Exclusive! Kareena Kapoor Khan On Creating a 20 Year Old Legacy

Kareena Kapoor Khan. These three words have always come across as a noun. But as I spoke with Kareena Kapoor Khan, and having followed her career very closely, I have come to the conclusion that they’re also an adjective. Because if you ask me, you cannot fit this personality into a mould of adjectives. So, in that case, she becomes one. Kareena Kapoor Khan is on the verge of 40, 20 of which she’s spent at the movies, doing something she loves. Today, she has it all – an envious career, a husband she loves (and adores), a child everyone is crazy after, and friends she swears by. She also has a body that won’t quit, and it’s a mixture of both pilates and parathas that makes Kapoor Khan what she is – a redefinition of what it means to be (almost) 40 in Bollywood.

Throughout her career, Kareena Kapoor Khan has never had anything to hide. What’s in the heart is often spoken, and rarely hidden. That’s the person she is and continues to be. There have been highs and lows, but she’s treated them both with equal grace. She’s even gone on record to say that she makes no bones about the fact that Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham is her only successful film (in those times), and that she knows she’s made mistakes, but all her mistakes have only taught her. “Maybe if I had done Kal Ho Naa Ho, I wouldn’t have married Saif,” she says as she talks to us about that film, adding that there’s always something else written for her. Something better. When you talk to her, you see in her the passion of a newcomer and the experience of, well, 20 years.

In the first week of March, I was talking to Poonam Damania, and I asked her for an interview with Kareena Kapoor Khan. Damania had then said that she would be happy to arrange one and asked me if telephonic would be good. Of course, I didn’t want to let go of the opportunity, so I said that it would be, but an in-person interview will be better. She agreed for that too, telling me that she’ll see what can be done. She gave me hope. I was optimistic. But little did Poonam and I know what lay ahead of us.

Months after that conversation, I texted her again. I told her that telephonic would be just as fine. I still haven’t given up on my dream of sitting opposite Kareena Kapoor Khan and talking films with her. But, in the middle of a pandemic, a phone call was our only go to. So, I imagined Bebo (as she is fondly called) sitting opposite me in a gorgeous kaftan (duh), talking to me about finishing 20 years in the film industry, creating a legacy, starting trends, and much more. As I write this interview, I hope I can do some justice to her – to the artist that she is, the wonderful woman she’s made out of herself, and to the lovely conversation we’ve had.

How does it feel to create a legacy that many people only dream of creating?

Honestly, I don’t even think about it. People who know me, know that I’ve never sat down and planned these 20 years. There was never any plan. Acting is something I love, it’s something I am passionate about and before I even knew it, it’s been 20 years and hopefully 20 more, if all goes well. And 20 years is a long time. There have been good decisions, some not so much. But I wouldn’t have been here without the misses.

Was creating this legacy a conscious decision?

Not at all. I wanted to become a lawyer. Obviously, that did not work out. I also always wanted to be an actor, and I guess I just followed my heart and went with what I believed in. I’ve always been passionate about acting – whether it was dancing in front of the mirror as a child, watching films, to now acting in them. Even if I wasn’t from a film family, I would be acting. I love acting – watching and performing.

At the first screening of Refugee (her debut film), did you ever think ‘I have to create something out of this’?

The idea is to give your best. Everyone wants to do that. My sister (Karisma Kapoor) is an actor, and she’s had an extremely successful career. And when I was launched, everyone saw me as ‘Karisma Kapoor’s kid sister’. So when Refugee happened and I entered the movies, there was in me this fire to prove that I am different. Both of us are very different performers. Her choice in films is drastically different from mine, and so are our approaches to performances. So, when I started, I wanted to do something different so that both of us have our separate legacies behind us.

Being a star is a part of the profession, but that does not take away from the fact that I am an actor first, who looks at her failures as she looks at her successes.

There have been times when you were a contemporary to actresses who came way before you, like Madhuri Dixit, then you were a contemporary to the likes of Lara Dutta, Bipasha Basu and now you’re the same to Alia Bhatt. How does that feel, and more importantly, how did this work out for you?

