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Rohit Saraf: The Rise Of The Boy Next Door

The Mismatched actor has found the perfect match as far as his career is concerned. Rohit Saraf might have completed seven years in the industry, but his love for the craft is on an upward swing. He is itching for more opportunities to prove his potentials

He was only of 20 years when he made his Bollywood debut in Gauri Shinde’s 2016 coming-of-age film Dear Zindegi as Alia Bhatt’s supportive younger brother. Today, seven years and seven movies (which include a Norwegian as well as a Tamil film) later he has not only established himself as an actor but also as the newest heartthrob of the country thanks to his cute, boy-next-door charm. But his repertoire is not just limited to Bollywood.

The Kathmandu-born and Delhi-raised kid had shifted to the Maximum City after finishing his 10th grade. He would later get smitten by the world of acting and venture into it with Channel V’s teen drama Best Friends Forever. That was in 2012. In fact, it is his footprints beyond Bollywood that have made him a household name. His turn as Rishi Singh Sekhawat in Mismatched, Netflix’s web series based on Sandhya Menon’s 2017 novel When Dimple Met Rishi, which is currently in its second season, has been instrumental in building his nationwide fan base that also includes 3.1M followers on Instagram. Ask him about his USP and the young actor coyly replies: “This is something that you’d have to ask the people who enjoy and support my work. But I think they find I’m pretty relatable.” Indeed! We catch up with the actor to talk about his journey so far in the industry. Excerpt:

7 years in Bollywood! What are the most crucial things you have learnt about the industry in these years?

What I have learned is that you cannot substitute hard work. Along with professionalism and commitment, patience and resilience are crucial in an actor’s life. Know your worth; don’t sell yourself short and never settle for less.  You need to be thick-skinned—the love and adulation you get in this profession are incredible but there is also a lot of mindless negativity. You need to let go of the things you have no control over.  It is important to be in the moment and enjoy it because one day you are juggling between projects, releases, constant shoots and so much more, and then the next eight months you are sitting at home and waiting for the next project. 

And what is the one thing that you find the most challenging?
Networking and relationship building are integral parts of this industry. Although relationship building comes very naturally to me, I struggle with the networking part. It is one aspect I’m constantly working upon.

What are the top seven things on your vision board for the next 7 years?

One thing I have learned is to stop creating these vision boards. I feel the more I create one the more I am limiting myself. No matter how much you plan, things will always have their own way. If things were my way I would have my Bollywood debut when I was 16 and by now I would have been one of the top superstars in the country. Things turned out very differently. I do have a wish list of directors I would love to work with and it includes Farhan Akhtar, Zoya Akhtar, Ayan Mukherji, Anurag Kashyap, and Sree Ram Raghavan sir. I want to do a father-son film. I haven’t watched enough films of this genre. Ever since 2019, I have had a release every year. I don’t want to jinx it. I hope this streak continues for the next seven years.  

You were born in Kathmandu. Although you shifted to Delhi at 5, do you remember anything from those early years in Nepal? What is your most vivid memory of that childhood house?

I love this question so much. I don’t remember the first 5 years. But I would make it a point to visit twice a year after we moved to India. My favourite memory from the house is running up and down the staircase. I used to love it so much. We had a huge backyard with a massive pine tree. Whenever there would be hailstorms everything would be white and I have that memory clearly etched in my mind. I remember eating a lot of momos and Wai Wai and titora in Kathmandu. The more I speak, the more those memories rush in. The best is the backyard and the staircase. I used to love that a lot.   

You have one brother and two sisters, a full house…what was your favourite family activity during the summer holidays while growing up?

Afternoon naps after incredibly filling meals in an AC’ed room was usually my most favourite part. I remember being obsessed with Tang (orange flavour) and cola popsicles. Also, incidentally, we’ve all been hooked to Ludo since much before I acted in the film Ludo. We still play online when we’re not together. 

What is your favourite summer vacation memory from your childhood?

My favourite summer vacations’ memory is the times when all my cousins would visit us for a few weeks. I’ve had the best time growing up with them and it’s a huge contributor of making my childhood such a happy and safe place for me.

Your favourite memory of Delhi summers? And your favourite summer activity while in Bombay?

