Arjun Rampal’s baritone goes with the stoic characters he is known for essaying. The National Award-winning actor takes a long pause before responding to each question; at one point, I even wondered if it was due to poor network during our telephonic interview.
The longest pause came when I pointed out that he has appeared in only a handful of films in the past decade, to which he replies, “I think one has to be selective, right? I’m clear about the kind of films that excite me and the roles I want to play. You have to tell me about the rest after seeing my work.”
The actor’s latest, The Rapist, directed by Aparna Sen and produced by Applause Entertainment, is a drama about a couple grappling with the consequences of a heinous sexual crime. His character, Aftab Malik, the husband of Naina (played by Konkana Sen Sharma) however, is not morally ambiguous, he says. “He does some silly things, sure, but his heart is in the right place.”
The film premiered recently at the ongoing International Film Festival of Kerala. In this conversation with Cinema Express, Arjun opens up about playing the emotionally taxing character, the experience of working with Aparna Sen, and more.
What was your first impression of the script when Aparna Sen narrated it to you?
Even before listening to the script, I remember being stunned by how beautiful she still is; I was 50% on board immediately to do the film.
When she gave me a complete narration, I was sure I had never seen something on these lines; her take and gaze on the crime, the way she broke down psyches of the victim and the victim’s family, the situations, their concerns, trauma, confrontations… the narrative dwells into spaces that have never been explored, both in Indian cinema and internationally.
It’s heartwrenching but never preachy; it’s brutally honest... and real. Moreover, Aparna’s style of creating characters with nuances and layers is phenomenal.
It’s a serious, even distressing, story. Was playing this character emotionally consuming?
Yes. However, extensive workshops before going on floors helped to a large extent. Aparna ma’am and I hail from a different school of thought, and it was important for us to understand each other... and collectively, the film. While I was familiar with the acting prowess of Konkana Sen Sharma, I wasn’t familiar with her personally.
The 7-10 day period that we spent together, reading the script, talking, and understanding each other, made the shooting experience easier.
We shot the film just before the second wave peaked last year. So it was tiring for the sheer number of hours we were putting in. I had a sense of disbelief when we finished principal photography so quickly, but on an emotional level, it’s a feeling that lingers on.
Also, we didn’t go for many retakes. Aparna ma’am keeps aiming for realism and keeps going for it until she achieves it. Now, that can be tiring. (laughs)
Do atmospheric and realistic dramas like this give space to improvise and interpret the character differently?
I believe there is always a scope for improvisation, regardless of the film. Of course, the backing of layered and deep scripts like these helps. At times, one can plan a lot to act in a certain way and end up looking superficial and programmed; the performance might not successfully communicate the intended emotion.
On the other hand, if you want to feel the character and want the audience to resonate with it, you do it with heart. The Rapist wasn’t a choreographed film in that sense. There weren’t instructions about standing or walking in a particular way. Be it a serious scene or a tiny action like changing your shirt, we had that freedom.
Did you discuss the morality of your character with Aparna Sen?
I did. In fact, her writing helps a lot. All the questions I had about Aftab Malik are addressed beautifully through my friend’s character in the film; he’s my alter ego of sorts. All the questions that run through my character’s head or the viewer’s head at any point of the story are smartly posited by this character albeit humorously. Yet, it’s hard-hitting and one cannot help but feel for Aftab.
We witness how much he loves his wife (the victim) and how their relationship has entered a dark, miserable phase, and both of them have to rediscover each other. That’s the impact of a traumatic, selfish, disgusting, and repulsive act like rape creates.
When a woman is raped, it’s not just her who is raped… her whole family and environment is raped. It’s equivalent to raping everyone who loves that person. The act has never been approached through this gaze. I mean, how will it affect the people around you?
What happens to the survivor? How will your friends look at you? Does the survivor really want sympathy? I don’t think one will be in their thoughts all the time. After a time, it’ll be fake sympathy, and that will be harder to cope with. These are some questions the film tries to address.