'Made In Heaven' star Arjun Mathur ups the ante in new whodunit
The International Emmy-nominated star tells us how OTT is giving talented actors the opportunity to shine in a chat about his new film 'Silence... Can You Hear It?'
As a movie buff whose guilty pleasures over the years have involved falling head over heels for the larger-than-life charm of Bollywood films it was a while before I found OTT equally alluring. Life, I realized, worked differently in the stories on OTT. Yes there was romance but not the dancing around trees, let’s revive that age old family feud because our children want to get married type of love. It was stark, it was beautiful, it was ugly, it was everything all at once.
We got that in Bollywood too, though such films were few and far between.
And while it must never be said that Bollywood catered only to hopeless romantics and people who craved escapism through ‘masala’ films, these were the genres by and large that made big bucks at the box office. And more often than not, films work on star power. Crowds will inevitably flock to see an A-list superstar’s latest offering. But will they like it?
The power of an audience can never be downplayed. And as the pandemic has demonstrated, Bollywood’s loss due to cinemas shutting down has been OTT’s gain. Streaming platforms are - going by popular opinion - giving the public exactly what they want, whether it is the continued saga of a conniving godman who hoodwinks his followers (Aashram Part 2), thought-provoking and inadvertently hilarious real-life tales of Indian Matchmaking, or even, for all you lovers of thrills and murder mysteries, the versatile Manoj Bajpayee and Arjun Mathur’s whodunit - Silence… Can You Hear It? - streaming now on ZEE5.
A gifted actor who trained from Barry John’s institute as well as the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York, Arjun kicked off his career behind the scenes as assistant director before going on to star in films like Luck By Chance and My Name is Khan. But it was the 2019 Amazon Prime series Made in Heaven - the story of two Delhi-based wedding planners - which expanded his fanbase internationally and won him huge critical acclaim as well along with an International Emmy nomination.
Arjun weighed in on the continuing debate of OTT versus Bollywood, working with Manoj Bajpayee, and his hopes for 2021 in a Zoom interaction with City Times about his latest role as a suave politician who is also a murder suspect in Silence… Can You Hear It?
The trailer of Silence… Can You Hear It? seems quite thrilling and your character Ravi Khanna comes across as kind of slick and charming yet suspicious. What can you tell us about your role and how different is it from anything you’ve done earlier?
I play this young, dynamic and suave politician. On the surface he is quite polished but beneath that when pushed into a corner he has a fierce streak in him as well. He is the primary suspect in the case that happens and from the moment you see this character on screen you can’t quite put your finger on him. I think that’s the most interesting thing about him - you’re constantly left guessing. Is he innocent? Is he guilty? Is he being framed? I would say he is almost the character who is bringing the mystery element to the film.
I haven’t ever done anything like this before or explored this genre of film either, particularly a character like this which is quite grey. And it think it’s a bit of a departure from the image that I hold which is maybe like of a ‘clean boy’ kind of thing. It’s been interesting, it’s been fun, and that’s all I can really tell you without giving away much of the plot.
Manoj Bajpayee was all praise for you when we interacted with him recently. What was it like working with him?
He’s just fantastic! What do I say? First of all I have been a fan of his since 1995, ever since I watched Satya as a teenager. It’s been a dream to work with not just him but actors like him who we respect purely for their acting talent and their calibre as artists.
He was no less, and not at all a disappointment. Wow! It’s very rare to see an actor of this immense stature be so humble, grounded, down to earth, welcoming and giving.
He’s someone who just likes to keep a light atmosphere on the set. He really takes the responsibility upon himself to make sure the entire crew is on a comfortable footing, that we’re having fun, that there is no ‘hierarchal order’ felt on the set which actually is quite detrimental to a collaborative process like filmmaking.
And he’s just someone who is all about the work! That’s why he is who he is and where he is and I respect him so much.
Silence is a murder mystery and the premise itself would engage people. Is there anything else you would want the audience to take away from the film, some kind of message?
I don’t think so. It’s a fairly straightforward and simple film. Whodunits are really quite classic - they’re not really trying to say much except take the audience on a bit of a thrill ride. So that’s all it is and I don’t think we should go looking for any social message here.
Made in Heaven drew so much critical acclaim and was very popular with the audience as well; many people felt they could relate to your character of Karan Mehra. What did the show and the character mean to you?
That’s very loaded! I’m not sure. I guess from the first time that I read the script, I saw that this is something really special and something that was really needed at the time. It was a woman’s perspective by and large looking at archaic institutions, laws and traditions; we don’t really know who they serve anymore.
