Arjun Mathur is an unlikely candidate for a Bollywood hero. The son of a globetrotting hotelier, with no familial connections to filmdom, and somewhat unconventional looks in a business filled with sharp-featured, buffed up, heavily polished star children, Mathur still dreamed of becoming a star.
“I wanted to be Anil Kapoor, mustache and everything. Like in the films where he was being all cool and studly.” He wanted to be an actor since he was a child, idolizing the most populist of Hindi cinema’s stars.
“I would go to sleep with my hair all combed and then wake up and ask my mom, ‘Is my hair ok?’ I think the root of it was back then. I was attracted to glamour. It’s fed to us so much. It’s like, ‘Oh look at this, it’s so amazing. You all want to be like that.’”
He has certainly become an actor — a childhood dream partly realized — but his career trajectory has taken him in a completely different direction to his screen idols. With his training in theatre, and an envelope-pushing approach to the films he chooses, Mathur is one of the most promising actors of India’s burgeoning independent film scene.
Mathur’s first brush with acting involved theatre in his Delhi school. “I was so wooden and shy. But I persisted, tried to be a part of every school production that I could, doing pretty horribly each time.” Eventually, it was a role in the school’s production of The Mahabharata, where Mathur played Duryodhana, that made the acting thing finally click for him.
After a slew of acting classes in Mumbai, Delhi and New York, Mathur was ready to tackle Bollywood, but first as an Assistant Director (AD). He assisted on films such as Kyun Ho Gaya Na, Mangal Pandey, Bunty Aur Babli, and Rang De Basanti.
“I got to watch Aamir [Khan] on two films, I got to watch Amitabh Bachchan on two films. At first you feel important as an AD. You feel like you’re part of the CIA or something. Soon it’s just a job. [It’s] grueling. Completely thankless.”
His onscreen work started with ads, kicking off with a Hero Honda commercial. His fortunes changed when he got a call from casting director Loveleen Tandon, to audition for a Mira Nair film. “The next day [after the audition] was the screening for The Namesake that I was going to. I was nobody then and was randomly at this screening. Suddenly, someone taps me from behind. It’s Mira. She said, ‘Oh my god, I just wanted to tell you in person, your audition was so fantastic!’
“I couldn’t believe it. A couple of days later, they called me back and said I got the part.”
The film was Migration, part of Mira Nair’s AIDS Jaago series. Mathur’s first lead role ended up being part of a social awareness campaign, and one where he would play a secret lover to the very talented Irrfan Khan.
“With Mira’s and Farhan [Akhtar]’s short films [Migration and Positive], I had shown that I am a decent actor. I immediately got this tag of an actor that does issue-based films only. That immediately narrowed down the people who would approach me. A Yash Raj launch was already out of the question.”
Chatting with him over coffee, it’s evident that his mind is constantly churning. He says something to me and at the same time is thinking of a dozen other issues to discuss with equal urgency.
“There’s already a lot of angst in me because I had to constantly fight the star system, for years. I’ve come very, very close to a lot of ginormous films. The directors were convinced I was their man, and then at the last minute they had to cast some star kid. It’s happened to me with some of the biggest directors.”
I wondered if this angst affects what he looks for in a film now. “It should be coming from an authentic place. Whatever genre the film is, [it should approach] it authentically. It’s not taking the public for granted. It’s not treating them like idiots, just for the sake of entertainment.”
“Film is my medium to say whatever I want to say,” he says with a growing passion in his voice. “With the same fervor that an eco-warrior will stand up for the planet, I’ll stand up for the quality of our cinema. There are not enough people trying to do good. [There are] only people trying to make money.”
“The only way that someone like me would be noticed here is if I tried to something completely different…For example, I said yes to Onir’s film [I Am] because I had to kiss Rahul Bose. Not that I’m dying to kiss Rahul Bose, but I was wondering how to challenge myself. I also thought, would a Ranbir [Kapoor] do this? Or would an Aamir [Khan] or Shah Rukh [Khan] do this? None of them would. So, I’ll do it.”Everyone else experiments with alternative cinema, I experimented with mainstream cinema.But, I raise the point that, he has also been in mainstream fare — supporting parts in Luck by Chance, My Name is Khan, and My Friend Pinto. “Of these, Luck By Chance is the only one that means something to me. It was a great part, a good film… The rest were still good, but I see them as experiments. Everyone else experiments with alternative cinema, I experimented with mainstream cinema.”
He also walked away from the experience of working with Karan Johar with some frank advice from the most mainstream of directors. “He said to me, ‘you have everything it takes to be a leading actor, but the way our industry works, it’s not going to allow people right now to make a film with you in the lead.’ He said it’s the reality of the star system.”
“So I went through this insecurity a lot. I got worried that the stuff I was doing was so offbeat, where was it taking me, and so on.” His insecurities eventually gave way to tangible work. Mathur was cast as the lead in a handful of indie projects last year, including the Vikram Bhatt-produced Ankur Arora Murder Case about medical malpractice, delivering a performance praised by critics.
Mathur currently has three unique indie films lined up: Fireflies by Sabal Singh Shekhawat, co-starring Rahul Khanna and Monica Dogra, which has been doing the festival rounds; Couching Tiger Mannu, a young urban comedy centered around the concept of couch-surfing; and Coffee Bloom, a romantic drama set amidst the coffee plantations of Coorg, directed by Manu Warrier. Coffee Bloom was selected as a ‘Market Recommendation’ by NFDC for the Goa Film Bazaar 2013.
“I’m finding myself in a really confident place [now]. I was so deeply disappointed with the state of our industry and how difficult it is for an outsider…I think it comes from a feeling of rebellion. It’s like ‘I’m not going to do what the rest of you do. This is what I’m going to do and it’s going to kick ass.’”
And how long will this angst last? “I hope it lasts all my life. The best things will come out of it.”
Pulkit Datta is a writer and filmmaker based in New York City. He has written extensively on cinema and culture, and also independently writes and produces feature films, documentaries and shorts. Follow him on @PulkitDatta.