Basking in the success of Kapoor & Sons, Sidharth Malhotra reflects on taking risks, not being typecast and on lessons learnt.
Box Office India (BOI): The first time you visited our office was during Student Of The Year. Today, almost four years later, you look much more confident. Can we attribute that to success and being wholeheartedly accepted by the industry?
Sidharth Malhotra (SM): All the factors, lots of factors… I think I am still a work in progress but when you get acceptance, success and box-office acceptance… In fact, it’s something I had to learn. Now I am more aware that numbers don’t lie, which means so many people have watched the film.
Obviously, all this adds to my confidence and, yes, I have definitely grown up in the last few years as a person, learning, meeting a lot of people, understanding whatever I can about how the industry works. In the beginning, I had no pamphlet with a list of dos and don’ts of Bollywood. I had Karan (Johar) guiding me but he never imposed ki yeh mat kar yaar, woh kar.
It was about just letting myself out there in the field and learning from my mistakes. I think I have learnt where it is important to invest your energy; it is equally important to do somethings off-camera. Sometimes, being on-camera is not the need of the hour. Many actors devote a lot of their energy to various things other than just doing movies. There are a lot of expectations from us. For instance, with social media, we are responsible for certain things, like, people get excited if you say ‘yes’ or ‘no’. As an actor, there is a sense of responsibility that comes in.
It also gives you confidence. There is a lot I am excited about right now. In Kapoor & Sons, I was coming out of a film like Brothers, which was my first experience of not being accepted, regardless of what happens at the box office like, say, even breaking even. The acceptance was lacking. That made me really hungry in a film like, say, Kapoor & Sons, where I had a part with a lot of other actors. I hope they recognise that I have tried doing something hatke. The acting style required was different from what I have done before. So, for instance, we were not screaming our lines and every emotion was not out there.
This is what I call ‘experience’ because only when you experience the lows can you enjoy the highs. So my experience of lows was from Brothers, in which I invested so much physically, and even time-wise, as I didn’t have a release for a year. So I didn’t get back what I had given. So even though Kapoor & Sons had an ensemble cast, I am riding the high of just being accepted as an actor. Life is full of ups and downs; you simply have to know where to invest your energy. You have to try and balance everything.
BOI: After SOTY, the trade expected you to play safe but you did the opposite and did films like Hasee Toh Phasee and Ek Villain, especially Ek Villain…
SM: Yes, in fact you messaged me after watching the trailer and said you didn’t expect me to excel so much. I chose to not play safe because people kept saying things to me like, tu aisa hi kar sakta hai, issey zyada nahin kar sakta. It made me feel rebellious, in that I wanted to tell people to stop telling me what I could and could not do. I mean, even I was not aware of what I could and could not do.
I like to find a method in everything, understand everything, and, at that point, I wanted to do interesting stories, present myself differently, even though it was my second or third film. I think that’s how the West does it. I saw a lot of actors in the West who start with small roles, and then they become huge stars and people appreciate that. So I realised I needed to choose stories that were interesting.
Hasee Toh Phasee is a totally different world, my character was very unique. Ek Villain was an altogether different story and so was Brothers, which had a different narrative. Ditto, Kapoor & Sons, became a different world. So I thought that if I could keep changing the world, the audience would accept that, as an actor, I could adapt to any character. Today, cinema is more about telling stories rather than selling actors. Obviously, if we get ‘sold’, then the stories will connect even more.
BOI: It was a big gamble as you aren’t an industry kid.
SM: I guess that’s why I am not attached to things. Industry kid nahi hone ka fayda yeh hai ki koi naam nahin hai, koi family naam nahin hai, papa ka naam kharab hoga ya kisi aur ka naam kharab hoga. There are no attachments when you are an outsider, I have come on my own steam, I have come all the way from Delhi to Mumbai, then from Malad to Bandra. So I have no sense of ownership.
I still feel like the same bachelor who came to Mumbai eight to nine years ago. Also, that helps when choosing stories… okay, this is the story; okay, someone else has been cast; or this sounds different, I will do it. There’s a risk in everything. Even things you assume are safe could go wrong. I don’t live with my parents and therefore don’t have them telling me which films to pick and which not to. I make my own decisions and am enjoying that.
BOI: After so many different roles and so many different stories, have you found your own zone? Is there something you prefer to do and something you don’t?
SM: I have found my zone, which is that I have to keep reinventing myself every two films. Like, right now, I finished Baar Baar Dekho, which is a softer role, not so intense, but my next film, which I recently started, is an action film which is quirky. I have not found a genre and that may seem confusing. For instance, Ek Villain had good box-office collections whereas Kapoor & Sons is more loved. I belong to today’s generation and I know what today’s generation wants to watch.
Things are becoming more story-driven. We might be the first ones to experience this but it is also the future, where stories will sell, not actors and stars, or larger-than-life characters. That zamana is different. Although we would like to have that kind of mad fan following, the fact is that stories are being given more importance.
BOI: Is that why you have steered clear of typical Bollywood masala films?
SM: I like those films but, as an actor, as part of a film, I have a point of view about the film, what are we doing, where is it going? What’s the conflict, what would you think of the film as a member of the audience? Are we selling something new? I guess it has more to do with me wanting to do something more than what’s been done before. Kapoor & Sons was a lot of fun and it had interesting messages from the family, my character’s world, and how he handles every relationship.
