September 8, 2001


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Tanmaya Kumar Nanda in New York

What is it they say about best laid plans?

It's all true.

I had an interview lined up with Anil Kapoor at 2000 hours.

But at 2300 hours, I find myself stuck at Broadway and West 218th street, having dropped off my broken-down car at a workshop, without a cab in sight, wondering what to do.

One last call, we decide. And the clouds part when a sleepy Anil Kapoor says, "Why not?"

Come to think of it, that's one thing he has always been known for. Easily one of the most media-friendly (some say publicity hound) actors around, he has always played the media well. "Who else would have spoken to the media at this hour, without make-up, all sleepy and puffy-eyed?" the actor asks, candidly.

Ask him about his staying power, and he shrugs it off: "Arrey, how do I know? You are the media guys, you do all the writing. You should know better. I can't praise myself."

He's dressed casually -- jeans, a black NYC hat (at 2300 hrs inside the house?!), embroidered silk shirt and slip-on loafers.

Behind that air of casual indifference, however, lurks an actor who is fiercely ambitious, fiercely competitive, and fiercely in need of a hit that will take him past the Aamirs (Khan), Hrithiks (Roshan), Shah Rukhs (Khan) and Salmans (Khan) of the Hindi film world.

Virasat and Pukar almost did it for him, but in the industry's great race for that elusive No 1 spot, a Friday is all that stands between one actor and the next.

And Anil admits it: "Log Lagaan, Gadar jaa rahe hai dekhne (People are going to watch Lagaan and Gadar). But Aamir had two flops before Lagaan, Sunny ki line se filmein pit rahi thi (Sunny's films flopped one after the other). So what is this No 1? All it takes is two big hits, two films that will put you at the top."

That is precisely what he is hoping from his latest offering, Nayak - The Real Hero, a remake of the Tamil film, Mudhalvan (starring Arjun and Manisha Koirala).

The film has Anil Kapoor playing a television cameraman-cum-anchor who gets to be chief minister for a day. This is the second time he plays a journalist -- the first was briefly in Mashaal (1984) -- who cleans up the system.

That gets him going about the script, the film, the director, all at once. "In India, politics is looked down upon. There is no serious participation in the political system at the school or college level. No one looks at politics as a career, as a way of public office," he says, passionately, despite the fact that even the clock hands are looking a bit weary at the Cinderella hour.

"No one wants to stick their neck out and take on responsibility. It's okay if someone else does it. Nayak explores what happens when an ordinary, lower middle-class person is given that kind of opportunity."

For the first time, Kapoor lifted weights to build up some muscle for the film. "I've never really pumped iron before. But now, the script demanded it, so I had to do it." Incidentally, a normal day for him also begins with a workout, mostly cardio exercises.

Watch out for him in the mud-fight sequence in Nayak.

But with the shutterbug getting busy at a time when the cows have long since come home, something snaps: "Arrey bas kar yaar, baith jaa, pachaas photo to nikaal chuka hai. Aise mein photo lekar mera career barbaad karega kya (That's enough, sit down. You've already taken 50 shots of me. And with pictures like this, do you want to ruin my career)?"

Kapoor has starred in at least one major hit almost every year, since his first major hit, Woh Saat Din, 21 years ago. The film won him critical acclaim, as well as the applause of the viewers. Quite an achievement, considering the other male protagonist was Naseeruddin Shah, then top of the heap in the art cinema movement.

Not a bad start for a film producer's son, who ran away from home in std VII to audition for a film -- "I think it was Tere Payal Mere Geet. I got selected. Not that my parents would have objected. It's just that I was so young.

"But then, I've always known that I wanted to be an actor. Later, my parents also supported me."

A major influence on the young Kapoor was the late Raj Kapoor. "I literally grew up around RK Studios. Like me, he also lived in Chembur. So every time there was a preview or a shoot or a release, we would be at RK Studios.

"Even for Holi and Diwali, we would be at the studios or Raj Kapoor's house. And the way he worked -- from dawn to dusk, constantly talking and thinking about films -- all that left an impression."

A lot of that caught his imagination, especially since he grew up in a chawl behind Raj Kapoor's house. "I would go role hunting. In fact, I even went to Tahir Hussain, Aamir's father," Anil reminisces.

Since then, it has been a long journey for Kapoor, and a fairly successful one at that -- Mashaal (1984), Meri Jung and Saheb (1985), Jaanbaaz, Chameli Ki Shaadi and Karma (1986), Mr India (1987), Tezaab (1988), Parinda and Ram Lakhan (1989), Lamhe (1991), Beta (1992), the much-hyped-but-flop Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja (1993), 1942: A Love Story (1994), Judaai and Virasat (1997) (quite a gap there, if you notice), Biwi No 1, Taal (1999), Pukar (2000).

And now, Nayak (2001).

Interestingly, if you run through a brief career chart, another fact stands out -- a lot of his films are remakes of South Indian hits -- Woh Saat Din, Mohabbat, Laadla, Judaai, Virasat and Nayak, to mention just a few. "Well, I wouldn't call them strictly 'remakes'. We don't shoot them frame by frame. We actually 'adapt' them for a worldwide audience," he explains.

I probe a bit -- won't dubbing serve the same purpose? He answers, vehemently, "It won't.

"See, dubbing might work from Tamil to Telugu. But you have to admit there's a cultural difference between North and South India," he argues, pushing the envelope of his semantic theory, arms perched firmly on cushion and armrest, while his fingers fold, unfold, point accusingly, clench into a fist and then blossom into open palms.

And then all over again: "If you really look at North and South India, they are like two different countries. Not everybody can understand the language or relate to the customs and traditions of one region from another, so we try to make it appeal to a larger range of people."

People are obviously a passion with him -- he always chooses each script with them in mind. "It is my responsibility to satisfy the people, the director and the producer. I am a mainstream actor; I have to cater to the people," he says, candidly.

In fact, he admits, it is this search for a good script that has often taken him down South. That's how he met Shankar, the director of both the original and the 'adaptation' of Nayak.

The very mention of his name sends Anil into raptures: "Our Bombay directors are nothing compared to him! Hindi directors to bachche hain uske saamne. Woh inko bitha ke direction sikha sakta hai(all these directors are like children in front of him. He can sit them down and teach them direction)."

But in spite of all that high praise -- and having with worked with most of the heavyweights in the industry -- his favourite remains Shekhar Kapur (who directed him in Mr India and Joshilay, after which the director hit the international scene with Bandit Queen and Elizabeth).

"After Joshilay, I'd said, 'Watch this guy. He'll make it big'. He might not be the best technically, but his skill lies in getting the best out of a story, and in handling emotions."

In the same breath, Kapoor adds that he wants to work with new directors because they bring a fresh perspective to the film.

Kapoor himself has, of late, brought a fresh twist to his image, playing character roles with aplomb, at the risk of stereotyping himself as a second lead.

He has also staved off a spirited challenge from -- indeed, sometimes more than holding his own against -- a bold, brash brigade of actors that that can talk the talk, walk the walk of an increasingly younger audience.

But talk of a second coming, as it were, for the angry young man of Tezaab, and he turns on you, rubbishing all such notions as creations of the media. For him, all that matters is the moment.

And, at the moment, Anil Kapoor is the Nayak, the hero.

Real or not, it is a question that will be decided by that most unheroic of characters -- the common man.

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