His hair is barely a millimetre long, his face pale with fatigue, and half-covered with an unkempt beard. The broody brown eyes are vaguely familiar, but in the haze drifting in from the mountains, and the shroud of unease, it’s hard to recognise Bollywood heart-throb Shahid Kapoor on set in his guise as Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider.
While the world raves about Shahid’s performance in this stunning adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it’s impossible not to be blown away by his brilliance in one blink-and-you-will-miss-it scene. It happens early in the movie when Shahid’s character Haider comes back home after learning that his genial doctor father has been taken away by the army for treating a militant. Expecting to find his mother distraught with worry, he walks in to catch his uncle flirting with her, and she is clearly enjoying the attention.
For moments that seemed like a lifetime, there is no dialogue. Shahid’s eyes do all the talking, reflecting shock, pain and dismay with such heart-wrenching subtlety that you cannot but cry for the innocent boy who in one tragic moment becomes a sceptical man. In that instant Shahid Kapoor, a Bollywood star, graduated to being an actor of unquestionable reckoning.
Haider is a world away from the kitsch and comedy of Shahid’s last hit movie, the blockbuster R… Rajkumar, a film that aptly showcases his skills as a dancer. And it is this versatility that makes one wonder how a song-and-dance man could take on one of the greatest works of Shakespeare. But behind the glossy veneer of the Bollywood star is a man who bears the burden of the rigours of fame; the deep-rooted scars that come from being a child of divorce.
His actor parents – father Pankaj Kapur and mother Neelima Azeem – ended their relationship when Shahid was very young. Both parents went on to marry other actors and start a family with them. “Even though my mother and stepfather [Rajesh Khattar] got divorced a few years ago, I am still quite close to him and my kid brother Ishaan,” he says.
Shahid’s inner conflicts have readied him for what is a career-defining role, as he steps out of the world of commercial excess and overblown histrionics and into the performance of a lifetime, in Bhardwaj’s film. He is stripped bare as the Hindi Hamlet, literally exposing the brooding Byronic figure that lurks within – a role he knew he had to play. “There are very few opportunities when you get to actually act so much [as he does in Haider] and whenever I’ve had that opportunity I have tried to grab at it,” he says.
He admits that he started his career with his first leading role in a very conventional love story, Ishq Vishk, and says, “that’s how a lot of actors in India get introduced, when you come in with more of a romantic image”. But Shahid, 33, is quick to add that he was happy doing those roles at the time as he connected with a young generation.
“I loved doing those roles. That said, I think becoming a star happens by default. I’m lucky that it happened with my first film Ishq Vishk. It’s also simultaneously a journey where I wanted to be an actor.”
The son of classically trained stage and screen actor, Pankaj Kapur, who won critical acclaim for his portrayal of King Duncan in Maqbool, Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Macbeth, Shahid is not unfamiliar with the world of Shakespeare, having grown up in a milieu where the classics were lovingly pored over as a matter of course.
And while his earlier movies made Shahid a star, with Haider, he’s on the brink of becoming something far greater: an actor of distinction, like his father.
Although Haider is Bollywood’s first significant adaptation of Hamlet, Shahid knew that he was stepping into the shadows of some of the world’s all-time great stage and cinema legends such as Laurence Olivier – who directed and acted in the 1948 film that went on to win Best Film and earn him the Best Actor at the Academy Awards – and John Gielgud, the theatre icon who played Hamlet more than 500 times.
“To be honest, when I agreed to do the role, I didn’t realise that I was going to be doing one of the most complex roles of my career,” he says. “It was only after we were about halfway through the film that I began to seek approval from Vishal as I didn’t want to miss out on a nuance, mainly because it is a character with so many layers to it that it becomes too difficult to analyse if you are doing it right or not. So whenever I felt confused I would look at Vishal after each cut and if he was happy, I would be satisfied knowing whatever I had done was right.”
The film is set in 1990s Kashmir, against the backdrop of political unrest in the perennially war-torn region. When Shahid’s character Haider realises that his mother and his father’s younger brother – played by the formidable talent of Life of Pi and Namesake star Tabu and actor Kay Kay Menon – could be having an affair and his uncle could be responsible for his father’s death, what ensues is a tragic tale of revenge, betrayal and overall mistrust.
“For me, Haider is somebody who represents the choice that every human being has and how you deal with a loss that you fail to be able to make peace with,” says Shahid. “That’s the journey of Haider.”
The role sees Shahid shorn of his trademark shock of hair, leaving him bare to portray his intense angst and confusion, which borders on being maniacal. It’s a huge commitment for a commercial Bollywood star to hack off the locks, which are such an intrinsic feature of the conventional hero’s image, but it was an easy choice for Shahid, who is known to be very particular about his hairstyle.
“We actually shot only four hours and that’s all I needed to shoot for that bald scene. I had my team trying very hard to convince me to try prosthetics. They told me ‘Just for four hours of work are you going to shave your head and sit at home for three months? No one is going to cast you in any role because of your bald head’.
“But there are certain films where you need to do that because it comes from here, from the heart, with your tears, sweat and blood, and a little bit of hair,” he laughs. “This film needed that and I think it makes a difference.”
Of course, it wouldn’t be Hamlet without the iconic “To Be, Or Not To Be” scene. Shahid contended with the weighty undertaking of delivering the soliloquy by distancing himself from the original work.
