on the actor's trail

A waiter in ‘Barah Aana’ to Rahul Gandhi in his next: Arjun Mathur on taking the road less travelled

The 36-year-old actor recently starred in the Netflix film ‘Brij Mohan Amar Rahe’ and will soon be seen in ‘The Accidental Prime Minister’.

An aspiring actor who is idealistic about the kind of cinema he wants to do and is unwilling to surrender to the ways of the big bad world of Bollywood – the character of Abhimanyu Gupta in Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance (2009) is in many ways like the man who played that role, 36-year-old Arjun Mathur.

“I cannot do films, as big as they may be, if I feel absolutely no connection to the character I have been offered,” Mathur told Scroll.in. “Doing films just because they may make Rs 300 crore is not my cup of tea.”

Mathur’s selectivity led him to Nikhil Bhat’s Brij Mohan Amar Rahe, in which he plays a shop owner in Delhi who fakes his death and assumes a new identity to escape his debts. Murder, mayhem and madness follow. The film was released on Netflix on August 3.

Play
Brij Mohan Amar Rahe (2018).

Mathur’s enjoyable performance is the one bright spot in a movie that tries to be too many things at once. “I have nothing in common with a character like Brij,” he said. “I would say it’s one of the most complex roles I have done.”

Does the quality of a role alone attract him to a project, irrespective of what the film is? “There is no steadfast rule I hold on to strongly,” Mathur said. “Sometimes, you do a film because the role is great or the story is great and then after release, you realise a lot of things did not work out. I say yes or no to a film instinctively. Whether seen by audiences or not, or it makes money or not, I do films that I believe in, and that belief stays the same till the very end.”

Mathur has also on occasion taken on films without reading the script, such as Anu Menon’s Kalki Koechlin-and-Naseeruddin Shah-starrer Waiting (2015). “I did it because of the actors involved,” Mathur said about the film, in which he appears in a cameo as the bandaged and comatose husband of Koechlin’s character. “I was asked if I want to read the script but I said, just show me where I have to lie down.”

Play
Arjun Mathur.

Mathur’s breakthrough came in 2009, which saw the release of Luck By Chance followed by Raja Krishna Menon’s debut Barah Aana, in which he played an ambitious cash-stripped waiter who is driven to crime in his quest for a better life. Mathur held his own against Naseeruddin Shah and Vijay Raaz. The next year brought a supporting role in Karan Johar’s My Name Is Khan, starring Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol. After that, Mathur disappeared from mainstream films, finding a home in independent cinema.

These films offered him the opportunity to play lead roles, something that Johar once told him he would find hard to get in a legacy-obsessed film industry that does not easily accommodate talented newcomers as heroes.

“I appreciated the honesty,” Mathur said. “Who knows the industry better than him? But the disappointment I felt then [2010-11] on hearing it, I turned that into fuel. I thought, okay if mainstream films cannot make space for me as a hero, then why not go the other way?”

Play
Barah Aana (2009).

However, that’s not how Mathur’s journey began. Growing up in Delhi in the 1980s on a steady diet of mainstream cinema, Mathur wanted to be a “Hindi film hero” like Anil Kapoor. The shift in ambitions happened when he started out in the film industry as an assistant director.

After assisting on mainstream productions such as Kyun! Ho Gaya Na... (2004), Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005), Bunty Aur Babli (2005), and Rang De Basanti (2006), Mathur took a break to prepare himself for an acting career. He worked on his physique and underwent training at Kishore Namit Kapoor’s acting school, Barry John’s Imago School of Acting in Mumbai and the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York. Upon his return, a slew of auditions began.

“What happens with some films is that the audition process happens as it is supposed to, but the makers have already decided to cast a known face or a star kid,” Mathur said. “I have lost roles like that. Often, directors want to take risks with a new, talented face but their hands are tied. At the end of the day, everyone is a slave to the market.”

Among the many films Mathur auditioned for but did not feature in were Delhi 6 (2009), Delhi Belly (2011), and Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013). He then got the opportunity to play Irrfan’s lover in Mira Nair’s short film, Migration (2007), written by Zoya Akhtar. (Mathur again played a gay man in one of the four shorts in Onir’s 2010 anthology film, I Am).

Mathur also got a key role in Farhan Akhtar’s short film, Positive (2007), which, along with Migration, was a part of a film series aimed at creating HIV-AIDS awareness.

This kickstarted his acting career and resulted in a fruitful working relationship with the Akhtar siblings. Zoya Akhar wrote the Godrej advertising campaign where Mathur starred in a series of television commercials alongside Aamir Khan. Then she cast him in Luck By Chance, which starred Farhan Akhtar in the lead.

Play
The Godrej commercial featuring Arjun Mathur and Aamir Khan.

“But gradually, I realised that I was getting supporting roles where I was just an embellishment in star vehicles,” Mathur said. “If you play the hero’s friend, you keep getting the hero’s friend roles. If you play a gay man, you keep getting gay roles. Better than that is doing films where you are the lead. Sure, it’s small but it’s on your shoulders. Every actor wants to carry a film. At least, with these, I get to work with passionate filmmakers and not businessmen.”

What followed were character-driven roles such as Romesh in Ankur Arora Murder Case (2013), an idealistic medical intern up against a corrupt medical establishment. He has also frequently played brooding and lost men, such as in Manu Warrier’s Coffee Bloom (2014) and Sabal Singh Shekhawat’s Fireflies (2014).

A slight departure was Mathur’s Naresh Banerjee, a mercurial Indian nationalist opting for violence to fight British rule in the second season of the British television series Indian Summers.

Play
Ankur Arora Murder Case (2013).

Another reason film-goers see him infrequently, Mathur said, is his reticence. “I am not good at certain things one has to do in this competitive industry like pushing yourself and PR [public relations], things that an actor must do to remain visible,” he explained. “I am a very shy person.”

Mathur’s upcoming projects include Vijay Ratankar Gutte’s The Accidental Prime Minister, based on Sanjaya Baru’s book of the same name about Congress leader Manomohan Singh’s years as India’s head of government. Mathur plays Nehru-Gandhi scion Rahul Gandhi in the film, which has been adapted by Newton (2017) co-writer Mayank Tiwari.

“In terms of research, video footage is all we have,” Mathur said about playing the Congress President. “For indoor scenes, it’s all about following what the director says. He [Gandhi] does not talk that differently from me, as we both come from a similar English-speaking, educated background. It’s a mix of both our mannerisms.”

Mathur will reunite with Zoya Akhtar for her Amazon Prime Video series Made in Heaven, The series, written by Zoya Akhtar and Alankrita Shrivastava (Lipstick Under My Burkha), is about a wedding planning company in Delhi.

Mathur said he is very happy with his progress. “Very few can have everything together: the best roles, the best car, and the best house,” Mathur said. “If I ran after a better car or a better house, I wouldn’t be able to do what I want to do. What is important to me is not material success but things like love, relationships, friends, my anonymity and my privacy, and the freedom to be not plagued by constant dissatisfaction.”

Anupam Kher, Arjun Mathur and Aahana Kumra in The Accidental Prime Minister. Courtesy Bohra Bros.
Anupam Kher, Arjun Mathur and Aahana Kumra in The Accidental Prime Minister. Courtesy Bohra Bros.
Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.