these days according to an industry insider in the UAE. Are Hindi films struggling and is this a grim post-COVID reality?

I don’t agree with that. ‘Bhool Bhulaiyaa [2]’ has done really well and it released on the same day as ‘Dhaakad’. ‘BB2’ did phenomenally well when it came to drawing people into theatres. Maybe, people didn’t want to go see violence and action in ‘Dhaakad’. It’s difficult to gauge and understand the mood or the sentiment of an audience. But I don’t do films thinking on those lines.

I do a film because it’s interesting to me. And remember, all films come on OTT so fast these days and it’s an expensive outing to go out and watch it in the cinemas. Plus, there’s a hangover of COVID and people still fear going into public places … Films like ‘KGF2’, ‘RRR’, ‘The Kashmir Files’ have all hit it out of the park … We as filmmakers and actors are pretty much clueless about what will make people go into the theatres. We need to get our heads around that and analyse it.

South Indian films
A snapshot of South Indian blockbusters 'Pushpa', 'KGF 2', and 'RRR'

It must be a scary phase for any actor …

I do films because I believe in them and I want those films to be included in my filmography even after I am dead. I like to mix things up and want to work with all kinds of directors and characters. I don’t shy away from anything. I hate being in a comfort zone because that’s where you get complacent.

I am doing a Telugu film right now and it’s my career’s first Telugu movie. And, that will take me out of my comfort space. I had signed this film way before ‘RRR’ and ‘KGF 2’ or ‘Pushpa’ happened. I signed this film pre-COVID. We were going to start film and then COVID happened and everything went haywire. But we are starting to film for it soon … Filmmaking is a field where every day is different and there’s no monotony. It’s not like your 9 to 5 desk job. Every day is an adventure and a new learning.

Speaking of adventures, your role in Aparna Sen’s ‘The Rapist’ must have been one massive adventure. Was she a masterclass in filmmaking?

She was such a pretty woman, I couldn’t say no to her.

Did you just reduce a filmmaker like Aparna Sen into a ‘pretty woman’?

No, no. She’s a pretty and a beautiful woman. When I met her, she reminded me so much of my mom, even her appearance. But seriously, when I read the script I was floored because it was such an incredible take as a filmmaker on a subject that we read about every day. You hear about a horrible crime like rape which is so rampant these days and her take on it is just phenomenal. So she’s like: ‘The rape has happened, but what happens to the family post that?’.

A rapist doesn’t just rape that victim, it’s the whole family that gets raped with an incident like that … In ‘The Rapist’, it’s a complicated situation with a couple who’s so madly in love with each other and such a scenario [where his wife is raped] occurs. They are so understanding and suddenly they become like strangers. There’s a lot of pain and hurt. The victim keeps asking: ‘why me?’.

It’s sensitively handled. But there was a certain levity to the whole script as well.

Arjun Rampal in Aparna Sen's 'The Rapist'
Arjun Rampal in Aparna Sen's 'The Rapist' Image Credit: IMdB

Tell us more about your character …

Aftab faces some difficult questions in his life … I enjoyed making that film, but it took a lot out of us. We did workshops and Konkona [Sen Sharma] who plays my wife is such a fantastic actor. We didn’t know each other personally, but we had to play a married couple. So we went for these workshops where we spoke about our lives and got to know each other … I will take forward these processes as an actor and Aparna Sen taught me how to go through those stages.

Even though you are a National Award winning Indian actor, you are criminally-underrated in Bollywood and we don’t see enough of you...

It’s a choice and it’s my choice. It’s got nothing to do with anything else. As a person, if I am just feeling anything, I go into my own shell and go away from everything and everyone.

I have felt like that in the past. There was lots that was happening in my personal life which needed more attention. I needed to be there and because of that I consciously didn’t take on any acting jobs. There were films and there were offers that were coming, but I was not in the mindset to sign a movie. Sometimes, that happens and then you suddenly come back and you want to sign everything that comes my way. And then, you are working a bit too much and then want another break. It’s my way of functioning.

Arjun Rampal with his girlfriend and son
Arjun Rampal with his girlfriend and son Image Credit: Supplied

So you are a feast or fast person ….

There isn’t any plan in place where I decide to do three or four films in a year. I haven’t planned my career on those lines. I have always gone with my instincts … But what happens to a film, nobody knows. But I am happy with my choice of work in the last two years. I explored the dark side with ‘The Rapist’ and I am working on films like ‘Penthouse’ by Abbas Mustan and ‘The Battle Of Bhima Koregaon’. I am also working on my career’s first Telugu film and have done a web series called ‘The London File’. The work just went crazy. When I decide to work, then I work.

I never pictured you in an Abbas Mustan film who are known for their thrillers …

I have always wanted to do a film with them … I was supposed to be a part of their film ‘Humraaz’, but I said no to it and after that I was kicking myself wondering why the [expletive] did I turn them down? … I was supposed to do Akshaye’s [Khanna] role. ‘

‘Penthouse’ has Bobby [Deol], Sharmaan [Joshi] and Cyrus [Broacha] in it. It’s about these guys who go through a mid-life crisis and decide to do all the naughty things … I have done serious films and that has become my comfort zone. So I got bored and wanted to shake things up.

Arjun Rampal Image Credit: IANS