“I don’t think I am a very confident person. I stumble a lot. I get nervous. There is self-doubt,” says Vaani Kapoor, as if reading off a (long) mental list. “I am an awkward person. I put my foot in my mouth. I am clueless. I am indecisive. Even my birth date (August 23) can’t decide which zodiac sign I fit into. I am a Leo-Virgo.”
At 28, Kapoor’s problems are as real as they come. Add to the astrological uncertainty a daunting gym schedule, a Narcos backlog on Netflix, less and less time to spend with her cats Kiki and Koko (she plans to “settle down with them” if she doesn’t meet the right guy) and bouts of homesickness (her family lives in Delhi). And then there’s the more serious task of analysing her last release Befikre, produced by Yash Raj Films, one of India’s biggest film banners, and helmed by one of Bollywood’s most successful directors, Aditya Chopra.
Although the film opened to mixed reviews, Kapoor is not discouraged. “If there was anything that didn’t work [in the film] it was probably me, because everyone who came together for it is so brilliant.” This self-effacing manner appears to be the actor’s armour in an industry that pulls no punches, especially while dealing with rank outsiders. It’s a kind of defence mechanism that has held her in good stead from the start.
The first time I met Kapoor, three years ago, she was promoting her debut film, Shuddh Desi Romance (2013), with Sushant Singh Rajput and Parineeti Chopra. To a room full of newspaper journalists, she announced, “I feel I’m going to have a nervous breakdown.” For someone who spent her teens convincing herself that a career in acting was just a dream, this reaction seemed about right; the journey that plucked her from the anonymous student life in Delhi and placed her first on the roster of Elite Model Management in Mumbai and then in the hyper-exclusive club of Yash Raj Film debutantes was short and sudden. Next thing she knew, her debut film was declared a hit. Not what you might call the most obvious career trajectory for someone who majored in tourism.
Despite the brevity of her role in the Maneesh Sharma film, Kapoor walked away with reassuring reviews and even won an unprecedented five Best Debut awards. Film critic Anupama Chopra wrote, “Vaani seamlessly fits in—her performance has ease, which is rare for a newcomer.” Rajeev Masand called hers “an auspicious debut” and gave her props for “carrying off firecracker lines with the comfort of a pro”.
Three years have passed since and in the meanwhile, Kapoor has grown a thicker skin, but the earnestness has remained intact, coupled now with a hunger to win. That famed three-film deal with YRF? She’ll have you know it’s nowhere close to the golden ticket it’s made out to be. “They do not take you on easily. They make you audition for every goddamn film. I have worked my butt off for those parts,” says Kapoor. “But I would rather be part of few good films, than do a dozen that I am not contributing to.” The thought of waiting for those roles doesn’t perturb Kapoor. Her brush with the moshpit that is social media, on the other hand, has shaken her a bit.
The young actor was at the receiving end of Internet ire last year with the launch of Befikre’s trailer. There was intense speculation that she’d had cosmetic surgery, and the talk soon turned vile and sexist—as these things so often do. “People prefer being nasty than nice, and they are so impressionable and judgmental. There is too much hate.” She reacted not with defiance or explanations, but by simply letting that wave of unpleasantness ebb on its own.
To keep her head in the game and her eyes on the prize—that’s Kapoor’s strategy for making it in Bollywood. “I still feel like a struggler. I am struggling to get my next good project, something that would excite me.” Ask her if she has a particular role in mind, and she laughs, “You are asking a person who can’t even define herself… Vaani is a confused soul! I’m still discovering myself, trying to figure out my purpose and what really matters.”
At the moment, what matters is a big plate of pancakes and berries for breakfast, followed by Kapoor’s first cover shoot for ELLE (in the gallery above) on a yacht off the coast of Mumbai. It’s not a job in tourism, but being a Bollywood star—battle scars, three-film deals and all—is certainly one way to see the world.