For six years I had no money, and when I did make some money, Mehr and I would take the money and fly first class to Paris to chill. We took one day at a time. Because we knew better days would come. I still live like that,” drawls Arjun Rampal as he leans back on a plastic chair in his vanity van. He’s parked on location at Phoenix Mills, Mumbai, for his forthcoming television show Love2HateU, in which the actor brings together his celebrity friends—Chetan Bhagat, Madhur Bhandarkar and Farah Khan so far—and the people who love to hate them.
The show will air on Star World from Sunday, six days before he turns 39. He’s just met his own hater—stand-up comedian Farhan, who mocks Rampal for a living. Rampal is the kind of guy who likes to confront and clear the air. He asks Farhan why he hates him so much, asks if he should “slap him about a bit”. Rampal mocks him, his jokes rile Farhan, yet Farhan is a convert.
The show itself is a metaphor for the man. Rampal shrugs off the labels: Gudda’s (designer Rohit Bal’s) blue-eyed boy, Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) camper, industry nice guy, pushover.
Kaleidoscope: At the shoot of his TV show Love2HateU. Shivangi Kulkarni/Mint
His elder daughter’s name, Mahika, is tattooed prominently on his right bicep. Two packs of Marlboros lie next to his iPad and his MAC foundation. His face is pinched with exhaustion. It has been a week since Ra.One released, he hosted the party to put parties on the map, the Formula One (F1) finale, and followed it with his TV show debut shoot—not what he had foreseen as a supermodel at the age of 21.
No sooner had Lady Gaga brought Rampal’s painstakingly carved stone marigolds on the piano alive, than socialites began to write columns on how long, and how well, they had known this success in the making. Yet Rampal, in many flops till he turned SRK-sponsored villain in Om Shanti Om (2007), could easily have been an also-ran. He pulls out his iPad and takes us through the minute details of his planning for the F1 party: the inspirations for the floral walk-in, laser lights, the timing of each trapeze artiste, the projection walls, profiles of every Sports Illustrated model selected to play hostess, security, music—six months of sheer aesthetic orchestration. It is a reflection of the attention and energy he’s invested in his Delhi hot spot: the members-only club Lap, run in partnership with restaurateur A.D. Singh, done up by designer Sandeep Khosla; where six DJs—one for each night of the week—play a progressive House sound and where Bollywood music is banned; where an eight-member secret committee selects an A-list crowd; and where Rampal occasionally deejays too.
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Rampal has emerged a shrewd businessman, quite unlike the pretty-face reputation of his modelling years. “The tag ‘beautiful face’ had nothing to do with me,” he says. His work now, says Rampal, is but an extension of his philosophy of partying: “The whole experience of partying is more than just standing around holding a drink, dancing to a DJ and having a stupid conversation. It has to be a visual treat. It can easily become a circus with these trapeze artistes flying around. You should think you’ve seen something and do a double take and be mesmerized by it. It should be magical. If you can transport the customer from one space into a whole different one, you can spin it,” he says.
Over the years, Rampal has quietly created a circle of influence that spans fashion, high society, film, industry and politics. His connections are not dependent on each other; he weaves them deftly and on a one-to-one basis. His friendship with former IPL chairman Lalit Modi stems from Modi’s wife Minal, once designer Tarun Tahiliani’s muse, who was a friend of Rampal’s wife Mehr Jesia, rather than through SRK. One misstep will not bring the structure down. That is social insurance.
Deejaying at the F1 party. Courtesy Arjun Rampal
Rampal is currently in talks with New York-based hotelier Vikram Chatwal to expand Lap internationally. He is also relaunching his own production house, Chasing Ganesha Films, dormant since his embarrassing 2006 remake of Just Like Heaven—I See You. Rampal has survived the scandal of Jessica Lal murder-accused Manu Sharma caught partying at Lap while on bail in 2009. Lap remains a rare nightclub with an enviable 24-hour permit in a city with a midnight deadline. His friendship with SRK continues despite his relationship with other camps like the Bachchans’.
