Kunal Kapoor on Shakespeare Day: ‘Some day, I’d like to play Shylock, and Julius Caesar’

Kunal Kapoor on Shakespeare Day: ‘Some day, I’d like to play Shylock, and Julius Caesar’

Kunal Kapoor recalls his trysts with Macbeth and The Merchant of Venice  on the occasion of William Shakespeare’s death anniversary 

Roshmila BhattacharyaUpdated: Friday, April 21, 2023, 09:14 PM IST
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Pic: Instagram/ Kunal KapoorNobleman

I was introduced to William Shakespeare when in school. I remember reading Tempest and Julius Caesar. I was very taken in by the plays because I have always been interested in drama and literature.

In college, I had an opportunity to be on stage with one of Shakespeare’s plays. Then, after I became a professional actor, I was offered Veeram, an adaptation of Macbeth.

It was one of my favourite plays and I was excited because many actors have played Macbeth over time, from Michael Fassbender and Sir Ian McKellen to Denzil Washington, Sean Connery and our own Irrfan Khan in Maqbool. Each of them had brought their own interpretation to this complex character. The challenge for me was not being influenced by what I had watched other actors do while trying to bring something that is hopefully your own to the character.

Jayaraj sir married Chandi Chekavar’s story with Macbeth’s

What made it easier for me was that Veeram is not just inspired by Shakespeare, but also a folk legend of Kerala, Chandu Chekavar. Since the infamous warrior’s story is similar in some ways to Macbeth’s, Jayaraj sir (Veeram’s writer and director) married the two.

Chandu Chekavar’s story had a clear graph — he is in love with the king’s daughter and when spurned by her, the hate he holds in his broken heart makes me do all the things he does — so that gave me a strong spine for the character. Still, physically and emotionally, Veeram was one of my most challenging roles.

We wrapped up the film in 32 days, some days shooting 20-22 hours

The 2016 film was in Malayalam, Hindi and English, so every scene had to be done in three different languages. Malayalam was difficult despite having a language coach. I had to speak an archaic, poetic version and even the locals find certain words difficult to pronounce and comprehend.

Amazingly, despite being shot in three languages and all the action scenes, we wrapped up the film in just 32 days. But this meant that some days, we were working 20-22 hours at a stretch.

What made it even tougher was that unlike other directors, Jayaraj sir does not shoot with multiple cameras that can capture the minutest detail. So, scenes had to be done over and over again. That was physically draining!   

I trained for a couple of months in Kalaripayattu

Fortunately, four months before I was offered the film, I had some time off and decided to transform my body. So, when Veeram came along, I already looked like a warrior. And since I was physically fit, the action scenes were easier.

Still from Veeram

Still from Veeram |

I trained for a couple of months in Kalaripayattu which I’d done when I was much younger. I also took sword fighting lessons from a trainer who came to Mumbai from a famous school in Kerala.

Our action director, Allan Poppleton, was from New Zealand. He had worked on some big projects, like Spartacus, The Hunger Games, The Expendables 2, and The Wolverine. His assistant worked with me on the fights Alan had choreographed before we got into shoot.

Jayaraj sir decided I should address the soliloquy to a broken head

Jayaraj sir is a very visual director and always well prepared. But since Macbeth had been done multiple times and he wanted to bring something new to the screen, he also believed that some scenes should happen spontaneously. Like the famous soliloquy after Macbeth learns of his wife’s suicide, “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more…”

When he came on the set, Jayaraj sir was not sure how to play it out. Then, he noticed a broken head from one of the action scenes and decided I should kick it, then pick it up and address the soliloquy to this broken head. That made the scene unique.

Veeram has the essence of a Shakespearean play and the innocence of Chandu Chekavar’s story. There was so much to play with. Like in the 2021 web series, The Empire, there is a powerful king, crippled with self-doubt, innocence turning to rage and brutality.     

Still from Nobleman

Still from Nobleman |

Nobleman is a darker retelling of The Merchant of Venice 

What I find fascinating about Shakespeare’s writing is that it has so much depth. Each character is well sketched out and finely nuanced, with so many different shades, that playing them becomes joyous for any actor.

Vandana Kataria’s 2019 debut film, Nobleman, set in a hostel, is a different, darker retelling of The Merchant of Venice. I play a drama teacher, he was not Shylock, but some day, I would like to play the miserly Jewish money lender who demands his pound of flesh. And  Julius Caesar, that would be exciting too though I don’t know how it can be adapted for our audience.

Shakespeare’s range is something not many writers can boast of — Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Tempest, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Taming of the Shrew… Drama, action, romance, comedy, tragedy, he was a master of every genre. 

(As told to Roshmila Bhattacharya)

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