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The Artiste Who Will Never be a Star

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Annu Kapoor is a realist. He prays that he’ll be given the gift of beauty, not talent, in his ‘next birth’

“Annu Kapoor is a fucking good actor,” announces Annu Kapoor in an act of narcissism, but when you evaluate his work closely, outside the context of the films in which he appears, what he says is actually true. Long considered a natural actor in the league of Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Pankaj Kapur, the Bhopal-born Kapoor never courted attention befitting his talent. He is not quite sure who to blame for this, though.

“I have done enough work and have proved myself,” says the 56-year-old, rather fit and sprightly for his age. “I cannot beg producers, directors or the film industry to give me good roles. Some of our directors claim to be joharis who can tell the real jewel from the fake. Don’t they see me?”

Yet, every time a director signs him on, “a good performance is guaranteed”. By policy, he reads the full script, rather than hearing it from the director as a voice narration. So far, he has preserved every script offered to him, even those he turned down. In spite of his involvement from such an early stage, the result is often an effortless, and not practised, performance.

An alumnus of the National School of Drama, New Delhi, Kapoor’s approach to acting is simple: the place for language, speech and mannerisms in the art of film acting is uncompromisingly supreme. Dr Chaddha, the fertility expert in Vicky Donor, was an easy character to play. Half the battle was won because like Dr Chaddha, Kapoor is a Punjabi and can talk that talk.

“Whenever I am about to start a new film, after having read the script, the first thing I imagine is: how will this character speak? Then, gestures. How will he behave? After all this is taken care of, I get into the physical appearance; what will he look like?” Before Vicky Donor turned the spotlight on him, Kapoor had earlier this year acted in Gali Gali Chor Hai in which he plays a constable who talks in a distinct Bundelkhand dialect. Two of his more famous characters, the lascivious Keemat Lal in 7 Khoon Maaf and editor Gaitonde in Mr India speak, yet again, wildly different tongues.

He inherited this aspect of his talent from his mother, Kamal Kapoor, just as he received his gift of acting from his father, Madanlal Kapoor, who ran a travelling theatre in the interiors of central and northern India. She was a linguist and poetess with the pen name Shabnam, and consequently, a love of language came early to him. By the time he was in the ninth grade, he had learnt many religious texts, including the Bible, Quran, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita by rote. His interest in music also comes from his mother. “She never sang professionally, but she very much wanted to sing,” says Kapoor, known to television audiences as the host of the musical game show Antakshari, a role he performed tirelessly for over a decade.

Like language, acting too marked him out early on. For reasons of financial uncertainty, Kapoor started working young, travelling with his father to far-off places to perform theatre. “We used to perform 15 days in one village and then head to another, and we did this for months by travelling on bullock carts and trucks. That way, I got a chance to see most of India,” he says. “We were out and about so often that doing potty in open spaces and by riversides became a kind of habit.”

A product of poverty and hardship, Kapoor is disposed to take on films and other assignments purely for money and nothing else. Even after years of working and achieving financial stability, a cheque is still the bait, not the quality of roles or films. “Whenever an yone comes and tells me that there is this film with a message, I say ‘no’. But if anyone says, ‘Dada, let’s do this film. You will make some money and we will make some,’ I appreciate that because all of us are working for money and have homes to run.”

Interestingly, Priyadarshan’s Kala Pani is the only film in which he has acted pro bono. “I have always wanted to do something for my country. I come from a family of patriots; my ancestors were part of the freedom struggle. When I was offered Veer Savarkar’s role in Kala Pani, I had to accept it without charging a paisa. That was a small way of giving [something] back.”

An admirer of Dilip Kumar, Balraj Sahni, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Amitabh Bachchan, Kapoor is critical of hunky newcomers who act in just one film and are hailed as stars and actors. Don’t use the term ‘actor’ so loosely, he pleads. “One film doesn’t make one an actor. It can also be a fluke, who knows? An actor is one who delivers the goods all the time. It takes a whole career… to be called a good actor. You have to earn it, but today nobody cares about acting as an art form; nobody bothers to work on the craft. To simply look good on camera is not acting.”

He is also angry at the star system. “Ours is a success-oriented society. There is no scope for failure. If you fail, you are doomed. It doesn’t matter if you are a good actor because it is your fate to recede into the background while a non-actor is destined to become a star.”

Allowing himself a spot of whimsy, he says if he is reborn he would entreat God (he is agnostic) to give him beauty over talent. “People like Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and Pankaj Kapur are powerhouses but they are not stars in the true sense of the word because people think they don’t look like Hindi film heroes. I would like to include my own self in that. I will pray, ‘Oh Lord, don’t give us art, don’t give us potential and talent.’ Who needs that? ‘Give us good looks’. If you have that, you don’t need anything else.”