The 1950s was lit up with big entertainers starring Ranbir Kapoor’s legendary movie star ancestors, including his iconic grandfather Raj Kapoor.
Now the young actor has gone back to the same era with dark entertainer Bombay Velvet, which revolves around an ambitious young man and his jazz singer girlfriend.
Not surprisingly, Ranbir enjoyed returning to the 1950s for the Anurag Kashyap-directed film that also stars Anushka Sharma, Karan Johar and Kay Kay Menon.
He was his usual friendly self when EE caught up with him to talk about Bombay Velvet, going back in time, why he stays away from social media, high expectations, Hollywood, and more.
What did you like about the idea behind Bombay Velvet?
I liked the kind of world Anurag was creating – 1950s Bombay, the murkiness that surrounded it; the innocent love story that was trapped in between it; and how these big shots were all trying to make it big in the city. And how these two people, Johnny and Rosie, get caught up in a web of manipulation. That’s what really interested me about this film.
Were you concerned about jumping into a project that had been bubbling away for a few years before they approached you?
No, actually I got really lucky because I read the script and signed onto the film on the basis of the material, the character and story. Anurag himself didn’t know I had read the script
I called up Anurag and said: ‘I really want to do this film’. He said: ‘Okay, give me a couple of days and let me think about it because normally people don’t see you as such characters’. Normally they see me as a coming-of-age boy, so it is very important that I try something new. So in a way I coaxed the director to make this film with me.
How did you prepare for the role because you’re going back in time?
Most of the research was done by Anurag and his technical team. They worked hard for eight years to get this made, and when they came all prepared, it made us actors feel we were part of this film.
Of course, you do your own homework on the physicality, emotional relatability to the character and vulnerability. To understand the feel of character I think happens as you go on the day-to-day shooting of the film. When you work with such good actors and a great technical team, it all kind of comes together like a perfect marriage.
So you didn’t start watching your grandfather Raj Kapoor’s films from that era?
I have already seen them so often. The references could only be about what the person looks like, I think, because this film is very different to the kind my grandfather used to make. This explores the darker times of the 1950s and you see what happened in society at that time.
Tell us more about the character you play?
I play the role of Johnny Balraj, who is from the streets. He just has one ambition, and that is to become a big shot in life. He doesn’t know anyway to achieve that. He believes that if the city of Bombay cannot offer that to him, he is someone who will do anything to snatch it. He’s doing all this just so he can make Rosie happy, who he loves wholeheartedly.
He believes she will be happy if he becomes somebody in life, have some respect, money, fame and power. That’s basically what his character is.
Would you say this is the darkest character you have played so far?
Yes, absolutely. I think more than being a dark character, he is someone who is trapped in the darkness. The world, the characters and situations that are around Johnny are darker than who he actually really is.
You are known to be a very calm person, but was it difficult to get under the skin of a character who is so emotional and angry?
I think it’s easier for me to play somebody I am not. When I have characters like say, Wake Up Sid and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, I relate to them more and probably am like them, so it’s more difficult.
But when I play characters like Jordan in Rockstar, Barfi or Johnny (in Bombay Velvet), I can hide behind these characters. You put your full faith in the director but I prefer playing a character who is different from who I am.
You say your character in Bombay Velvet is different from you, but are there any similarities?
I am ambitious as well. I’m not as ruthlessly ambitious as Johnny, of course, but I have lots to achieve. I want to work with lots of people. I want to be more successful and a better actor. That is something that I relate to.
Also the fact that it’s about this guy with dreams, but he is actually very vulnerable. He is someone who is trying to be hard, trying to snatch things he can. That is something I can understand, but of course I don’t relate to because I have had it fairly easy in life. But the vulnerability of Johnny is something I relate to.
Do you have a favourite moment in the movie?
My favourite moment would be the climax. But unfortunately I can’t tell you what that is.
What is Karan Johar like as an actor?
We all know Karan so well, and when I heard the antagonist of the film was going to be offered to him, I was actually worried. Because how can Karan Johar, who is such a fun personality, be this manipulative, cunning, villain?
I think what Karan brings to the table is he is so talented and intelligent. He plays the character with such fine nuances and integrity. I don’t think anyone else could have done it better than him.
Initially it was a bit funny to hear Karan mouth these dialogues because we all know him personally and know what his (fun) personality is like. After a couple of days, he just surrendered to the character and made the part his own.
