I would like to begin with some statistics. Rajkummar Rao debuted in 2010 with Dibakar Banerjee’s Love, Sex Aur Dhokha, an experimental indie film that received love and hate in equal measure. Varun Dhawan, the current ruling young gun in Bollywood, debuted in 2012 in Karan Johar’s bubblegum-y magnum opus, Student Of The Year. Since then, Rao has starred in 19 films, picked up a National Award and had a film be the country’s official entry to the Oscars. Dhawan has starred in only 9 films, and he recently won the Zee Cine Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for Badrinath Ki Dulhania. The win-win was the fact that Rajkummar Rao could not be ignored. Zee had to create a category for the man, and he received the Impactful Actor of the Year Award. Rao was a bit confused. “So this award is for Newton, I guess? Or for Trapped, Bareilly ki Barfi? It’s for everything I’ve done this year?” he asked the hosts, during his acceptance speech.

“It was a very genuine reaction. I didn’t know what I was getting it for. You have to give a speech and I didn’t know whom to thank!” Rao and I catch up for a chat that has been long overdue, since our cover shoot. He is a polite, unassuming looking man, with kind eyes and a warm smile. He is not ripped, wears understated clothes that are tastefully en vogue and has a “bro” vibe in the way he pulls you into a hug with every extended handshake. He works like a maniac, though — after chasing him from shoots to advertising commitments, we finally found the time to catch up on a Saturday morning, between a press meet and his flight for a vacation.

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Even his girlfriend, the actor Patralekha, complains about how he works for 16 hours a day. “His life revolves around cinema. If he is not shooting, he is watching films, reading scripts or thinking about film content!” I complain about him being busy too, as we hop into his car, and he profusely apologises. I bring up the Zee Cine Awards speech, and he laughs about how his reaction was blown out of proportion. “See, some of these awards are just popular awards, they are not judging you on your credibility; they are judging on the basis of box-office success, which is one way of seeing it. And some of them are good too. Not because I got it, but this time I was very happy with the way the Screen Awards happened. Irrfan got Best Actor (Popular), I got it for Critics’ Choice… I think it was surprising and unheard of.”

How often do you see an actor trying to figure out which of his films he is receiving an award for, in the same year? Newton, Trapped, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Behen Hogi Teri and Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana — most importantly, the first three films — solidified his position in the industry as a versatile, powerhouse actor with proven indie cred and strong commercial viability. As the millennials say, the industry cliques were shook. While one outsider, Kangana Ranaut, ruffled feathers for non-film reasons, the other one spearheaded a year that saw small, content-driven films go neck-and-neck with commercial potboilers, finding a steady growth in viewership and enjoying support from distributors.

Like all outsiders, Rao also talks about how the ultimate outsider inspired him. When dishing out a word of advice for aspiring actors at a recent gathering, he said that one should first decide why one wants to become an actor. I throw the same question at him. “From the very beginning, I was strongly attracted to cinema. As a kid, it was obviously a surreal world, but when I would watch Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan or Manoj Bajpai, I would be like, ‘Wow, I love what they are doing’. Then I did my first play at 17, Oedipus, this big Greek tragedy, but I enjoyed it thoroughly. Being on stage, playing out somebody else’s life… that’s when I decided that this is what I wanted to do. This is it. If an actor like Shah Rukh, who is from Delhi, can make it, even I can do it.”

Within his first seven years in Bollywood, Khan had already worked in 27 films, delivering hits like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Dil Toh Pagal Hai and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, among others. By the looks of it, Rao is trying to maintain a similar average and intensity. Films like Kai Po Che!, Shahid, Citylights, Trapped and Newton stand out as enviable roles and collaborations, and can put many mainstream leading men’s filmographies to shame.

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While they might be celebrated as some of the country’s biggest celebrities, the likes of Varun Dhawan, Tiger Shroff, Sidharth Malhotra, Arjun Kapoor and many other young guns have not delivered performances to match Rajkummar’s calibre or finesse yet. “I don’t really know the definition of ‘celebrity’, honestly,” Rao says. “I want to work. I think becoming famous is a by-product of that. I can’t aspire to be famous, because then whatever I will do will be corrupt. It won’t be pure. I was very happy three years ago when I wasn’t this famous. I am happy now because I am doing the films I believe in, and working with the people I want to work with.”

