Rajkummar Rao makes for a fascinating case study. In the last few years, he has been one of the driving forces behind making intelligent cinema accessible to audiences. He has helped in busting the myth that the Indian audience only consumes masala potboilers just because a Salman Khan rakes in the moolah. Stree and Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga showed off his ability to be a “Bollywood” leading man, a romantic hero and someone who made song-and-dance feel refreshing. With hits, fans and a can-he-ever-deliver-abad-performance tag, Rao is the present, and possibly, the future of Hindi cinema.
During the climax of Stree, when Rajkummar’s Bicky is in the clutches of the lovelorn banshee, he is urged by Shraddha Kapoor to look into her eyes with love, the only way to get her under control. “Pyaar se dekho!” Shraddha tells him. Bicky struggles comically, not wanting to stare into the banshee’s horrifying face, trying to pull a Shah Rukh Khan, and ultimately ending, exasperatedly, with “Abbey humari gaand phati huyi hai, kahaan se laayenge pyaar?!” That was the film’s high point for me. It could easily have slipped into a caricature, meant for a quick laugh. It became an interesting commentary on a generation’s go-to trope for “Pyaar” – that which the movies have exaggeratedly told us can move mountains and control weather, only to horribly fail in front of scary reality.
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If I read into the scene further, I can also see the death of Bollywood exaggeration. The industry has been known globally for its celebration of grandiose escapism, only to have turned on its head in the last 4-5 years, delving into small town realities and slice-of-life stories. Big budget films, the order of the day at one time, are now fewer in number and are being called “event films”, starring either the Khans or multiple stars. Take last year, for example. Akshay Kumar, who has ditched his glitzy potboiler days, starred in Pad Man along with Radhika Apte. Anurag Kashyap did Mukkabaaz with a non-star. Saif Ali Khan starred in a small black comedy, Kaalakandi. Anushka Sharma kicked ass in Pari. Varun Dhawan worked in October, Alia Bhatt starred in Raazi and Dulquer Salmaan decided to debut with Karwaan. These are mainstream names who decided to put their money on stories, over masala formulas, to haul a film along. Even a Karan Johar discovered the new wave, and launched Jahnvi Kapoor and Ishaan Khatter in a small-town film like Dhadak. It might have had Manish Malhotra’s lehengas, but compare that to Alia-Varun-Sidharth’s debut in 2012. Race 3 tanked, as did Sanju, Thugs Of Hindostan, Gold and Zero. The year’s biggest winners were Andhadhun, Stree, Badhaai Ho, Mulk and Manmarziyaan. These are the glorious winds of change.
Apart from contributing to the economy, cinema today also has a social responsibility.
Along with Ayushmann Khurrana, Rajkummar Rao has given Indian audiences leading men they want to watch, fall in love with and relate to. With social media and increased accessibility, the aspirational quality attached to stardom has waned. Till two decades ago, you wanted to be like one of your heroes. You aped their haircuts and wardrobes. You didn’t know much about them, so every tiny nugget of information added to the star’s mystique. Today, we realise that stars are as human as it gets. Earlier, star arrogance was accepted. Today, if you scroll through the comments on their posts on social media, people talk to them like they would with friends. Stars are trolled, rebuked, made fun of, abused, given advice to and congratulated. They are seen as people who just have a fancier job than most of us. The adulation and worship era is over.
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That called for a different kind of leading man – relatable, rooted and regular. With an increase in spending power, frequent opportunities to travel abroad, gyms opening at every turn and Delhi’s markets thriving on Sabysachi first copies and “get the look of this star from that film” being a steady section on most e-retail websites, the movies have been robbed of their escapistic quality. People want to see films that look like them now. As we take the #20YearChallenge for our anniversary issue, it’s only natural to celebrate this milestone with Rao on our cover – the new face of Bollywood.
What is your first film memory?
I think it’s Agneepath. I saw it with my family and I was so engrossed in that film, and I remember I was howling into my pillow when Vijay Dinanath Chauhan dies in the end. I was really young, but I got really involved with the film and the performances. Ram Jaane is the first film I clearly remember going to watch in a theatre. Besides that, definitely DDLJ and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, and all Shah Rukh Khan movies.
What is the role of cinema in today’s times?
There are a lot of roles it can play, starting with providing entertainment, obviously. Along with that and contributing to the economy, cinema today also has a social responsibility. I remember watching Rang De Basanti and I was so moved. The first candle march happened after that in Delhi. So cinema of course has the power to make you think and do things. People have come up to me after Newton and said that they have realised the importance of voting – how voting is so important and there’s so much effort that’s being put behind the whole process of elections. Cinema can bring in that kind of change. It can make you question things.