Honestly, I don’t know and I don’t even think about it. For me, I have always competed with myself. The idea is to constantly grow and evolve, otherwise it’s not possible to sustain. With the audience’s ever-growing taste, an actor needs to reinvent and better their craft. So, I think from the time I started off to now, I have tried to better myself as an actor and there’s always so much more to do, especially because I want to work all my life, and that’s solely because I enjoy what I do – playing different parts, fun characters.

What is it that’s in you that made you sustain?

People think that I’m very relaxed and laid back, but I am very ambitious and in my way, I have a fire within me. And, as I said, for me it’s not about what anybody else is doing. It’s always been about what I am doing. And that’s why I have always done films which I thought would be best for me at that time. I made a lot of mistakes on the way, but that’s okay. I’ve learnt from them. And I think that’s what allows you to have a career of 20 years. If you don’t make mistakes and don’t learn from them, it’s not a journey. It has to be slightly up and down. In fact, I’d say, I have had glorious downs (laughs), and ups, and I wear both of them on my collar. Failures are really important – they kinda push you to take ten steps forward and give your best. Maybe that’s why I have sustained.

How does it feel when you put your heart and soul into a character and then you don’t get your deserved due?

I’ve worked in Yaadein, Main Prem Ki Deewani Hoon, and many more films that didn’t really do well. It was always small time films that really did well. Whether it was Ajnabee or Chameli or Dev. Obviously, you feel terrible, like it happened with me with Heroine. I gave my whole life to play that character, that film. I honestly think it’s one of the best films I have worked in, and I absolutely loved working with Madhur [Bhandarkar]. He’s a very fair director and he brings out that side of an actor that very few directors can. He’s done that wonderfully with Priyanka [Chopra Jonas] and Kangana [Ranaut] in Fashion. And I truly hold Heroine as one of my best.

Box Office success is important, of course, but I’ve also never really been bothered about it. If it’s there, good. But if a film doesn’t work, it’s fine. I have to do my work, I have to move ahead. Having said that, I do cherish the film we have made because it takes real effort to make a film. Heroine didn’t go on to become what we thought it would be, but I still hold it as a part of my career, as I hold any of my successes. I don’t look at my films as hits or flops. I look at them in totality, something that I enjoyed doing, got experience from.

Kareena Kapoor Khan in Heroine
Kareena Kapoor Khan in a still from Heroine. Source: Bhandarkar Entertainment

How has a film’s failure changed for you from Yaadein to Heroine?

There are always going to be super successful films and those that don’t work out. I take neither too seriously. And this is that kind of profession. The main thing is not to take your successes too seriously. The industry is the greatest meddler of all time. Nobody is too successful for you and nobody is too small for you. And this I learnt very early on. Both my parents always told me that your biggest weapon is your talent. Nothing else. Everything is going to happen here. All the results are here. So, both Karisma and I have never taken our success seriously. It’s always like “you’re a star,” and I’m like “yeah I am, but I am an actor first.” Being a star is a part of the profession, but that does not take away from the fact that I am an actor first, who looks at her failures as she looks at her successes.

Is it weird being a contemporary to family? First Karisma Kapoor and now Sara Ali Khan?

I could never compare myself to my sister. She’s outstanding, has done some fabulous work, and when it comes to Sara, I’m not competing at all. In fact, I’m not competing with anybody, I’m just doing my work. I’m very happy with the films I do, I’m happily married, I’m very happy with my child, I don’t want to compete. I want to do one or two films, enjoy them and that’s the most important thing for me now.

Ever since you’ve been a part of this industry, there has been some or the other leading actress that the media has framed you against, mainly in the name of cat-fights. But now that has changed. You did Veere Di Wedding two years back, there’s a rumour about a sequel, so are you beyond all of that?

I’m beyond a lot of things. I’m in a zen mode now. I’ve been here 20 years, I know exactly how everything functions – the industry, media, everything. So, I don’t take anything seriously. The only thing I take seriously is the fact that I have to protect my family, I have literally two-three friends whom I love, I like to spend time with, and that’s about it. I don’t even get into anybody’s business. It doesn’t excite me. Earlier, in the 1990s and 2000s, cat-fights were the only thing. They were a highlight in the magazine, with a sensational headline on the cover. Whether the actor has said it or not, words were in a magazine. It was a phase. But now with digital media, it’s different. And with every few years, things change, new things come up, there are new mediums, opinions, everything. So I don’t take these things seriously.