Rampal survives all this because of sheer goodwill. Both friends and rivals jump to the defence of how “above board” he is. “It is remarkable that Sameer Gaur, owner of the Jaypee Group and a member at Lap, called on me. He could easily have given the F1 party to international planners like all F1s do,” Rampal points out.
Why do powerful people love him? Undeniable good looks apart, Rampal is credited with the “X factor”. His mentor Bal explains what drew him to discover Rampal 18 years ago at the once-hip Ghungroo nightclub in Delhi: “Even as a student at Hindu College, he was a star. He is one of the most beautiful faces in the world today—he has an intensity to him. But then, aren’t there many beautiful people in the world?
“Arjun is well-rounded. He is genuine in an industry of fakes. He has a great upbringing, he reads, he’s a sporty guy’s guy, he’s a cricket buff, he is the kind of friend who is one phone call away.” Rampal, who offers his chair to our photographer and waits till someone fetches him another, stands out in an industry of egomaniacs.
The high EQ has helped him navigate an industry potholed with camps. Rangita Pritish Nandy, creative director of PNC, claims ignorance when reminded that PNC had signed on Rampal in 2009 when the company was reportedly on SRK’s “black list”. The media had debated if Rampal would be “forgiven”. “It’s not an issue any of us were aware of,” Nandy says. “Arjun is the kind of guy with blinkers on. He is so focused that when you work with him, only the task at hand is of importance. He is not about camps. Arjun is not a pushover. He states his opinion, and yet he has this amazing quality which sets people at ease.” Her brother Kushan will make his as yet untitled directorial debut with Rampal and Amitabh Bachchan.
Playing show-stopper for mentor Rohit Bal. Ramesh Sharma/India Today Group/Getty Image
Rampal owns a practical nice guy-ness—stepping into We Are Family for film-maker Karan Johar when John Abraham walked out, being a last-minute show-stopper for Bal, delivering first-aid to an injured Ranbir Kapoor at Bandra’s Gold’s Gym, pushing the launch of Lap till SRK could make it back after his shoot for My Name Is Khan in the US. “I never believed in camps. I have a few friends who are closer than others, but I’ve been lucky to have a work relationship with actors where your chemistry is good. It’s important to create that because that is what is going to be seen on screen. If you can’t create it and there is friction, or it’s too superficial, it won’t work,” Rampal says. His pushing the comfort zone for friends and rivals makes them stand by him.
Rampal uses his acute awareness of his own weak spots to disarm you: “The first time I saw the rushes of Moksh a, I instantly knew I was really, really bad. I was taken aback. I was really good at maybe riding that horse, but when I had to stand, I would stand like a model. For so many years, I had trained my brain to react in a certain way to the camera. I swore on that day that I would never model again,” he says. At the time of making this decision, Rampal had no clue it would take six years for his first film to be screened in 2001. “Even though my phone would ring and I’d be asked to model, and even though I was running out of money, I had made that decision, so I stuck with it.”
As he watched film after film flop, Rampal kept asking himself why he wasn’t able to get it right. Rampal’s career has been repeatedly resuscitated from near-death experiences by his consistent ability to beat himself up with self-doubt. “Mehr and I would eat veg food and watch the dog eat the only non-veg we could afford. My luck just didn’t improve. One film tanked after another. For those six years, I had no money. I realized I was just listening to too many people. I had to cut that off.”
Rampal withdrew, changed his friends’ circle and slowly began to “get it right”. Realizing that his greatest quality lay not so much in acting, but in forging bonds, Rampal began to invest in people, instead of in films.
“In the beginning, I would stay a lot to myself because I didn’t know the industry at all. Then slowly, I started meeting like-minded people: Farhan (Akhtar), Shah Rukh. I had met Mr Bachchan, who is extremely fond of me and whom I am extremely fond of. The first time I worked with Farhan was the first time I felt I was working with a person in a like-minded space. That triggered off a good friendship. We call each other Adi and Jo still. With Shah Rukh, it’s similar. We became friends. I am fond of Gauri and the children, and it became more than a work relationship. These things happen coincidentally. I just believe that whoever you work with, you need to extend a lot more than just the work relationship, especially when you are doing creative work,” Rampal says.