After interviewing Kidambi Srikanth, one of India’s badminton superstars, my colleague told me how Srikanth lived and breathed the sport. “He doesn’t do anything else. He only trains and plays badminton,” my colleague exclaimed. Rao has the same Olympian quality when it comes to his passion for cinema. Nothing else features in his realm of consciousness as subjects worth spending time on. He shoots for long hours, rarely parties (“I am too tired after working the whole day to dress up and go out again, but I do it for loved ones”) and spends his non-working hours watching films, reading or talking about films. His diligence and acting prowess shone last year in Bareilly Ki Barfi, a film many were shocked to see him in. It was a typical Ayushmann Khurrana affair, but Rao swooped in and stole the show.

Turtleneck jumper by Corneliani

While he might have failed at successfully pulling off the balancing act with Behen Hogi Teri and Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana, Trapped was followed by the effervescent Bareilly Ki Barfi and finally bookended by Newton. Rao showed off his acting chops in three different genres, proved that he could shoulder a film, work seamlessly in an ensemble and make sure that he was the most memorable takeaway in a genre he hadn’t hitherto explored. “Even as a kid, when I was into martial arts or dancing on stage, I always wanted to give 200 per cent and excel at whatever I was participating in,” he says. “That is a quality I have always had. When I decided to become an actor, I worked really hard at it. I gave 5-7 years of my life just to learn the craft doing theatre, at film school and then in Mumbai. Whatever I am doing today is because of those seven years of hard work. Because of that, I don’t really feel scared about anything to do with acting any more. I don’t want to have a comfort zone and settle into it.” His contemporaries, most of whom have settled into comfortable stereotypes — due to inadequacies, insecurities or lack of gumption to take risks — should be wary of him. Rao has proven that he can do a middle-class-Delhimohalla act better than Khurrana, he is currently ruling the indie roost and, with upcoming projects like Fanney Khan and Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, he’s gearing up to be the mainstream leading man of the season. “See, when I took up Bose, I was shit scared, and that is exactly why I did it. Because I was scared, I decided to push myself. I don’t want people to say that “Raj sirf yeh waali films karta hai”.

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“That is why I decided to do Bareilly, because I knew people would be shocked to see me in such a role. I want to surprise my audience. When Omerta comes out, hopefully people will be shocked even more. And I love doing that.” I’ve seen Rao’s performance in Omerta, and it is masterful. Based on the life and times of the British terrorist Omar Saeed Sheikh, best known for the kidnapping and beheading of journalist Daniel Pearl, Omerta is a clinical study of organised radical thought and terrorism, its cause and effect on individuals and their ideologies and transformations. Rao delivers a chilling portrayal of a cold-blooded man, wickedly intelligent and unwaveringly guided by his understanding of an ideology. You see a young man lose his innocence and turn into a dark soul, seeped in hatred and revelling in brutality and destruction. His research is impeccable, but what shines through is his ability to understand the nuances of the character and imbibe Omar Saeed’s constitutional core. The film’s director, regular collaborator and close friend Hansal Mehta, had told me how Rao’s aura had changed during the making of the film. “It was like he had become a different person, a dark person. We didn’t like being around him. Even Patralekha said the same thing when she came to the set once.”

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When we start talking about Omerta, I cannot stop gushing about his performance, and Rao is visibly embarrassed. I bring up the climactic beheading scene, in which, for almost three minutes, Omar Saeed hacks Daniel Pearl’s head off his body. The scene has been shot with just a few torches, in an open field at night. All you can see is Rao’s face, blood splattering all over him, and you can hear the agonising sound of him sawing off a man’s spine, breathing excitedly. “See, with Omerta, I knew that there would be a lot of internal violence that I would have to deal with; a lot of hatred and anger. So, these three things were my driving forces for playing the role. But it did take a toll on me. I know now what they mean when they say that my aura changed, and I was not the same guy — because in my head, I was the same guy. When you keep thinking about violence and hatred, your perspective changes and you change.”

