As a young Delhi boy, he decided to go into films, has done 35 projects till date, has arrived on the OTT platform as a star, with his recently released ‘Made in Heaven’, holds all promise to strike into the big league with his down to earth thinking.
In a free-wheeling conversation, Arjun shares his beliefs, his ideas on going forward, most of all, as a human being.
You are a leading star on OTT platforms and a great champion for LGBTQ causes in both your series. How has the response been to LGBTQ as a subject, in your understanding through your films and also generally on OTT?
This is the third time in my career that I played a gay character. The first time was in fact my very debut back in 2007. And back then there were no references whatever. There was no representation of the community that had been done accurately before that, other than in Deepa Mehta’s Fire, just the odd film here and there, which was considered extremely arthouse at the time. Other than those in mainstream cinema, we only had caricaturist depictions. I can say that at least since the year 2007 is the time when I took my first step really in trying at all to depict it in any authentic or truthful way. But then I was very lucky then, because again, that was a short film that was directed by Mira Nair. I was acting opposite Irrfan Khan. It was not a mainstream per se depiction.
The second time was for a film called ‘I Am’ with Onir who is a great champion of LGBTQ himself. And in that film, this was now in 2010 or something. And even then, I mean, it’s certainly not anything that most actors were ready to do at the time.
Understood! And then the narrative going further?
By the time Made in Heaven came around in 2017 to be on the same page with you; the first time when I found out that this is a gay character, it’s not that I had reservations about it, but I just felt that I had done it already twice in my career, and I didn’t want to be repetitive as an artist.
Therefore, how did you then agree to doing it?
So, I shared that thought with the creators in my first meeting with them, and they just told me to take the script home and read them, and by the time I finished reading them, I realized that this was just something so new and different, and really it was like a voice that hadn’t been heard before in our cinema scape. So, I decided, there and then, that I am going to do it again for a third time. I realized myself that I had to personally first drop those lines in my own head of whether this is a gay part or a straight part – at the end of it, it’s a human character with human emotion.
That’s so beautifully said. Yes, yes, yes.
So, I first myself had to do that as an artist, as an actor, for there to be any effect of it on the audience to start with. I also feel that the world itself right now where we are, we’ll get to later, but I think that over the last 10 odd years, the world has really evolved fast towards being inclusive and opening up towards rights for minorities and some minorities, not all.
You just mentioned that which is something very, very inclusive, something very human and emotional when you said that you have to remove the lines in your mind; straight or gay or what, but it is a human being. You see yourself somewhere arriving at a situation where you become a kind of an activist yourself for more inclusive life around us?
I think I have always been, aside from just LGBTQ rights, I have always considered myself a bit of an activist, to be honest, because I just find there are many, many things in the world that are just not right, and films is one of the strongest mediums we have, to form public opinion and change perceptions. I’ve always believed in not just preaching at the end of it, first and foremost, we are entertainers, but if through our work we are able to actually affect some change, some positive change, then absolutely, I am an activist.
No, but tell me now, if you go back to 2007 and you go to your current Made in Heaven Season 2, how much revolution do you think has happened in terms of acceptability of let’s say, common causes?
I’ll say a lot. Honestly, you’re right. I actually started realizing this only after Made in Heaven Season 1 released, because to be honest, I did not know how it would be received. I did not expect it to be received the way that it did across races and genders and countries and religions, and it was just universally accepted. I expected a little bit of negative commentary also, because all said and done, there are fringes and groups in the world that don’t take well to these ideas. But that was simply not the case. I think that the victory of Made in Heaven is exactly that. It so beautifully puts its point across through its human stories that everybody across the board would feel it.
Would you say that what you have managed to portray gay or straight, it’s basically you and me? Its very much normal, common human beings. It’s all about us.
Yes, very much. I would, in fact, that was the very brief given to me by my directors also. We don’t have to spell it out for any audience, that this is what this character is. They wanted me to play him as me, and that’s what I did. There are gay men who are absolutely alpha male, masculine as hell, but they just like to sleep with men. So that’s really the only thing that is.
