Kunal Kapoor slays it with ‘Veeram’ and kalaripayattu

Bollywood actor speaks about his Malayalam film debut, directed by Jayaraj, and taking on a complicated warrior’s role

09:58 March 20, 2017
Kunal 2
Kunal Kapoor

Bollywood actor Kunal Kapoor, who made his Malayalam film debut with the warrior epic Veeram last week in the UAE, believes that he was typecast in Hindi films.

“I am either the good guy who’s a bit of a martyr or I am the terrorist who had a bad childhood or I am that poet,” said Kapoor in an interview with Gulf News tabloid! before premiering his epic Malayalam film in Dubai on March 15.

While his aquiline nose, angular face and lithe body lends him a noble air, imagine his delight when the award-winning director Jayaraj approached him to play the lead in his ambitious trilingual film Veeram, out in the cinemas now. Until now, Kapoor was known for his roles in films such as Bachna Ae Haseeno (the understanding Sikh husband) and Rang De Basanti (the sensitive poet).

“So when Jayaraj sir told me to play an anti-hero, I was so relieved. I am a huge comic book fan and the anti-heroes are the characters that I have grown up liking and enjoying... So for someone to show an interest in casting me in a different role was amazing. Finally someone was looking at me differently.”

In Veeram, Kapoor plays a 16th century warrior Chandu Chekavar who’s a decorated warrior at first but is quickly consumed by greed for power.

“It was the most challenging film — emotionally and physically. First of all, you are playing a character like Macbeth, it’s so complex and layered. Chandu Chekavar goes from somebody who’s a celebrated warrior to someone who becomes a ruthless tyrant. That was a huge journey for me... But you have to watch the film to know if you still like that character.”

Veeram was filmed at a brisk pace, all of 37 days. It was a cinematic quickie in which Kapoor did the same scene in three languages — Malayalam, Hindi and English — one after the other.

“37 days has to be some kind of record... It was an audacious attempt, but we pulled it off. Physically too, the role was very challenging. I am usually a lean guy, but Jayaraj sir wanted me to look physically intimidating. So I had to put on a lot of muscle.”

His Twitter post on March 15th which read “6 months, 23 days, 12 hours and 232 protein shakes later!” documented his physical transformation along with pictures.

What made it tougher was that he filmed for over 19 hours in a day and that gave him little scope to maintain his bulk through disciplined workouts.

“After putting in that kind of hours during shooting, all you wanted to do was to go to your room and crash. So what we did is to break up my workouts into twenty minute circuits each,” said Kapoor, who worked out before, in between and after his filming. The elaborate face make-up and body paint also meant that he had to spend three and a half hours lying still before the shoot began.

“At 5.30am, we began doing my face and the only way to stay awake was to play heavy metal music. So it was quite a contrast: you had traditional artists working on my face while there was heavy metal music blaring,” said Kapoor with a laugh. As soon as the first look of Veeram emerged, the fierce looking Kapoor was compared to the Game Of Thrones warrior, Khal Drogo.

“Perhaps, it was my muscles, the rugged look and the long chotti [ponytail] that triggered it,” said Kapoor, adding that the film had no connection to the hit TV series.

Veeram is director Jayaraj’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and the ballads of Malabar known as Vadakkan Pattukal.

“It’s the story of Chandu Chekavar, a popular part of the Kerala folklore. Both Macbeth and Chandu have similar stories and Jayaraj sir has merged these two characters seamlessly into one character.”

Initially, it wasn’t easy for Kapoor to identify with his role of a power-hungry, ambitious warlord.

“But what was interesting was that I ended up finding a connection that was so strong. I could relate to my role really strongly once I realised that we have all been in a place where you had to choose between right and wrong. Sometimes you go with what’s wrong, but you feel guilty about it. But here, instead of owning up to the mistake, he starts justifying. So we have all been in those places,” said Kapoor.

His character’s blind ambition was his tragic flaw that led to his doom.

“But what makes anti-heroes special is that at one level you don’t like what they are doing but you can’t help but like them. It’s an emotionally-charged experience,” said Kapoor.

While he trained for kalaripayattu, a martial artist from Northern Kerala, did Kapoor watch the Malayalam cult classic Vadakan Veeragatha, starring Mammootty, as a part of his legwork for his role? Mammootty played Chandu in this period drama.

“I didn’t watch Vadakan Veeragatha. I consciously avoided it. That is a cult classic and I really enjoy Mammootty and Mohanlal sir’s works. When you look up to somebody, whether you like it or not, you start to imbibe certain things... Even subconsciously I wanted to avoid that completely. I wanted to approach my role in a way that was fresh,” said Kapoor.

What he relied on was the comprehensive sketches made by the director explaining the context, the era and the characters.

Learning kalaripayattu wasn’t child’s play either.

“I had done kalari in acting school, but I had to train with lots of weapons — swords, daggers and the urumi [flexible whip-like sword]. The urumi was so difficult to control. My forearms were slashed for weeks before I reached the swashbuckling stage. There were lots of clumsy moves before getting there,” said Kapoor.

But he considers those wounds a badge of his hard work and an essential learning curve for tackling such a monumental role.

“We wanted Veeram to have a pan-India appeal. We wanted it to be a film which reached out to our country and the rest of the world. Our ambition was to make a film that wasn’t specific to any region, but to tell a story that resonates across the world.”

Don’t miss it

Veeram is out in UAE cinemas now.