Do you think cinema can be activistic in nature if it needs to be, and it just depends on how the film is packaged or made palatable?
I think you can tell something important and tell it with some humour. That’s the kind of films even I want to watch. People come and watch and go back with something to think about – that’s what happened with Stree. I am really glad now that people are appreciating films high on content.
With every actor there’s a different process. And it’s very rare that two actors would have the same process.
What was film school like?
Film school was definitely two amazing years of my life. I don’t think they can come back, ever, and I think most of the people from FTII [Film and Television Institute of India, Pune] would vouch for that. It is so much of freedom, learning, all about cinema. You are just breathing cinema 24×7 there. Acting school provides you time and space to practise your craft. I really had a great time in FTII. I loved the campus. I joined in 2005 and passed out in 2008. Before FTII, all I knew about cinema was through Hindi films, but FTII opened a new door for me – world cinema. All these great actors like Robert De Niro. I didn’t know any of them before FTII. It gave me such a broader perspective on acting. I had great teachers also. I remember when Rajat Kapoor came to take a class. By watching films and discussing them with your teachers and classmates, it’s just an amazing space to be in for two years. You don’t have to worry about a career, you don’t have to worry about anything else. You are in that campus, and just have to do what you’re supposed to do.
What’s the difference between actors who have attended an acting school and those who learn on the job?
I have worked with people like Manoj Bajpai, who is not from any acting school, and he’s one of the best actors we have in the country. So, it’s not that you necessarily have to go to a film school – Alia Bhatt didn’t go anywhere, and she’s still one of the most phenomenal actors we have. It’s not necessary that you have to go to a film school, but if you can, then you definitely should. You get to practise your craft and spend time on film sets to learn. But apart from that, I don’t believe that people from film school or acting school have a different approach. And trust me, with every actor, there’s a different process. And it’s very rare that two actors would have the same process.
What’s one film that you are supposed to like and worship, but don’t?
Wild Strawberries, by Ingmar Bergman. I had to watch it, but I wasn’t as blown away as everybody generally is.
What kind of a film nerd are you these days?
Watching films started off as a ritual from my childhood itself. We had this ritual at my place where – I lived in a joint family – we had a big verandah in our house, and every week all of us would sit and watch at least two films. The germ was put in from there itself. I just loved watching films. Later, in Gurgaon, every weekend, I’d go to the theatre to watch a film. I would bunk my school. We’d watch films we didn’t even know about sometimes – like I remember watching Lake Placid. I have seen some great films, I saw The Entity, which is a great film now, a cult horror film, but at that time, I saw it not knowing anything. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even understand the language but I was just happy that I was in a theatre watching a film. At FTII, every day I would want to watch a film at the screening and then on my own. Nowadays, it’s more about films on TV and online platforms. I still have a massive collection of old DVDs with me. It’s mostly me and Patralekhaa watching films together at home these days, but I don’t mind watching films alone either. Till about a few years back I would go to the theatre in Mumbai to watch films by myself.
Which three films can you watch over and over again?
Forrest Gump, Godfather 2 and Andaz Apna Apna.
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I notice that none of these films are Shah Rukh Khan films.
Well, if you could add one more film, I’d say Dil Se.
Do you collect books on cinema?
Absolutely. I picked up this habit during college in Delhi. If I go to London, I’ll go to Waterberg. If I’m in LA, I’ll go to some bookstore there. I’ll pick up books about actors and acting – I like reading biographies.
Which book on cinema changed your perspective towards the craft?
I think Charlie Chaplin’s autobiography. When he came into the industry to become an actor, he was a nobody, and was poor. I remember this incident so well. He got a job and was asked to do what everybody else was doing, but he refused. He stood his ground and refused, and said I can’t do what everyone else is doing. He stood by his convictions and principles.
If you could go back in time, which film-maker’s muse would you want to be?
Definitely Satyajit Ray, and I’d want to be Apu.
Would you call yourself an artist?
Also, in today’s context, how would you define an artist? Yes, I would call myself an artist because I understand my social responsibilities. And if I can, through my work, bring in some change in society, then I always try and do that. And I think that’s what my job is. My reason for being an actor is nothing else but that I love doing my work. The motivation was never money or fame. Maybe, I wouldn’t say I’m an artist but on my way to become an artist – that’s better.
My reason for being an actor is nothing else but that I love doing my work. The motivation was never money or fame.
Art cannot exist without politics. Every school of filmmaking, from Russian Expressionism to the Indian New Wave, was guided by an ideology. What is the politics or ideology behind the kind of art you want to pursue or stand by?
