When we think of Indian cinema, there are a few names that easily come to mind. And then there are some who have worked their way into our hearts. For Arjun Rampal, while he seared the runway with his walk and fierce gaze, the intention was never to be an actor, but the passion of the industry and his deep need for a creative pursuit pulled him in, has kept him working for 22 years (since his debut in 2001), and has brought so many characters that we have enjoyed.
In an exclusive conversation with Bazaar India, he reminisces over his journey, parenthood, and everything that is coming up for him next.
Harper’s Bazaar: Of late, we have seen a rise in the number of kids from film families joining the movies. Earlier, the journey for many began with being successful models before bagging the chance to do films—for instance, Lara Dutta, Aishwarya Rai Bhachchan and Deepika Padukone among others. What do you make of this trend and where do you see it going?
Arjun Rampal: For me, it was a series of fortunate events. When I started modelling, I never thought it would be the stepping stone to becoming an actor. I did it because I enjoyed fashion, there was an incredible wave of designers, models, and fashion shows, and it was glamorous and creative. But I got bored of it, soon. I was enamoured by the creative process of making an advertisement or film, and wanted to go behind the camera.
I first did a commercial with Shekhar Kapoor and got the opportunity to meet the incredible Ashok Mehta. He was casting for his film and thought I would fit the role in Moksh. I had no skill sets, but I learnt on set.
I think anyone who wants to act today, studies; they take it seriously and are good at it. Today you have casting directors who are good at their jobs. I think there must have been many talented people in my time who weren’t discovered because of the lack of social media. Back then, there were limited ways of finding a new face, and I think the easy way was to be a model.
HB: There was a huge wave where models were picked up to become actors. Now, of course, there's an entirely different controversy about a lot of film family kids getting their roles easily, quickly.
AR: I've had many arguments on nepotism with a lot of people. Yes, there is definitely a huge advantage that a person from a film family has; if they want to join the profession, they surely have a head start. They would maybe get more chances than another person, but that's the destiny of that person. You don't choose the family that you're born into.
HB: How hard was the process of unlearning and learning for you?
AR: When I first saw myself act, I hated it; I was very stiff. An actor and a model move differently.
HB: There’s a new face almost every week in Bollywood and the OTT space. How do you, as an actor, with over 22 years of experience, stay relevant?
AR: Maybe it's the 22 years of experience that allows me to be relevant. It teaches me what to do and what not to. According to me, the body of work that you've created and your fan following is what keeps you relevant. If the audience doesn’t want to see you, you can't do anything about it, but you cannot stagnate or get into a comfort zone. So, pushing the envelope for yourself and putting yourself out of a comfort space always brings the best out.
HB: Unlike most actors, you did not stick to genres to build your profile—you’ve gone from playing a villain in Ra.One and Om Shanti Om to playing a guitarist in Rock On. You also did comedy in Aankhen. Was it a conscious decision to explore a different side of you as an actor all throughout?
AR: I have played similar characters early on in my career, because that was all that was offered to me, but I used to get really bored. Then, I read a critic writing the truth, “Oh, he was sleepwalking through the film.” Yes, I was, because it was really boring and I never wanted to be in that situation again. So, you try your best to find something challenging, something that will give you a new experience and take you out of your comfort zone.
HB: Tell us about some of your favourite designers?
AR: When it comes to Indian designers, I’ve always had a soft spot for “Gudda” (Rohit Bal). Tarun Tahiliani is also very good. I really like Gabriella’s (Demetriades) clothes; I am excited that she’s going to launch a men’s line soon. As for international designers, I like Rick Owens.
HB: How do you feel about your kids joining Bollywood? Is that something on the table for them?
AR: I think Mahikaa is quite keen. She has studied it and trained in it, because I told her that’s the best way to do it. But finally, it’s up to them– what they want to do and how they want to find themselves.
If they want to do it, they’ll have to work hard and go through the whole grind of becoming an actor, and learn it’s not all about being famous, doing photoshoots, flying first class, having a vanity van, making money, etc. It’s also about putting your soul, losing your privacy, being extremely lonely, making sacrifices, being determined, learning to become thick-skinned to a certain degree but also not losing your sensitivity. It’s a long journey that they’ll have to experience for themselves.
HB: On Instagram, kids are subject to constant criticism and there is a lot of pressure. Is that something you think your kids are going to be able to handle?
AR: If you come into a profession where you’re going to be judged and put yourself out there and please people, going down with that attitude will only mean you are going to get butchered. I would advise my children and anybody who wants to become an actor or join the entertainment industry to do everything with integrity and honesty. If it works it works, if it doesn’t, then it doesn’t matter. If there’s a lot of truth in your work, and if you can walk away from that, you will always hold your head high. If any criticism makes sense to you, learn from it and grow.
HB: How do you keep up with your kids?
AR: Not via Instagram, for sure. I don’t even know what’s going on there. I know my Instagram game is terrible and I don’t care. Parenting was different while we were growing up. My kids’ point of view, their thinking, their exposure is different from when I was growing up, and so parenting patterns automatically change. My generation of parents always said you should get a secure job first, so you have income coming in. I was a rebel and went away from that. Once I hit college, I started modelling; I realised I didn’t want to be a banker or do a 9-to-5 job, and I had a very honest conversation with my mother about it. She said, “Do whatever you want to, but with dignity.” That was the best parenting advice she gave me.
So, the best way for me to parent my kids is to help them figure out who they are, because it will make them happy and comfortable in their own skin. And to be able to make them confident as individuals and give them the kind of love that they know that their mental and physical health and happiness is important.
HB: As an actor, what's most satisfying to you—a big screen movie hitting millions or reaching out to a larger audience via OTT?
AR: I do films for the big screen. When I watched my movies being projected onto the screen, I fell in love with films. They connected with you and took you to a different world, and there is no other experience like watching a movie in a theatre. But finally, the film will come on the OTT, right?
HB: There has not been a big Bollywood film like Pathaan post the pandemic. Do you think the trend of going back to the theatres is returning, or is OTT the future?
AR: I think people will definitely go back to the theatres. You've seen it with Pathaan; it's definitely something the industry really needed. It is extremely important for the whole industry, indie filmmakers included, that these kinds of films do well, because money comes into the industry and gives opportunities for more films to get made. Those may, sooner or later, go on to OTT.
And it is not limited to spectacle films; people did go out to watch Drishyam 2 and Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2. The former is a story-driven movie and the latter was a family entertainer, and both did really well. Today, the audiences have gotten very smart. They know what they want to watch. They also know it's going to come onto an OTT platform and they can watch it there. So, fundamentally, all films have the opportunity to get watched, which is great. Entertainment will always be there; it’s the only industry that’s recession proof.
HB: What is next for you?
AR: There's a lot that I've already completed, and in 2023, god willing, you’ll see them. There are two films with Abbas Mustan; there's a film with Aparna Sen called The Rapist; another one with Honey Trehan and RSVP; there is Ishq Jhamela, a comedy film, in which Gabriella has also played a small part; London Files; and Blind Game.