The eternal boyishness of Kunal Kemmu

After years of playing sweet slackers and average Joes, Kunal Kemmu makes his directorial debut with ‘Madgaon Express’, a film that appears steeped in his relaxed worldview

Published - March 20, 2024 12:35 pm IST

Kunal Kemmu on the sets of ‘Madgaon Express’.

Kunal Kemmu on the sets of ‘Madgaon Express’. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

I went to interview Kunal Kemmu at the Excel Entertainment office in Mumbai half-dreading to see him in shirt and tie. Kunal — prodigious child actor, intermittent movie star, biker dude and all-around Bombay boy — is making his debut as writer-director with Madgaon Express (He’s also 40 now, with a daughter in primary school). A relief, therefore, to find him in a white tee-and-sneakers ensemble, a shiny silver chain around his neck, hair spiked like one of his characters from the early-2010s. He looks, as a friend accurately remarked, younger than his three male leads in Madgaon Express — Pratik Gandhi, Divyendu Sharma and Avinash Tiwary — who play a trio of schoolmates who embark on a long-deferred Goa trip.

The trailer for Madgaon Express has pistol-toting gangsters, middle-aged women in their undies packing cocaine, and just the general sights and sounds of a good-natured buddy comedy. I ask Kunal if he is aware of the double-barrelled gun he is putting to his head. His producer, Farhan Akhtar, had made Dil Chahta Hai (2001), the primary text of the great Indian Goa film. And Kunal himself had featured in Go Goa Gone (2013), uncontested to date for weirdness and cult cred. He brushes off the pressure. “I never intended to best these films or even stand out. I just loved the idea for Madgaon Express and penned it down. If my voice is different, it will come through.”

Kunal Kemmu on the sets of ‘Madgaon Express’.

Kunal Kemmu on the sets of ‘Madgaon Express’. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Busting myths about Goa

Kunal wrote the script a decade ago. It came to him as loose bullet points — ideas about characters and milieu he started jotting down. “One of my protagonists has a single father . Another comes from a joint family and the other from a nuclear family. What are the differences that they would have? What would their outlook to life be?” He also wanted to burst popular myths about ordinary Goa life. “It’s a film about expectations versus reality, in a way.”

Kunal emphasises ‘structuring’ in the construction of a good story. Amazingly, outside of his acting projects, he has never read the screenplay of a famous film—not even of Fight Club and The Matrix, two films released in 1999 that sparked the cinephile in him. “It takes me a long time to read because I like to imagine things, and with films I’ve already seen, I feel like I’m going backwards.”

He likewise avoids reading the original source material of his favourite movies and shows. “When I saw Game of Thrones for the first time, I had all these questions running through my mind. Why did they kill off Ned Stark? Where are they going with the Red Wedding? How are they building this world? So I can admire the work of writers and screenwriters in the final form and learn from that.”

Kunal was born in Srinagar in 1983 in a Kashmiri Pandit family. His earliest role was in the beloved DD National series Gul Gulshan Gulfaam, as a young boy who comes to holiday with his parents on one of the three titular houseboats. Kunal’s grandfather, Moti Lal Kemmu, was a revered playwright and theatre practitioner in Kashmir; while his parents migrated to Mumbai during the violence of the insurgency, his grandfather stayed on in Jammu. Kunal has rarely spoken at length about his childhood years in Kashmir. “I have a six-year-old’s perspective on it and given the times we are in and the kind of topic it is, I don’t want anyone to interpret it differently. Anything I say will be taken as a 40-year-old man’s point of view.”

Pratik Gandhi, Divyendu Sharma and Avinash Tiwary in ‘Madgaon Express’.

Pratik Gandhi, Divyendu Sharma and Avinash Tiwary in ‘Madgaon Express’. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

He does remember his grandfather fondly. “In today’s times, with the help of social media, it’s much easier to make a mark for yourself and gain recognition on a national level. But for a man to do that in the ‘80s and ‘90s, from a State that was so troubled, and not the most economically progressive, that too in the form of literature, and the kind of respect he commanded in J&K if not nationally, winning the Padma Shri in 2012, it makes me feel dwarfed in so many ways and also proud to be part of the same bloodline.”

Moti Lal Kemmu passed away in Jammu in 2018, aged 85. “I wish I had more time with him,” Kunal says. “I was too young when we moved to Bombay, so I would only meet him once or twice a year. By the time I grew up and got to know more about him, I was busy doing my own thing.”

The 1990s were immensely formative for Kunal. He was a successful child actor by then, appearing in memorable parts in films like Zakhm, Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke and Raja Hindustani. His parents encouraged — and could only afford — an ordinary middle-class upbringing, though he has happy memories of playing Metal Gear Solid 2: Snake Eater and FIFA on the PS1. He recalls his late teens at the turn of the millennium as a heady, exhilarating time. “1999 was an interesting time for me because it was the first year of college. I had just ended my career as a child actor and started doing theatre. I was travelling without parental guidance for the first time. It was a liberating year,” says Kunal, who would go on to feature in Raj and DK’s loving time-capsule of that period, 99.

‘Kalyug’ and beyond

By the time of Kalyug (2005), his acting debut as an adult, the world had changed. The film had vague autobiographical elements from Kunal’s life — the protagonist, also named Kunal, is a Kashmiri settled in Mumbai — but otherwise courted a new zeitgeist. With its smashing soundtrack and edgy Asian cinema-inspired look, Mohit Suri’s film left an imprint on the youth culture of the aughts. “Mohit was the first person who was releasing remixes directly with the soundtrack,” Kunal says. “I remember, back then, young boys in Bombay would play ‘Aadat’ and ‘Jiya Dhadak’ in cars to show off their decks.”

ALSO READ:‘Kalank’ review: visual grandeur takes over plotline

Though he has been working in films for over three decades, Kunal has held on to his innate boyishness as a performer. There is a soft, adolescent quality to his persona that never fades. It is a distinction he shares with an actor like Ali Fazal (who is three years younger). Kunal has done his share of ‘grown-up’ roles — Superstar, Kalank, the three seasons of the streaming series Abhay. Yet, in a Bollywood that prizes butch bravado in its male leads, the best Kunal Kemmu films are the ones where he is playing sweet and silly, appearing in mid-budget comedies and slacker films, an average Joe with a stoner vibe. It is the same relaxed worldview from which Madgaon Express appears to have sprung.

“I’ll behave a certain way in public compared to when I am with my childhood friends. But beyond that, I just feel that it’s too tiring to be something else, to put on,” Kunal says.

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