Very interestingly though, this was not my expected emphasis in this interview. When you say you’ve been kind of an activist in so many ways, are there some other causes that also I can expect you to pick up? There are so many ills that we have. I mean, non-recognition of gays and straights is one issue, where we don’t recognize the individuality of the person, but there are other social stigmas and issues. The girl child, for instance.
Would you look at being an activist for other causes in society?
I’ve had gay friends my entire life. I’ll first just talk about this cause. I’ve had gay friends my entire life, and if we all say that, yeah, yeah, you have my support and this that, but Made in Heaven for me was a way to really just put my money where my mouth is with regard to that. So that’s why I did that. But personally, if you ask me, the gravest danger to our world is of course, I think the destruction of our natural habitat at the pace that is taking place. It’s really what’s a primary concern for us all. If you were to ask me what is the one cause in your life, I really think to save this place we live in and to save all its wildlife and all its creatures really would really be my top priority. But that being said, yeah, there are, I mean, when the CA protests were happening, I was right there in the thick of it in Mumbai. There’s just anything, I mean, I’m there. At least I’m there to lend my voice to every ill that I see in the world.
When there were those NRC protests back in, I think 2019. I would say that there are many causes that I think strongly about, but also I have to say that being some kind of a public figure, I learned over time, I have to be somewhat cautious as well; I used to be a lot more fearless about the causes that I believed in.
You have to be a little circumspect now?
I do a little bit because I feel that public people run the risk of being exploited. They’re exploited by the media for clickbait. And often times don’t care much about whose lives they’re destroying or whose lives they’re affecting, or who really bears the consequence of what they end up saying. So, I find that as a measure of protecting not just myself, but also the people I love and care about. I’ve learned over time that it is also important that I temper my activism.
But very interestingly, you touched upon two very interesting points. One is that you talked about putting your money where your heart is. But I want to say these ventures of yours – Made in Heaven 1 and Made in Heaven 2 – these have been commercial successes for you, reasonable commercial successes, or is it the big screen that is going to bring you that commercial success.
See, with streaming platforms, it is not the box office. That is why it exists, because if it was the box office, then there is no way that actors like me, Jim Sarbh or that very extremely talented cast that you were seeing in most of the streaming shows today, these actors would not even be cast in these shows if they were based on box office and on commercials. Just like at one point in time, art house cinema was a very niche thing. There is a limited audience for it, just like that. I consider even commercial cinema to be its own niche, because that is just what it is. What we are catering to, or at least what I tend to cater to, is honestly a world audience.
I mean, you are in some way, can I say indulging in your passion or in your art at the moment, but if you want to be a commercial success, you’ll have to hit the big screen. Am I putting it right or no?
I suppose it is true to some degree, but then that comes with its own trappings also. If you’re really talking about you’ve got to be a star for the big screen, then the stars are really stuck in their own trappings of their image and what they can do, what they can’t do, the risks they can take in that degree, I am much freer actor, who is free to take risks. That is also the way I like it, because I don’t want to get stuck to an image of Arjun Mathur.
So, one question which I had for you is in your current LGBTQ roles, is there a fear that you could become typecast? And would you also not want soon somewhere an opportunity where you could play a non-LGBTQ character? It could be an environment activist, it could be just a normal guy with a family.
I mean, no, first of all, typecasting is not my problem.
Not your problem?
Yeah. Typecasting is, honestly, it is absolute lack of imagination and any foresight or vision on the part of creators who, once they see an actor do something, they are unable to visualize him do anything else. And just because the actor has done that one thing well, then people just want to see him do the same thing again. Honestly speaking, as long as I don’t typecast myself, I’ll never get typecasted. Also, my LGBTQ characters are like 3 out of 35 projects that I’ve done.
But would you say Arjun, that as far as the OTT canvas is concerned, forget the big screen, you have already arrived with a star status as befits the OTT canvas.
Yes, I should think so.
And what’s your first responses? Because, very obviously as, forget the fact that I may be known to you personally, but I do get very positive vibes on your roles, and one feels very happy and encouraged to see the kind of responses you are getting as a star on OTT platform. So where do you go from here in terms of OTT – I have seen you in some very good ad films.
