Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

I am constantly competing with myself. I am not competing with anyone else: Kareena Kapoor Khan

Kareena Kapoor Khan wears the superstar tag lightly but her successful career is testimony to her versatility and talent. As the actor-producer completes 23 years in the film industry, she's raring to go and do what she does best—create magic once the camera rolls

Kunal Purandare
Published: Dec 27, 2023 12:08:40 PM IST
Updated: Dec 27, 2023 12:54:21 PM IST

I am constantly competing with myself. I am not competing with anyone else: Kareena Kapoor KhanActor-producer Kareena Kapoor Khan; Image: Mexy Xavier; Hair and Makeup: Mitesh Rajani; Styling: Tanya Ghavri

Kareena Kapoor Khan gives a sheepish smile to her stylist as he catches her pouting while taking a few top-angle selfies. Dressed in a grey pant-suit, the actor has only minutes ago completed a photo shoot with Forbes India at Mehboob Studios in Bandra, Mumbai, and is waiting to record a video interview when she tries to capture herself in all her glory. Her obsession with the camera is an open secret, and something that she admits to with a lot of pride. And that the camera has loved her back in equal measure is evident from the fact that the 43-year-old completed 23 years in the Indian film industry in 2023—a year in which she made her streaming debut with Jaane Jaan and turned producer with The Buckingham Murders.

One of the most glamorous and accomplished stars of her time, Kapoor Khan has been a crowd-puller who’s held her own amid raging competition since making her acting debut with
Refugee in 2000. She attributes it to her single-minded focus and dedication to her craft. “I love acting… that’s my top priority, playing different parts. I have wanted to do it since I was a child. I get attracted to just being in front of the camera. It’s something that I will always do with passion because I enjoy doing it,” she says.

Born to actors Randhir Kapoor and Babita, whose elder daughter Karisma was a superstar in the 1990s, it was inevitable that Kapoor Khan would veer towards becoming a screen icon, much like many of her relatives in the Kapoor family—considered the first family of Indian cinema. It was easier said than done though. “The pressures were extremely mammoth,” she concedes. “There was pressure to carve a place for myself so that people know that I am talented as well, and I am also a part of this legacy.”

The doubts about her talent, if any, were dispelled when she got widespread acclaim for her performance in Refugee. “She’s a born star, a complete natural,” says JP Dutta, who directed the film.

Kapoor Khan has enjoyed enviable stardom throughout her career. The image of a diva stuck to her early on because of her much-loved portrayal of the full-of-herself Poo in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001). And the superstar tag has been synonymous with her, especially after playing the carefree and boisterous Geet in Jab We Met (2007). The artiste, though, insists that such assumptions about her are far from reality. “I have never felt as anything of that sort because I have always looked at myself as an actor who’s wanted to do something different constantly. Otherwise it would have been impossible to survive 23 years with each decade having a dash of new actors, new talent,” she emphasises.

Her filmography screams that aloud. She’s balanced commercial cinema—Golmaal Returns (2008), 3 Idiots (2009), Bodyguard (2011), Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), for instance—with memorable roles in ‘serious’ or ‘offbeat’ films like Chameli, Yuva, Dev (all 2004) and Omkara (2006), among others. “Straddling both the worlds and having the power to do that is something that I wear proudly on my chest,” says the actor. “Doing different parts, whether it’s the dark ones that I’ve done previously, or now Jaane Jaan or The Buckingham Murders, keeps me at peace with the artiste that’s inside me. And I’ll keep doing the big blockbusters because that is also a part of my DNA.”

I am constantly competing with myself. I am not competing with anyone else: Kareena Kapoor Khan

The one thing constant, though, is that she’s a picture of confidence in every role that she picks. Filmmakers sing praises about her ability to surrender herself to whatever characters she essays on screen. “I’ve rarely come across an actor with such spontaneity and professionalism,” says Sudhir Mishra, who directed Kapoor Khan in Chameli. “There’s a kind of an instinct there… you are not aware of her preparation. And suddenly when you say action, something happens. She’s totally the person. She’s not gimmicky at all, so she’s not obstructing the storytelling… she is that character, working according to the narrative, and adding so much to it.”

He reveals that the red saree worn by the actor, who plays a sex worker in the film, had become heavier by several kilos as it got wet while getting the rain sequence right. “But she would stand there drenched, even for a technical rehearsal in the rain, without any complaints. We shot the film in record time… she worked 12 hours a day,” he says.

