The Hunk and the Hulk

Arjun Rampal is in for a big surprise when we walk into his office with a copy of his first Society cover, shot in ’94. He was 21 and a supermodel, being touted as the next big face in the fashion industry after Milind Soman. With both his hands tightly pulling behind his silky, flowing hair, his close-up look on this cover shouts out ‘hunk’, the title he has been so lovingly bestowed with, both on the ramp and on screen. The childlike innocence on his face is unmistakable.

What’s heartening to see though is that even after piling on about two decades to the formal aging process, Arjun’s childlike innocence and enthusiasm is still intact. He is super thrilled to see the magazine and quickly takes his mobile phone to capture some screenshots of the cover and the inside pages. A picture of him piggybacking his then fiancée Malini Ramani pops up on one of the pages. Undeterred, he continues clicking. “This was my first big magazine cover after moving to Bombay. It opened a lot of doors for me,” he says in his trademark baritone, the mini shutterbug in his hand still in action. After a few more clicks, he settles on the chair. There is an easy air around him. He can’t stop talking about the cover as he narrates his vivid memories of meeting the writer of the story, Rehmat Merchant, at Taj’s coffee shop.

“I remember when Rehmat first called me for the interview. I told her, ‘I don’t do interviews, I only do covers’,” he guffaws, his infectious laughter filling the room. “I had never done a cover in my life,” he adds with another ‘haha’ and continues, “She cracked up and said, ‘But it is a cover.’ So I was like okay good, then we can do it.” Joining our bouts and bursts is a faint giggle. Sonu Sood has been in the room as well… listening, smiling away and waiting for the appropriate moment to add to the conversation. He comes across as a man of few words and is controlled… making up for quite the foil to Arjun’s mischief. But there’s also a lot that’s common between the two, who may otherwise appear as different as chalk and cheese.

The commonality starts with their connection with modelling. Both have enjoyed the heydays of the fashion industry before entering films and have known each other since a time when ramp walk was the buzz word. All the drama unfolded there, with some of the best faces that the Hindi film industry has today coming from there. Although the couture industry continues to boom, it’s no longer governed by that quintessential breed of models that once took the fashion and advertising world by storm. That breed has sadly become extinct. But Arjun and Sonu have clearly moved on from being models to actors. In fact, quite recently, both have been busy living their shared dream—of being soldiers and fighting for their country. Well, okay, we are talking about J P Dutta’s upcoming war drama Paltan. Based on the military clashes between India and China alongside the border of Sikkim in 1967, this film is based on a true story and real life characters. It has Arjun play Colonel Rai Singh, the commanding officer of this ‘Paltan’. While Sonu plays his right hand guy, Tiger Nathu La. “It was nice to meet up with Sonu after many many years and do a film together for the first time,” Arjun says. To which Sonu chips in, “It was the bonding and chemistry we shared that helped us survive the challenges of shooting in a place like Ladakh.”

The bonding and chemistry is bound to happen when people share the same dreams and goals. For Arjun and Sonu, doing this film was like fulfilling one of their most cherished desires. “I always wanted to be an actor who is in uniform, fighting for his nation. My dad wanted to be an army guy, but couldn’t due to reservations from his family. So he always wanted to see me in uniform. And when I signed this film, he was very proud. I lost him two years ago and I wish he was there today to see me play Major Bhishen Singh,” Sonu recounts. Arjun, on the other hand, has grown up in a cantonment area (Devlali), with both his nana (maternal grandfather) and dada (paternal grandfather) being decorated army officers. “They don’t make men and army officers like that anymore,” Arjun stresses. “Army has been very close to my heart. As an actor, I have always wanted to do a proper army war film. And I don’t think there is any better person to do it with than J P Dutta,” he says.

