10 years ago, there was an FTII graduate, an aspiring actor, who played the role of a store supervisor in Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex Aur Dhokha, and went a tad unnoticed. A decade later, the same actor, with a string of successes and a National Award, nonetheless, is one of the most sought after faces of Bollywood. His filmography has only become meatier, whether it’s supporting roles in path-breaking films like Gangs of Wasseypur 2, or playing the lead in Citylights, a film that made even the most passive film lovers sit up and take notice. The Shahid Azmi of Shahid became the ‘badass babua’ of Bareilly Ki Barfi, and his fan base applauded just as hard at the versatility. Critics and audience alike, everyone seems to know why they’re watching a film when Rao is in it. There’s a trust Rao’s choices of roles and his performances have gained, and you’d only expect him to be more aware of the stardom that comes with being “indie gone mainstream”. But you’ll be surprised, for he doesn’t seem to acknowledge that so much when he walks around on the set of this shoot with ease, or when he nonchalantly answers a lot of my complicated questions with an earnest “I just want to act” tone.

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As we discuss how stronger narratives are happening in Indian cinema at present, be it pushing boundaries with stories or with actors that take characters beyond the norms, we also bring up Parasite, for which the executive producer thanked the Korean audience for ‘their straightforward opinions’. Does the Indian audience play a role in changing our cinema too? Rao believes content-driven films are not new. “Look at Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films or Shyam Benegal, and many such examples. Now with the onset of OTT platforms, people have started looking at films as content, and want good content. Somewhere, they also expect that kind of quality from us now. We have been doing content-driven films for a long time, it’s not like we have started doing it just now. It’s just that there was a time in between when we were focusing more on masala, which, also, there’s an audience for.”

He believes that the quality of films that people expect has considerably gone higher. “People want good content on the big screen. We have more theatres now, and the audience has also considerably increased. Content is changing because people with different ideas and thoughts are coming together. The change is also according to the audience that decides what they want to watch. They will support the kind of cinema they want to support,” he says.  Rao has been a part of films that have taken a more dramatic route to tell stories that have strong underlying messages. One such film was Stree, a story with a strong social message, but put in a very palatable manner using comedy as an element. So how is storytelling changing in the mainstream now? Rao believes that there’s no method to that, it’s just that if a certain film works, everyone will try to make one that’s palatable in the same way. “When it comes to making films like these, I think you have to go with your gut feeling. You have to tell the story without a filter, straight from your heart. Then whatever happens, happens. People find movies related to social causes now very relatable. They’re consuming this cinema which is coming out of small towns because a majority of our population belongs to small towns. They can relate and connect with these characters and with their personalities or the causes they champion. And there is an entertainment value as well to these stories, when you tell them the way a Stree was told. I think I am very happy with this change in storytelling. I really feel we should keep experimenting more,” he says.

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But how much of the change in storytelling changes the process of an actor picking his films, I wonder out loud. Rao doesn’t want to speak for other actors, but for him, it’s his own perceptions. “Actors come with their own perspectives and their reaction to a story. So I cannot say that people are getting inspired by work, but I can talk about my own perception, and not of others. If I see some good work being done, I want to work with that director. I want to get inspired by their storytelling and the script. I don’t have a set criteria for myself, I believe in going by my gut instinct. If I react to the story intensely or I relate to the character, I will do it,” he says. And has his process of picking films changed? “I believe in trusting the feeling I have when I read a script. My process for a Shahid would be very different from a Stree. It depends on what I’m planning to do, or what I’ve chosen. I do a lot of research and study a lot about the background of the story that I’m going to be a part of, and also of the character I have to play. In some stories, you study a character and then you go on the set and connect yourself to the story with the other characters that are also a part of the film. It varies from film to film,” he explains.

Talking about stories he feels are a part of the changing cinematic perspective, Rao says he loved Uri and Thappad, as films that are adding a new perspective. “To me as a person, I like a film that is making me think about something and is also entertaining. I was quite engaged with the stories while watching these films, and it made me think about what was happening around me. It happens that when you tell your story with a little bit of an element of humour, or comedy. I wouldn’t like to watch something that is too direct or too preachy. Stories these days are getting more layered, which is a good thing,” he says.