Madhur Bhandarkar was bowled over by her talent after he saw Kapoor Khan in Refugee at Bandra’s Gaiety theatre. “She was so natural, so real,” he reminisces. She remained on the director’s wish list till they came together for Heroine, the story of an artiste who is at the peak of her career. “I thought to myself… who better than Kareena to play a superstar? And she nailed the character. She’s absolutely brilliant… she’s an instinctive actor, not a method actor. She’s a switch-on, switch-off artiste,” he explains. “She acts between action and cut… she’s like instant coffee. One just needs to brief her. And she’ll give you more than expected.”

The filmmaker, who made the National Award-winning film Chandni Bar—whose screening Kapoor Khan had attended—says prior to them working together on Heroine, people had fed him ‘stories’ about her, none of which turned out to be true. “Kareena did not stress me out at all. In fact, she worked on Sundays too, and put in 16 to 18 hours every day,” says Bhandarkar, who adds it was fun working with her.

I am constantly competing with myself. I am not competing with anyone else: Kareena Kapoor Khan

As an actor, Kapoor Khan has witnessed several highs—from bumper box office numbers to winning awards. She’s cemented her place as a bankable star and ruled the silver screen with her myriad roles. Yet, even today, she faces the camera with the same excitement as that of a newcomer. “If you are complacent… the camera picks up every single nuance of yours,” she points out. “Even when I was shooting for The Buckingham Murders, for me it was as though it was my first film… that I need to prove myself after 23 years in this movie now that this is a different phase in my life and choice of films. So, it has to be like the first time ever.”

Ranveer Brar is among those who was witness to the actor’s on-screen magic in recent times. The chef-cum-actor, who shot a few scenes with Kapoor Khan in The Buckingham Murders, says the experience of working with her was fantastic. “Needless to say, she’s a seasoned actor. We had a few scenes together, and the last was an intense one. Her ability to switch on and switch off is her strength. And the trait to bring in so much intensity to a scene right from the word action—to go from zero to 100 in no time… that is beautiful,” he says.

The scene in the crime-thriller that Brar is referring to has him throwing an aggressive stance at the actor, who slaps him in return. Kapoor Khan, who plays a detective in the film, was a bit apprehensive before the shot, saying she wouldn’t slap her co-actor. “The moment the camera rolled, though, her hands didn’t touch me, but I could feel the sheer intensity and force as they passed by my cheek,” says Brar.

Sujoy Ghosh felt the same when the filmmaker saw the actor shoot her on-screen husband’s murder scene in Jaane Jaan. “I could sense her energy and strength. She was completely in it,” says the director of the film. “She’s clued in, knows her craft, is aware of her strengths and extremely dedicated as an actor.”

Over the years, Kapoor Khan has reinvented the wheel to stay relevant with the times. Making her OTT debut and turning producer last year are steps in that direction. “I think content is king. Content is what everybody streams, more than the stars. And one has to keep experimenting with the times,” says the actor.

I am constantly competing with myself. I am not competing with anyone else: Kareena Kapoor Khan

For Jaane Jaan, the story about a single mother who tries to cover up after killing her husband, Ghosh had a certain imagery in mind when he was writing the film. “I wanted someone who looked like a mother to a schoolgirl [as Maya], who was simple and beautiful, and even more beautiful in her younger days. The last fact I needed the audience to imagine, and with Kareena that was easy,” explains the director.

Actor Jaideep Ahlawat, her co-star in Jaane Jaan, says off set, one rarely sees Kapoor Khan preparing for a scene. “But when the camera rolls, you see the magic unfold. The character of Maya, especially, is deglamourising the most glamorous star of the country… and she did it with such ease,” he says.

Kapoor Khan is thrilled with the response that her streaming foray has got as she believes it was a new, and a greater, challenge. “It’s more difficult to be on the OTT platform than cinema. You are watching it at home… it’s quite close, you are actually watching everything closer,” she adds.

There are no half measures when Kapoor Khan gets involved with something. It has to be something that she completely believes in and can do justice to. She’s lent her name as producer to The Buckingham Murders because she’s a huge fan of the crime-drama world, and it’s a small film, with a different story. “It’s also one of my most powerful performances,” she claims.

On sets, she was involved in every aspect of filmmaking. Brar says the actor would have regular interactions with director Hansal Mehta in terms of the broader story outline. “She was well-versed with the script and would notice the smallest of changes. For her first movie as a producer, she was totally hands-on—creatively and collaboratively,” he tells Forbes India.

As one the highest-paid actors in the country, Kapoor Khan is also a brand in herself. She says she must be comfortable with any commercial partnership that she gets into and that it must reflect a lot about her.

I am constantly competing with myself. I am not competing with anyone else: Kareena Kapoor Khan

The actor confesses that she is not a numbers person, but turning into a smart investor is something that she’s working on. “I am not business-minded, but I am trying to be,” says the star, who recently acquired a minority stake in fresh food label Pluckk, and has partnered with Sugar Cosmetics’ founders to launch premium Korean skincare brand Quench Botanics. She laughs aloud as she talks about handling money. “I am a self-proclaimed spender… I am not a saver.”