I don’t delve too much into the politics of all the films I sign, but when I get a chance to do a film like Shahid or a Newton, I think these are stories which are very important, and not many people know about. Sometimes, they are the underdogs, which means you should know about them. So, through my work, being in that film, I try to bring the story to the people.
In India, do you see an ideology guiding the art, or is it just purely commerce-based cinema?
Somebody is putting money into it, right? They also feel that they want their money to come back. But I’m sure there are also people who really are in it for love and passion. I think that if somebody is putting their money in, they should get their money back so we can make more films and tell more stories. And by profit, I mean when they say 100 crore, I think that many people have seen your film. The more the number, the more people have seen your films.
Do you believe that actors are opinion leaders?
Definitely. Especially, as an actor, you should know about what’s going on around the world. If you feel strongly about something, you should definitely have your opinion.
With the track record of vicious trolling actors have faced, do you think it’s wise to voice yourself in this country?
Well, there are some brave people who have, and we all know how people troll them, but there are still ways to put your opinion out there. There are ways in which you can say what you want to and still not be on their radar. If you can be fearless, then great. Whenever I feel angry about something, I put it out on Twitter and say it very clearly.
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On Koffee with Karan, you said “show me the money” – is that the parameter for your film choices currently?
No, by money I meant box office. I want people to come and watch more films. We want more people to come and watch more films. That was where I was coming from.
On that note, a film of yours you wish had done better?
Trapped. Or a Shahid. I feel if Shahid released today, it would do much better.
The most underrated actor in the industry?
Not because she is my partner, but I think Patralekhaa is really underrated. The other day I was watching Citylights again, and I was wowed by what she had done in that film.
One film from last year you wish you had been a part of?
In the last 2 or 3 years, with the amount of fame and recognition that you’ve received, do you think you’ve changed as a person?
[Emphatically] No! Not at all. The day I will change, I will slap myself very hard. I never want to change myself. The day you see any change, you also tell me.
This is a question I ask all non-film family actors. Do you really feel like a part of the film fraternity? I’ll tell you why I am asking this. On this season of Koffee With Karan, he has introduced a new question in the Rapid Fire section – “Rajkummar, Ayushmann, Vicky and Nawazuddin Siddiqui: your favourite breakout star”. He also asks all guests to rate a list of other mainstream actors like Tiger, Varun, Sidharth and Arjun. Why do you think a separate question is required for you guys, especially when some of you, like Nawaz and Ayushmann, had already “broken out” in the industry much before some of them had even debuted?
I don’t think so much about it. If somebody’s putting me on a list with Nawaz, Vicky, Ayushmann it’s fine with me. If somebody’s putting me on some other list, that’s also fine. It’s a fun show, and I just went to have some fun. That’s what I told Karan also.
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How easy – or difficult – is it to date another actor?
It’s not difficult at all. Even when she’ll be out of town or I’ll be out of town on work, the love never ends for us. It keeps growing every day for us. We have that kind of understanding and it’s all good. Also, when you are dating someone from the same profession, there are a lot of things you can share, you can watch films together and discuss them later. Also, the same goes for trends and fashion.
How has she changed you over the last 8 years?
A lot of good has come into my life. She has changed my overall personality, my communication skills, the way I dress up – she herself is so stylish. A lot has come into my life because of Patralekhaa.
Is there something she hates about you?
Yeah, there are times when I don’t eat. I skip my breakfast or dinner and she doesn’t like this habit of mine.
One film you’re embarrassed to confess your love for?
Josh. I haven’t seen it in a while, so maybe I will change my mind now, but I really love that film.
Do you have friends in the industry?
I have friends in the industry, who are not necessarily actors, who I bond with whenever I meet them. I have friends from FTII who are some of my closest friends. They keep me grounded, keep me real. These are people I can call if I’m ever in trouble. They work in the industry, so they understand my space.
If somebody’s putting me on a list with Nawaz, Vicky, Ayushmann, it’s fine with me.
Given how much you both are talked up as competition, what’s your equation with Ayushmann Khurrana?
I share a very good equation with him. Whenever we meet, we bond really well. We text each other often, whenever we watch each other’s work, we tell each other how much we loved it. I have a great rapport with him.
Spill: three things about Rajkummar Rao that nobody knows about?
A lot of people think I’m married – I’m not. People think I’m from Hyderabad because my surname’s Rao. I’m from Gurgaon. And lastly, I’m not always a serious guy, I can be funny and chilled out as well.
What’s the one question you’ll never tire of answering in interviews?
Good one. Anything related to acting and cinema, my favourite films and actors.
Photographs by Rahul Jhangiani | Creative Direction by Shweta Mehta Sen | Styling by Neelangana Vasudeva | Assisted by Aabha Malhotra | Hair & Makeup by Jean-Claude Biguine