So yes, I was really into what the show was saying, the loud and clear voice that it had, the female gaze that it had, every point that it was bringing up about our society, every mirror that it was holding up.
Then of course - my character. I had played a homosexual twice before in my career so one could think I might have had apprehensions to do it for the third time but for me this was another opportunity to kind of put my money where my mouth. I think we all kind of say we support the community but as long as we have divisions in our mind about ‘this is a gay part’ or ‘this is a straight part’, I don’t think we’re really being honest about our support.
So I saw in Made In Heaven another challenge for myself, and the opportunity to be part of something that was really far bigger than any one element. It’s a very important show.
OTT offers cutting edge and offbeat content which one doesn’t often find in mainstream Bollywood. And these platforms have seen a boom since the pandemic. Do you feel the only way is up for OTT? And can Bollywood catch up?
I’ll be honest. I know the debate has been raging for some time, even before the pandemic, about cinemas versus OTT. I personally have always maintained that look, I don’t have a preference at all. An actor is supposed to act, it doesn’t really matter what medium it happens in. Often I have been part of projects which were planned for one medium but came on another or it wasn’t even known when we went into production about where it would eventually be seen. Those are not things I think about when taking up work.
But as an audience I must say that I certainly found myself going to the cinemas less and less. I would only go to the cinemas for a major special effects bonanza film like Avengers or something like that. For all the rest, it’s perfectly watchable as the experience that we have all created in our homes. And then came this pandemic which kind of pushed us further in this direction.
I can’t say where OTT is also going to go. Art and its mediums are forever evolving. So who knows? Currently even OTT platforms are facing some trouble in terms of censorship and stuff.
And can mainstream Bollywood catch up? I don’t think mainstream Bollywood can run this place to be honest. I don’t think it has the skill set. Because here we are catering to a more character based and content-based medium. It is not a star-based or image-based medium. Whereas mainstream Bollywood runs on the image of superstars. I don’t think there is much room for that here, as we have seen in the last year with my own Emmy nomination or with Adarsh Gourav’s BAFTA nomination. Last year if you saw Rajeev Masand’s Actors Roundtable... it was so shocking and so heartening to see that there was only one A-list star at that table, Saif Ali Khan. Otherwise it was filled with people like Divyenndu Sharma, Jaideep Ahlawat and all these wonderful faces of such immensely talented people who have now finally got their moment to shine.
So I’m not interested to be honest (in whether mainstream Bollywood can catch up). Because I think we’ve got a good ecosystem going and it’s catering to an audience all over the world. It’s competing with content from all over the world. It’s not as narrow as mainstream Bollywood.
How do you feel you have evolved since the time you first started out in the entertainment industry?
I guess at the end… I absolutely love my journey. No matter how long it’s taken, or will continue to take. No matter what it brings or doesn’t bring, it’s really important to enjoy the process, it’s important to enjoy the uniqueness of your journey.
Because it’s very easy for me to sit back and think, oh, back then this person had said this to me and this happened and that bad thing happened.
But right now I am really happy where I am. There are no complaints. And I feel that if any one thing in my life had gone slightly differently, then maybe everything would have been different, you know?
There’s this thing called the butterfly effect where any one event can just change the entire outcome of the universe. If I have to love where I am then I have to love every bit of everything that brought me here.
It’s not something that comes easy. It’s also been a process to start looking at things in a way that it helps you rather than leaves you filled with resentment, bitterness or cynicism.
Viewers are excited about the upcoming second season of Made In Heaven. What can you tell us about it?
We’re in the process of filming it at the moment. We’re shooting for the better part of this year so hopefully by the end of this year or early next year the audiences will finally get to see it. I know the wait has been really long but hopefully it will be worth it!
Lastly what are your hopes for 2021 and what would you like to say to your fans here in the UAE?
Just be a little easier, 2021, on the world! It’s a bit bizarre to have hopes from a point in time. If I have to have hopes then my hopes are placed in people, because that’s the only place where hope is any good.
I would like to say thank you first of all to all my old fans, who have supported me on this 12 to 13-year long journey that I have had so far; my new fans who never heard of me before Made In Heaven, hello to all of them. I’m just going to try to keep doing my best to make myself happy first. Because I believe that only if I am happy with what I’m doing will my fans ever be able to connect with my work. I am sorry that I’m not actually working to make you happy but in the process of making myself happy I hope that I am able to touch your heart too.
Silence… Can You Hear It? Is streaming now on ZEE5.