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Anil Kapoor takes a break from shooting on the sets of ‘24’. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Anil Kapoor takes a break from shooting on the sets of ‘24’. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Agent Anil

The former 'tapori' and invisible man wants to be the first Bollywood biggie to hunt some bad guys on TV

The non-existent road in a battered corner of Kurla in Mumbai is dark, barring small streams of light sneaking in from between what look like sheds. The path through a hole in one of the walls transports you to a world of contrasting sophistication. Six TV screens symmetrically mounted on a wall show maps of unidentified locations. A panel of switches, the kind that in movies help detonate nuclear weapons, lies on top of a unit just below the screens. With his back to this set, Anil Kapoor sits with his legs crossed, looking pensive. Alone.

It’s been a while since the actor-producer has had a quiet moment on this mid-August evening. He has completed his sequence of shoots for the Indian television show 24, and is focusing on the other actors. He looks intently as Shabana Azmi, her left arm in a cast, accompanies a fellow actor up the stairs to a cabin, presumably hers, while director Abhinay Deo watches the scene on a monitor in another room. The large set is filled with equipment and people—technicians, assistants, actors—and yet, in the corner, Kapoor sits alone.

He would say half-an-hour later his career has been built in that fashion, as someone who would walk the path no one else has, doing what others may not want to or be capable of. With this television show, he will once again want to emphasize that point.

“I am not trying to prove something," he murmurs, after the shoot has been wrapped up for the evening, his voice barely audible. “This motivates me to work harder, to try something no one has, which makes me get up in the morning and go to work. If you had come to meet me after a film of mine had done 100 crore in business, I would have been bored. Kya main baat karoon, itne saal se main kya jawab doon (What do I say after so many years)? I can’t fake it anymore. I have done it and I can do it well. After all, I am an actor," he smiles briefly, “But it’s tiring. This (24) makes me feel young and motivated. This makes me feel good about myself."

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An action scene from the series

Kapoor will produce and star in this, stepping into the role of the lead character Jai Singh Rathod, originally called Jack Bauer and played by Kiefer Sutherland with understated intensity and a disregard for authority. 24 is set in real time, each episode showing an hour in the life of the protagonists, and the story is built over the course of one day, or 24 episodes. Bauer is a federal officer in the Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) whose job is to, well, counter terrorism. 24 was known for its taut plotline, slick action and addictive storytelling, which Kapoor will try and replicate.

“I never felt like I am shooting for TV," he says of the 16-odd episodes that have been canned so far. “I felt like I am shooting for a movie. It’s the material, something out of the box that excites me. I have never gone for money, ever. I have done films which I believed in, and money followed. I didn’t do endorsements because that’s not for creative stuff, that’s for money, correct? No mainstream star has done TV (besides reality shows). They have used it as a cash cow, not for satisfaction. I have done it totally for great story-telling."

Kapoor says they have not “tampered" with the show but adapted it to Indian sensibilities. So Rathod will have a more salient emotional graph than Bauer, says Rensil D’Silva, one of the writers. Additionally, Kapoor says, “The political scenario is different here; we have our own colours and festivals. The Americans are more subtle and understated. But it doesn’t mean we make it melodramatic but real in the Indian context."

A new direction

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Kapoor in ‘24’

He is dressed in blue pants, black-and-grey striped T-shirt, his face grim, unshaven. He smiles only twice during the course of the conversation. It’s past 9pm, but he shows no signs of exhaustion or irritation. Younger colleagues in 24, like Mandira Bedi, say while they would flop at the end of a long shoot, Kapoor would still be pacing about, goading the others on. His age, if one doesn’t know, is difficult to guess.

Kapoor’s weight has not changed in 30 years, he says, because of “moderation" and his family, which fights to use the gym at home. Whenever he overdoes the eating, he “detoxes" for 10 days. “It does not happen overnight," Kapoor says of how he has “preserved" himself. “So many things I would not be part of…so many distractions I kept away from. I indulge, but not every night. I want to enjoy my food, drink, cigar...but all my life. Kutte mafik pee rahen hain, kha rahen hai, pagalon ke tarah body bana rahe hain, steroids daal rahen hain, uske baad phus ho rahen hain, kya fayda? (you eat and drink without control, use steroids to build your body, but it all amounts to nothing)."

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At the Orange British Academy Film Awards 2010. Photo: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

He worked his way up, role by role, the first sign of success coming in 1983 with Woh 7 Din, where his naïve villager with the perpetually untied pyjamas, would grab the empathy from more seasoned Naseeruddin Shah and Padmini Kolhapure. Soon, he was stealing the limelight from Dilip Kumar (in Mashaal; he also shared the opening sequence with Kumar as his grandson in Shakti), being chased by big banners and filmmakers like Subhash Ghai (Meri Jung, Karma, Ram Lakhan among others), Yash Chopra (Lamhe, for which he famously removed his trademark moustache) and Vidhu Vinod Chopra (Parinda, 1942: A Love Story, for which he cut his long hair). He was happy to adapt roles from the south, like in Eeshwar and Virasat, blend comic acts with dramatic ones, play the spoil to the less exuberant Jackie Shroff and left his contemporaries trailing behind in terms of a choice of roles and adaptability.

Defining parts included the invisible man in Mr India, the wronged army officer in Pukar, which earned him the national award, and the tapori in love in Tezaab. Nobody played the bumpkin as well, but he also made audiences cry, as the young man who gives up footballing dreams for the family in Saaheb. While he established himself through the mid-1980s, in the next decade a clutch of younger actors, another set of star sons and Khans, started jostling for screen space. Though few had his versatility and appeal with the masses, Kapoor had to adapt to survive—none of which included a shaven chest or hair weaves.

