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Good looks can help create an aura: Arjun Rampal

Actor-producer Arjun Rampal on writing a screenplay, how to use physical appearance for acting mileage, and living like a gangster

Actor Arjun Rampal. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Actor Arjun Rampal. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Vintage posters adorn the walls of actor Arjun Rampal’s office in Khar, Mumbai: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Godfather trilogy, On The Waterfront. The biggest of all is one of Daddy, his next film based on the life of Mumbai gangster-turned-politician Arun Gawli. Besides producing and acting in it, Rampal has also, for the first time, tried his hand at screenwriting. The film is directed by Ashim Ahluwalia.

In an interview, Rampal talks about his interest in making the film, completing 15 years in the Hindi film industry, and why working should be like “hanging out". Edited excerpts:

You have written the story and co-written the screenplay of ‘Daddy’. How did that happen?

Someone had approached me to play Arun Gawli about two-and-a-half years back. I was a bit taken aback because I didn’t understand how they saw me playing him. They gave me a script I didn’t like. I was still intrigued by the idea. I started researching. There wasn’t a lot of material on him out there. So I had to take the other route, which was basically finding people who knew him and talk to them. The kind of stories that came out of these meetings blew my mind. People who have come from that line of work are generally called bhai, “boss", dada. Who calls a Mumbai gangster “daddy"? It has a meaning which you will know when you watch the film. I thought such an incredible journey is worth making a movie on. The writers from the project were still waiting for me but I wasn’t happy with it. One day I just said, okay, let me put this information together on paper and see how it can work like a story. I locked myself in a hotel room in Mumbai for two months and started writing.

It’s the first time you have written a screenplay. What was the experience like?

I actually write a lot. I write short stories, poems and stuff like that. So it’s not that it was completely out of my territory. But yes, it was the first time I tried to write a screenplay. It’s one of the nice parts of making a film because it is very pure. Your imagination is running at a different level. I wasn’t just thinking about my character but all of them—there are 82 well-defined characters. I had the story, but didn’t have a director. I knew Ashim Ahluwalia. We had done commercials together. I really respect him as a film-maker and the kind of films he wants to make. I gave him the script to read and I wanted his opinion on it. He read it and said, “Lets do this together." Then we took it to Gawli’s family and got the rights.

In the teaser, you look remarkably similar to Gawli. How did that happen? Especially from a point where you couldn’t imagine yourself playing the character?

He was a very thin guy in his youth. He put on weight later. I began losing weight, then did the make-up and tried to recreate his look. There were a round of tests. Then we did a photoshoot and saw that it was working: I did transform quite a bit. There was a strong resemblance and that instilled faith in me. We had a team from Italy which did the prosthetics. It wasn’t easy, it would take about three-and-a-half hours for me to get ready. It is also quite a task to be able to protect the look from being leaked. That’s why it has come across as a complete surprise for people.

The film looks slick, dark and moody—unlike most Hindi gangster movies.

The film spans a period of 40 years: from the 1960s all the way to 2013. It becomes a period film in a way because life was very different in each decade and it reflects in the cars, fashion, soundtrack. It’s a very cool combination of Ashim’s sensibilities and a commercial story. And we expect the movie to appeal to everyone, especially people in and around Dagdi Chawl whose lives we have shown. Apni mitti ki kahaani hai (It’s a story of our soil).

Ahluwalia has a very arthouse sensibility of film-making. What was your experience of working with him?

I knew him from the time he directed all my Nivea commercials, which, in a sense, are completely different and cosmetically made. We have similar sensibilities and world views. We hung out a lot during the making. Both of us are into electronica and we would have conversations about analogue and digital. We found out we both like this Italian crime movie, Il Divo. He introduced me to a lot of other films, including a Japanese film about a lone killer who lives different lives and moves around.