The name J P Dutta transports Sonu back to 2008, when he had signed Paltan. It was 10 years ago when the renowned director of war films called Sonu and offered him the film. “He said, ‘I love your work. I will be doing a war film soon and you will be in it’,” Sonu recollects. When Arjun first met Dutta, he got the impression that they might not click. “I thought we would probably not have much in common as people. But once we started hanging out, it was very uncanny how similar we both are in many ways and how well we gelled and got along. Whether it was our sarcasm, our observations of people and taking the mickey out of it... we were on the same page. So on that level, it’s been a very special film,” Arjun reveals. Sonu remembers his first day of shoot. “I had a running shot when I had just landed in Ladakh. And you can’t run even a short distance, it’s so tiring due to lack of oxygen. Everyone was concerned and were asking, ‘yaar tu theek hain?’ I don’t know how I survived,” he narrates. To this, Arjun quickly adds, “So from the time I landed in Ladakh, I never left the set due to the acclimatisation issue there. Sonu left the set about eight times,” he laughs out loud, “He had a show, had to go somewhere, cut a ribbon, do this, do that… he would come straight from the airport to the set, get into his costume and tell J P sir, ‘I am ready’. We were very concerned about his health but he went on smoothly. It just showed how super fit he is.”

“In fact, Arjun was the one who was always on his toes,” Sonu flashes a modest smile, adding, “I am sure there are people fitter than me. But it’s the consistency that helps you survive for long. I am hardworking and I have followed a challenging routine every day for so many years. I am very particular with my diet and sleep. I don’t drink or smoke. Six packs are a trend now but I had them when I was a student and people used to tell me that I look like an athlete. But I thoroughly enjoyed that. I have been maintaining that from the last 20 years.”

Fitness has become quite the norm with actors these days, what with toned and chiselled bodies becoming the criteria for everyone appearing on screen. What do the two fitness freaks think about the phenomenon? “It’s very important for an actor to be fit. You inspire millions of people when they watch you on screen. Especially in Indian cinema, an actor is idolised. So there is no excuse there. It also gives you a high when you can survive harsh climatic conditions like in Ladakh,” Sonu reasons.

Along with maintaining a fit body, another trend that has swept the film industry is an actor’s physical transformation to suit a particular role. One constantly hears of an Aamir Khan and Vidya Balan piling on kilos for a Dangal and The Dirty Picture respectively and then losing it all for their next film. Arjun himself had lost weight to play the skinny gangster-turned-politician Arun Gawli in his last film Daddy. Is looking the part as important as emoting the part now? “I think it’s great!” exclaims Arjun. “When you are metamorphosing physically, your body language, attitude and mindset changes as compared to what used to happen in the ‘70s, where you were doing four films at the same time and there were four sets put up in the same vicinity. And I know certain actors—won’t mention their names—who would walk from one set to another set, changing costume on their way to the set and standing in front of the camera and then becoming the character. So there was no diversity in terms of style of acting,” he narrates, “Actors today understand what acting is and they take it more seriously. What Aamir did with Dangal was phenomenal. The way he put on weight and then became fit again. But when you see him, he is so effortless...the way he moves, the way he talks.” But there’s Vidya Balan too, who hasn’t been able to lose the weight she put on for her 2011 film and now, has a permanent health issue due to that.

“Anything that you do very quickly is going to affect you. You cannot say that in two months, I will put on and in the third month I will lose it for another film. You cannot shock your body to that level. Your body is the most well-designed machine on the planet. You have to give it time. But then you may lose out on a film or a commercial. You can’t be greedy. I am not saying Vidya was greedy. Most importantly, even when you are not working on a film, make yourself really fit,” says Arjun. “I agree with Arjun. It is dangerous and I do get worried when I see bodies change overnight in gyms too. I go up to them and tell them to be more careful and do things in the right manner,” Sonu says.