Also we underestimate how big a star and personality Karan is. He is well-known around the world. I think it adds so much of stardom to the film by just the fact he agreed to do it. I think a lot of people are interested in watching what Karan has bought to the table. That is really exciting about Bombay Velvet.
Tell us about the music in the film?
We are making a film about 1950s Bombay. At that time, the jazz culture was very present in the city, so we had to go authentic with the sound and could not commercially bend to what people would probably like to hear.
So the sound marries the visuals when the audience comes to watch the movie and characters. I think (music director) Amit Trivedi did a lot of hard work and even travelled to New Orleans to understand jazz music (more) and put Anushka through training to play the character of a jazz singer.
So we really tried to be authentic to the time period and world of Bombay Velvet.
What did you most like about 1950s Bombay now that you have had a little taste of it?
I think everything was based on trust. There were no cell phones, no social network and no judgment. Everybody and everything was moving at a slower pace. Anybody could enjoy the moment and do absolutely nothing. Today we have so many distractions – we wanna be here, we wanna be there. So I think just the temperament of people at that time was wonderful.
How much did Anurag Kashyap push you?
I think Anurag is someone who pushes you, but doesn’t let you realise that he is pushing you. He makes you contribute as an actor. I think that is what is important. When he used to come on set, he really used to encourage us to do what we feel.
He would direct us if he thought we were hitting the wrong notes. He actually gave us complete freedom. It is almost like you’re part of a theatre play; we used to perform the entire scene over and over again. He used to shoot from different angles, we often didn’t know where the camera was.
He was very unassuming and doing his job quietly, so he gave us respect as actors. He trusted what the (acting) talent would bring onto the table. I am grateful that I got that creative satisfaction from him as a director.
Have you got used to the sky-high expectations around you after all this time?
(Smiles) Absolutely not, Asjad! I’m still as scared as I was before (debut film) Saawariya. I’m still as anxious and as nervous. I think that is important.
Bombay Velvet is a genre that has not been tried and tested before in the kind of films we make, so it was important that we push it. Yes, art is important, but at the same time films are an expensive proposition and we have to make it for a larger audience and it has to be engaging. I do hope with Bombay Velvet, we have tried to marry both; art and entertainment! I do hope people have a good time at the cinema.
Looking ahead, what are your greatest unfulfilled ambitions or are you following your instincts?
I think I am following my instincts. I am very lucky that I have such good directors who want to work with me. I’m working with Imtiaz Ali again, Anurag Basu again and Ayan Mukerji again. I’m working with Karan Johar on his next directorial venture.
So I feel lucky that these directors are putting their trust in me. There are many characters I want to play and many films I want to do. It’s been seven years so far. I’ve got a lot from the audience and media, I still have lots to prove, lots to achieve.
I think you would do a Hollywood film really well. Is that something you would consider?
Well thank you, but I do believe that I come from a certain culture which I have grown up in. That is Hindi films. I would rather do a Hindi film that makes it big worldwide like a Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or a Life Is Beautiful. Rather than work in Hollywood, I would like to reach a larger audience through Hindi films and my culture.
Why do you stay away from social media? You were on Twitter briefly and then left?
Actually I didn’t come onto Twitter, it was a promotional thing for an endorsement I had done and somebody was handling my account. I believe in today’s day and age, the mystery around the actor is dying.
We are always promoting and always in endorsements. Our movies come and then the tabloids write conjectures about our lives. There is so much that people get to hear about us. I think it’s important to hold onto some mystery of you as an actor.
I believe in the longevity of a career and that is the only way I can do it; if there is some mystery around me. Having said that, I also believe there’s not much freedom of speech that I have.
What do you mean?
If I tweet about something, there could be 10 different interpretations of it coming out and I have to explain that. So I believe I don’t need to give myself an additional medium to clarify things. It’s better that people get to know me and understand me through my movies than through social networks.
Finally, would you like to give us a message for your fans?
A big thank you for all the support. Not just for my movies, but for the kind of support they show to good cinema and good stories. All of us in the film industry are trying to reciprocate by making good entertaining films and I do hope you guys give Bombay Velvet a chance on Friday (15). I hope you enjoy the film and are all thoroughly entertained by it.
Bombay Velvet is in cinemas now