I miss Banta (the drink) and I used to love how it popped. So much anticipation in that one moment!  I also remember sitting in front of the fountain in our complex with a couple of friends every evening— I love how it used to work like mist fans.

Coming back to work, let’s talk about your last release… the second season of Mismatched. How challenging is it to get back to the character?

It is indeed challenging to get into the same character after the season ends and a new season begins; I had initially underestimated it before going into season 2 of Mismatched. I am comfortable with the character of Rishi, I know who Rishi is, and I have been involved in shaping his character. I was pretty confident that I would know what it is like to be Rishi even when I go for the next season. But between the two seasons, a lot of things happened. When I was Rishi in season 1, I was 22 playing a 17-year-old. In season 2, I was a 24-year-old still playing a 17-year-old, and I did not necessarily agree with the choices Rishi makes. But it’s part of an actor’s job to be able to convince the audience about the character they are playing even though they are not sometimes convinced themselves.  I think Akarsh Khurana, my director had a huge role to play in that. I remember calling him after reading the script of season 2 and saying that I don’t agree with anything Rishi is doing! I think it’s in moments like these when the director takes charge and helps the actors get through.

We are living in a world where the idea of a romantic partner and romantic relationship is changing like never before and new terms are getting invented every other day. How according to you Bollywood heroes should evolve from here?

For a medium like cinema that has so much influence over people, ‘evolution’ takes too much time. In fact, we’re already seeing something of a revolution where writers, creators, artists, and actors are coming together to craft a new kind of hero – one that is more inclusive and representative. One who has more shades than just anger and revenge… one that doesn’t fall under the bracket of a quintessential/ unrealistic ‘Hero’. I think a lot of good work is already happening – and I’m glad I’m part of the industry while this is happening.

What according to you are the new rules or the pillars of a modern romantic relationship?

As for rules in a relationship, I’m fairly old school. Give me honesty and open communication any day!

Which part of the actor’s job do you love the most and which one do you hate the most?

My favourite part about being an actor is when I get to live shared experiences while filming a project. It’s the sense of belonging that I feel with every new crew I get to be a part of. It’s a treasure.
The part that I wish I could glide through without dreading it is the part that comes right after filming, where we have to wait to share our projects with the audience. 

How do you see the tag of ‘national crush’? How important a role do social media play in creating and maintaining such a dedicated fan base?

I’m not going to lie. It feels great. And certainly, social media has had a huge role to play. Not just in my case but in the case of the many talented people who found audiences online. Social media allows people to connect directly with their idols. You can literally DM anyone. It is great for celebrities too as it gives control directly to them of how much of yourself you put out there, and how often.  

Do you think there is a thing as too much social media exposure?

Yes. I do. But I also don’t make the rules. It’s a fine balance that everyone’s trying to keep every day. Sometimes we slip. Also, this entire social media is so new – everyone’s making mistakes and learning on the go.

How do you filter the negativity that is rampant on social media and how do you react of criticism in general?

When there is mindless, baseless trolling, which is just pure hate and negativity, which has no base at all, I don’t pay attention to it at all because it speaks much more about the person than it does about me. I enjoy constructive criticism, it makes room for improvement and that’s always welcome. The rest is all noise, which I usually ignore and if it crosses a boundary, the ‘block’ button is my best friend!

If there is anything that helps me take a step forward I would be down for that; if there is anything that weighs me down, I’d not let it get to me at all.

Apparently, your late father also had a Bollywood dream. Did you imbibe that love and drama for movies/acting?

My dad didn’t have a Bollywood dream so to speak. He didn’t want to act but he really loved films. He was a huge movie buff. He loved the idea of storytelling. He wanted to see me act. But that was not just because he loved films but because as a child I was creatively inclined– as silly as this sounds, I would pose in front of everything! Also, I loved dancing. I remember some videos that my mom showed me a few years ago where I would stand in front of the television box and I would imitate whatever was going on-screen.

So, it was his love for films and my fascination for films that made him kind of wonder if I’d ever want to get into acting. I kind of grew up hearing that. We lost him when I was 11. For those 5-6 years that I can remember, I have pretty much grown up hearing him say, ‘When you grow up, I want you to become an actor, I feel like you will become an actor, I think that you will be a good actor’. He would say things like, ‘When I’m financially competent, I would produce a film for you’ and things like that.