Talking about trends, the great shift is also with respect to content. Biopics and historicals are the flavour of the Hindi film industry at the moment. “Yes, entertainment is a big part of it and we are doing really well with that too but with real life stories like historicals or biopics, there is a lot of research and you get a lot of information to play with. That means you get a lot of homework and take stuff back with you to absorb,” feels Arjun, who has a lot on his plate at the moment. “There is some nice stuff that I am exploring. I am doing an adventure-fantasy film for my kids. My kids also like horror. So there is one cool horror film—I play a vigilante kind of a character. There is a sports-thriller and a beautiful romantic film. There is a biopic on the cards. So it’s exciting,” he informs, adding, “I am also focusing on producing web series, originals and films as it’s a golden period for people who want to trade good content with the support of all the digital platforms.” And what about his other aspirations like designing and choreography, as mentioned by him in the ‘94 interview? “Did I say that?” he almost chokes. “I don’t know what I was on about then but definitely not choreography. Never! I had not even done any commercial at that time yet and I still wanted to run away from it. But that’s me. I am still like that,” he confides, saying being in the industry for 18 years hasn’t changed him as a person. “I am a child at heart and I will always be that. I get excited very fast, I want everything really fast and then just do it and if it doesn’t happen really fast, I get bored of it. But I am not the kind of person to get caught up in an image. I am a very easy person,” he confesses.

From being the drop-dead gorgeous looker to a bankable actor, Arjun has surely come a long way as an actor. “I have climbed by leaps and bounds,” he laughs. “When I see my first few films, I am like ‘Oh my god. What was I doing out there?’ But whatever I have done in the last five to six years, people have been positive about the performances,” he says confidently.

Meanwhile Sonu is probably the only Punjabi who not only started his career down South but has also been immensely successful in the 50 to 60 Tamil, Telugu and Kannada films he has acted in. He has managed to merge North and South effortlessly. “When I signed my first Tamil film, my mom Saroj Singh got me a book How To Learn Tamil. She was a professor in Punjab and said that it’s very important to learn the language to express well. So on my way to Chennai, I was studying the language religiously as if I was going to appear for an exam. And I slowly started picking up the language. Telugu and Kannada happened later. I am pretty good with all these languages now. And working in South has really helped me learn the craft,” Sonu shares. He has three releases coming up in the next six months—Kurukshetra, two movies in Telugu, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi with Kangana Ranaut and Simmba with Rohit Shetty.

Despite doing a majority of multistarrers, both these men have held their own and had a strong screen presence. But when it comes to online presence, they are fairly inactive as compared to their colleagues Priyanka Chopra and Shah Rukh Khan, or even Amitabh Bachchan for that matter. Evidently, the enigma that a star was once upon a time has transformed into an accessible influencer on social media. But they don’t shy away from giving a thumbs-up to it. Sonu calls it a revolution which makes life both easy and difficult and Arjun thinks it’s the future. “You want to think that you know everything about everybody but everybody is just making a fool out of you, by letting you think what they want you think about them,” Arjun jokes and goes on. “I am very shy and not comfortable in the zone where I am getting photographed by paparazzi and people in general while having dinner at a restaurant or catching a flight. It’s become so easy for people to do it. They are not even shy or embarrassed about it. The other day, somebody just shoved their camera straight into my car window. So I don’t go out that much. In recent times, when I have actually stepped out, I have seen that there are so many places to visit and I have been living under a rock. But I don’t miss it either,” says the man who owned LAP, one of Delhi’s plush discotheques and luxury lounge bars.

When we ask him about his friends from the industry, Arjun clearly hints at not hanging out with anybody from the industry anymore, like he used to. “Because everybody is busy. So mostly the people you hang out with are not from the industry, which is nicer, because it’s refreshing. You can actually come back and stop talking films and stop being completely consumed by something,” he opines.

According to Sonu, one must change with the times but one is not supposed to be everywhere, like celebrities are nowadays. However, that doesn’t stop the friend in him to be everywhere for everyone. He has a reputation of being friends with everyone in the industry. “I have worked with everyone—from Salman, Shah Rukh and Bachchan saab to Hrithik and from Chiranjeevi to Rajinikanth down South—and I was always made to believe that parties are the place to be at to find work and survive in the industry. But I am not a party person. I don’t drink or smoke. I haven’t grabbed any films because of socialising. I have because of my reputation of being a thorough professional,” Sonu clarifies, adding,“I am not a controversial guy who gossips on the sets. I was always a backbencher who would come, do his job and be nice to everyone. Slowly, people got the confidence that they could trust me and I could be someone whom they could probably call in the middle of the night. But I don’t consciously think about the equations people share. There are no hard and fast rules that I follow. I am the way I am.”

