When Rajkummar Rao debuted in 2010 with Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex aur Dhokha, I am sure the industry gurus didn’t take him seriously. Banerjee’s LSD was a polarising film — you either loved it, like I did, or hated it — and in the triptych, it would have been easy to forget Rao, only because of the film’s shocking and uncomfortable format. He followed that up with Ragini MMS, a smart film that balanced horror and horny in equal measure, making it quite an interesting watch. People took notice of Rao and appreciated his work, but they soon moved on.
It is understandable why Rao was not taken seriously in an industry given to celeb worship — it’s because he is not celeb material. He is Average Joe looking and, like very few Indian actors, can actually play characters from any part of this country. For an actor, that is a powerful quality to have. Unfortunately, that is a quality Bollywood is not obsessed with, because versatility is not a requirement for this industry.
He did bit roles after that, in big films like Gangs of Wasseypur-2 and Talaash, and while they might not have been memorable, he was noticed. Finally, it was Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che! that did the trick. Based on Chetan Bhagat’s very mediocre novel, the film turned out to be a commercial and critical success, thrusting the three leading men into the limelight. While Sushant Singh Rajput seems to have made the most of that launch, the wise man’s money will be on Rao. While Rajput went on to sign tepid projects like Shuddh Desi Romance, Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! and M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, heavily banking on his physical appearance and good-looking rascal vibe, Rao decided to take a different route altogether. He was next seen in Shahid, Hansal Mehta’s comeback film on Shahid Azmi, the lawyer and human rights activist noted for defending suspects The common thread that runs through all his characters is struggle — for respect, livelihood or one’s own sense of being. This is why Rao becomes the best actor to cast when telling stories about regular people. He embodies their struggle impeccably on screen in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. This was a dicey subject and an equally juicy role, and Shahid was celebrated by the critics, surprisingly even garnering commercial success. As Anupama Chopra put it, “Shahid is Rajkummar’s triumph. His Shahid has strength, anguish and a controlled anger, but also real charm. His smile lights up the frame. See Shahid for him.” The film had a collection of Rs 40 crore worldwide, and Rao picked up a National Award for his performance (with Mehta winning the Best Director trophy too). The film put Rao firmly on the map, and soon he was being seen as a solid actor with the ability to shoulder a complete feature film.
His next release, Citylights (2014), also directed by Mehta, solidified the industry’s faith in him. Like Nawazuddin Siddiqui, he was soon being seen as the guy who could never turn out a poor performance. So, even though his performances in films like Queen (2014), Dolly Ki Doli and Hamari Adhuri Kahani (2015) might not have been memorable, they were exactly what were required of those characters. Last year, Rao ably supported Manoj Bajpai in another of Hansal Mehta’s successful films, Aligarh.
Rao always brings a sense of complete ease to the shoes he fills. When you watch him on screen, you do not see him, but the characters he portrays. Unlike a Nawazuddin, the film-makers are not besotted with Rao’s personality and hence, he becomes the perfect clay to mould various characters in. He can be the headstrong lawyer-activist in Shahid, hated by the whole country, and also the cavalier rogue in Queen, romping around on his motorbike. He can be one of India’s many wage workers, beaten down by sorrow and circumstance in Citylights and also shine on screen as a heterosexual journalist trying to make sense of a gay professor’s illegal expulsion in Aligarh. The common thread that runs through all his characters is struggle — for respect, livelihood or one’s own sense of being. This is why Rao becomes the best actor to cast when telling stories about regular people. He embodies their struggle impeccably on screen. His Average Joe appearance adds to his ability to become anybody and hence, to tell every story.
This year is a big one for Rao. While Amit Masurkar’s black comedy, Newton, has already won the International Federation of Art Cinemas (CICAE) award at the Berlin Film Festival, Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped released last month and drove the country into a whirlwind of appreciation and acclaim for Rao. Both Newton and Trapped have Rao as the films’ lead, the narratives depending completely on his acting prowess to make the films engaging and impactful. And while Newton hasn’t released yet, Trapped is possibly one of the best films we have seen in this country in a long time. It takes a performer of a very high order to suffer as brilliantly as Rao does in the film. His journey from panic to mania, desperation to frustration and the fear of impeding death, along with the innate need to hold on to the last dregs of hope, is a cinematic experience that cannot be explained in its entirety to those who have not seen the film. There are very few actors who would have been able to bring Motwane’s vision of claustrophia and human survival to life on screen — and he picked the best of the lot.
What is interesting is that, even though Rao’s identity is niche, his film choices are not necessarily so. He has always made an effort to throw in some commercial offerings. His other two films this year, Bareilly Ki Barfi and Ittefaq, are run-of-the-mill offerings. Heck, Ittefaq — a remake of the 1970 Rajesh Khanna potboiler — stars Sidharth Malhotra and Sonakshi Sinha — I don’t think you can get kitschier than that. I will also not be surprised if Rao turns out to be the best thing to happen to both these films.
In seven years, Rao has charted a unique course in the movie industry, peppering it with meaty roles, great performances and commercial viability. It would be interesting to see what the future holds for him. Thankfully, his need to continuously reinvent himself will hopefully prevent him from becoming a navel-gazer. Also, given how this industry functions, it would be good for his PR machinery to get him some healthy publicity. He needs to be more visible and achieve top-of-mind recall. Soon, maybe, he will make the journey from an actor to a star — and hopefully he will still be an actor then.