I think when I lost him I figured that one of the easiest ways to keep him close to me after he left us was to keep his dream to see me act in films alive.

Do you remember the exact moment or situation when you decided to take up acting as a profession? How did that dream evolve?   

I was a dancer before I became an actor and dancing is also a form of storytelling. I figured acting isn’t far from dancing and I would love to kind of explore that for myself especially because my dad always said that I should and he would want me to. I think it was at that moment that I realised that this was the way to keep him close to me is when I figured to take this up as a profession.

I think the evolution has been my journey in the last 11 years. All the experiences that I’ve had, have contributed to it. Every single time I bag a role it makes me more confident about my dream. There are days when you kind of doubt yourself and think if you’ve made the right choice by taking this up as a profession because it can be brutal. Sometimes professional heartbreaks can be really tough.

How did you land your first movie?

The first role that I landed is a film that never released! This was a film I did in 2013. It was very exciting as I was travelling with my family. It was my first year in Mumbai and my mom was visiting from Delhi and we were in Lonavala. I remember someone reaching out to me on Facebook and saying, “I’m casting for so-and-so film and would love for you to come and test for it. I told my mom about it. Initially, we both thought that this is somebody just messing with me and I didn’t pay much attention to it. Three days into it I thought maybe I should give this a shot and see if it’s fake or not. It turned out to be legit. I went and tested for it. There was a long process involved. The casting director eventually got back to me saying that the director had liked me and wanted to meet. We met and what followed were more rounds of auditions. Finally, I got selected.  It was my first film and my first year in Mumbai. It was something I really needed at that time as I was new to the city and unsure of my dreams and capabilities. It helped me ground myself and believe in myself a little bit more. It’s another story that it never got released.

How do you look back at your audition days? One audition you really regret?

I still give auditions very often and enjoy them because I feel a sense of pride every time I get selected through an audition. Earlier when I used to audition, I used to think I’m proving to them that I can be good for the project, but over the years I’ve realised it’s not just for them but it is also for me. When I test for a part, it tells me whether I can do the character or not. 

I don’t necessarily have an audition that I regret. Of course, my first was a disaster. It was for an ad for a chocolate brand. I was so bad that the casting director started laughing! I don’t regret that; it was a great experience.

But over the years, have you figured out a way to deal with rejections and failures? What is your way to ensure self-care and self-preservation?

I honestly don’t have a sure-shot formula that works every single time when I’m mentally struggling with rejections or highly stressful days at work. I think the one thing that really keeps me going is that I always remind myself that I am protected and looked after by the universe. I have had mental health issues in the past couple of years as I’m sure anybody would who has to go through rejection.  In fact, rejection is a huge part of an actor’s trajectory. But those rejections have truly helped me and shaped me into the person that I am today. I value my rejections as much as I value the things I have to celebrate.

There have been of course difficult days where I’ve had to go back to my family in order to kind of come out of the lull. But I have stopped taking it personally. Earlier, every time I would face rejection or not get cast in a project, I would take it personally and think I’m not good enough and that’s why I’m not getting it or they don’t like me.  But slowly I have realised that there are too many factors that come into play before an actor is cast for a project. And sometimes it is for the best. After seven years of being in Bollywood, I have kind of made my peace with the fact that there is a reason for everything and I trust in that a lot.

What are your upcoming projects? What can you reveal about those?

The one I can mention at the moment is Ishq Vishq Rebound. It’s a project that I’m very excited about and I’m certain will strike a chord with my audiences. There’s been a lot of firsts for me in that project that I’m excited for people to see. And the rest, I’ll share when the time’s right.

Cover image credits
Photographer: Sheldon Santos
Art Director: Tanvi Shah @tanvi_joel
Brand Director: Noha Qadri @nohaqadri
Art Assistant: Siddhi Chavan @randomwonton
Styled by Saloni Parekh
Fashion Assistant: Jainee Bheda
Hair by Tanik Singh
Make-up by Imtiaz Sheikh
Location Courtesy: Oleandar Farms, KarjatManaged by Kimberley Fernandes
Artist reputation management @media.raindrop

Styling credits
Shirt by Roch Studio @rochstudiio
Neckpiece by Ishhaara @ishhaara