Was he aware of what he had created on screen? “A lot of senior actors say that you have to be aware of what the whole scene looks like while you are performing it, but I am not able to do that. I can’t do that. For me, if I am performing truthfully and I am emotionally honest in a scene, for me, that’s a good take. And on the big screen, if I can see that truth in my performance, it works for me.” While Omerta will be his first release in 2018, for anybody who has seen the film, it will be interesting to see what the censor board makes of it. Not only is it politically charged, dealing with graphic violence and many uncomfortable realities, Rao is butt naked in quite a few scenes, most spectacularly in one where he is peeing in an Indian jail, while the other inmates sing the National Anthem. Yes, you read that right.

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The relationship that Rao shares with Hansal Mehta is one that many actors would be jealous of. He’s almost like his muse, and you can see that Mehta wants to create stories and opportunities for the young man to shine even brighter. Both of them acknowledge that they are almost like family, and the love and respect they share is honest and wholesome. While Rao loves Mehta’s organic film-making (“You never feel like you are doing anything; it just happens”), Mehta has nothing but admiration for Rao. “From Shahid to Omerta, he has grown by leaps and bounds, but the best thing is that he has not changed as a person. The appreciation and success that have come his way have not affected him or his work. Also, the kind of success he has received in 2017, it was due for him, and I think this is the beginning of the Rajkummar Rao era.”

Such a creator-muse dynamic is rare in this industry. The Bhansali-Aishwarya Rai period might have given us a glimpse of a similar obsession, where one person inspires the other to create opportunities to excel and revel in, but since then, Bollywood has not really seen anything like it. While many might point towards Karan Johar and Shah Rukh Khan, theirs is a collaboration born out of friendship and convenience, not to mention Johar’s obsessive need to stick to his coterie. To be given an opportunity like Omerta is a gift – to be able to bring a film-maker’s vision to life so deftly is equally rewarding. Not only is Omerta Rao’s standout performance, it is also Mehta’s best film.

The other megastar in the industry, Ranveer Singh, also started out in the same year as Rao, but has only made nine films. While Singh is possibly the biggest brand in the country right now, confidently eclipsing the like of Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan at breakneck speed, 2017 has clearly shown us that audiences are done with big budget fluff. Even if they wanted to set indie projects like Trapped and Newton aside, they are warming up to films like Bareilly Ki Barfi and Shubh Mangal Saavdhaan — small films, with real stories and relatable treatment. So, even though Padmavati is the most awaited film since Baahubali 2, just star power will not keep Ranveer Singh afloat — if it did, Befikre wouldn’t have tanked.

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If so, the final question is: who are the potential competitors for Rao today? Sidharth Malhotra, Aditya Roy Kapoor, Arjun Kapoor and Tiger Shroff barely stand a chance. Ayushmann Khurrana refuses to experiment, Sushant Singh Rajput is not a bad actor but has not proven his mettle since his debut (just because we are Dhoni fans does not mean MS Dhoni was a good film), Varun Dhawan has slid into the ‘90s Govinda-Salman combination of action-comedy, Shahid Kapoor happily traverses his rocky trajectory while backing countless duds with a few hits – which leaves us, once again, with Ranveer Singh.

While Rao might not have created a superstar machinery around him like Singh has, his tenacity and sincerity promise that he is in this for the long run. As the Khans slowly fade, the throne is up for grabs – and for everyone who is busy chiselling their biceps and spending hours in front of the mirror, they should remember that Bollywood’s Baadshah is not necessarily a good looking man. He did not start off by flaunting his pecs and bronzing his abs. After working like a maniac during his formative years in the business, Shah Rukh Khan created a legacy. And like Rao says – “If Shah Rukh can make it, even I can do it”. My money’s certainly on him.

PHOTOGRAPHER: ABHEET GIDWANI | ART DIRECTOR: AMIT NAIK
FASHION DIRECTOR: KUSHAL PARMANAND | JUNIOR STYLIST: NEELANGANA VASUDEVA
HAIR: VIJAY P RASKAR | MAKE UP: NITIN PUROHIT

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