With social media, you also have the option to justify something…

The only thing I want to justify is me eating a pizza. And to me, the most important thing is sitting in front of a television and eating a slice of pizza. My motto is to just be chilled out, calm and happy. That’s the main thing.

Earlier you had said that you can’t be friends with an actress. Has that changed?

The thing is, two actresses need to be on the same page to be friends. And not just about the film, but about life – your values, your beliefs, everything. Friend is a very strong word, you can’t just use it loosely. Friendship is something when you’re there for one another, you talk to each other, spend time together, and know each other. And in this ever-changing industry, everyone is so busy. It’s like kaam karo, chalo and then next film, then the next, and then the next. Of course, when you look back after 20 years, you know you’ve made one or two friends, and you love and respect them. But you don’t need to be in touch with them every day. This profession is very different, and I’m here to work. I’ve always been like this, I want to do well at work and then go back to my family.

At one point you said that you consider no actress a competition. Has this thought maintained?

I’m only competing with myself, and I have never compared myself to anybody. The media has always written stories about “Bebo and so-and-so”, you just asked me about the younger generation. But I am here only to compete with myself and everyone’s competition should be themselves only. And I don’t just say this as an actor, but also as a human being. If you have to be in an industry for 20 years and sustain, you also have to evolve as a human being. I’ve been working since I was 17. I’m turning 40 this year. I’m hoping that I’ve matured, that I am a different person. There have been times when I have been immature, but had I not been that I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Every experience has taught me. And the one thing I’ve taken away from each of these experiences is that I need to be a better actor and person than what I was yesterday.

You went on record to say that after rejecting Kal Ho Na Ho, you didn’t mind losing out on the role but you minded losing a friend for a year and a half. But Naina was a character that could’ve done wonders to you. Did you really not mind losing out on the role?

I look back, definitely, but I constantly move ahead – in my life and my career. I’ve never regretted not doing any film. They’ve all gone to be huge successes but they were not meant for me. Maybe I wouldn’t have married Saif Ali Khan if I had done Kal Ho Na Ho, who knows. God has something else written for me, and you have to look at life like that. You have to look at destiny. At the end of the day, it’s just a film. You have to look at life, which is the larger picture.

And, you’d say the same for films like Fashion, Ram Leela, Queen?

Like I said, no regrets at all. And, I’m really happy that they’ve all been such successful films. I’ve had my share of successes, in my own way, and there is no kind of comparison. Each to their own. Everybody’s destiny is different.

There was a time when you had a series of flops and K3G and Yuva were your saving grace. And even though you still were the heroine no 1, what was going on in your head at that time?

Obviously, you keep asking yourself how come my films aren’t doing well, and I also want to work in some of those films that are doing well, and things like that. But I realized that you just need to keep going. The idea is to have faith in yourself, your talent. There was a time in my life when my films weren’t doing that great and I took a year off. I was offered Race opposite Saif, but I turned it down because I didn’t want to do a commercial film at that time. I just wanted to take a break and reassess where my life and career were going. And it was in that year that I got an offer from Imtiaz [Ali] (for Jab We Met) and I think the second part of my career began from there. And that break was very necessary.

How does it feel to have magazines call you Heroine No 1, and what goes into being her?

The same magazines will be writing that my career is over. So honestly, nothing. It really doesn’t matter. It’s an ever-changing game. You’ll be up there one day and the next day you’re down. It’s like gravity, that’s the simplest explanation. Just do your work, and keep your head up. That’s what’s important. Keep your chin up and keep going. I’m a Virgo and I’m extremely practical in my life, and I think age has also made me a little more practical.

But look at you, you don’t seem to age a day…

I’m as old as I look (laughs). 

I’m beyond a lot of things. I’m in a zen mode now.

What has been your method of acting and how has that changed? 

