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April 22, 1998


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Young gun

Sharmila Taliculam

Arjun Rampal. Click for bigger pic!
It isn't often that you come across such clean-cut features, planted athwart a very bony structure. This plus a lithe body totals the personable young man sitting before you. Arjun Rampal. Supermodel. And aspiring actor.

He has signed two films, with film-makers who have a natural eye for good looks -- cinematographer Ashok Mehta and photographer Shantanu Sheorey. And, like Rampal, this is where both lensmen are testing the directorial waters, Mehta with Moksha, the Salvation and Sheorey's with Jadh.

And much to Arjun's satisfaction, they are both intense, author-backed roles, calling for some tremendous effort. Chances, hopes Arjun, to display his acting talent. And to date both directors have also expressed similar satisfaction with his performance.

Arjun is seated in his small, sparsely furnished, black and white living room, stroking the head of Tyson, his boxer. And begins reminiscing about his first offer.

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"Ashok wanted me to act in his film because he needed someone who was hard-working. We had made an ad film together for Monte Carlo sweaters and he saw the potential in me," says Rampal and hands Tyson a biscuit. Tyson who is panting absent-mindedly, stops to snap up the offering. Arjun is still discussing how he could not take up the role then because he was going to New York for a year.

"I read the script and liked it too. But since I was coming back only after a year, I told Ashok that maybe he shouldn't wait for me". Arjun was most pleased when he returned to find Mehta sliding the contract across the table again. Apparently, Mehta found in Arjun an ideal hero.

And so why had Arjun winged his way to the Big Apple? Surprise, to learn acting! He'd actually gone over to learn film-making but thought he was a little young for the job and decided to do a year's crash course in acting instead. The change in plan had nothing to with the film he had on a platter here, he hastens to assure you.

It was during one of the shoots with Mehta that Shantanu happened along and, impressed, whipped out Arjun's second contract.

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In Moksha, Arjun plays a lawyer; in Jadh, he's a doctor.

Sheorey says he'd actually wanted Arjun for a lighter role in another film. But when he saw him in Moksha he was assured the young man could do justice to this role too. Both roles have Arjun pitted against the dastardly forces of corruption.

"The difference is that in Moksha it has got a lot do with guilt; in Jadh it's got to do with principles. Both films are very powerful in terms of roles. They are not comedy-or action-packed. They deal on an emotional level and are love stories, but they are different".

But new-fangled ideas like acting courses apparently weren't enough. He was enrolled for an acting class in India too.

Oddly, dancing was the hardest part. Rampal had to go to Chinni Prakash to learn dance steps and he just couldn't do it initially, used as he was to structured ramp choreography. He found the Hindi song and dance routine was more like a jungle dance routine.

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"I was totally uncoordinated. But Prakash was very understanding and we stopped doing the steps. We were chatting when he told me that I should concentrate and yet go easy. It would automatically come to me". It did, and Arjun was thrilled to find that dancing also give him exercise.

"It (dance) is like an aerobic workout, they are doing me physically good. And it's a good experience too".

And he's one of the few actors who has no trouble working with directors known to be perfectionists. He recalls an incident during the making of Moksha. He was running a high temperature and at a time he was to have a bath under a waterfall. No one thought he ought to do it.

But Arjun saw how crestfallen Mehta was and stripping off his shirt, slid into the water. The shot was okayed and both Arjun and Mehta felt better.

"There's so much money invested in the film and I felt that I had a job to do here which I had to finish despite my illness". This also made him realise that spontaneity was essential for a good performance.

"(Roles) should ring a bell. I never knew I could be so charged and motivated and I have worked out how I am going to do it. The roles are not very different. And that's where you as an actor and your creativity come in handy."

With Smriti Mishra. Click for bigger pic!
He also gets along as fine with his heroines, Manisha Koirala and Smriti Mishra. From Manisha he learnt much. He was also very comfortable with her because, according to him, her professionalism, sincerity and experience helped him excel too. "She is very superior and good and that automatically was to my advantage."

With Mishra, the roles, so to say, were reversed initially. Arjun had to help her cope with the role and adjust to the commercial circuit. "She has a beautiful face and she is a very sensitive and a nice person. She has a long way to go. I don't know her more than this."

Sheorey raves about his hero, comparing him to that old Indian yardstick, Amitabh Bachchan.

"He has to say such things because I am his hero," says Arjun. "But I am trying to meet those expectations," he laughs. "It's better to live with the hope and enjoy the moment. I am giving it my best shot."

He feels in the list of things he learnt on the sets, honesty tops them all. He studied the script of Moksha for almost six months to feel comfortable with it. He saw a lot of films to get the feel of the character. He feels he's become a sensitive person as a result since when he started shooting, he couldn't get under the skin of the character.

"It is easy to turn your back and ignore things. But with the audience, you are telling them a story, and that has to be convincing. I am not fooling anybody here and it is difficult to get into a character if you are not ready." Mehta too was a big help, a "genius", says Arjun reverentially. Mehta was patient -- as proved by his willingness to wait a year for his ideal hero -- and gave him a free hand, encouraging him to be as spontaneous as he wanted.

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Arjun wants desperately to be known as a serious actor which is why he is being so choosy. He isn't even keen to work with big banners or big directors, only nosing out roles that are good and versatile. And he's got some good ones that he won't tell you anything about just yet.

"I don't want to be monotonous; that's why I will do only good roles."

He gives himself five years to prove himself as an actor before switching to directing good commercial films with lots of action and special effects. And it has nothing to with whether he fails or succeeds.

"Flops and hits are something you can't predict. But a flop doesn't mean that you are a bad actor. Akshaye Khanna is such a person. He is good, but his films have not done well, still people want him."

Considering that Arjun would rather watch an English film himself, why is he keen to make a Hindi film at all?

"I do watch Hindi films if the film is something like Bandit Queen or Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge. But I have learnt a lot from watching Hollywood films -- and heroes. My favourites are Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, John Travolta, Amitabh Bachchan, Dilip Kumar..." And his favourite film is Sholay.

Like many others Arjun claims he isn't aiming for the No 1 slot. He says he just wanted to excel and was fortunate enough to get things on a platter. From wanting to represent the country as an athlete to becoming a successful model and then an actor, he says that everything that happened to him was an accident. Rohit Bal, the dress designer got him to model and Ashok Mehta got him his first break in the films. Lucky Arjun. For most others the average accident is about breaking a leg.

"I never expected anything to happen and that is why I value this more. I'm not ambitious, but I do get a high when I do a good job of something. Then I want to do more." Which is why he is keeping a low profile, keeping away from the press, focussing rather on completing his films and because he is impatient with photo shoots.

"I will have to talk to them (the press) sooner or later. But I was not ready in those days. And then, there was not much to talk about too."

Ah? And what about his marriage to supermodel Meher Jessia?

"The amount of encouragement and support she has given, I wouldn't get it from anybody." And he'll say nothing more about his personal life, despite the penchant to discuss home and hearth -- of course, in a very abstract way, stating he wouldn't sacrifice the personal for the professional.

"All your good energies are at home and it is important to keep happiness at home intact." The gossip, the scandals, don't frighten him because he has decided to take them in his stride. By being a professional. "That would be my contribution as the new generation of actors". A fact Sheorey backs. "For a nine o' clock shift, he is there on the dot of nine".

Money not being important either, he will not work in a film which doesn't make sense to him. Even though he is married and he needs the money, he adds, tongue in cheek.

"I plan to be known as an actor more than a star. And I will accept roles according to that. The rest I leave the rest to destiny."

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