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At present, storytelling and the onus of films doing well is also being circled back to the writers and directors, and not just the actors. Is the audience finally sitting up and taking notice of the makers?   Rao believes so. “That is definitely happening. The industry is pushing the envelope. We are an industry made up of writers, actors, and directors who are trying something different in each film, so people are now noticing their work too. It’s not only about actors now. People also want to focus on what a story says, and writers are getting a lot of respect, which I’m very happy with. The audience focuses on stories, as well as the ones who are creating it. And for content-driven films today, the credit goes to the writers and the filmmakers, and even art directors, who are experimenting. We’re welcoming new people with new ideas and that makes it better,” he points out.

If you look at Rao’s filmography, he’s done his share of hard-hitting, fact-only stories like Citylights or Newton, and he has done a relatively-commercialyet- layered-with-a-social-cause film like Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga. The audience has welcomed him in both respects. In his upcoming releases, be it Hansal Mehta’s Chhalaang or the Hardik Mehta directorial, Roohi Afzana, Rao is being straight up mainstream. Does the balance between the two kinds of mainstream that survive in Bollywood? Rao pauses, and reiterates that he doesn’t believe in making a connection between the different films he does. “The whole point of being an actor is you can be a different person for a while. It actually started from Bareilly Ki Barfi where people saw me in a different avatar, and the film did well too. There was a lot of scope for me in that film as an actor. It wasn’t like I was trying to do something commercial. It wasn’t so much about realism, but it was about a shade I could explore as an actor. That’s the process I go with. I read the script and as an actor, I wanted to have fun with it. My job is to push boundaries,” he explains.

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And now comes the future. The new decade. Throughout our conversation, Rao comes off as a very ‘live in the moment’ person, and he insists he doesn’t believe in plans, or a Plan B. “I really live in the moment. I read a lot of scripts, for sure. I never had a plan for myself in my life. My wish is to grow, to keep pushing myself, and that’s what as actors, we should do. It’s good to shock yourself sometimes, and even shock the audience. I am very happy with the way it has been going for me, and where cinema is going and the direction it is moving towards.” He sounds sorted and satisfied, and I don’t nudge him further for his 2020 plan.  But that is his future plan. What about the future of the silver screen with the web’s onset? There’s been a massive change in cinema, we’ve agreed. “I think it’s already changing in every aspect and will continue to change. Right from VFX to what we have now, there’s a change. Like, we made a Tanhaji. So, we are definitely growing. We’re also going to film festivals more, and If we keep doing this, we will reach more international audiences. Now because all our films are available on web platforms, we get so much love from fans abroad. We will be at par with the international circuit. And because of OTT platforms, it is easier to reach audiences abroad,” he says.

During a quick check-in about his views on the web space, I point out that we haven’t seen Rao do much on the web platforms, as opposed to a lot of other newage actors as well as quintessential A-listers who have tried their hands, and mostly succeeded, at doing web content. Is it not his choice of work, I ask. “It’s not like I don’t want to do it (laughs). But yes, if there’s something that comes my way and works out for me, I’ll do it. There’s a lot to do there, in the web space. Look at some of the work. I loved Family Man and Made in Heaven. Even Sacred Games and Mirzapur were great. The scope of characters and stories for the web platform is huge, and some stellar work has come out of it. I did Bose for Alt Balaji. Also, the thing with the web is that it’s a really long commitment. It’s not like a film, where you have a 50-day schedule and then you wrap up. So you need to have that kind of time and commitment to it too. So yes, maybe, when I can,” he smiles. Rao adds that he only sees the number of audiences consuming content on the web go up, without delving into if it affects the silver screen, because there’s audience for both.

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“The web has that ease of a community-viewing experience, or watching something alone, in your space. That being said, watching a film in a theatre is a different high that will remain. I mean it’s not just watching a film, it’s an experience,” he says. Yes, movie dates and ‘Netflix and Chill’ can coexist, I guess. Rao is all for the web, but according to him, the main advantage of OTT platforms over the mainstream is the lack of box office pressure. (I can count on my fingers how many actors have said the same thing about Fickle Fridays). “Yes, the only advantage is no pressure of the Friday numbers, or the weekend numbers. Apart from that, nothing changes for us. Any actor would say that the process and the efforts of the making of the film are the same,” he says. Rightly said. But does the availability of the web pose a challenge for the mainstream? Rao reflects, and explains that the challenge is mainly selling yourself, the way you market yourself. “We need to come up with different marketing strategies, like the web’s way of promotions is very different, and more creative. We need to maybe work on that,” he says. We’re waiting to see the quirks of new-age cinema and its future too, which also means seeing more of Rao on screen.