HT Brunch Cover Story: Ignored, but irrepressible
- After 13 years and 16 years respectively on the sidelines, actors Arjun Mathur and Vivek Gomber take centre stage. Is the performance-driven actor finally the star?
Photos shot exclusively for HT Brunch by Prabhat Shetty
Styling by Who Wore What When
Nearly 13 years after assistant director Arjun Mathur started acting via a role in Mira Nair’s 2008 short film, Migration, he has stepped directly into the spotlight. The 39-year-old actor’s role in Made in Heaven even got him an Emmy nomination this year.
Meanwhile, it took Vivek Gomber 16 years to finally get to the stage in his career where filmmakers fight over him. The 42-year-old actor who began his career in 2005 with a role in the TV show Astitva Ek Prem Kahani arrived centre stage with his acting in Is Love Enough, Sir? (2018) and production in The Disciple (2021).
Nobody has ever said that making it as an actor is easy. But how much self-belief and patience does it really take to hit the big time? Arjun and Vivek are happy to share.
The first break
“The first time I faced the camera, I was an assistant director (AD) in Kyun! Ho Gaya Na... (2004) in which I played an AD too!” says Arjun. “Then, after about five years and multiple auditions, I bagged two short films, Migration and Farhan Akhtar’s Positive.” Arjun’s first feature film was Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance (2009), where he played the protagonist’s best friend.
Vivek moved to India from Singapore after studying acting in the US, to get his first break. When he acted in a play after someone dropped out, he landed the TV show in 2005.
However, he still really struggled. “I wasn’t bagging stuff and really didn’t understand how to audition. I wasn’t able to adopt and adapt to the city and the culture,” Vivek says. Confused, he decided to stick to theatre and short films and used his auditions for ads as practice for film roles – and also for rejection. “You had 45 seconds and it could ruin or make your day,” he adds.
Playing second fiddle is something both of them have done in the past decade. “I did My Name is Khan (2010) because I was getting to work with really big filmmakers. My naivety showed. I thought all I needed to do was get on a set with Karan Johar, and he’d see how good I am and I’d be in his next film!” laughs Arjun.
The ‘best friend’ typecast
But when Arjun realised his commercial roles were typecasting him, he consciously gravitated towards independent work which he could carry on his own shoulders. “I was not happy with being typecast as the best friend. But if I were to play Vivek’s best friend in an independent film, that would be completely different from playing the best friend to a mega star. In a big film, the best friend is there just to embellish the hero’s trajectory forward. That wasn’t working for me,” says the actor. In between the indies, he acted in ads and that’s what really paid all the bills, he says.
Vivek however took a while to figure things out. “I didn’t know what I needed to do to put myself in a position to get lead auditions. An audition like that would open more such possibilities,” explains the actor, who made Court in 2014. “Today, if I have to play Arjun’s best friend, I wouldn’t mind. Maybe it’s because I’m 42 years old and I understand this now. But at 26, I was just trying not to be depressed, not go to extremities or implode.”
Each of them spent time in states of envy when they saw other actors getting roles that they had really wanted.
“I saw lesser actors bag roles I wanted really badly,” Arjun says. “I was once even told by a producer that I couldn’t be part of his film because I was better than the protagonist. I said, ‘fair enough, I’ll take that talent and move on.’”
Even Court did not help Vivek much, so he kept auditioning, including for Made in Heaven, till he finally bagged Netflix’s Bombay Begums (2021).
“Mind you, all this is work that gets accolades,” Arjun points out. In 2017, Vivek starred in Rohena Gera’s Sir. But nothing changed. So he made
The Disciple, which has only released now. “As it’s coming after A Suitable Boy and Bombay Begums, people think I’m getting a lot of work,” says Vivek. “But I have learnt from our seniors that this happens to everyone. Actors have been knocking on doors forever. Look at Nawazuddin Siddiqui.”
“Pankaj Tripathi, too. Irrfan Khan himself was a big example,” adds Arjun, for whom 2011 was the worst year of his life. “I was broke, had no work and was separated from my wife. When I got an offer for Fireflies, I told the director that I was recovering at home in Delhi, so I couldn’t do it. But the next year, 2012, was one of my best career years with five projects I loved.” he adds.
Awards and big budget releases
Today, however, their work is finally being appreciated. “It’s great when it happens,” says Vivek, who is now being called for the kind of auditions he had never thought he would get.
He adds: “It’s good when it comes, but it’s okay if it doesn’t, as long as you get to focus on your journey. So, while I’m grateful the accolades are coming now, I’ve also learnt to live without them so that I am able to do my work and enjoy it. Accolades are crucial in the business sense, but also in terms of craft and wanting to work. Because if 10 people are talking about you, it means you’ll get one chance which you might not have gotten a year ago.”
Arjun is pleased that the recognition he craved has come now, at this time. “There’s been a lot of rejection, heartbreak and questioning up to now, but a lot of growth has also happened and we’ve learnt how to weather the storms,” he says. “It’s a cyclical flow: good and bad times keep happening and it’s crucial to not let either rock you too much.”
He laughs and adds, “My inner dialogue now when someone says I’m really good is ‘No sh*t Sherlock!’”.
The fact that the indie film scene has evolved over the years is also responsible for the recognition the actors are getting now.
“Ten years ago we would be talking about three indie films and now we are just throwing names. Even directors like Hansal Mehta and Anubhav Sinha play with commercial films. Ayushmann Khurana and Rajkummar Rao are trying to shift the conversation and then you have Neena Gupta!” points out Vivek.
Vivek will shortly be seen in two projects – for which he knows filmmakers have fought over him.
Arjun will soon be in Gone Game 2, Made in Heaven 2 and a Lionsgate production. “I don’t give a damn about how many crores my film opened to. I’ve done all my work because it felt good,” he says.
They count themselves lucky for being in the scene now. “The industry is cleaner, more professional, everyone is better trained and we have more platforms!” they say.
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From HT Brunch, September 12, 2021
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