Rampal and wife Mehr Jesia. Prodip Guha/Hindustan Times
Suddenly, Om Shanti Om earned him acclaim and Rock On!! earned him a National Award and a Filmfare Award a year later in 2008.
Farah Khan, director of Om Shanti Om, explains why she offered the film to Rampal, who did not have a commendable filmography to his credit at the time: “At first, Rampal refused the film. He was quite worried because it was an outright black character with no shades of grey. On my part, I needed a face that the audience would believe Deepika’s character would leave an SRK for! I find Rampal immensely watchable, and unlike a lot of actors who sign B-grade films out of desperation, Rampal, even when he was down, was not overexposed. Even now, he is a niche actor and he maintains that selectivity. Arjun may have got awards for Rock On!! but I would like to take credit for freeing the actor inside him.”
Rampal’s contact base is not restricted to the high and mighty alone. It is an army enlisted across industries and time zones. Thus, Shashank Dive, who did the sets for Rock On !!, worked on Lady Gaga’s sets. Atul Jagpal, who did the laser lighting for Rampal’s first stage show overseas, Heart Throbs, did his laser lights. Award-winning space designer Sumant Jaikishan, who once created catwalks for many designers, did the interiors at the F1 do.
Bal explains this is a quality that has taken Rampal far. “Arjun gets it right. Few people do. How much to party, how hard to work. He gets people. He gets circumstances. He carries people with him.” Rampal always pulls back just in time. It is a philosophy that prevents him from going over the cliff when reports of being overshadowed by SRK in Ra.One surface.
Rampal’s acting career began to revive as his choices began to be dictated by the friendships he forged. “‘I think true talent lies in the choices you make’. (Robert) De Niro said that and it makes a lot of sense to me now,” Rampal says. When he realized his own marked inability to fake an emotion on screen, he turned it to his advantage by befriending the problem. When Rampal played Ranbir’s brother in Raajneeti, the two had met only a few times. “Both of us were a bit nervous to be working in a multi-starrer. We were in Bhopal. I took him inside a room and I said, ‘Okay now, sit down. Tell me all your secrets and I will tell you the same: whatever you want to know, and it will stay with me. But we need to be on that level with each other to be able to play brothers, otherwise how the hell are we going to play brothers? It’s going to be so fake’.” In two days, they had developed a genuine camaraderie. Raajneeti won Rampal a Filmfare award in 2010.
Rampal’s friends rely on him for his sense of “balance”. Rampal insists: “I can walk away from anything any time. It’s scary sometimes. It comes from the spiritual side of me. The only thing I can never walk away from is my children.” Keeping his family as motivation, Rampal explains, is key to his professional ambitions: “Having kids changed me professionally. Your children are the nicest motivation to have—it keeps you honest in what you do. Children just open your perception of life so drastically.” His wife Mehr, who fiercely keeps the media out, plays a huge role too. “We all survive on confidence. It’s what gets you up in the morning and allows you to face the world. The kind of confidence Mehr has in me, and the level of honesty, defines me.”
Rampal says a secure man is simply a man who doesn’t have a goal. And his constant struggle is to find new goals. He has walked away from success before; as a supermodel by the age of 21, when he headed to Dharamsala to spend six months with monks. “I’m glad I was part of that revolutionary period in fashion. But I wanted to go to a place where people didn’t know me and see if I would still get work.” In London, he found no work. In New York, he had no tear sheets and Fashion Week largely ignored him. “I said, ‘Ok, just give me a shot. If I get some shows great, if not, I accept defeat and go’; because I could not survive there any more. Luckily, I landed Donna Karen, Hugo Boss, Thierry Mugler, and made something like $40,000-50,000 (around Rs 19.6-24.5 lakh now).” Instead of building on it and realizing his dream of going to New York University’s film school, he returned to India and took up director Ashok Mehta’s offer of a debut in Moksha.
Circles, even circles of success, are meant to be broken, Rampal insists. Evolution is breaking a pattern. “Success,” he says, “is a perspective.”
For some, that means hero, for others, villain. For some, it’s faking brotherhood, for others, acquiring it.