Rajkummar Rao: The Master Of His Game
It’s been 12 years since Rajkummar Rao brought to light an absolutely fresh way of telling stories. The actor talks about remakes and sequels, lead roles, and about his most challenging film till date
That Rajkummar Rao is one of the most brilliant actors of our times, miles ahead of most of his contemporaries, is a fact not even the harshest of critics can refute. The FTII graduate, who started his
Bollywood journey in 2010, has proved his mettle at every opportunity. While his intense powerhouse
performances in author-backed roles in Trapped, Omerta, Newton, and Shahid are testimony to his solid
grasp over his craft, it is the lighter movies like Bareilly Ki Barfi, Stree, Ludo, and the recently-released Badhaai Do, that show how nuanced this 37-year-old actor is.
In fact, if Rajkummar Rao decides to repeatedly play just one character for the next five years, chances are he will bring out different shades in it each time, and even pick up a few awards along the way. The actor had proved his versatility way back in 2017 when he starred in diverse films and did his first web series, Bose: Dead/Alive. His performance in each was nothing less than stellar, and it forced one of the leading award shows of the country to create a special category, Impactful Actor of the Year Award, for him to acknowledge his works.
To credit Rao for heralding the age of content-driven cinema would be a stretch, but the movement found a new pair of safe hands in him. He joined the likes of Manoj Bajpayee and Irrfan Khan, and was instrumental in bridging the gap between indie cinema and commercial cinema, replacing the stars with actors. Although Ranbir Kapoor had already done a Rocket Singh by the time Rao entered the industry, he did help raise the bar for commercial Bollywood heroes, making them sharpen their acting skills and experiment with content-driven cinema. In fact, Rao was part of two of the major films that had set things rolling — Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010) and Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). He headlined a segment called ‘Paap ki Dukaan’ in Dibakar Banerjee’s found-footage anthology; a ground-breaking experimental film that became a surprise hit at the box office. Anurag Kashyap’s seminal masterpiece, both in its epic gangster vibes and cultural impact, saw Rao play a small-time goon.
Apart from GOW, Rao had made his mark in smaller roles in Shaitan and Talaash as well. But it is his role as the ultimate douchebag of a boyfriend in Queen that was to become one of his most memorable acts. It was still rare to see an actor pick up such a character in a movie headlined by a woman, especially after having won a National Award. But Rao, an established star by then, would go on to play an unrecognisable 324-year-old in the Sushant Singh Rajput-Kriti Sanon starrer Raabta — a guest appearance that would require him to invest at least five hours each day to do the make-up and prosthetics. In fact, he is one actor who wears his stardom loosely, and often, vehemently shrugs it off. He is more interested in doing the job right, and is known for acing it. And he knows this, for it takes immense self-assurance to take up a project to be headlined by a fellow actor. Bareilly Ki Barfi saw him share screen space with Ayushmann Khurrana — the actor who made his debut two years after Rao, and whom fans and critics love to pit him against. The camaraderie and the crackling on-screen chemistry between the two brilliant actors was refreshing, and brought out the best in both.
“‘Main usko khaa jaunga scene mein’ is not a thought that ever comes to my mind. Ever. For me, it is never a competition. Art can never be about competition. Cinema is not a boxing match, where one has to win. Here you create things together; it is teamwork. But yes, when you have a good co-actor, it makes your job easier,” says Rao, who has also shared screen space with ace actors like Bhumi Pednekar, Manoj Bajpayee, Aamir Khan, Pankaj Tripathi, Kangana Ranaut, etc.
If Khurrana has turned himself into the posterboy of content-driven cinema, Rajkummar Rao has kept it simple — his focus seems solely on becoming the characters he is playing. So, when he plays a gay man in Badhaai Do, he has no qualms that his character is also a misogynist and a rather flawed human who is trying to grow a spine. Much like the alpha-male closeted gay police inspector, Shardul, a character masterfully written by Suman Adhikary and Akshat Ghildial and directed by Harshavardhan Kulkarni, Rao has no pressing need to become the saviour. The National Award-winning actor prefers to let his work do the talking, and the flip side to that is I get just about 30 minutes to up this interview
Your turn as Shardul got much love from all quarters. How did you prep to play this character?
We didn’t want to create a conventional gay character. We wanted to make him real. Shardul is a
normal guy. He has grown up in a small town, and his mentality and approach towards the situation reflect that. His sexuality is not his entire life; it is a small but important part of it. The most crucial part that I kept in mind while playing him was that he is closeted, and he doesn’t want to come out. He is very aware of his surroundings and if someone from the same sex touches him in public, he gets acutely conscious. The romance was the most important thing. Harsh (Vardhan Kulkarni, director) and I discussed this at length. I didn’t want to do anything extra, it is how one looks into the partner’s eyes. Love is in the gaze. If you feel it, it shows. The actual prep was to get the physique of a bodybuilder. I had never done it before, and being a vegetarian, it was extra tough. But it was fun; it gave me a different body language as well, which worked for the character. Harsh wanted Shardul to be an in-your-face man; that macho hero, and that is why we did the moustache also.
Next you have the Netflix web series, Guns and Gulaab. How do you see the OTT space now?
I did Bose: Dead/Alive for AltBalaji in 2017; it was before OTTs became so big. We worked really hard on it and I am very proud of that series. I don’t think it reached its potential. After that, I got extremely
busy with films, especially after Stree, and didn’t get enough time to invest in a series. Long-format content requires you to shoot for months at a stretch. But now, the world has changed. Post the pandemic, people are consuming a lot of content sitting at home, and I see no reason why one should not be doing a web series. I want people to watch my work, no matter the platform.
Stree 2 is your first sequel. Bollywood is not really known for sequels. What made you sign up for this one, and why do you think this might work?
