Among the next generation of upcoming actors in Bollywood, Ishaan Khatter is a relative newbie. He made his debut appearance as a leading man in the 2017 film Beyond the Clouds, a melodrama set in Mumbai’s underbelly, which won him the Best Male Debut title at India’s 2018 Filmfare awards festival.
Ishaan is no stranger to Bollywood, however, having grown up in a family of actors, most notably his older half-brother, Shahid Kapoor. His father is veteran actor Rajesh Khatter, who is known for his roles in movies like Don, Don 2, Traffic and in several TV serials. His mother, Neelima Azim, has also appeared in many made- for- TV serials like Phir Wahi Tailash and The Sword of Tipu Sultan, among others. Film critic Anupama Chopra recalled how she had seen Ishaan at Bollywood film premieres over the years, an eager wide-eyed youngster, avidly sponging up the world of cinema that he was being nurtured in.
Beyond the Clouds, where Ishaan played a street hustling drug dealer fighting to save his sister from prison, got an enthusiastic nod from critics. Next came Dhadak, the 2018 remake of Sairat, a Marathi film about young star-crossed lovers, doomed by the bloodthirsty dictates of caste prejudices (this was also Sridevi and Boney Kapoor’s daughter Jhanvi’s debut film). The film got tepid reviews, but critics and audiences liked Ishaan’s passionate portrayal of reckless young love.
Since these first two movies, Ishaan’s growth as an actor has taken a kinetic leap across the chasm which separates performances that are quite good from those which arise through the creative churn of real talent. He has earned high praise for his recent portrayal of Maan, the non-conformist and unpredictable young firebrand in love with a local courtesan in the 2020 BBC miniseries, A Suitable Boy, Mira Nair’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s 1993 novel. The series brings to life Seth’s intertwined saga of four wealthy Indian families and their lives post-partition in a newly independent India, still tottering to find its new, post-colonial identity.
For this interview, we talked over the virtual reality of Zoom. When Ishaan appears in my small frame on the screen, he is impeccably polite and well-spoken. He exudes a boyish, unaffected charm in person, which makes his transformation on screen into the passionate, intense character of Maan all the more entrancing. As we talk I realize that behind the boyish façade is a great deal of thoughtful maturity in his approach to his profession.
“Working with Miradi was something I’ll always cherish,” Ishaan says in response to my question about the experience of being directed by Mira Nair for the first time.
“I was in awe of her achievements and I had seen all her films—starting with the Reluctant Fundamentalist to the Namesake. She was so approachable though, and brought so much energy and an almost child-like enthusiasm to the set which surpassed even our eagerness as the youngsters in the cast. We were all fired up by her drive.”
“What were Mira’s expectations for you while playing the role of Maan?” I ask Ishaan.
“She gave me enough freedom to interpret the character,” Ishaan says. “She would step in occasionally with suggestions and she knew just how to tweak a scene to get the maximum impact.”
There was one scene he recalls, where Maan is arguing with his father about money.
“Instead of raging, which was how I planned to play the scene, Mira asked me to be playful and turn the situation around. And it worked. I could totally see that it worked better than the last take.”
Another first for Ishaan involved being part of an ensemble cast in a miniseries.
“It felt like chaos sometimes. But it was organized chaos, and Miridi knew how to handle it.”
“There were two sets going at the same time with up to 114 people on them – it was quite an experience. You really have to bring your own focus on such a large set because if you don’t you’ll get lost, there are so many actors and so much going on.” The mature self-awareness Ishaan displays in that statement makes him sound like a seasoned veteran.
“On an ensemble set like that, with so many actors, I think I learned a lot just watching Miradi direct all of them.”
“The character of Maan intrigued me a lot,” he adds. “He is such a kaleidoscope of unfolding emotions and irreverence as he tries to find his place in the world, and he keeps everyone on tenterhooks – one can never predict what he’s going to do next. He tears through traditions and facades and doesn’t worry about the consequences, and that combination of impulsivity and idealism was fascinating in terms of the challenge of playing him. He wasn’t a linear character and I had to bring much more thought to how to be true to the role.”
Besides being unpredictable, Maan’s character is bold, promiscuous, and scandalously in love with an older woman, the courtesan, Saeeda Bai, played by Tabu.
Which brings me to my next loaded question – how awkward it was playing a passionate lover to Tabu, who is a much older, established actress.
“I was nervous at first, because Tabu is such an icon in the industry, but she’s so delightfully easy to work with and such an experienced actress that she immediately put me at ease. We found we had the same focus on our work – we laid the groundwork with Miradi and asked all the important questions in advance. Tabu has this balance of sincerity and experience that just made me slip so easily into the role of Maan to her Saeeda Bai. The best part was that we also hit it off right from the start, and we would crack jokes and laugh, and we ended up really enjoying our time on set. She’s very receptive as an actress and just by being who she is, she gives you a lot. It was a fabulous experience working with her.”
Within the short timeframe of our interview, I squeeze in one more question. My question is about nurturance. There is a fifteen-year age difference between Ishaan and his older brother Shahid Kapoor, and it is clear that Ishaan idolizes him as a mentor whose career has traversed the same route that his own is about to follow.
“He doesn’t believe in handholding or curating my career,” states Ishaan. “He doesn’t want me to repeat his mistakes in the industry; he wants me to grow as an actor on my own terms, by learning from my own mistakes. At the same time, he’s always there with guidance, and his advice is very valuable because of the similar arc of our careers. He became a leading man at a young age, and I got my first lead role at 21. I can learn a lot from him.”
“He’s been like a father figure almost, looking out for me. And at the same time, he’s really cool and fun and a sharp dresser, he’s such a great older brother to have.”
Ishaan’s face lights up when he talks about his brother – one can see a younger Ishaan skipping out from behind the adult façade – the eager adolescent who attended all those Bollywood premieres years ago, and dreamed one day of being with the stars. As Maan in A Suitable Boy, Ishaan Khatter is more than halfway there.
A Suitable Boy will premiere on the Acorn.TV streaming service on Monday, December 7, with two episodes, followed by one new episode every Monday through January 4. Watch the trailer here. Sign up for a free one-week trial offer at https://signup.acorn.tv/.
Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents