Role Play

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Arjun Rampal’s journey from being India’s original supermodel to becoming an actor who loves to play unconventional characters

The first run-in I had with Arjun Rampal was when he brushed against me at a fashion magazine awards function a few years ago as he rushed to the stage to be crowned the ‘ultimate style icon’. His sherwani got attached itself to my dress and he looked into my eyes and said, “That just means we need to be together tonight.” The charm is intact when I meet him in Filmistan Studios, where he is shooting an advertisement. He is busy with lunch—tucking in rotis, palak paneer, dal and a glass of Coke—but ready to talk, even as he instructs his stylists on what he wants to wear.

It’s hard to not think about how good-looking he is. It was what made him India’s top male model more than a decade ago. Since then, he has had reasonable success as an actor, especially in recent times. He has played a corrupt politician (Rajneeti), a mean super villain (Ra.One), a cop intent on justice (Chakravyuh) and, now, an advertising professional in the eye of a sex harassment case (Inkaar), all in the past two years. That’s a wide spectrum in an industry that seeks to typecast you. “I have got some incredible reactions for Inkaar. I always want to challenge myself in the roles I have done.” He doesn’t agree that the roles only came to him because he wasn’t the typical hero. “I think you create that space for yourself. You need to ask yourself what work you want to do. You need to do the commercial stuff to survive—which I like. But you also do other kinds of cinema and maybe you can create a market for that. The real satisfaction I get is by doing roles like Inkaar and Chakravyuh, where I can create a character.”

Rampal is 41 but doesn’t think he is anywhere near his peak. “An actor creates his or her own shelf life. I have experimented a lot, like in Inkaar. But we made the film on a budget and broke even on the Monday after the weekend it released. For me, that’s an experiment that worked. And people saw me in a different light. Now I need to take this to a different level and then, as you say, I might just peak.” Sudhir Mishra, who directed Inkaar, says that he cast Rampal to bring the ambiguous flavour he needed for his character. “He is good-looking and charismatic and you can’t ever guess if he is in the wrong or not. I wanted that. As an actor, he needs to be convinced about what he is doing or it won’t work for him. He is very well prepared as far as the script goes.”

Rampal went by relatively unnoticed for the first few years of his acting career—he was the stiff model giving it a try with movies like Moksha, Dil Ka Rishta and Asambhav. It was when he donned the role of a villain in Om Shanti Om that critics took notice. Then he won the National Award for Rock On! and it was as if the audience had seen him for the very first time.

Rampal grew up at Devlali, near Nasik. He was studying at Hindu College in New Delhi when he was spotted by fashion designer Rohit Bal. Along with Milind Soman, he was one of India’s ‘original supermodels’ who set a bar for those who followed. He then went to studying filmmaking in New York while modelling alongside. He was getting ready to jump career. One of his first movies was Moksha, a slightly offbeat film about an idealistic man who goes awry. While working on a story on dance, I was told an interesting detail about him. Longinus Fernandes, the choreographer for the movie, made Rampal dance many complicated moves in the hit song Janleva. Longinus had told me then, “I could only try those tricks with Arjun as he was ready for a challenge. Most actors don’t want to do what may not look good on them.” Rampal laughs when he hears this. “Many people ask me how comfortable I am with dancing. I say ‘how comfortable can the choreographer make me?’”

Acting, to him, is to get into the head of the character and “live with it”. “Acting should never look like acting. I lived with the Inkaar character for a while. I had to know why he does what he does. For another movie—D Day—I play a special agent and I needed to get my body language right. For Rajneeti, I actually knew a person like that in Madhya Pradesh—people who can be family men but also ruthless. They had a taste for power and hence were vicious, but good-hearted.”

Rampal says he knows his shortcomings. “I know when I am good or bad. I can see it. I don’t promote movies where I am bad, because I can’t lie.” He is also open about not feeling like he is part of the industry. “People attend award shows if they are getting one, or perform if there is money involved. Who goes there to support their colleagues? And we need to be honest. I refused many movies which I knew I couldn’t do. And it turned out well for everyone. The true difference between Hollywood and us is that there they don’t compete, they aim to be original. We need to encourage that kind of environment.”

I ask him what he feels about all that is written about his looks. He laughs, “I always say it’s nothing to do with me. It’s my mom’s doing.”

As I thank him and get up to leave, he asks me, “Where have I met you before?”

When I shrug it off, he says, “Oh no, I remember. You know, we have a cosmic connection.”