Aug 2, 2013

Arjun Rampal: from model to action hero

I had to interview the extremely handsome and articulate Arjun Rampal last month for his upcoming film ‘D-Day’. He appeared to be one of those really tough cookies to crack. But a few casual jokes and I got straight to the point.

Nikhil Advani’s been known for his romantic/drama genre. What made you agree to do his first action thriller?

All of us had the same question when Nikhil came to us and said that he wants to make a realistic action thriller about nabbing the most wanted man in India. But the real question was the difference between my level of realism and his. He convinced us that the way he wanted to do it was in such that when the audience watches this film, they will really experience the whole drama, the human side of these people and it will really feel like it’s all unfolding in front of their eyes. It’s not nice to compare but to give people a clearer idea - it’s almost like an ‘Argo’ or a ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ mixed with maybe a ‘Bourne Ultimatum’ and as Irrfan says ‘The Heat’. It’s got the right blend and we took these films as parameters for making the film just so that when we saw the film, it came across. To trust him was a good decision.

Tell me about your character, Captain Rudra Pratap Singh.

I don’t think there are any similarities. I can’t kill anybody. But if I had to really go into where he’s coming from, I think Rudra Pratap comes from a very dark space - from a space where he’s seen the worst situations. He’s been let down a couple of times and therefore, he doesn’t believe in working with a team because he feels that every individual has his or her weaknesses. So he likes to work on his own. He is extremely one-dimensional when you meet him - very cold cut, frank, he speaks his own. And he doesn’t see eye to eye with Wali Khan, which is Irrfan Khan’s character. I think what is really interesting in the film is the journey that he goes through through this mission. He goes to hide out in the red light district of Karachi - Napier Road - where he meets a prostitute. It’s a really beautiful relationship between an assassin and a prostitute and the dynamics of that are what I really enjoyed playing in this film. It kind of gives Rudra another layer where he comes out of it and he starts looking at life. Two hopeless people - one can kill, the other can sleep with someone for money - find each other and start giving each other hope. A guy who doesn’t take things personally starts making this mission very personal.

How did you get into the character?

I don’t like to make a blueprint - I don’t want it to be like a building that just comes up and you say ‘Oh! it’s A,B,C,D,E’. I think you just go with the flow and feed off the energy of your co-actors, your director and his vision. For example, for this film, I had to go through two and a half months of proper training with Tom Struthers. Why? Because he said ‘I’m going to use the action in this movie in the drama’. The reason why Hollywood’s number one action director comes to this film is because he sees some credibility to this script. I really loved his approach to it, where nothing was pre-conceived and there was no choreography.
So it was all natural?

He put us in a camp where we were fighting with commandos - punching, blocking, fighting with knives, dismantling a gun, putting it back together, being timed while we do it, firing the gun; if a bullet got stuck in a chamber, how to dislodge it and keep on firing. Because you can’t stand up there (which I’ve done in previous movies) and say ‘Cut! My gun’s jammed’. I can’t do that because I’m an agent and guns do get jammed in the line of fire and I should know how to dislodge it. The scenes are there in the film. It was so good that we went through that practice. We met people who train the Mossad who told us how we should walk, how our mannerisms should be. They told us how alert you have to be all the time. For example, if somebody’s following you, you’re not going to look over your shoulder and see if you’re being followed or not. Because then, the enemy knows that you’ve caught on to something. You can’t lose the element of surprise. You have to surprise your enemy instead of your enemy surprising you. So you go to a reflective surface and see what’s happening behind you. If you’re in a restaurant, I could see the spoon and use it as a rear view mirror. These things don’t necessarily need to be in the film. But it’s the information you gather. If you feel that you can do it in a scene, that’s what’s nice because it’s real.

Do you think you could use this information in real life?

Definitely, if I got into a street fight, the guy would be cursing himself because he wouldn’t look very good. But yes, it gives you a confidence and that’s what I think it was supposed to do. Tom comes onto the set and says ‘okay, this is the set. There’s a sewing machine there, a pair of scissors, a newspaper. Rudra Pratap, you are disarmed. This guy’s picked up a pair of scissors. What are you going to do?’ He shows you how to make the newspaper a weapon - he uses the props within the set to choreograph it. Then he’ll say ‘okay, that move that we taught you. You’re going to do that. Irrfan, you’re going to do this move. Now go’. It’s all instinctive and the camera’s just moving and capturing whatever it has to.

Do you personally think that’s how it should be in action films?

