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Anil Kapoor’s Fighting Spirit: On Four Decades of Film, the ‘Slumdog’ Effect, and One Heck of a Year

Anil Kapoor still gets meetings he can trace back to “Slumdog Millionaire.”

Chatting with IndieWire shortly after the premiere of Viacom18’s “Fighter,” the Indian actor is one of the rare global stars to enjoy “crossover success” — a buzzy term that, these days, seems to mean less crossing over and more crossing back-and-forth. Indian film stars, once compelled to journey West to Hollywood, now enjoy rich storytelling opportunities at home that also exist abroad. Between “Fighter,” “Animal,” a remake of “The Night Manager,” and daughter Rhea’s TIFF premiere, Kapoor’s last 12 months demonstrate the diversity of projects available for Indian actors today — though he still gets the most worldwide acknowledgement for “Slumdog.”

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“I get really surprised sometimes at the kind of people who still know me, still remember me, and want to work with me. It’s still continuing,” Kapoor told IndieWire. “As a matter of fact, I insist in speaking to them on the phone and looking at them, saying, ‘Why did you think about me? Why me?’ They say, ‘I’ve written the role with you in mind.’ I get a shock. ‘Slumdog’ released 14 years back! And ‘Mission: Impossible’ and ’24,’ it’s been so many years, but there are certain filmmakers and casting directors who still remember me. I’m very fortunate.”

Kapoor is now in his fourth decade as an actor, after initially rising to acclaim in the ’80s. When he tries to pick standouts from his career, the early successes are right up there with that enduring Oscar winner. One of the first films he brings up is Shekhar Kapur’s “Mr. India” from 1988. He mentions 1988’s “Tezaab,” 1989’s “Ram Lakhan,” and 2000’s “Pukar” while bringing up costar Madhuri Dixit-Nene; plus Yash Chopra’s “Lamhe” (1991), 1992’s “Beta,” “Taal” with Aishwarya Rai, early 2000s comedies, Zoya Akhtar’s “Dil Dhadakne Do” (2015). Our 30-minute conversation didn’t even touch upon “1942: A Love Story” or “Virasat,” whose cassettes are probably still in the tape deck of my father’s retired Toyota Camry.

As grateful as Kapoor is to stay buzzy and busy, he’s keenly aware of the shifting industry around him — and its shifting priorities. In the earlier decades he recalled, there was a different kind of passion on set, that can be harder to find these days. “There were more people who would first think about their work, and then about the money,” he said — hinting at economic shift in worldwide cinema, especially India. “They would think about the passion and then the commerce will follow. Now most of the people think about commerce more, and then they think about work.”

It’s not something that can be said of Kapoor himself, flying the skies alongside Hrithik Roshan in “Fighter” (a film with heavy “Top Gun” vibes — only fitting, since the “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” star calls Tom Cruise a friend), and partying with Roshan and Deepika Padukone during the film’s main musical number.

“Being in the same frame with Hrithik is unfair,” Kapoor said. “How can he dance so well and look so great and still be so effortless? And it was so humble of him to say, ‘I copied Deepika because she was so effortless.” I saw her also, she was wonderful … they’re aliens, yaar. They’re not normal. I just can’t believe that they can dance so well. It’s not fair.”

And can’t deny they’ve got passion.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

IndieWire: I would love to hear from you about having such an expensive indie film career, starting out in the ’70s and ’80s to the current evolution, because the industry itself has changed so much around you.

Anil Kapoor: It’s been wonderful and every decade has been different. I’m from a film family, my father was in films too, he used to produce films, and then his family also used to produce films. So it’s not only my career, but overall, the last 60 years. Every decade, there have been some great filmmakers … a lot of things have changed, but lots of things are the same in a way.

There are certain things which are progressing, there are certain things which are probably regressing. I am well-versed in every department of filmmaking to certain extent because I’ve gone through it in production. I’ve never been a director, but I know how the filmmakers work, actors, costume, sound, you name it — art direction — I’ve gone through the entire gamut. Everything has changed for the better, and some things have become worse.

