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.
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.”
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?”
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.
“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.
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.”