Another role that she has played to perfection is that of a mother to two sons—Taimur and Jehangir (Jeh). Kapoor Khan, who married actor Saif Ali Khan in 2012, admits that her priorities have since changed and she’s clear about them. “Earlier, you are focussed on your career. But I chose that I want to have a life as well… because for me, as a woman, that’s what I wanted. I was sure that I will always work, but I will also go home to my family which is extremely important to me. I balance it, but I have kind of learnt the art to cut off,” she says.

Motherhood and seeing various phases in the industry have also made the actor calmer and more mature. The earlier Kapoor Khan would probably make an impulsive statement here and there, but today she chooses her words wisely—even in the face of provocation—without compromising on being frank and candid. “It’s going to take a lot to rattle me,” she says. “I am relaxed with myself because I am competing with myself to make myself better. I am not competing with anyone. I just want to do what’s best for me. And since I know that, I am a lot calmer.”

Her peers say the actor takes time to open up to people, but is chilled out, on and off sets. Bhandarkar describes her as ‘cool’, someone who won’t even park herself in her vanity van. “She’ll be sitting on a chair on sets and chatting with her team. She’s a complete foodie.” Between shots, says the director, she’s joking, SMSing, talking to people on the phone, but once the shot is ready, she comes into her own.

Ahlawat says prior to working with her, the image of Kapoor Khan was that of a mega star in his head. “I was intimidated by her persona,” he admits. “But that vanished within 10 seconds of meeting her. She’s calm, quiet and a happy soul. She makes you feel at complete ease. As an actor, she’s well-prepared with her lines and ideas. And her strength is the ease with which she can perform a scene because of her body of work and vast experience.”

Agrees Mishra. “Kareena is extremely friendly, casual, and an easy person to work with. She’s a professional, and that takes care of everything—between the time she comes on set and leaves is what we are concerned with. She’s on top of her game and gives it her all,” says the filmmaker, who rues at not having had an opportunity to work with the actor again.

Most of their conversations, Brar says, revolved around her children. “She’s extremely approachable. And she’s a mother first… she always spoke about the food that Jeh likes,” says the restaurateur.

The actor in her is hungry for more. Kapoor Khan will next be seen in The Crew, also starring Tabu, and Singham Again. She reiterates that acting is her calling and that she’s grateful that she gets to do exactly what she wants.

And while the actor is trying to be a better version of herself every day, she feels every artiste must be slightly competitive because it’s healthy. “If there’s no competition, you won’t strive to be better. And I wouldn’t want to ever get comfortable because when you get too comfortable, then there’s no fun. So, a little bit of competition is fun and healthy,” says Kapoor Khan.

She is aware that the arrival of streaming platforms has changed the way people consume content and judge artistes. And that’s bound to reflect in the choices she makes in the future. “Today it’s not an industry only of stars. The artiste is being recognised far more than the star. First you have to be on top of the game as an artiste and then you follow on as a star,” she explains.

I am constantly competing with myself. I am not competing with anyone else: Kareena Kapoor Khan

Filmmakers are confident that Kapoor Khan will deliver several impactful performances in the years ahead. “She’ll rise to whatever that’s demanded of her. I hope she chooses great films. She’s got the spontaneity, and a spark and a mischief… she should do a great comedy as well. There are very few people with that kind of total talent,” says Mishra, who adds that he deliberately kept Kapoor Khan in the foreground most of the time while shooting Chameli.

Bhandarkar feels the actor is in her zone. “I cannot say Kareena has planned her career. She has gone by her gut and the consistency is there for all to see. She’s proved herself again and again. She’s extremely camera-friendly, and adds a different layer to the character if she gets a good director,” says the filmmaker, who calls Kapoor Khan one of his favourite actors.

Ghosh, too, feels that apart from being a great collaborator, the artiste brings immense value to a role. “Kareena is a confident artiste who goes beyond what’s written on paper, and adds her own to the character. And the result is often beautiful,” he says.

Kapoor Khan feels it’s her honesty and staying true to her craft that have kept her going all these years. “I couldn’t have asked for more,” she says. But it’s also the ability to spring a surprise—for the audience and directors—the reason why filmmakers yearn to work with her.

“She’s such a professional that till the director says cut, she doesn’t stop performing. And she would do something which I hadn’t told her while she was in the shot,” says Mishra. “I concentrated a lot on her. Chameli doesn’t work without her. Throughout the film, I kept the camera on her.”

Kapoor Khan and the camera are, without doubt, inseparable.