Kunal Kemmu or Kunal Khemu?
The Abhay 2 actor revealed that although his surname is actually Kemmu, he was initially mistakenly credited as Khemu. “I used to sign autographs with a double m, but then they would tell me, sir you spelled your name wrong, so for a brief while, I had to change my autograph,” Kemmu told Scroll.in.
A prolific child actor in the 1990s, Kemmu’s first lead role was in Mohit Suri’s 2005 thriller Kalyug. Since then, Kemmu has delivered dependable performances in films across genres: the thriller Malang (2020), the period drama Kalank (2019), and a host of comedies, including the recently released Lootcase (2020), the Golmaal films, and Raj Nidimoru and Krishna DK’s 99 (2009) and Go Goa Gone (2013).
In the second season of the Zee5 series Abhay, Kemmu reprises his role as the bad-tempered but brilliant investigating officer Abhay Pratap Singh. In his new outing, Abhay locks horns with a psychotic criminal (Ram Kapoor) who has kidnapped a bunch of schoolchildren. Three episodes, which were shot before the Covid-19 pandemic broke out, were released on August 21. The rest of the series is under production.
“It was nice to play Abhay since he was so different from who I am and the parts I have played before,” Kemmu said. The 37-year-old actor has recently been in roles that challenge his fun-guy image. In Kalank, he plays a religious fundamentalist. In Malang, he is a troubled police officer.
Kemmu was back in familiar territory with the comic caper Lootcase in July. Kemmu’s hapless hero accidentally comes across a suitcase full of money he had never hoped to earn in seven lifetimes. However, a politician, a cop, and two criminal gangs are also after the suitcase.
About his proficiency with comedies, Kemmu said, “I have been told I am funny in real life, but it is one thing to be funny among a close-knit group of people, and another thing to come across as funny for a national or a global audience, so if people think I am funny, that’s a huge achievement.”
Kunal Kemmu was born into a Kashmiri Pandit family in Srinagar in 1983. His grandfather was the Padma Shri-winning playwright Moti Lal Kemmu – about whom he learnt much later in life.
“I have to say I feel guilty about the fact that, even though I knew the titles of what he had written, I did not get to know how amazing he was and what his insights into life were up until my late twenties,” Kemmu said.
Scores of Kashmiri Pandits fled persecution and violence in the late 1980s. Kemmu’s family left Srinagar for Mumbai sometime in 1989, according to the actor.
Since then, he has never visited Kashmir, except driving through Srinagar en route to Kargil for the Kalank shoot in 2018. “I have fond memories of Kashmir, studying in Burn Hall school, visiting Dal Lake, and having amazing picnics at Pahalgam,” Kemmu said. “I also have some disturbing memories of the tensions there.”
Despite the exodus, Moti Lal Kemmu stayed back in Jammu. He passed away in 2018. “I am so proud of being his grandson, and we had amazing conversations, and even later in life, I was very grateful for the advice he would give me as a creative mind,” Kunal Kemmu recalled.
Kemmu made his debut in the movies at the age of 10 with Mahesh Bhatt’s Sir and Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke in 1993. His performance in Bhatt’s Zakhm (1998), as a boy caught between his estranged parents, was acclaimed.
Kemmu thinks that his experience as a child actor eased his pursuit of leading man parts. “I remember while promoting Kalyug, I was asked that not many child actors become successful, so what will you do, and honestly, I had blinders on as a kid,” Kemmu said. “I knew acting was something I wanted to do, and the praise I got for Zakhm only solidified my conviction.”
Following Zakhm, Kemmu took a break because “if people saw me on a day to day basis on screen, they would always see me as a kid and would find it tough to accept me as a man”. He enrolled for a degree in commerce from Mumbai’s Narsee Monjee College of Commerce and Economics, which helped him pursue his love for acting in other ways.
“I really enjoyed amateur theatre, because it helped me do a lot of plays, it was very competitive since other colleges participated, and the satisfaction of performing well in front of a packed audience, with students from other colleges is unparalleled,” he said.
Despite noteworthy performances in a series of ensemble hits, Kemmu never quite became an A-lister – and he says he is okay with that.
“I did not get those 100-crore, 200-crore films to tell me I am big enough a star, or I could command an X amount of money, but I know I have a gift, and the audience had always praised me, be it with Kalyug or Traffic Signal or in my comedies, Dhol and 99 onwards,” Kemmu said. “I think acting in film after film is a process. It cannot be like I did 99, and I start thinking I have arrived, and I don’t need to perform anymore. If Lootcase has worked, it only means I have to work harder.”