I think it changes for each film. I like to be guided by the director. I like to be told which direction to go in, if I’m going in the correct direction and stuff like that. And I follow the director’s vision. Of course, I have my interpretation of the character, but I am a director’s actor and I think that’s why it’s so easy for me to shift from a Poo to Geet, from doing comedy in 3 Idiots to playing an emotional character in Udta Punjab. The transition is easy for me, but I just need the right guidance. And I just want to do good work, that I enjoy.

What has changed in how you see a script?

Earlier it was a lot about “this is a big film, it has big actors” and stuff like that. But since Jab We Met, I think it’s all about “what my part is, how I can contribute to the film and how relevant it is today – in my life and in the audiences’. Udta Punjab for example – when I read the script, the only thought I had, apart from the fact that it was a wonderful script, was that mainstream actors need to support films like these, and talk about the issues it talks about. Even though my role wasn’t a very big role, I wanted to be a part of the film. Even today, people tell me when Preet (her character in the film) died in the film, it was painful for them to watch that. It was a great film to make, and I enjoyed shooting for it. So for me, if you come to me with a great script, I feel that my heart is connecting and I think that this story needs to be told, I’m in it.

You say Geet is the most far off character from who you are in real life. Which character are you closest to?

Every character that you play has a little bit of you. Geet was a very impulsive woman, and she leaves her home for a guy and that is not something I would ever do. But people believed that because it was believable. But having said that she is not me. And honestly, I haven’t thought about which character I hold closest to myself. But every character has a spark of what I am in real life. Since the release of K3G, people have believed that I’m Poo, but no matter how heartbreaking it is, the truth is that I’m not looking into a mirror and asking myself how dare I look so beautiful. I’m sitting at home in my kaftan and my husband is just like, “can you change? Can you wear something else?” I’m as normal as everyone else.

Kareena Kapoor Khan in Jab We Met
Kareena Kapoor Khan in a still from Jab We Met. Source: Shemaroo Comedy

Now it’s the kaftan, before this it was the pout. Is it a conscious choice to make things iconic?

If it really was a conscious effort, I don’t think it would connect. People who know me, those who work with me will tell you that I’m very instinctive. I don’t even know how this pout thing happened. You want to call it iconic or whatever, but it’s never a conscious choice or decision.

You’ve been a very confident woman throughout your career. Where does that come from?

I think that’s just the way I am. I was like this even when I was a teenager. I’ve always been happy in my skin, I’ve never tried to fit in. I was an overweight teenager, then I lost a lot of the weight, then came the ‘iconic’ size zero, then there was the pregnancy weight, the post-pregnancy weight and loss, and through it all, I have believed in myself. I think that’s where the confidence comes from. Also, I’ve always called a spade a spade, and people would tell me that I need to learn how to be diplomatic, but that wasn’t really me.

When you talk about size zero or your pregnancy, why do you think people are so curious about how Kareena Kapoor Khan looks?

I don’t know honestly. I had to stop going to the gym because I was out of gym clothes (laughs). And everyone was running to the gym but I was walking in the opposite direction.

After Tashan were you ever tempted to go back to size zero?

It’s not about that. Now I’m just too happy with myself. I became that size for Tashan. I did it for a role. But never say never. If there is a part that I really want to do, and it demands me to lose or gain weight, maybe I’ll do that.

No matter what, you’ve always been honest, real, and to me, you don’t come across as a ‘diva’ but that became your image, and even continues to be. Why do you think that is? Is it because of Poo?

I think so. I don’t think Hindi Cinema had ever seen a mainstream actor mouth those dialogues and a character like Poo before her. And you also tend to perceive a person for what that person is, that she’s Lolo’s sister, she comes from a film family, she has to be a diva. Nobody has the energy or even the time to get to know you. I’m a public figure, and you’re allowed to have judgement, so be it. It’s fine.

Kareena Kapoor Khan in K3G
Kareena Kapoor Khan in a still from K3G. Source: Dharma Productions

How has motherhood changed you?

It’s obviously stirred my entire world. There’s nothing that I can see or do beyond my son (Taimur Ali Khan). Everything, of course, revolves around him. And it’s not just me, both Saif and I want to spend all out time with him.