No, it doesn’t necessarily have to be like that. There are people who choreograph sequences because it’s stylized. Some people do that. With ‘D-Day’, I didn’t want to create a blueprint because everything has to have this uncanny energy that will keep you on the edge of your seat. So even if there’s silence before you’re going to do something, it should be eerie enough to make you wonder what’s going to happen. If a finger’s broken in the film, you feel the pain. If a car slams into your car, you see how the guy inside shakes. And we were shaking because they actually slammed cars into our cars. But it was done in a very, very safe manner. They have the craft to do it and it was fantastic to work on that level.

And do you think this slick approach to the genre makes it a first in India?

I think so. I don’t think they’ve seen action like this. If you see the action in ‘Bourne Ultimatum’, he’s the same action director. But then he’s not done the action from ‘Dark Knight’, which is stylized in a particular way. But if you see ‘Inception’ or ‘Blood Diamond’, the way they use and guns and how they are, you see that here. These are all my favourite films. So I was really lucky to be a part of this film and experience this technician who gave so much to this film that supports the script that Nikhil Advani made. Because the action had to be credible since we’re not doing a James Bond kind of an espionage film. We’re doing a very realistic film.

Fair enough. This year, you’ve done ‘Inkaar’, there’s ‘D-Day’ and you have ‘Satyagraha’ coming out. How do you switch on and off from a particular character?

They’ve all been intense characters. I do one film at a time and I take at least three to four weeks off before I get into another film. So I think there’s enough time. Before you commit and say yes to a film, you’ve already spent three to four months with the script and you’ve tried to understand and see the film as clearly as the director sees it. So when you’re doing one film, you’re just with that film. Then you need some time to come out of it. And some characters don’t necessarily leave you. And sometimes, you like certain qualities of certain characters that you want to keep.

Can you point out any of these instances?

I think there was a lot of me in Joe Mascarhenas when I did ‘Rock On!!’. I think there’s a lot of ‘Rajneeti’ in me and it took me a long time to get out of that one because that came to me; it wasn’t me. When I was doing that film, my wife didn’t want me to come back home. She told me to go and live in Bhopal and come once the film was done.

What’s your character like in ‘Satyagraha’?

In ‘Satyagraha’, he’s an aggressive guy, a guy who has a heart of gold, who has political ambition. He is the voice of the youth but he is a zamin ka aadmi. He looks at this movement and joins satyagaraha, a peaceful demonstration, even though he’s not the most peaceful guy because he believes that society needs to change.

How do you like Bangalore?

Bangalore or Bengaluru? I really like it. Bangalore’s had some very lovely memories for me. I did my first fashion show here as a model and the first time I walked on the runway was with my wife. She wasn’t my wife then and I was so nervous on the runway that I held her hand because I thought I was going to faint and she thought I was trying to make a pass at her. But then, a relationship’s developed from there. It’s been lucky for me because the first time I came to promote a film here was for ‘Rock On!!’ and I won a national award for it. And then ‘Housefull’, which also did well. So now, I’m here for ‘D-Day’ and hopefully my dream run with Bangalore continues.

Do you prefer walking the ramp or is it easier to have dialogues backing you up?

What do you think?

I suppose I would want the challenges of acting. What about you?

You’re right. It really depends on how you approach your work and that’s what’s key in anything that you do. When I was modeling, my approach was that I had a lot of love and passion for it. Those were exciting times the fashion industry wasn’t as big as it is now. It was still looking for that industry status. There were few designers, few models and it was an intimate industry that was experimenting and I was lucky to be a part of that. It was a lot more than just walking the runway or doing a good picture. You spent a lot of time making the picture really good.

Was acting a secondary career? Did it ‘just happen’?

I loved watching movies since I was a kid. Unfortunately, from the 80s to the 90s, I stopped watching them because there were really terrible movies. I watched all of Mr Bachchan’s films. I was a big fan of his and still am. I remember I used to get completely transported into that world when I’d watch a movie and just get lost in it. Then I’d come back, enact it, maybe dress like that actor for a few days, depending on how it influenced me. I wanted to go to New York and study filmmaking and that’s when Ashok Mehta called me for ‘Moksha’ and Shekhar Kapur really pushed me in that direction. Once I was in front of the camera, the camera was like ‘okay, now you can’t get rid of me’.

How do you view yourself?

I’m comfortable and happy with the kind of work that I’m doing. I know where I want to move and in what direction. And I think I am different from the rest and as long as I know that, that’s good.

How do you brush aside the ego?

It’s all perception. I come with a lot of baggage of perception. My challenges have always been to break them because ego is the only thing that can pull you down; it’s your worst enemy. And I’m aware of that. I’m a Buddhist and that’s the way it is.

Thank you, Arjun.

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