Well, the thing is, there are no decisions. I don’t make these kinds of decisions. I don’t decide, okay, now I want to do a film, or now I want to do a series. When something comes to me, I look at it for the story. And very often, honestly speaking, in today’s climate, there are many people who are making things without actually knowing where it’s eventually going to be seen, whether it’s going to be seen in the theatre or on a streaming platform, or are we going to make this as a series or as a movie. So, all these lines are blurring quite a bit. There are many films that were made for theatrical release but have been forced to release on OTT. So, there is no saying, and in this era, how do we make these plans? The thing is to always and always only connect with the story and the character, and that’s the only thing I can do, decide if I like this, if I want to be a part of telling the story, if I like what my character is doing, if I feel I can do justice.
So, what are the projects that you’re currently working on?
I finished a feature film called ‘Lord Curzon Ki Haveli’, which is, it’s like a dark comedy thriller; four actors in one room over one night, that kind of psychological thrill. And then I am starting a new series next month that I’ll announce soon. It is a limited series that is based on the Asaram Bapu case. So, it’s based on a book called God of Sin.
Now coming back to the main course, your ideal role model, whom you consider a role model. For all the talent that you have, if you ask me whom would I like to become, if I was going to start acting, my hero might be some one like an Anupam Kher who can be so devilish and who can just not bother about what you think of him? Who would be yours?
Naseeruddin Shah for certain is one. Irrfan Khan, hundred percent. Daniel Day-Lewis, simple. There is just no greater talent to me than Daniel Day-Lewis and the greatest thing about him is that he doesn’t give a ‘damn’. He does not dare. Simply, he is what he is. He does what he does. He only gets talked about when he wants to be talked about. He only gets talked about because of his work and nothing else. And more than anything, I think he realizes that this is all healing and it is all just unhealthy attachment actually, to be so blindly fixated on your needs to be seen and to make all this money.
Somewhere then, would it be fair to say that you are not chasing money, you are chasing your satisfaction?
I’m chasing having a body of work that I can look back and be proud of.
Wonderful. Tell me, in all this journey of yours so far there would be some inspirations for you personally, privately. Would you like to share some of that? But who has been your biggest influence?
I think I have to say that my mother continues to be my greatest strength.
What is it that you remember about her that you can recall, which makes you say she’s your greatest strength? And in what manner does Reynoo still appear in your life?
Oh, she appears at the toughest of times. She appears at the best of times. I can feel her protecting me when things are bad. I can feel her smiling at me when things are good. She would’ve really loved to see where I am and what I am doing. And she was a real film buff in the family.
Sorry, just refresh my mind. At what age did you lose her?
I was 14.
Because I can remember her smile was the most infectious.
Yeah, I agree.
What role has your father played in your upbringing?
My father, that has been honestly the greatest support. The thing is that we as a family went through quite a tragedy and it left everybody with their own gaping holes. In the following years as a teenager, dad and my relationship was quite volatile, and those were also very formative years for me. So, I think that father-son relationships can anyway be quite complex and complicated because not as much as shared easily between each other. In terms of just sharing feelings. So, I think things can get complicated. I think I spent some time in my life being quite angry and resentful, but I think that has also been my journey of growth and of forgiveness towards all of us.
That’s so touching what you are saying, because he literally dotes on you and is very, very proud of all that you are doing. I can only say as a father myself, we are just all the time doting on our children. So, we just love to see their growth and their success!
And that’s what, it’s only when you yourself get a little older and gain the maturity to be able to see your father as a human before he’s your father. I think that has been my journey. But having said that, coming back to your question, from the day that I told him that this is what I want to do, and I dropped it on him like a hot potato. That I don’t want to go to college. That I want to go to Bombay. That’s not an easy thing for a father to accept. He has just been supportive from day one.
I always tell him that he is my role model in being an ideal father. My last question, what are you looking forward to in your next phase?
It’s hard for me to be specific. I got myself an Emmy nomination a couple of years ago. That was a huge thing for me. Right now, I have just turned 42 years old. I am myself going through a time of transition, and there is change taking place in my life. I am now in a different bracket of ‘actor’ than I was when I started acting, when I was just 25-26 years old. So, I will simply go with the flow!