In Conversation with Kunal Kapoor- “The scale of The Empire is bigger than any movie I have been part of”

Slated to be one of India’s biggest Web series to date, The Empire aired on Disney + Hotstar from August 27. Playing Babur in the period drama is Kunal Kapoor, who made an impressive entry in Bollywood in 2004 with Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities and followed it up with Rang De Basanti in 2006.

The actor has had a roller coaster journey since. Now, with some exciting acting projects in his kitty and plans for turning producer, Kapoor has a lot to look forward to. Edited excerpts from a conversation:

Your character ages 25 years in the span of the show. How did you prepare for it physically and mentally?

The show is based on the book Empire of the Moghul: Raiders from the North by Alex Rutherford. The source material in itself has such a detailed account of the character’s life, and then Mitakshara (Kumar, the director) wrote the script and she detailed it even further. The book and the script had enough material to understand the character, why he does what he does, his motivations, contradictions, and his values. For me, it was very important to understand how the character changes from his early 20s to his 40s. When this character is younger, he is far brasher, takes decisions without thinking, and pays the price for that. As he grows older, he becomes far more mature and thoughtful. That internal change was very important to imbibe.

As far as the external factors go, I had to lose a lot of weight for the younger character. I just had a few weeks, so it was pretty much a crash course in weight loss. The other external change was also in the voice because the younger and older versions sound a little different.

How much did you know about the Mughal emperor Babur before doing the show?

Honestly, I had not read so much about Babur. The Babur that is in this book is probably different from the Babur that is historically documented. It’s a historical fiction book, so it has been written in a different way. It is probably for the best that I didn’t have that much information to begin with, because I could be completely honest to the book and the script.

This is your Web series debut. In a film, you play the character for two hours, but here you get to be that character for 8-10 hours. Did the shooting feel very different from a movie?

No, it didn’t. The scale of this show is bigger than any movie I have been part of. So, it never felt like I’m doing something which is different from cinema. The great thing about OTT platforms is that it really gives you a chance to explore the character in great detail because you have the luxury of time and seasons. That for me was a fascinating experience.

Your journey in Bollywood began on a promising note but somewhere in the middle, things didn’t pan out the way you expected. In retrospect, where do you think things didn’t go right for you?

It’s very difficult to put your finger on that. Filmmaking is such a team effort. The actors are a very small part of it, even though they get all the credit for the success or the failure. Somebody else writes the script, someone else produces it, and then on Friday, you don’t know whether the audience is going to like it or not. So, it’s very difficult to point out what went right or went wrong. If there was one film in-between that was very successful, it would have been very different. I don’t like to look back and say what could I have done differently. I think I did the best I could have at that point in time and the decisions I made felt right for that moment.

A lot of people ask me if I think the industry has not been fair to me. The moment you start thinking like that, you become a victim in your head because you feel you have not been given your due. That self-victimisation phase is a very dangerous place to be in. I like focusing on the present and what’s there in the future. I find myself in a very interesting phase right now. The work I am being offered now is work I have never been offered before. I meet a lot of directors who tell me they would love to work with me and that’s an interesting place to be in.

From the kinds of platforms available to the way content is consumed, things have changed a lot since your debut in 2004. As an actor, what is it that excites you now?

When I started off, I could not relate to many of the characters that were offered to me. I just found a lot of them unreal. What I find very interesting about now is that the audience, the filmmakers, actors, and writers are looking for characters that are more flawed. For instance, my character in The Empire is a man of great contradictions. Those are the characters I find more exciting – not the perfect hero, not the absolute villain, but someone who has his own contradictions, layers, and flaws.

You are turning producer now. What prompted the decision?

I started writing stories when I was working as an assistant director. Everyone has that one thing that comes naturally to them, and writing is that thing for me. I started developing some of my stories into scripts a couple of years ago. I felt then that I should produce these because they are my vision. Sometimes when you take it to someone else to produce, there are compromises that have to be made in the way the story is told to make it more marketable. I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to be as honest to my vision as possible.

The first film you are set to produce is a biopic on Winter Olympian Shiva Keshavan. Why him?

The story came to me in an unusual way. I am also the co-founder of the crowdfunding platform Ketto. A couple of years ago, Shiva had reached out to us and crowdfunded on Ketto because he needed some money to go for the World Championship. Not only was his story fascinating but it was also symbolic of the spirit of this country. Here was somebody with very limited resources but with global ambitions, and you see that across the country. Having limited resources has never stopped the people of our country from becoming world achievers.

Will you be acting in the movies you produce?

Not necessarily. I want to tell stories as honestly as possible, and I want to cast whoever is best for a role.