Even in Hasee Toh Phasee, we tried to give it that look where the boy is very different, largely silent, very different and within that, how he fell in love. It was a very new kind of character. I don’t know if mainstream Bollywood has such characters. Even Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge released was a new concept when it released… We thought it was a great concept… going to London and later coming back all the way to get married to the girl you love, convincing her family… that was a new concept and after it was loved by everyone, it became a commercial concept and everyone made their own concept out of it.
I hope that one of the films becomes iconic and people will follow the concept. I guess people have loved the sur of Kapoor & Sons, and they have liked the concept.
I was talking to some ad directors recently and they told me that the audience today doesn’t need to have everything spelt out for them. So, for example, my older brother’s character in the film (Fawad Khan) is gay but that has not been mentioned in the film and has been conveyed with extreme subtlety. We have stopped spoon-feeding our audience. We can use subtlety to tell a story, and that takes the pressure off the director. If it has been portrayed well, all you need to include is a line or two, or a nuance for the audience to get it. Today, you don’t have to point a gun and say, ‘Main goli maar dunga.’
BOI: Also, it helps when you do one film at a time. It shows on the screen.
SM: Totally. This time too, I learnt that it is very important to hang out with the entire team beforehand, especially when working with an ensemble cast. It is also something I learnt from Akshay (Kumar). He is very warm. They are huge actors but they are very large-hearted and warm, even Jackie da (Shroff). They have a great knack of bringing everybody together.
Akshay sir used to be like sab saath mein khaana khayenge, dabba share karenge, lunch saath mein karti thi puri unit. I learnt that from him. He is a senior guy, he wants to bring everyone together, he shares his meals. I learnt things like this over the years. So this time, when I was shooting for Kapoor & Sons, I took the initiative to get everyone together and we used to dine together. And because I have worked with Dharma Productions, Shakun (Batra) and I already knew each other. All of us used to spend time together, which truly helped. The relationship between me and Fawad in the film got better with every passing day as we spent more and more time together.
It looked more real. And, yes, doing one film at a time helps you focus. You can also try different looks, body language. My look in Brothers and body language was very different than in Kapoor & Sons. I have been quite lucky to be able to space it out. It is also about telling the audience that I am not here to copy what other people are doing. I try and give something new and exciting with every second film.
I will give them a new story every time and try out new characters, and choose different genres. So, I recently found a very interesting murder mystery with a credible cast and big production house. It’s the old Yash Chopra film, Ittefaq. It’s a great film but also a small one. The writing is outstanding and I don’t remember having watched a murder mystery like this in the last five years, where you think ‘murderer kaun hai?’ So, yes, stories should come first.
There’s another thing I have learnt about the industry. I was chatting with some EPs in Dharma Productions, and Apoorva (Mehta). When I asked him how Kapoor & Sons was doing, he said, ‘For you, it’s very good.’
That made me realise that distributors and the trade look at it very differently. Ki agar paanch picture ki hain, they calculate an average. Apoorva told me, out of your five films, four films are 70-plus (`70 crore), right from your first film. Like Hasee Toh Phasee did not hit that number but it did make a profit for the people who were attached to it. That was a new insight. Now everybody is speaking that language and it is a language that is important to understand because it is a business, after all. If people don’t make a certain amount of profit, it doesn’t make sense. So, yes, I am lucky to have a consistent 70-plus. Again, this is new to me and I am learning and feeling happy about that.
BOI: There must have been some tough lessons you learnt along the way?
SM: I think just to realise how important it is to take care of things off-camera as it is on-camera. I used to think it was important to do a film and then it was the producer’s job to market it. Now I realise that an actor needs to feel a sense of ownership over their product. We need to be involved in different aspects without being overbearing.
We need to be aware of how they are marketing the film because if it is not successful, the first one to get hurt is the actor. The producer has a line-up but the actors go down first because we are the ones who are promoting it so much. I think I am beginning to understand what is necessary off-camera.
BOI: Do you think you have it easier or tougher than the previous generation of stars?
You can experiment more than they could; there is much less stereotyping…
SM: In a way, yes, definitely. I wouldn’t say ‘easy’ but I think we have more options of scripts and hence a more varied body of work. It is very interesting. Earlier, you couldn’t do murder mystery ekdum se and then a love story. They would think this actor can only do romance or if he does action, he can do only action.
Most of our money comes from the young audience, which comes to watch us on Fridays and Saturdays. I think I am trying to tell them that I don’t want to get stuck in a mould. If I can entertain them in different moulds, then where’s the harm? It is exciting to watch an actor in different moulds every year. So, yes, we have more variety and more options.
BOI: On the flipside, you are competing against so much more now… there’s television, there’s YouTube, which didn’t exist 10 to 15 years ago.
SM: Yes, online is big and it has actually led to a decline in footfalls. And since television has become so big, they wait for a film to release on TV. Ratings have become very important. So, yes, the competition is there and that is also very new. I believe that our generation is obsessed with foreign TV shows. I personally watch many of them and they are very well made, they are actually like movies, they have ‘A’ star actors featuring in them.
BOI: Where do you see yourself a few years from now?
SM: I think I would like to be in a place where I can create projects, in the sense that I want to get more involved. I have been an assistant director and that intrigues me, like, how can we make things better? Becoming more evolved than just being an actor, I believe I can contribute in a better way to the industry. In the next five years, I would have tried or at least attempted it. Whether people accept that or not, is another thing.