When we interviewed Gajraj Rao in November, he extensively spoke about his evolution as an actor, going from stage to screen, and how he has now reached a place where he can choose his scripts. This year, there’s another feather in Rao’s hat that looks like it’s going to sparkle. And he’s got Jitendra Kumar with him too. Rao will be playing Kumar’s father in the upcoming Ayushmann Khurrana starrer Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. His role of a dad who has to come to terms with his son’s sexual orientation, and Kumar’s that of a son who wants his family to accept him and his partner (Khurrana), is what the Internet would call “hard relate”. While Rao has been in the industry for 25 years now, Kumar’s journey is relatively newer. An IIT graduate, Kumar started in 2013, and has primarily been a web-series face. He became better known with his role of Jeetu Bhaiya in Kota Factory. But now, he’s got his first big screen project, that too, opposite Khurrana. “There have been quite a few ups and downs, but it feels great. I’ve done something every year. Yes, I’ve missed some opportunities I wanted to take up. I barely like what I watch of myself on screen, but when the trailer launched, I actually loved it,” he adds.
Rao, on the other hand, is becoming Bollywood’s new daddy cool, but doesn’t want to be known like that. “I don’t want to get stereotyped. In Badhaai Ho, I was also a good son, and a good husband. Even in Shubh Mangal…Shankar Tripathi as a husband, an elder brother and father excites me. Just a cardboard father character doesn’t excite me. After Badhaai Ho, I got a lot of offers to play similar roles. The characters these days are not your formula fathers, so that’s a good thing. Now father characters are multi-dimensional,” he says. But what drives Rao to pick such progressive roles? “I am lucky that such roles come my way. Scripts are choosing me. And I’m lucky I’m working at a time where we have actors like Ayushmann Khurrana, Vicky Kaushal and Rajkummar Rao to do such films. Can you imagine any other actor doing this film? I am lucky that I’m part of two Khurrana films back to back,” he earnestly says. When asked how he was approached for this role, Kumar explains this was right after Kota Factory. “They wanted a fresh face and thankfully, Kota Factory was popular and at its peak. I did the reading. When they called me to tell me I’ve been selected, I heard that even Ayushmann was keen that “Jeetu hi chahiye”. So I am thankful to Ayushmann as well,” he smiles.
How similar are their real personalities to their characters? Kumar spots a few similarities, but Rao begs to differ about his own. Kumar says, “The main similarity is that we belong to a very regular social strata, and that is a huge percentage in our country. So I feel I belong to the same family as Aman. The thought process and reaction that my family would have to something like my sexual orientation would probably be the same as Aman’s family,” he says. Rao adds, “Shankar Tripathi’s thought process and that of Gajraj Rao’s are poles apart. I don’t think we match at all. Tripathi s very rigid about his ideas, his philosophy and his views on relationships. I am not like that, I am a flexible person. That’s why this role was very challenging for me, to get into the shoes of a character that doesn’t want to bend and is not open to new ideas,” he adds.
They both prepared for their characters quite a bit, they agree. Rao says he read the script 50 to 70 times, and picked up on nuances from real life examples. “I am from Rajasthan, and there are people from my family there, so I tried to recollect how they behave or react to things. They are not bad people, but they are not very open-minded. I picked up on such characteristics. These reference points give me conviction as an actor,” he explains. Kumar adds that he watched some videos of people from the queer community to understand how they express themselves. “But after a point, when the script was in my hands, I followed the script. I imagined myself in the situation and if I had to convince someone, how would I do that?” he says.
Rao has worked with Khurrana earlier in Badhaai Ho, and has only wonderful things to say about him. He couldn’t imagine doing the film with anyone else. Kumar remembers seeing Khurrana when he came to his college in 2009, during MTV Roadies. “We met in 2009 in my college and in 2019, we are kissing each other. We have a nice bond. I was nervous in the beginning because he is one of the biggest stars right now. But he made me feel comfortable,” he recalls.
‘Dad’ Rao and ‘beta’ Kumar have played father and son before, and share a comfortable working relationship. Kumar calls him his real father in jest because they’ve worked almost seven to eight times together at TVF. “He calls me home for tea or dinner. He even scolds me if I say something wrong, like a real father would. Since this is my first project under a big banner, he helped me a lot,” he says. As someone so senior to him, how has Rao seen Kumar’s acting chops evolve? “During the shoot, we have discovered each other’s positive and minus points. We’ve become friends, and he is my friend first before anything,” he says. And how has their father-son relationship changed from TVF? “That wasn’t on a big canvas as such, it was totally different. They didn’t target a whole story, it was sketches.So our dynamics were totally different. In this film, I love him. He’s my son, you learn to work your way around it. Shankar Tripathi thinks his point of view is correct for his child. It’s a very fatherlike approach,” he adds. When Kumar met Rao for the first time, he kept thinking of him as the actor who he has watched in Black Friday. “On sets during TVF, he told me about his journey and the problems he had to face growing up. So there was a connection,” he says.
What is the biggest lesson he has learned from Rao? “There are way too many things. He taught me how to behave on sets, told me how I should talk to everyone, he also taught me to keep smiling all the time on sets so that my face is not flat and expressionless. When I met him during TVF, I was so new, but after three or four episodes, he met me outside for tea. He never has an attitude and never builds that senior-junior gap. In fact, he reduces that gap by talking to juniors and wants to learn from them. He’s built a rapport with me in a way that I can tell him when I don’t like something. To achieve this space with anyone is difficult, and he has been in the industry for 25 years. So to give that space to a new guy is huge,” he gushes.
Both Rao and Kumar speak fondly of director Hitesh Kewalya, who has earlier written Shubh Mangal Saavdhan, and is now making his directorial debut with this film. They both are quick to say that they were extremely comfortable with Kewalya’s vision. “When I was told on the phone about the script, I was hesitant, because I wasn’t sure how it will turn out to be. But once he narrated the script, I was very happy with how he had dealt with the subject. He hasn’t been preachy about what’s bad, good… it’s situational comedy. The best part is it’s a film that will spark a conversation in households about homosexuality,” says Rao. Kumar explains, “When I read the script, there were some scenes which I wasn’t sure of. That’s the best part about (Kewalya) Sir. He would improvise each scene and it looked fun to do. He used to add complex, funny and emotional elements to scenes. So his inputs made me more excited to do them,” he says.
Their father-son relationship in the film is one that goes through tumultuous changes. In fact, there’s a dialogue in the trailer which says “Sabse badi jung apne parivar se hoti hai”. So as a young man, how would Kumar advise those who have the same struggle with their parents? “I personally feel families want every member to be happy, and to do what they feel like. The only issue a family would have is what the society would think. That’s also because everyone, at some point, has judged someone else. Talking about it is step one. Try to make your family understand that they don’t have an issue with it, and that it’s their fear of the society that’s making them reject their child,” he points out. On the other hand, if you understand the parents’ side, they’re expected to be okay with a lot of things they probably don’t understand, and haven’t been exposed to. How does Rao think parents should deal with it and support their child? “I think parents should be open to that conversation. Listen to your kids. You should be the first people who will listen to their issues, their identity crises in life. Create a space for your child where they should be able to feel free to come to you with anything,” he advises.