When one looks at pictures of you and Taimur at the airport or something, you see a mother in Kareena and when you’re alone you’re this glam diva for whom there’s no stopping. How do you fluctuate between these two roles?

I can’t look at my life as roles that I’m playing. Being a mother is not a role. It’s my life. It comes to me naturally and I take it one day at a time. I’m not a pro at it, I make mistakes, but then we’re all human beings and we make mistakes. And, mothers are allowed to make mistakes too. And being a diva is what you guys have called me ya, it’s not me. From now on, I’m only going to step out in my jeans with tied up hair.

Even then you look like a diva…

So then I’m going to do just that!

Speaking of that, you’ve always maintained that you don’t follow trends. Do you think you are the trend?

I don’t think so at all. As I said, I do what I think is right for me, what my heart wants at that particular moment. There’s not much thought behind it. Follow your heart, do what you want to, be what you want to, and people will love and accept that.

After Heroine we haven’t seen you headlining a film alone. Are we going to, anytime soon?

I hope so! If there is a script I love, then definitely. There’s no apprehension whatsoever, but it should be an amazing script. I don’t make any plans. Who knew that we’d be in the middle of a global pandemic and have this conversation! I hope the lock-down has taught people that. Of course, have plans in your heart and mind but live for the moment.

Is there a film that pushed you to work on your craft?

Heroine was such a film, and so was Veere Di Wedding. When you’re working with so many actors, they too push you to do better. You see them work and think you have to pull up your socks. The film was also challenging because it was my first film after my delivery. I had taken a break and here I was with three different actors, all of whom came from different schools of acting. So it was challenging.

How do you deal with aging in the industry?

I love it! What’s wrong with aging? I’m proud to be 40 and working! Look at Meryl Streep, she’s superb. It’s inspirational. And these days so much has changed. There are so many different platforms, so many more opportunities. I think what Shefali Shah has done in [Netflix’s] Delhi Crime is amazing. And I don’t think any of the young actors could’ve done it. So it’s not about your age. It always is about talent.

[The magazines that call me Heroine Number 1] will be writing that my career is over. None of it means anything. It doesn’t matter.

Are you open to doing TV shows?

I would, but to work in a TV show, like Made In Heaven, Paatal Lok, Sacred Games, and their likes, you need to be in top form, and the actors who have worked in these shows are there. And when you’re acting there (in a TV show) and it’s coming home to people, you can’t lie. You need to hit the bull’s eye. So I’m extremely scared. The show has to be amazing. It has to be something absolutely brilliant for me to be in it.

After all these years, what kind of roles do you really want to do now?

There’s no set formula or rule. I want to do something that excites me. I could be a movie, a show, anything.

Five films you can come home to?

Off the top of my head, The Bridges of Madison County, Good Will Hunting, Closer, Kapoor and Sons and Paan Singh Tomar.

Which is your favorite performance of yourself?

Mani Ratnam’s Yuva. I think it’s a very underrated film. I play a normal girl in the film and to make the audience believe that you are as normal as they are is a tough task.

Can you tell us something about Laal Singh Chadha?

I can’t wait to go back to shoot. We don’t know when it’s going to release, everything is uncertain. But I can confidently say that it will be Aamir [Khan] and my best work. Fingers are crossed.

Does the 2020 Kareena Kapoor Khan still believe in things she has said in the past…

I do my own thing. And I believe what I do is the right thing.

Absolutely true, and I think everybody should live by that. Because that gives you hope and faith in yourself.

My professional life has nothing to do with my personal life and vice versa.

True, and I would strictly like to keep it that way.

Being a Kapoor, acting is genetic.

It is, of course. There was never any pressure that you have to do it, but somewhere it is in my blood.

If somebody hurts me intentionally, I’d hit back. I’m that kind of a person. But if somebody hurt me unintentionally, I’d just cut them out of my life completely.

I think so, yeah. I am a highly emotional and sensitive person. I get attached to people very fast and people like me tend to get hurt faster. And people who know me, know that for me, it’s all about giving. But when I see that it’s hurting me, there’s no other way.

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