With daughter Sonam and Tom Cruise at a screening of ‘Mission Impossible—Ghost Protocol’ in Mumbai in 2011. Photo: STR/AFP
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With daughter Sonam and Tom Cruise at a screening of ‘Mission Impossible—Ghost Protocol’ in Mumbai in 2011. Photo: STR/AFP

Television is the latest addition to his acting résumé. But his career and life turned a new corner with the award-winning Slumdog Millionaire in 2008. At a time when several Indian actors were making tall claims of doing Hollywood films, Kapoor took a leap of faith with a film that won eight Oscars; his scheming game show host Prem was one of the highlights of the film. Cameos in Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (2011) and the eighth season of 24 followed, giving him international exposure. “I am a listener. I owe it to my interaction with people like Tom," he pauses, “Cruise. When I get the chance, I bombard them with as many questions. This is what I learnt from them: Their commitment is completely different."

But somewhere along the way, in the last few years, it appeared like there were not enough films to excite him, a reason perhaps for considering television and generating content for himself. Cities, a film with Clive Owen, was announced sometime ago but has subsequently been shelved. Back home, his recent past is filled with slapstick comedies and banal sequels: Shootout at Wadala, Race 2, Tezz, No Problem, Tashan and Race among others. Forthcoming films include another sequel, No Entry Mein Entry, and murmurs of a second part to Mr India, which he does not confirm.

“Forget India, I have so many international scripts, independent films, roles, characters… that’s never been a problem," he counters. “They are not just meaty roles, they are great roles. But I am not one of those who throws names; that’s tacky. I can promise you, the best roles come to me. There are seven to eight films, good films, with me. It might not be a Jawaani Deewani or Rowdy Rathore or Chennai Express, which I have done when the time was right. I have grown out of those; I shouldn’t do them anymore. My children would not allow me to do them. They say stop doing ‘Race 5’, ‘No Entry 6’, ‘Mr India 3’…come on, man," he laughs. “Not that I can’t do it, I can. Nahin karna chahiye."

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A still from ‘Slumdog Millionaire’

Tough call

All this has brought him here—to another first: A leading film star headlining a fiction series on Indian TV that has been adapted from an American hit. The scale of Sutherland’s 24 was big: with action scenes, outdoor locations, gun fights, car chases, an occasional explosion and a large cast. Its India adapters are trying to make it as large: Azmi, Kher and Rahul Khanna, to name some, appear in a few episodes. Deo, a successful ad film-maker, helmed Delhi Belly two years ago. He says outdoor locations for 24 in India include “a massive sequence" in crowded Worli village, Sewri, “parts of Mumbai that have not been featured before and some crazy-ass locations." He adds that there will be split screens like in the original, intrigue and surprises.

The plot line is similar to the first season of the American show. Here, Rathod is called in to try and stop an assassination attempt on a prime ministerial candidate (Neil Bhoopalam). Rathod, who is in a troubled relationship with his wife (Tisca Chopra), soon finds that his family is central to the terrorists’ plan even as traitors within his own organization shadow his every move. Rathod has to save everyone in a desperate race against time.

“Some roles are only physical," says Kapoor, “but this is a layered, flawed character. He is a hero—real, believable and still aspirational. Anybody would want to be him."

The budget for this show, the film-makers claim, is more than anything ever seen before (conservative estimates put it at 1.5 crore an episode). “But when you give numbers, it makes me feel uncomfortable. It’s good enough by Indian standards but deserves much more, for the effort, the scale, the talent," says Kapoor. “None of the fiction shows here have gone beyond 10 lakh (in budget). A US show costs up to $5-10 million per episode, which is around 60 crore, which is unthinkable here. We are trying the same scale in a budget that’s not even one-tenth."

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“Two things are necessary: The maker should feel there is an audience for it and he should have the infrastructure to make it," says Atul Sabharwal, who directed Powder in 2010. “Now there is an audience for it, which is why an active film star has decided to make such a show. It’s a metro or sub-metro show, because how many people will give up Bade Achhe Lagte Hai and invest in a complicated ongoing plot like this one? It’s the reason why we have fewer fiction shows of this kind."

Mainstream movie stars have consistently looked away from television, and even if an Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan, Aamir Khan or Madhuri Dixit make an appearance, it’s for a reality show where creative investment is low and financial returns are high. But post the launch of 24, already Sony Entertainment Television has announced its fiction series with Bachchan and film-maker Anurag Kashyap as creative director. Others may yet follow in the search for creative satisfaction, Kapoor says, now that he has made the beginning.

He joked at the trailer launch of the show recently that as he increasingly plays “grey" characters on screen, he is trying to be a hero at home. His life, according to him, has the right “bank balance"—of fame, money, health and family. His son Harshvardhan is set to appear in Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s next film. Daughter Sonam has established herself as a fashion icon and star, while Rhea is producing, among others, a remake of Khubsoorat.

“Today’s children, don’t care. They have made up their minds. They say, ‘I got a meeting, I said yes to this’. They feel I compromised," Kapoor says.

“I am fortunate I can do things I feel like whenever I feel like," he adds. “At any stage I might do TV, film, I have done two endorsements (Mont Blanc, Renault)—how does it matter? I am not a stubborn man. I also change with time."

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