In a brilliant moment from Rockstar (2011), Ranbir Kapoor looks almost possessed when his character ridicules a music producer by repeating the latter's cliched refrain "Everything is image. Image is everything." Off-screen too, Kapoor's demeanour does not betray any great preoccupation with how the world looks at him. Despite having many bragging rights - Barfi! was nominated as India's entry to the Oscars and he has invaded the Khan market with Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (YJHD) - the 30-year-old droopy-eyed actor seems to shun efforts to brand him a superstar. Repeatedly, Kapoor, who has a problem pronouncing words that begin with the letters "st", has dismissed talk of impending super-stardom, saying "the industry has a habit of saluting the rising sun".
Though his illustrious surname made it easier for him to enter Bollywood, Kapoor's fame isn't an inheritance. He seemed to approach roles with a kind of unprecedented sincerity. As film writer Bhawana Somaaya puts it, "He is in person what Raj Kapoor was as a tramp on screen. That is his strength." Within a span of six years and just 10 full films, he has sprinted past contemporaries. "Even if he was born to Mr Sharma next door, he would still be who he is," movie critic Anupama Chopra laughs.
To prepare for Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year (2009), Kapoor did sewa at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. When Rockstar was being made, he stayed with a Jat family and later camped at A R Rahman's Chennai studio for 45 days, familiarising himself with the angsty songs he was to mouth. "He devotes himself, he surrenders, he submits," says director and friend Imtiaz Ali. "He just gets taken by the story and the character."
Except for a brief phase when he wanted to be a karate instructor, the grandson of Raj Kapoor and son of Rishi and Neetu Kapoor had set his eyes squarely on cinema. At his alma mater, Bombay Scottish, young Kapoor danced at Christmas concerts and participated in drama competitions. "He would even incorporate movies into academics. Every essay in his English grammar paper would be a summary of an entire Hindi movie screenplay," Ayesha Devitre, hair stylist and Kapoor's close friend, said in a column for Rediff.com.
The actor's career so far reveals disregard for tested methods and traditional learning. In interviews, he admits to scraping through school exams. He signed up for the course at New York's School of Visual Arts because it had a colourful website. His stint at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, where Al Pacino and Paul Newman trained, he calls 'almost useless'. Instead, he is said to have picked up the nuances of acting, camerawork and choreography by watching the cinema of Guru Dutt, Bimay Roy, Satyajit Ray and his grandfather for hours on end at RK Studios.
His lineage might have been hard to recognise on the sets of Black (2005), where he started out as an assistant director. He travelled by rickshaws, ate with the unit and got pushed around - and got his charm discovered by director Sanjay Leela Bhansali. This allure also became evident to the audience when he debuted, with tousled hair and the chiselled body of an anime character, in Bhansali's lacklustre Saawariya (2007).
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His scant filmography shows a range of skills. "He has built his audience brick-by-brick by showing that it will always be exciting to see him in a film," says Siddharth Roy Kapur, managing director (studios), Disney UTV. The company backed the actor's latest YJHD. While Kapoor never wanted to 'run around trees,' he has not been averse to commercial films. After a string of unconventional and laudable performances, it is YJHD - charged with song, dance and glamorous locales -which pushed him firmly into the A-list.
A latent desire to see Kapoor do a "full-on commercial, entertaining blockbuster" is reflecting in YJHD's numbers, reckons Kapur. The film collected over Rs 100 crore within the first week and is expected to be the third-biggest grosser in India, after 3 Idiots (2009) and Ek Tha Tiger (2012). Overseas, it collected Rs 43 crore in 10 days. And it was released in 3,100 screens against the 700 for Barfi!
While the spotlight brightens, the actor has kept fairly private. After some high-profile relationships were dissected publicly, the Bandra boy has preferred to maintain a mystery about himself, staying off Facebook and Twitter. Unlike other major stars, he does not have a publicist and talks to the press only around a film's release. Kapoor, who along with his parents is shooting for his next venture, Besharam, declined a request to be interviewed. The film is scheduled to release in October.
Those who have worked with him say numbers bore Kapoor. He concerns himself only with creativity. For monetary assessments, the boy with Awara tattooed on his wrist takes the help of his father and business agents. "His father gives him complete freedom in making his choices," says Somaaya who has known the actor through his growing-up years, when he would often sneak away to meet girlfriends or smoke cigarettes. "His father comes into the picture when the deal has to be struck. He understands the commerce. So between the father and son, they are a super pair." Kapoor may soon begin co-producing or taking a percentage of his films' profit. He now claims Rs 15-18 crore per movie plus a share of profits, compared with Rs 8 crore before Rockstar.
Kapoor's saleability - referred to as 'Brand Ranbir' - has been briskly gaining in strength since 2011. Rockstar cemented his position as a youth icon and his portrayal of a romantic deaf-mute boy in Barfi! endeared him to all age groups. His face sells eight brands and he is the second-most expensive endorser, behind the celestial Aamir Khan. Now, for each advertising deal that is accepted, at least five are shown the door, says Anirban Das Blah, managing partner at CAA KWAN, which handles the actor's business interests other than films.
Brands like Pepsi and Docomo caught on to his talent early; others have recently scrambled to acknowledge it. "(He) truly reflects the impatience of youth as they constantly find ways of reinventing themselves," says Homi Battiwala, senior director for marketing (colas, juices & hydration), PepsiCo India. After considering 10 celebrities, Lenovo India decided to access Ranbir's "exemplary blend of both style and performance" last year, says Shailendra Katyal, director of consumer business.
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Compared to fellow youngsters, Kapoor's growth has been faster and steadier, notes Gautam Jain, insights head at entertainment business consultancy Ormax Media. He is the youngest actor in the top 10 list of Stars India Loves for the month of May, released by Ormax each month. From rank 7 in 2010, he has climbed to 4th, while Aamir and Hrithik Roshan follow at numbers 5 and 6. Among female fans, he ranks second, trailing Salman Khan but ahead of Shah Rukh Khan.
However, often dismissed as a multiplex favourite, Kapoor will need to enlist more adoration in small centres to be a superstar. "The Khans have been here for far longer than Ranbir and have built considerable equity in small towns and with single-screen audiences," notes Jain. "It would take some time to build similar equity in these segments. But if one looks at the business of YJHD, it is clearly seen that Ranbir is already making in-roads there."
The upcoming Besharam, directed by Abhinav Kashyap, known for the outrageously popular Dabangg (2010), could be another game changer, says Suniel Wadhwa, film distributor and trade expert. "It is evident his star power will capture the audience in the smaller centres soon." But the assortment will stay varied as he prepares to begin work on Anurag Kashyap's Bombay Velvet, based on true events of the 1960s.
Kapoor is not interested only in acting but the overall process of filmmaking. "He is there all the time, to be asked to do anything at all," says Ali, who can spend hours discussing film ideas with the actor. Kapoor, who directed shots from a helicopter for Rockstar, also checks out locations and attends production meetings. Recently, he teamed up with director Anurag Basu to launch a production house named Picture Shuru and signed a deal with Disney to make Jagga Jasoos, a detective franchise.
Ranbir Kapoor can be Bollywood's next big superstar - he perhaps can be even more.