“I actually forgot about Hamlet once we prepped. I thought it would be the wrong journey to take. I needed to think about Haider, his world, his family, his angst, his anger, his pain.”
Just as Haider becomes consumed by his inner torment and contemplates the sweet surrender that he supposes might come with death, contrary to his public image of an all-singing, all-dancing boy next door, Shahid reveals a proclivity for deep contemplation, frequently succumbing to his own ponderous musings about the human condition, in the quiet sanctuary of his bachelor pad in Mumbai.
“I’ve had that side to me always, actually, it’s just that those things are kind of personal, so you don’t show them to people who you might not know so well. It’s something that’s largely shared with people who are very close. Like your inner circle. They know me for that person, but a lot of the world might not. Because I don’t show it.
“I have these two very opposing sides to myself. The brooding side is because of life and my take on it, and the other side has been fed by the job that I do. I realise that it is very important to communicate and connect with people, and I have learnt over the years that it’s an amazing thing, that as a celebrity you can make people smile. To carry that energy with you is very, very important.”
While Shahid’s first leading role in Ishq Vishk made him a star overnight with his limpid brown eyes and slick dance moves – and won him Filmfare’s Best Male Debut Actor award – it hasn’t always been easy. That initial fizz of success fell flat with the releases that followed.
Unable to deliver a hit for the next three years, Shahid was practically written off by the trade pundits as a shooting star in Bollywood’s galaxy that is obsessed with box office numbers. He starred in about seven films – some, insipid comedies, others, numbing thrillers – none of which made any difference to his failing career.
Shahid returned to stardom in 2006 with Sooraj Barjatya’s Vivah (Marriage), a typical Mills & Boon love story of a rich, carefree boy who agrees to marry a demure small-town girl.
The marriage is arranged by his father, but it turns out his character falls in love with the leading lady before they eventually tie the knot – the type of plot that is considered to be the safest bet in Bollywood for stars as well as film-makers.
Realising that love stories are what people like him for, Shahid topped the success of Vivah with Imtiaz Ali’s Jab We Met in 2007 with his then girlfriend Kareena Kapoor. Shahid plays a grief-stricken young man who runs away from home after his father’s death and his own failed relationships with his mother and girlfriend. He then meets a feisty and vivacious girl who is a fountain of positivity.
The chemistry between the leading actors and the film’s script made it a runaway success, not only at the box office but at all the award ceremonies.
Since Jab We Met, Shahid has done about a dozen films, each completely different from the other. But what is clearly evident in each of the films is his sincere conviction towards the characters he portrays and his perennial willingness to push the envelope.
It is this sincerity and his down-to-earth attitude towards his own stardom that has made Shahid a hero to millions of Bollywood fans, never mind his chiselled visage that adorns billboards from London to Mumbai and everywhere in between.
But he seems to yearn for the normality of an ordinary existence; the love and marriage that have so far eluded him.
“Mentally I know I am ready for a relationship. I just need to find someone I like and am able to connect with. Once that happens, I might even tie the knot, who knows?” he asks.
Love can be elusive, even when the media hails him as one of the most eligible men in India. The demands of stardom are far easier to traverse than the quagmire of modern relationships, and for now his career is the focus of his being: it’s perhaps where he is able to make peace with his own life.
After his much-talked-about break up with actress Kareena Kapoor in 2007 – apparently during the making of Jab We Met – Shahid went into a sort of hibernation, only to be seen on screen or at official events. But since then he has been linked to several Bollywood actresses, including Priyanka Chopra, Vidya Balan, Bipasha Basu and Sonakshi Sinha, but neither Shahid nor any of the women ever confirmed the relationships.
But while seeking some degree of normality, Shahid lives quite an extraordinary life, one that has seen him travel to all corners of the globe; perform before 20,000 people at London’s 02 arena for a star-studded Bollywood entertainment show; earn the adoration of an army of hardcore fans, 4.6 million of them on Twitter who call themselves the ‘Shanatics.’
And let’s not forget, he’s even shared the stage with a sarong-wearing Kevin Spacey for an impromptu ‘lungi dance’ at the latest edition of International Indian Film Academy Awards, held in Tampa, Florida, US, earlier this year. Considered to be one of the most prestigious award ceremonies on Bollywood’s calendar, it’s attended by international film-makers and actors too. “Man, Kevin is so cool,” Shahid remarks.
“He’s so chilled out. I remember just before the show we were walking around to work off the nervousness that sets in when you are hosting a show of such magnitude. I was trying to get into the zone, drinking energy drinks and keeping the energy up, because when you do these live shows you pretty much don’t sleep at all because everyone wants to rehearse and by the time you get on stage it’s really late in the night.
“Kevin was just taking pictures, and when he came on stage he was spontaneous. It was amazing to interact with him. He couldn’t understand the language because we were speaking in Hindi, but he was just connecting with people and participating and was charged. That kind of energy is unbelievable.”
Now, as Shahid begins to come to terms with his fame and is able to earn respect from the fraternity, we wonder if there is anything that he’d like to change.
“I live alone. I don’t like that. So that’ll be the one thing I’d say I want to change,” he says. That’ll leave a lot of his fans heartbroken, but with his brown eyes and charm, they’ll forgive him soon enough.