Arjun Mathur talks International Emmy nomination, lockdown productivity and being selective about the roles he plays
Arjun Mathur became the first Indian actor to earn a nomination in the Best Actor category at the International Emmys, slated to take place on 23 November.
Arjun Mathur would have starting shooting the second season of Made in Heaven in May, reprising his career-defining role as Karan Mehra, the gay co-founder of a Delhi-based wedding planning agency had we been been living in a normal world. But when a global pandemic brought the entire world to a halt almost overnight, Mathur who isn’t a stranger to either setbacks or indefinite periods of waiting did what he has always done: he adapted to the situation.
The result is an awfully productive lockdown. In June, Mathur acted in Out With It, a 10-minute film that was part of Home Stories, Netflix India’s anthology shorts films shot entirely during the lockdown. He followed it up with a role in Voot’s The Gone Game, an ambitious four-episode thriller that revolved around COVID-19. But the icing on the cake came in September when Mathur became the first Indian actor to earn a nomination in the Best Actor category at the International Emmys, slated to take place on 23 November. “I must clarify that I wasn’t really very productive. That’s a lie. Both these shoots combined were not more than six-seven days of work,” he laughingly admits over a phone call.
If the 38-year-old actor sounds self-effacing, it’s probably because he has always had the knack for seeing the bigger picture. “After my first few years in acting, I think it started becoming quite clear to me, what the systems are at play over here, what kind of path I need to find for myself, and how do I go about finding the path for myself in a system that works the way it does,” he says, making sense of his trajectory. Mathur started out as an Assistant Director working on over seven films, most of them blockbusters (Bunty Aur Babli, Rang De Basanti) just to get a foothold in the film industry. But even when he got his break as an actor, starring in Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance (2009) and Onir’s I Am (2010), fame didn’t immediately come calling. Neither did satisfying roles. For someone who’s been a professional actor since 2007, Mathur’s filmography is surprisingly spare. But that changed sometime last year with Made in Heaven that catapulted him into the public consciousness in such an all-consuming manner that the after-effects of which are still being felt to this day. What made his turn all the more epoch-making was his vulnerable portrayal of an urban, homosexual man that marked one of the first representations of homosexuality in a post-377 India.
Mathur has always been the kind of actor who goes all in, having this tremendous ability to express so much while doing so little. This precise gift was on full display in Out With It where Mathur played Angad, an anxious 20-something man who isolates himself from the world because he is too fearful to face it. The camera follows Mathur over the course of a week as he motivates himself to go out, getting one step closer to revealing himself to the world. The urgency of the actor’s turn, equal parts arresting and frightening, feels informed by the uncertainty of living in a time when life has retreated indoors, a curious instance of reel merging into real so seamlessly that you can’t tell where one begins and where the other ends. It’s one of those roles where there is really no place to hide: he manages to sustain suspense with an alert body-language and a perennially panic-stricken face, conveying a lifetime of backstory with mere glances. In fact, Mathur makes it humanly impossible to look away from the screen even for one second. The world of difference that a gifted actor can bring to the table has never been this clear.
Edited excerpts from the conversation:
Congratulations on the International Emmy Nomination for Best Actor. How did you hear of it?
I had just finished breakfast and coffee in the morning and I got a phone call from my actor friend, Sayani Gupta who asked me if I had heard this news. My first reaction was absolute disbelief. I thought someone was playing a joke on me or something; that it was a mistake or misprint of some sort. But yeah, turns out that wasn’t the case.
You’re the first Indian actor to land a Best Actor Nomination at the International Emmys. Does that feel like an icing on the cake?
That’s pretty amazing. I didn't think of it like this, but then I think that's a win for many things. I think that's a win for the changing face of the film industry. I think that's a win for the new kind of content that's been created in our country. I hope going forward, here’s something or the other coming out of our country every year that gets us the second nomination, you know, why not?
It’s been more than a year since the first season came out. It also came 13 years after you started acting professionally. How do you look back at the show today?
