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Aaj ka Arjun: Arjun Rampal then and now

A friend of over 25 years draws comparisons between the actor’s life as a fashion model sprawled on Rohit Bal’s couch in the ’90s to the National Award winning artist, producer, husband and father that Arjun Rampal is today

brunch Updated: Oct 29, 2016 18:43 IST
Arjun Rampal,Mehr Jessia,Arun Gawli
Arjun Rampal is playing the role of the don Arun Gawli in director Ashim Ahluwalia’s forthcoming film Daddy(Dabboo Ratnani )

A friend of over 25 years draws comparisons between the actor’s life as a fashion model sprawled on Rohit Bal’s couch in the ’90s to the National Award winning artist, producer, husband and father that Arjun Rampal is today

Arjun Rampal is a don, or at least he’s pretty good at playing one. Now essaying the role of the don Arun Gawli, he is shooting for director Ashim Ahluwalia’s film Daddy at the Maharashtra Police Headquarters in the heart of throbbing Mumbai. His make-up, done by two Italian make-up artists flown in especially for the movie, is astonishing. Blink, and you could think the gaunt face, the drooping moustache and the lazy eyes are the true-life Gawli.

Extraordinary prosthetics hold everything up but it is Rampal who brings electricity to each scene. Under the great dome of the police headquarters, with huge portraits of Shivaji, Babasaheb Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru looking down on the busy shoot below, Rampal sits with head bowed, waiting for his next shot.

Any actor worth his salt will tell you how tedious it is getting a shot right – it takes many takes, no pun intended. Rampal masters this with sheer concentration and by going over the script countless times with the now exhausted script editor. He rehearses each scene with great intensity even though it’s not the final take; this is hard work at its purest.

Ahluwalia, an award-winning filmmaker (National Film Awards, Cannes opening films, Berlin International Film Festival and many more), is an exacting director who could pick a fault in the manner in which a hat is peaked. He calls ‘Cut!’ at the drop of, well, a clapperboard. The shoot starts at 8am and continues for 18 hours.


The next day, at an event for a beverage company, Rampal is to moderate a discussion with a panel of fashion designers, including Masaba Gupta, Manish Arora, Shantanu and Nikhil, Rajesh Pratap Singh, Shane and Falguni Peacock, and musician Gaurav Raina. Before the event, he locks himself up in a suite at the St Regis Hotel (where the event is happening) and makes extensive notes on what he’ll ask each person. His preparation is exacting and pointed – he makes copious hand-written notes in several iterations. He then slips into very expensive black jeans and an asymmetric t-shirt by Rick Owens and a Rajesh Pratap Singh jacket with a burnt sienna piping, assistants spritzing here, teasing a collar there. Once he’s on stage, he lights up the panel and the audience, bantering and teasing and cajoling. He makes the designers squirm when he asks each to name their favourites! This, anyone will tell you, is just not kosher in the rag trade. He asks the Dietrich-voiced Manish Arora where he got that very particular tone that Arora is known for. There are two answers to that question and one is unprintable. Everyone on stage has smiles on their faces. The questions are gentle but bordering on the wicked. He’s an insider and the in-jokes are numerous.


What did it take a boy – for that was what he was then – of extraordinary beauty, youth and form (the Greek ideal really), make his way from far-off Jabalpur to the top echelons of Bollywood? Was it just the looks and that deep baritone, or was it the conjoining of all forces – charm, luck, looks and more?

There was never any stress with fame, says the actor. “I value it and am thankful for it to the extreme. But it didn’t drive me nuts.” (Dabboo Ratnani)

“I don’t think too much about how I got to be the way I am,” says Rampal lighting a pipe, huge fragrant billows of smoke curling above his head (he quit cigarettes, but ‘pipes’ up now and then). “I got some attention when I was in my 20s, but basically I’ve always got along with people, be it my fellow army kids, college friends or the glamour crowd. There was never any stress with fame – I value it and am thankful for it to the extreme. But it didn’t drive me nuts.”