What do you think has specifically has gotten better or worse over the years?

I feel what has gone better is that everything is very well prepped and planned. Because for storytellers and for actors, and for the consumers, if you tell a good story and you make a good product and something which is very accessible and relatable, you can resonate all over the world. I think that’s very exciting thing for all youngsters, for talented people all over the world, which is fantastic.

And then, of course, the social, the OTT platforms, the theaters — there are certain theaters which give you a terrific cinematic experience when you go and watch the films. Sometimes you want to sit at home and watch some great story, you can sit at your desk or on your bed you can just consume all these kinds of storytelling. You can just learn, experience, and watch it. When I started my career, If I had to see a film, I had go to the archives, to travel, and find the books and find old videos. It was exciting also, but was tough. There are certain great films, great work which was done, but for it to reach all over the world was very, very difficult. Certain filmmakers were lucky that they got the platform and that they are known. There are certain filmmakers or actors who might have done even greater work, but nobody’s seen those films and nobody knows about those actors. They didn’t get that kind of recognition.

So that’s the positive side effect, and I wouldn’t say it’s a negative, but the stakes are very high — for a film, for anything you do, it’s not that easy now. It’s becoming more and more difficult. There are certain filmmakers and certain stories, which have to find the right investments, funds, money, and people who are committed and honest and passionate. You have to be lucky to find that entire team because … [some people] pretend to be passionate, but actually, they’re not as committed. Sometimes you get stuck with a situation where you are against the wall and there’s so much pressure to deliver that becomes very, very difficult.

Of course, with everything being shot on digital … there was some magic about that, the films being shot on film. They had that quality which is missing now in films. The stories which really I would love to see, it’s very, very difficult to market them and to make them now. You see more event films in the theaters. It’s very rare, once in a blue moon, once in a century that you get an “Oppenheimer,” that you go and you see those kinds of performances, that kind of story, so brave and brilliant and everybody so committed and passionate, and shot on film. There used to be about seven, eight, ten films in a year, but now it’s one film in the last decade or five years. That’s the difference now.

When you did “Slumdog,” there was a lot of talk in Hindi cinema about crossover success.” This was a few years after “Bride and Prejudice,” and if you were going West, it was like you were getting on a ship and not going to come back. One of the things that has shifted during your career is the world has shrunk.

That’s the advantage. But there was a time where you had to go to LA and the audition had to be done in person; today, anybody, anywhere in the world can go and find actors and I can meet and speak and interact sitting in Mumbai, sitting on here — the way I’m speaking to you, I have spoken to so many filmmakers from all over the world. Otherwise it was not possible, so that is become an advantage now. Earlier it was difficult. You had to really be there to create more job opportunities.

Anil Kapoor in Siddharth Anand’s “Fighter” (2024)
Anil Kapoor in Siddharth Anand’s “Fighter” (2024)

What was that like, to experience quote-unquote crossover success, but then to see that you could continue? You could do an American TV show, and you could also have a Hindi film career.

I have three children, I have a wife, and I had a quite a good, positive, flourishing career here in India. My priority was my family over here, it was that I’ll keep on being with my family here in India, and doing my work over here. I would love to do more work internationally, but not at that cost. The work which I’ve done and the kind of success, the films which I did internationally, the kind of opportunity and the kind of recognition and people knowing who I was, a recognizable face almost all over the planet — if I was younger, I would have really taken more advantage of it, and been there in the midst of things to make things happen. But I took a decision that OK, fine, if it happens, if I find something more exciting, I’ll do it. Otherwise, I’m very content, happy being in my own country and being with my family.

I think that was a great decision I took because your life is 360 degrees. Success is not only professionally. Success is your fitness, your health, your children, your family, your own country, your friends. That’s what’s more important. I feel for me that is being a successful man, rather than getting success all over the world. You miss out on so many other things of your life. The ambition is definitely there to become a better actor.