He has got a very clear eye for detail and style and he is very particular about them. For example, if he wanted the clothes to not look new but used, it didn’t mean we could wash it in the washing machine. Because he’d say that at that time there were no washing machines. So we had to get it hand-washed many times. He doesn’t interfere in performances. I mean, he will help you out, he will discuss the scene about how you are going to move and accordingly set the frame. He will create a great atmosphere for you but you have to be that character and if you are not, you will stick out. He is not only looking at your performance, but at everything that happens in the background. Sometimes he can take all your lines out and tell you to not say anything.

That’ s something you did very well with your role in ‘Kahaani 2’—the sub-inspector who hides more than he shows.

I have to give the credit to Sujoy (Ghosh), whom I have known for a while. He made me feel very comfortable. He would tell me to sit or laugh like I would naturally and not be the character in those moments. And then suddenly become the character again. On the surface, I may be thinking about the case, but on a parallel level, I’m thinking of my wife, kids and promotions too. This has to come out in a natural, normal manner. And when you see a suspense thriller like Kahaani 2 again, it should come out as a new performance. In a sense, you are playing games with the audience.

You have worked with friends through your career: Shah Rukh Khan (‘Om Shanti Om’, ‘Ra. One’), Karan Johar (‘Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna’, ‘We Are Family’), Farhan Akhtar (‘Rock On’ and ‘Rock On 2’, ‘Don’). How important is it to be friends with your directors?

It’s important for you to become friends. You live with them and sometimes you could end up hating them as well. Some friendships continue, some become good memories and don’t necessarily translate into a great friendship. It’s not just the director and co-actors but the crew too. If you don’t get along with the director of photography (DoP), for example, it could be a nightmare. Being on a set has to be even more comfortable than being at home. Before taking up a film, for example, I research on the DoP, his body of work, because I think he is the most important guy on the set: observing you all the time, and sometimes can tell more about you than you know. Pankaj Kumar, who has shot portions of Daddy, told me one day that he likes the fact that I turn my back to the camera. But actually I just didn’t know where the camera was.

How conscious are you about the way you look on camera? Do you think good looks can come in the way of a good performance?

Nobody wants to look bad, but from a vanity point of view I’m not conscious. I rarely go to the monitor and when I do it’s generally when there is a lot of movement involved.

And no, I don’t think so. Look at Ryan Gosling: He’s got this kind of one style, the way he moves, smokes. When he is seemingly not expressing anything, you can see many emotions. He is stylish, cool, and he surprises you: a great package. Good looks can help create an aura and it’s an actor’s skill to nurture that.

You complete 15 years in the industry this year. There is a huge difference between your first film, ‘Pyaar Ishq Aur Mohabbat’, and your next film.

As you work, you know the one thing you have is the power of your choice. Choosing from my heart is what my experience has taught me, as opposed to taking others’ advice. Choosing a film is a solitary process for me, I don’t discuss the story or character with anyone. The films I am doing now are definitely more reflective of my sensibilities. It’s good that we have more character-driven films than before, when the leading man was expected only to dance, do comedy, or romance.

Films based on real-life Mumbai gangsters

Nayagan (1987)

Director Mani Ratnam’s take on the Mumbai gangster saga was based on Varadarajan Mudaliar, who ruled the Tamil-dominated pockets of Mumbai. Kamal Haasan played the lead role. It was India’s official entry for the Oscars that year..

Company (2002)

The definitive movie about the ‘D company’ had director Ram Gopal Varma at his peak. The film, which features Ajay Devgn as Dawood Ibrahim and Vivek Oberoi as Chhota Rajan, also showed the film industry’s dubious links with the underworld.

Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai (2010)

Milan Luthria’s film was a fabled take on Haji Mastan (played by Devgn), portraying him as a Robin Hood figure rather than a criminal. The movie shows Dawood’s initiation into the underworld as a petty criminal (played by Emraan Hashmi) who joins Mastan’s gang, betrays him and takes over.

Shootout At Wadala (2013)

Director Sanjay Gupta’s hyper-stylized movie on Manya Surve, who has been described as one of the first Hindu gangsters, had John Abraham in the lead role. Surve’s killing was the first recorded encounter in the city police’s history.

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