Listen to this article
His family is India’s answer to the Redgraves – a dynasty of acting legends who have dominated Bollywood cinema for 85 of its 100 years. “I am the fourth generation,” says Ranbir Kapoor. “There have been close to 23 actors in my family; we are in the Guinness Book of World Records,” he laughs.
And this Bollywood superstar is, at the age of 30, one of India’s biggest heartthrobs. He cannot walk the streets without being accosted by fans. Two bodyguards accompany him wherever he goes – even in London, where I meet him and his producer Himanshahu Mehra in a hotel.
“You’d be stunned,” Mehra says. “People want to tear his clothes apart. I kid you not ... We move with security guys and an entourage. People want to hug him, kiss him; they’re drooling over him. He’s a superstar. But he accepts that this is the price he has to pay.”
In fact Kapoor loves the adulation of fans, however intrusive. “It’s my report card,” he says. “If I’m doing good work, people will want to ... take my picture and my autograph.”
He resolved early on to treat his public differently from his father, actor Rishi Kapoor, who “has a temper and used to be quite rude to them. I am here today because of them. I can’t take that for granted.”
Such is his popularity that the trailer for his next film – a romantic action comedy called Besharam (Shameless) – has been viewed ahead of its October release by more than 4m people on YouTube alone. And despite the pervasive influence of his dynasty, Besharam, directed by Abhinav Kashyap, is the first family affair among Kapoor’s films – in it he plays a petty thief chased by his parents as policemen. His mother Neetu Singh is a “bad cop” who tries to corrupt her henpecked husband.
Kapoor’s training included a spell at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York, and among the influences that show in his performances are Charlie Chaplin and Roberto Benigni.
Nevertheless, much of his inspiration actually comes from within his family – a dynasty that is a force to be reckoned with in Hindi cinema. He is the grandson of actor-director Raj Kapoor and the great-grandson of actor Prithviraj Kapoor, who began his career in Hindi cinema’s silent era. His great-uncle Shashi Kapoor was married to Jennifer Kendal, sister of actress Felicity, whose parents ran a travelling theatre company in India that is portrayed in the 1965 film Shakespeare Wallah.
Unmarried – and with a love life that features regularly in India’s gossip columns – Kapoor lives with his parents in Mumbai, which is not unusual in India. Only his sole sibling, an older sister, escaped the acting bug, working in fashion marketing in London.
Despite the family’s cinematic lineage, their parents kept them from the media spotlight as children. They never visited a film set. “Our parents wanted to shield us,” he recalls. He felt a “responsibility” rather than pressure to pursue a film career but was determined to “come out of the shadows of my family ... to make my own choices.”
Kapoor has completed some 14 films since his debut in 2007. India has a hero-worship culture, Mehta points out, that contributes to its staggering box-office sales – more than 3bn Bollywood tickets are sold each year in India. Industry figures vary widely, but at least 1,000 new films are made annually. Kapoor believes that the actual figure is nearer 9,000.
Acknowledging that musicals are the dominant Bollywood fare, Kapoor says: “We have a population of 1.2bn people. They want everything – action, drama, romance, music ... it’s like a festival. There are so many terrible social problems in our country that they may not want to get reminded of. They want to escape.”
People in India go repeatedly to each film they see – on average three times – with the cheapest seats costing less than £1. There’s even one romantic comedy that is still in cinemas after 13 years. Yet the overseas market also contributes sizeably to Bollywood’s takings – Kapoor’s last two films each took more than £1m in the UK alone – and the industry is increasingly seeking to reach out to non-Indian audiences worldwide with less traditional themes and genres.
So will this level of success lead Kapoor to Hollywood? Apart from the adulation of the public, Kapoor’s films have earned him five Filmfare Awards – India’s Oscars – and in 2010 he was awarded the Filmfare Critics Award for Best Actor for his performances in three films of 2009. Beyond the Indian scene, last year his romantic comedy Barfi!, in which he played a deaf-mute man in love with a beautiful autistic girl, was India’s official entry for the 2012 Oscars, where Variety’s critic raved (“Run out and see [it]”).
But of his plans for international success, Kapoor says: “You just have to make an honest story, a good compelling film. You can’t make a film with the intention of crossover.”
‘Besharam’ is released in the UK and India on October 2