Your children have all gone into film in very, very different interesting paths, how do you support or guide them?

I let them be. I let them make their decisions and I’m always there behind. Let them make their mistakes and learn from their own mistakes, that’s what my father did with me also. I’m just following what he did with me. I’ve done pretty well for myself, and they are also doing very well for themselves; there’s Sonam, there’s Rhea, there’s Harsh — all three are doing what they believe in and doing it very successfully.

Looking at your filmography even just in the past year, it’s such a range of films and roles — how much of that is conscious choices versus timing?

It’s all timing. “Thank You for Coming,” my daughter produced and it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, it was a phenomenal experience. People really internationally loved that film. It was fun to be there and was a great experience, and on my bucket list. I’ve been all over the world, to all the stages of the Mecca of film — the Oscar stage, Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards, London Festival, Cannes, BAFTA — and Toronto Film Festival was there, given the opportunity.

When I was doing “Night Manager,” before I could start, one of the biggest shows on Apple was offered to me, and I had to make a choice. Professionally I’d committed to do “Night Manager,” so I did that. “Animal” was supposed to release in August and it got pushed, so “Animal” and “Fighter” both have come back to back. Sometimes what happens is you finish your work and all four things came back-to-back. so that’s the reason you feel I’ve done so much. But fortunately, all four things have worked out. I’m very happy about that.

I know part of it is timing, but also when you do see that you’re just like, “Wow, this man stays working.

I am no superhuman. As an actor I can’t do so much. I have to do one at a time. So I do one at a time but but they all came together back to back. But I had enough time to prep everything and then shoot. It was not that I landed on a set without being prepped. It’s been very fortunate that things really worked out where dates are concerned.

You mentioned the SAG Awards, and I remember you doing that intro when “Slumdog” was having its big moment, and watching that with my parents. We were like, “What’s happening? He’s here! We know that guy!”

We received Best Ensemble, and your peers all over the world have given you this award, so it is a great moment. I land up on the stage and there is Anthony Hopkins, and so I just went and touched his feet. He said, “What are you doing?” I said that’s how Indians are; I respect you, you’re elder to me, you’re senior to me, and it was wonderful to be on a stage and receive that award. It’s right there [behind me], the SAG award, and I’m very proud of it.

Is there a specific working experience or memory that really reinforced your passion? We’ve talked about some of those projects.

There are certain films where sometimes the screenplay and the story was just a story. It’s not detailed, and you just trust the director. You feel, “Let’s jump into it.” In India that happens very often. Those films have worked and become huge blockbusters, and sometimes become wonderful films. Those have been great experiences where I am taken aback.

“What happened? How did this film come together?” “Ram Lakhan,” “Tezaab,” they are just stories, and the screenplay the filmmaker had in his head. Even in “Animal,” the screenplay is there in the head of the director, but the actors doesn’t 100 percent know the entire detailed screenplay. They’ve become special films in my career, and there are certain films which the detailed screenplays were there and they were better than the scripts and the stories.

Tell me about working on “Ek Ladki” with your daughter Sonam.

That was produced by Vidhu Vinod Chopra and we could use that song and the title “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha to Aisa Laga.” That character is a slightly conservative father and then ultimately, the entire transformation takes place where he accepts his daughter — it was also very, very brave of Sonam to do that role. It was a great experience working on that film; unfortunately, the film didn’t do well.

I think it’s had more longevity than a lot of recent Hindi films. I still hear from people watching it for the first time now who are so moved by it.

I’ve done a lot of these kinds of films, which some in that given time, have not worked, but have had longer legs. Even “Lamhe” and so many of my films. I did a small film called “My Wife’s Murder.” So a lot of films have really not resonated at that given time, but today people still watch those films, and like those films, and love those films.

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