We are still in talks. Amar (Kaushik, director) is a brilliant film-maker and it will be fun to go back to that set and that world. So, if and whenever it happens, the idea is to get to it without burdening us with the pressure of expectations. But yes, there will be pressure.
How have roles, movies, stories, and the very idea of stardom changed during the pandemic, especially with the rise of OTTs and its impact on Bollywood?
I have always believed in the merit of the content and the story, and the makers. I am glad that the content is getting its due respect, and the audiences are appreciating it. Thanks to the lockdown, most
of us started watching various kinds of movies, and got introduced to world cinema as well as regional
cinema. This exposed the audience to different kinds of content from across the globe. I won’t call myself
a flagbearer for content-driven cinema, but from the very beginning of my career, I have done movies that have strong content — I have always tried to do films that are different, and tried to do them differently
Your upcoming movie, Hit, is a remake of a popular Telugu movie. With regional cinema, especially South cinema becoming increasingly accessible pan-India, is it more challenging to work in a regional remake?
People are getting into remakes more than ever, and I get one offer almost every week. Yes, if it is an
interesting film and not many have seen it, then I don’t mind it. But it has to be a new take; the film-maker needs to have a fresh vision. I don’t see myself being part of a cut-to-cut remake; that would be
very boring. For Hit, director Sailesh Kolanu, who made the Telugu movie, is making the Hindi one. He is a young, energetic, and unconventional film-maker, and he wanted to treat this as a fresh film. He is not copy pasting what he has already done. He has not only worked on the story, but also the camera work, the performances, etc. to make it different.
You are such an integral part of the small-town stories that Bollywood has gotten so smitten with. What makes these stories so endearing?
It can get jaded if it is not written well. In fact, with an influx of such stories, you need to work extra hard on the writing. Every character — the uncles, the aunts, the siblings, the parents — needs to be well fleshed out, and needs nuanced writing. Also, you need really good actors to play these characters. I think the main charm of these stories is the relatability — most of our population still live in or come from small towns. I am from a small town, so I know that world very well. It is a comfort of the known. Also, the conflicts of a story are often heightened in the small-town setting. For Harsh to set his story in a small town was crucial for it would be a bit easier for a gay man to come out in an urban city, where people are more casual about and accepting of such things. I know so many people in Delhi and Mumbai who are open about their sexuality. The societal pressure is way more in smaller towns, and that heightens the fear in Shardul of being found out. But just as some stories need the small-town setting, I think certain stories are unique to bigger urban cities. And I just realised this while talking to you. You hardly ever have a serious thriller set in a small town. Crime happens where the money is. In fact, a story like Trapped would have also not worked in a small-town setting.
There were talks of you being part of the Chupke Chupke remake. What is your take on remakes of Bollywood classics like this one, or a Sholay ?
There is nothing concrete on Chupke Chupke, we are yet to decide if that is happening at all. But as
for remakes, to each his own. It is a very different generation, and they might not have watched many of
these movies. We are still making movie adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays; if it is a great story and you
have a different take on it for the newer generation, why not? But, I would not want a remake of Sholay, and I would definitely not be a part of it, even if it happens. Sholay, for me, is among the top five Hindi films of all time. It is way up there.
How do you ensure that each of the small-town characters you play look unique on screen?
That is a challenge I face every time I take up a story set in a small town, and it is also a challenge as an actor — how to make each character unique. To be honest, I do it for myself, so that I don’t get bored doing similar stuff. I put that extra effort to find something new — maybe something in the way the character behaves, an extra layer in each character to make them stand out. Not many people have noticed, but Shardul has OCD, he always opens and closes everything thrice. I like to add such small intricacies to my characters to challenge and push myself as an actor. In Newton, he is always doing something with his eyes. In Ludo, Kabir is a Mithun Da fan. We were doing a look test and I did something, and dada (Anurag Basu, director of Ludo) pointed out that it looked like Mithun Chakraborty. We made this character a Mithun fan. The character wasn’t written like that initially. See, that’s what an actor is supposed to do, to get into the skin of each character, and make sure each looks different. Look at Robert De Niro; he plays a gangster in so many films, and each is a different character, a different gangster. I am not saying I am even close to De Niro though, I am just giving an example.
Since you mentioned De Niro, there is actually another similarity between you two. Just like his association with Martin Scorsese has given us some great masterpieces, some of your best works — Citylights, Shahid, Omerta, Aligarh, and Chhalang — are with Hansal Mehta. What is it about such collaborations that bring out the best in both?
I think it is the trust that we have in each other, the shared passion for cinema, and the interest in telling a certain kind of story. Also, with him, the fun is that he has seen my work so closely that I take it up as a
challenge to build each character that he gives me in a way that it doesn’t remind him of anything he has seen me do before. Every actor has some tricks; sometimes you bring those into a character even unknowingly. With Hansal, he knows all my tricks, and hence it is always a challenge and a constant effort as an actor to not resort to those.
Which has been the most difficult role of your career so far?
Trapped, Omerta, and Bose. Bose, because of the physical transformation — I had to gain 30kg and go
half bald for it. Trapped was a survival drama, and to not eat, to look that emaciated, wasn’t easy. Omerta,
because I could not relate to the character or to any of his characteristics at all. To carry so much anger
and hatred inside you for those three months was extremely difficult.
You got married last year to your long-time partner and fellow actor, Patralekhaa. How has life changed post marriage? Are you planning to focus more on your personal life now?
I think Patra has become far busier post marriage, and similarly, for me, I have Bheed with Anubhav Sinha,
Monica, O My Darling with Vasan Bala, and Hit with Sailesh Kolanu coming up, apart from the Netflix series Guns and Gulaab. We are always there for each other, if not physically present then on FaceTime, but for us, work is a very important part of our lives, especially since we absolutely love what we do.