Made in Heaven was the first time I didn’t have to pedal my own work as an actor. Today, I know there are so many people who are going back and checking some of my previous work which were not seen too much at the time and suddenly, they are waking up to all of it and being like, “Wow, this was so good.” As far as I’m concerned, I’ve given my best to every project I’ve done but none of those projects have clicked the way Made in Heaven did. Why? Because there are so many factors that go into really making a project click that way, you know. For instance, who's making it? Where will it be seen? Who are the actors in it? How much is your budget and freedom? Will you be able to say what you want? Very rarely does it happen that all of it falls into place as beautifully as things did for Made in Heaven and I think that's when the magic happens, when all the things come together. I’ll be honest, these projects are very rare. But they are worth waiting for.
You acted in two back-to-back projects during the lockdown. Both Home Stories and The Gone Game were products of the pandemic, where the current situation not only impacted the logistics but also the storytelling. How was it shooting on your own from home as opposed to going to a set?
You know, in those initial days, I think like we were all going through so much uncertainty and paranoia and all these emotions were being felt which needed some kind of outlet. I'm very fortunate that I had a chance to do that, possibly the only actor who got lucky with not one but two projects in the lockdown. By the way, I must also give credit to the fact that I live with my partner who's a production designer (Tiya Tejpal) and my best friend and neighbour (Jay Oza) is one of the best cinematographers in the country. So if something that is a DIY situation comes to me, I have a very good support system of people that want to help me. I wouldn't have had the confidence to get into either of these projects unless I had them.
How do you look back at the experience of doing the short in Home Stories?
I really really liked the script and the fact that I was getting to do this myself in my house. As I said, the process was much easier, because it was single actor, single location and much more contained. It was also hard, because we were pretty much doing the work of 10 departments but at the end of the day when you look at the footage and you’re like “This is our home, we did this ourselves,” it is very confidence building. Just the fact that we can deliver something competent within the confines of our home with limited resources. But I also think that not every actor is built for this. It takes a skill set, like, if you're someone too used to your frills, then I’m not sure this is the way you would want to make a film.
How did that experience square off against doing something like The Gone Game where it’s an ensemble and you’re one piece of the puzzle?
I don’t know if you’ve seen the show but my character is the one that gets the virus. He's the one that goes and so my character is even more disconnected from the rest of the cast. And I feel like I was going through that shoot in such a disconnected manner as well. In fact, I didn't even read the script properly, to be very honest with you because I had such blind faith in the director, Nikhil Bhat, that I just submitted to him. On a day to day basis as we would shoot, he would tell me what he needed but the story was quite complicated so I would have questions. I would be like “Okay, but why am I doing this? Where do I go from here?” There were so many times when I would just get my instructions just before the shoot and I would just give him what he needed. So I think it’s his credit honestly, for being able to pull off something like this so seamlessly.
As someone whose career rests largely on the advent of streaming platforms where your show doesn’t come with an expiry date like in the case with theatrical release, do you think these platforms have reduced an actor’s need of being seen for the sake of being seen? You haven’t gone on a signing spree after Made in Heaven...
If you see my body of work, even pre-Made in Heaven, there have always been gaps. I've never wanted to do something just because it's time for me to do something. I wait for projects that really excite me creatively, that was always the case and post-Made in Heaven all the more so. I think, unfortunately or fortunately, I've set my standards quite high and I've gotten a little spoiled. Now I just want to do the best that I can, so quality matters a lot more to me than quantity. And, I think that's just the way I'm going to go. So in my filmography, there's really only just maybe one or two projects that I feel was a wrong decision. I think, at the end of it, you have to look back on your body of work and you have to respect it. I don't want to look at my body of work and feel cringey about anything.
You talked about your work finding its due long after they’ve been out in the world. I know it’s not in any actor’s control but has it ever bothered you when your work hasn’t reached people it should even after you delivered a performance that deserved recognition?
Of course, I'm human right? I mean, you must have written articles in your early days, which weren't being read as much as you would have liked too. I mean, we're all going through the same human journey at the end of it trying to do our best in the fields that we've chosen to pursue. But again, it's nothing to complain about. Sure at the time when that work was releasing, and I wanted more people to see it and I wanted to shatter the glass ceiling, it felt frustrating. But I’m glad today because of one other piece of work, people are going back and appreciating everything else and let me tell you, this is a very normal journey for any working actor. Do you know how many films someone like even Ryan Gosling had done before I ever heard of him? Any actor worth their salt has a big body of work behind them before they come into public consciousness.
So during these struggle periods when you’re disheartened, how do you also remain optimistic and move on?
I don’t know. Apna time aayega?
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