Apart from all the role plays, there is one role that both Arjun and Sonu play very seriously, that of a doting dad. Mention the children and both turn into proud fathers rattling away praises about their kiddos. Arjun is not just proud of his daughters Mahikaa and Myra being loving, grounded and childlike in a world of toxic information, he is all praises for Shahrukh Khan’s kids Aryan and Suhana as well and applauds their upbringing. “They are the most wonderful children that you get to meet because they have a lot of tehzeeb. I hope if my children are going to come to this industry or go to any other industry, they will carry certain values and principles. They have had easy access to travel, a good school and got to learn so much so easily. They haven’t let that go to their head,” the father beams.

Sonu is waiting to fulfill his dream of being a cricketer and playing for his country through his son Ayaan, who is apparently very good with the game and plays with professionals at the age of eight. Ask them about their other personal interests and there are secrets tumbling out of their closets. “I am very good with writing,” Sonu reveals. “Most directors swear by the dialogues I come up with. I can challenge anyone that they are irresistible. There have been quite a few big hits with iconic dialogues, written by me. I have never taken any credit because I don’t want to take that away from the writers,” the dialogue writer, who maintains a diary to pen down his thoughts, baffles us with this piece of info. So does he plan to take up writing in future? “Maybe it’s too early to take it up full-fledged,” he responds, fuelling our curiosity about the ‘iconic dialogues’ further.

“I love reading biographies and fiction,” Arjun says. “I also love spinning, jamming on guitar with my guitar teacher, trekking and travelling,” he shares. And oh, all of this only when he is able to pull himself away from his two new pups.

Both these outsiders, without any godfathers in the industry, are standing tall with their respective bodies of work today. Here’s a toast to the hunk and the hulk!

“Models today are treated purely as hangers for clothes” –Arjun Rampal

If you see this cover, there is something about it. Not because I am on it. If you saw a similar cover with Milind, Mehr (Jesia) or Madhu (Sapre) or any of the supermodels at that time and you see their work, there is an individuality to everything. It was very personality driven. Each one had their own qualities and was considered unique on something. And now everything has gotten so uniform because the whole focus is on clothes, it’s about fashion, the cut. Everybody has to be the same size, have the same you cannot blame people. It was a period, a phase where you needed people from the industry who were more than just clothes horses. They were personalities whom people looked up to and admired and were similar to movie stars today. They endorsed a brand that correlated with them and that ad became theirs and they stood up for that brand. I was lucky to be a part of that phase. Maybe if I was a model now, I would be having the same haircut and doing the same thing as that’s the opportunity models are given today. They are treated purely as hangers for clothes.

At that time, it was a lot of drama, ‘oh wow, it’s going to be a fashion show’. It was also new. So the fashion industry needed people who could endorse and say we are models, not just in India but worldwide. And that’s how models and supermodels were born. Supermodels were looked upon as better than everyone else, with better bodies although there was no difference. But some people just got lucky. And it was a cool tag to have for brand value.

After that period, even fashion changed a lot. Those days, it used to take three days to put a show together but suddenly shows were being put together within a day. You just needed the models. There were no rehearsals, no people just walk in and out because the focus is the collection. So it has evolved to that.

I have done a lot of ads as a model and actor. But what has been extremely important for me, even when I was a model, is that I have associated myself with brands that I use. That’s just been a rule that I made for myself. Although that is now pocket money for me. So if I do it, it will be for the fun of it. Firstly, to get a pretty cool ad out there and secondly, because I use that product. So if somebody tells me do a pan parag or a face whitening cream, I won’t do it. I like my colour.


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