“You can’t stop me from being who I want to be,” said an 18-year-old Shahid Kapoor who fought with his mother, kathak dancer and actor, Neelima Azeem, so that he could ride a motorbike. It’s a decree that he swears by to date. Shahid Kapoor, now 42, can’t be deterred. Raj Nidimoru of Raj and DK fame, who directed him in the Amazon Prime series, Farzi, calls him a ‘thinking actor’. “He doesn’t look it,” he says, “he’s that student who pretends he has not studied for the exams and then goes on to top it.” It’s why Kapoor can essay one of the most divisive protagonists in Hindi cinema, Kabir Singh, with such conviction that it becomes one of the biggest hits of 2019. Surprising the audience has been essential to Kapoor’s longevity. “You should always have unpredictability as a performer,” he says, “even if the audience likes you, give them a visceral experience, a compelling experience, and shock them.”
Kapoor sees himself as unconventional rather than a risk-taker. Back in 2021, when news spread that he’d star in a web series it was touted as a bold move, especially for an actor who had recently enjoyed his biggest theatrical success. For Kapoor, though, embracing OTT was “an obvious, simple choice”, one that he made much before the pandemic wreaked havoc in our lives. In fact, Covid-19’s impact on the entertainment industry and the proliferation of streaming platforms during that turbulent period only validated his decision. “For me it was simple; if Mathew McConaughey can do True Detective after winning an Oscar, why are we making such a big deal?” says Kapoor. “If I am consuming it (OTT content) so much, why am I not acting in it? If I am inspired and the content is good, irrespective of the platform it releases on, the audience will enjoy it.”
It’s this move that paid dividends for Kapoor. An Ormax Media report stated that Farzi was not just 2023's most-watched Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD) series, but of all time. If that wasn’t music to Kapoor’s ears, he had more reasons to celebrate—Bloody Daddy (on JioCinema) was ranked as the most-watched film on a streaming platform thus far. Is Kapoor enjoying the career high? “I don’t like to feel high, because it’s a floaty feeling and disconnects you from reality,” he says.
There’s another reason why 2023 is special for Kapoor—the year marks the actor’s two decades in the industry. He has been around long enough to see the entertainment industry evolve—multiplexes taking over single screens, international studios entering the fray, streaming platforms vying with cinemas for eyeballs, pan-Indian films becoming a phenomenon, and the social media craze making actors put a lot of themselves out there, sometimes unwillingly. He has seen a new generation emerge who subscribe to the notion that being seen is being relevant. But Kapoor doesn’t belong to that pack. He understands that enigma is a vital component for longevity. The actor says, “The question is, what are you here for—a 100m sprint or a marathon? You have to know.”
And what does it take to survive for this long in the film industry? “A very thick skin and a real passion for what you do. Don’t be bothered about what people have to say,” the reply comes promptly. He has learned to shun the noise of cynics and be what he wants to be. “Greatness lies in performance,” he says. He won’t blow his own trumpet; he doesn’t mind if others do it when it’s merited. “My mantra is: People talk about icons, they don’t talk about themselves.”
After his parents, Pankaj Kapur and Neelima Azeem parted ways, Kapoor was raised in New Delhi by his mother and maternal grandparents. He was eight when he first faced the camera for a TV show. And since his debut movie, Ishq Vishk, in 2003, Kapoor has belonged to the industry and yet, in many ways, he hasn’t. He has charted his own journey—from being a dancer who performed behind stars like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (Taal), Karisma Kapoor in (Dil Toh Paagal Hai), and appearing in a Pepsi commercial with Shah Rukh Khan, Kajol, and Rani Mukherjee, to becoming a star. Did he ever know he was destined to be doing what they did? “I am a pragmatic guy. I like to have a vivid imagination but with that comes hard reality because I come from a basic background, I have seen how tough life is,” he says.
He lets us in on his childhood in Bombay, when his mother decided to try her hand at acting and they moved to the City of Dreams. The initial going for the 10-year-old was tough. Joining a class of 22 children who had known each other since kindergarten, he felt alienated. Since then he has a disdain for bullies and cliques. Dancing became his escape; it helped he was good at it. A fast riser in Shiamak Davar’s troupe, Kapoor made heads turn with his talent. With adulation, his confidence grew. Soon, ads started coming his way. By his late teens, Kapoor had started earning money. “I was the elder son and I didn’t want to burden my single mother,” he says. “I grew up much faster and I am proud of it. Mom was always the man of the house. She still is the strength behind me and Ishaan (younger brother).”
Kapoor didn’t have his father in the house but he was very much in his mind. Pankaj Kapur earned a fan following for his work in TV shows like Karamchand, Zabaan Sambhalke, Bharat Ek Khoj, and Office Office, and acclaim for indie titles like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Kamla Ki Maut, and Ek Doctor Ki Maut. Kapoor assisted his father on shows like Mohandas B.A.L.L.B, but getting his father to teach him acting was harder than he imagined. After years of nagging, Kapur finally did a workshop for his son. He also recommended Kapoor learned from Naseeruddin Shah. Pankaj Kapur, however, wasn’t the sort of actor-father who’d give his child’s career a push by putting in a word among filmmakers. “He’d say, ‘make your own mistakes and find your own path as that will make you the man who sustains over a period of time. Apne mehnat se seekho (learn from your hard work), earn your place.”
Kapoor was all of 21. He was charming, enthusiastic, and very aware that he was “one among the many” aspirants. “I learned what I am doing while I started doing it,” he says. “You discover and do things you are not sure about. There’s a learning curve.” After making an impression in his debut, Ishq Vishk, he struggled to find parts that portray him as anything other than a young guy romancing and dancing. “For the first five to six years, I didn’t know what to do or where I would get the chance to do what I really wanted to do,” says Kapoor. His role model, then, was Aamir Khan, who wowed “by doing unconventional stuff which was commercially loved”. That opportunity finally came his way with Imtiaz Ali’s Jab We Met. It was a role passed on by others, but Kapoor tapped into the vulnerability and internal conflict of a young man who seemingly has everything. The audience saw a whole new side of him—understated, yet effective. He had made an impact.
He was approached by renowned directors, including Vishal Bhardwaj, for challenging and more fulfilling roles. Bhardwaj offered him not one but two parts in Kaminey, and there has been no looking back for him after that. Kapoor had shunned the ‘nice guy’ image and started exploring grey characters. “I felt people are a lot more interesting when they have a little bit of everything in them,” he says. “I am ok if the audience says it was a great performance but a terrible character rather than the other way around.”