In the 1990s, Rampal’s debut in Delhi was as a rangy, six-foot-something blokish bloke – more dude than the witty, sophisticated man he is now, sprawled on a couch in Rohit Bal’s Golf Links apartment. Or in a swimming pool doing languid strokes – a scene out of a David Hockney print. Or, indeed, in Room 22 of Hindu College. Rampal was the ‘jeunesse doree’, a gilded youth who leaned more towards Adonis than Narcissus. His college room was a den of boisterous iniquity; clouds of organic smoke billowing out, Pink Floyd on the stereo. It was the place to be. Crowds of anxious, wet-lipped girls would wait for him to show up at the college entrance. Rampal’s best friend in those days, the late, much missed Vikram Gill, was his Sancho Panza. They were a magical pair, young, carefree guys burning up the road between Hindu and St Stephen’s College on huge mobikes, being irresponsible and loving it. There were Hooray Henry just-on-a-lark trips to Simla, utterly unplanned, with the photographer Bharat Sikka and crowds of friends from the various embassies dotting Delhi. It was a heady time.

Arjun Rampal with fashion designer Rohit Bal at Wills Lifestyle India Fashion Week Summer-Spring, 2015 in New Delhi. (Raajessh Kashyap/ HT City)

Then came Rampal’s après college years – the ramp and modelling and all that comes with it. The glitz, the lights, and then the surprise engagement to Malini Ramani. That the wedding didn’t happen is another story, but that was then, and this is now and both parties moved on eons ago. Perhaps they grew out of each other but it was so long ago, it’s just a blip in both lives. After his New York years came his debut in Rajiv Rai’s Pyaar Ishq Aur Mohabbat – never before had a male actor been lavished so much attention on screen. It was the talk of the town.

Rampal, of course, has held his own. “Everything in life is a journey,” he muses. “And I’ve had a very enjoyable one before the movies and now in the movies. I dislike the word Bollywood and wish we could just call it the Indian film industry because that’s what it is – a massive, roiling, creative industry. Films are being made with such passion these days, with such exacting standards, that it’s probably the most exciting time to be in the movies.”


Back at the St Regis hotel, event over, Arjun Rampal slips on a large pair of film star dark glasses, slips into the driver’s seat of his black Range Rover (he’s given his chauffeur the day off) and points the car home to his wife, Mehr, and his daughters Mahikaa and Myra (he has their names tattooed on his wrists).

Arjun Rampal has the names of his daughters Mahikaa and Myra tattooed on his wrists.

The next day he will sit for 18 hours on the production notes for Daddy – he is also producing the film. He will then leave for New York that very night but not before dropping in for two dinner parties, squeezing a shoulder here, kissing a cheek there. Far removed from the rumpy-pumpy days of yore, this is another life in the day of Arjun Rampal.

Media professional Nikhil Khanna is a well-known society insider, who has written for leading newspapers. He has been friends with Arjun Rampal for close to 30 years

Chatting up Adonis

Arjun Rampal with his wife Mehr Jessia at an event (Hindustan Times)

What’s the best thing about being married to a model?
Well, models make for great stylists!

The best memory of your modelling days.
My first fashion show. We were a bunch of wild youngsters and it was crazy because everyone was running around in the lobbies where we were staying and climbing down pipes. We even removed the flags at the hotel and hung up underwear.

We’ve hardly seen you in the news of late, except when your relationships have made headlines. Where’d you disappear?
I didn’t disappear. I’ve been working on scripts and filming. In fact, I’ve not been home since the past year as I’ve been constantly shooting in different parts of the country for my films.

You’re a father of a teenage daughter. Have any of your daughter’s friends had a crush on you?
No, it’s not become that radical yet. They don’t drop in front of me and go all ‘Oh hi Arjun…’ In fact, they call me uncle! I tell them not to because I don’t look like one.

When did your daughter realise her father is someone women find good-looking?
We don’t discuss looks at home. I’m their father, I have a much deeper relationship with them than that. She knows I’m an actor and she thinks it’s a boring profession. She likes my vanity van though, she’ll always be there — showing off a little bit in front of her friends.

One thing about parenthood you’ve learnt the hard way.
Don’t believe everything your kids tell you.

You recently returned from a trek to Siachen. The best takeaway from the experience.
It was breathtaking. I was overwhelmed to see how the army lives there. We lived in their camps and the experience was so intimate that I’d want to go there every year for a trek!

Interviewed by Nidhi Choksi

From HT Brunch, October 30, 2016

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First Published: Oct 29, 2016 17:20 IST