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Streaming into spotlight

Arjun Mathur grabbed eyeballs with his spectacular performance in Made in Heaven, a role he took on despite the fear of being typecast

Amazon Video’s latest web series Made in Heaven, conceived by Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti, is creating a lot of buzz. Arjun Mathur, who plays one of the leads, has been widely praised for his brutally honest portrayal of a homosexual man.

Born in London, Mathur had his schooling in Delhi. Right from the age of 10, he wanted to become an actor, but his exposure was limited to acting in school plays. Keen to learn more, he came to Mumbai and trained with Kishore Namit Kapoor before assisting on a series of films including Mangal Pandey, Bunty aur Babli, and Rang De Basanti.

He subsequently got a training from Barry John’s Institute followed by another training stint at Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York. After making his debut in Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance, Mathur went on to deliver memorable performances in films like I Am, Fireflies, Ankur Arora Murder Case, Begum Jaan and Brij Mohan Amar Rahe, among others.

In this interview, he talks about his role in Made in Heaven and how he prepared for it, his long struggle for recognition, and his greatest source of inspiration.

Excerpts:

How did you get associated with Made in Heaven?

I and Zoya go back a long way.  My first feature film was her directorial debut — she wrote the first ever short film that I did. She also wrote one of the first ad campaigns that I worked on. So, there is a lot of history between the two of us.

For Made in Heaven, Zoya and her team never looked beyond me for the part — even before I met them or said ‘Yes’. One day I got a call for the audition and I went. I guess they liked what they saw and called me for another round. That day the casting director casually told me that the part might be a gay part. I guess they were a little scared also because I had already played homosexual characters twice in my life before.

It’s not that I had any apprehension about it, but as an actor there is always a fear of getting repetitive. Somewhere I was not sure if playing a gay man for the third time would be the best thing for me at this point of time. Zoya gave me eight episodes to read so that I can make up my mind. So, I took them home with me and went through the whole of it in one night. By the next morning I was convinced that I must do it. So that’s how it came about.

Tell us about your character. How did you prepare for it?

I play a homosexual man called Karan Mehta who runs a wedding planning agency along with his best friend Tara Khanna. In terms of preparation, to be honest, I am quite an instinctive actor unless there is a role which requires me to completely change my physicality or voice.

For the part of Karan Mehta, the creators actually wanted me and my instincts. It was never the plan to show the character through his mannerism or the way he talks or walks. You aren’t supposed to know that he is gay. He is a regular alpha male character. It is just that he likes sleeping with men. That’s just one aspect of his personality. So, frankly, there wasn’t much preparation; I just went in and started playing it.

Did Zoya and team provide you with any references for your role?

Zoya’s only reference to me ever was a show called Queer as Folk. I have not watched it because she didn’t really want me to watch it. She was just telling me about this one guy on the show. When you see him on screen every girl wants to sleep with him. But the thing is that he is gay.

You previously played a gay character in Onir’s National Award-winning film I Am wherein you also shared an intensely passionate love scene with Rahul Bose. How was that different from Made in Heaven?

In Onir’s film, my character was completely different in the sense that he was someone who was using his sexuality to the extent of exploiting other gay men for personal profit. So, that way Made in Heaven was completely different.

But, interestingly, Made in Heaven has a very similar scene where we are making out in the car and the policeman suddenly shows up. While shooting that scene I had lots of flashbacks of the scene in I Am. But I personally don’t see many similarities except for the sexuality of the two characters.

Speaking of gay characters, I also played a gay man in Mira Nair’s short film titled Migration. That was the first time I was facing a camera. I was opposite Irrfan Khan in the film. But the fact is that they are all completely different characters from one another.

You have essayed the gay characters so well that some people might be curious to know about your sexuality. Would you like to comment on this?

I know there is a lot of speculation, but honestly I am as heterosexual as they come. I have also been married once and I am divorced. Presently, I am in a very happy relationship with my girlfriend. That’s all I have to say about my sexuality.

You have managed to show a lot of promise through many of your performances but somewhere it didn’t materialise into something substantial until now. What are your thoughts on this?

Well, to tell you the truth, I have always given my best as an actor to everything that I have done, whether it was Luck by Chance or Ankur Arora Murder Case or Fireflies. The thing is that it takes more than just a good acting performance to make a film work.

Also, let’s not forget that not everyone is lucky enough to get a 100 crore launch and so you have to find your own path. It is important to find a way to stay relevant and yet keep doing work that we believe in and try and survive and make money. So many things have to come together.

The universe itself works in such ways that we have to wait for the right time. I know that I have always given my best, but the thing is that with Made in Heaven everything came together. On this project I was working with some of the most respected filmmakers in the country. Also, we had a massive budget. The show has reached the widest audience possible across 200 countries and everyone is watching it because of the momentum Zoya Akhtar already has with Gully Boy. But, frankly, I am really not looking at the past right now. I think from here I will only look towards the future.

Before Made in Heaven, your film Brij Mohan Amar Rahe also released digitally. How do you see the impact of streaming platforms like Amazon Prime and Netflix on the Indian entertainment industry?

I think it is simply amazing. I mean, how can I complain? Look at me. Look at what it has brought to me. While shooting Brij Mohan Amar Rahe we weren’t really sure whether we would release it digitally. But I believe that it reached a much wider audience through Netflix than what it would have managed to achieve — had it been released in the theatres.

From all over the world I have received so many messages which prove that it has enjoyed a fair share of viewership globally. Also, the scope for character development that a series like Made in Heaven offers is just not possible in a feature length movie. OTT has certainly opened up a whole new world of possibilities but it has also created a gold rush of sorts. So, as an actor it is important to choose wisely so that the quality of output doesn’t suffer whether I am doing a movie or a series.

Which actor has influenced you the most in your acting? Also tell us about your upcoming projects.

While assisting on Mangal Pandey and Rang De Basanti, I got to observe Aamir Khan very closely. You must see how that man operates on set. There is something about him that I really can’t describe in words.

There is some serious integrity to his way of working. And that’s definitely something that I try to imbibe. At the end of the day acting is all about observing and portraying what you observe. You can’t always have a bank of experience when it comes to portraying different characters. Sometimes you will come across such characters that you really have no clue about. So, you will have to look somewhere to be able to draw that from.

As far as upcoming projects are concerned, I have none, as I haven’t signed anything after Made in Heaven in the hope that the quality of offers coming my way will improve.