Rahul Bhat is not someone you can easily forget. And it is not just because of his smouldering good looks. He is an actor capable of setting the screen on fire through his acting chops. His portrayal of Rahul Varshney, a struggling actor whose daughter goes missing, in Anurag Kashyap’s disturbingly dark psychological thriller, Ugly, was the first sign.
He has, once again, proved his mettle in Dobaaraa, Kashyap’s neo-noir sci-fi. Although he gets limited screen time, he makes every second of it count as he plays Vikas Awasthi, the philandering husband to Taapsee Pannu’s Antara. He finds the crucial balance for a character that could have otherwise easily become a stereotype, and his absolute exasperation at the surreal goings brings in a comic edge that cuts through Kashyap’s dank world, providing a much-needed breathing space.
The Graviera Mr India contestant, who had started his career in acting with ad films and music videos, made his television debut with Heena. The serial that aired on Sony Entertainment Television between 1998 and 2003, saw the newcomer share screen space with popular TV actors, Simone Singh and Ram Kapoor, and become a national sensation. The next step was the movies, but after doing just two films, Yeh Mohabbat Hai and Nayee Padosan, he got disillusioned and decided to take a sabbatical — an odd move for one who had moved to Mumbai as a 19 year old, just to be in the movies.
“We are Kashmiri Pandits, and had to migrate from there. I always wanted to become an actor. I acted in plays in school and junior college, but I started by mouthing Amitabh Bachchan’s dialogues in class (laughs). When it came to higher studies, I convinced my father that since I want to become an actor, I should not waste time trying to be something else and pursue my dream instead. He gave me Rs 1,35,000 when I came to Mumbai, and I finished the money in two months. Then the real journey started,” he recalls.
Having no connection in the industry, it wasn’t easy. But opportunities came knocking, and he didn’t hesitate to open the doors and embrace the unknown. “The most important part of becoming an actor is to have courage. Every day, you are trying to become some other character and starting from scratch. That itself requires courage. No guts, no glory, as they say,” he says.
Opportunities didn’t just come knocking; it almost tapped him on his shoulder. “One day, I was standing outside a Baskin- Robbins store, staring at the range of ice creams, I had no money to buy one when a voice asked from behind: ‘Are you a model?’. I thought to myself, well I can be one, so I replied, ‘Yes, I am a model’ (laughs). He then told me that he is from NMIMS and that their college is participating in an intercollege festival. He asked me if I could choreograph their fashion show. I had no idea how to choreograph a fashion show, in fact, I had no idea what fashion shows were. But I accepted the offer.”
He went back to his rented apartment at PMGP colony in Andheri East, a chawl-like setting where some very interesting people, including Anurag Kashyap, lived. “It was a hub of people from NSD and FTII. And I think Anurag ‘spotted’ me there, brushing my teeth in the corridor, flaunting my six packs (laughs). After I did the fashion show, my name was announced as the best choreographer. Hemant Trivedi was among the judges, and he suggested that I should attempt Mr India contest as a model. It was late, but he filled out my form, and got me to enter the event. A week later, I was in Kolkata, and I won the Mr Photogenic title at the 2018 Graviera Mr. India contest.”
And just like that, he was among the country’s top models, walking the big shows and bagging ad films for popular brands like Newport Jeans, Ponds, Breeze, etc. Next came Heena in which he played Sameer, a character that would catapult him to the A-league of television stars. “I was auditioned for the part and when I got selected, I asked for a whopping Rs 7,000 per episode, a large amount indeed for a newcomer at that point. But they agreed. The amount kept increasing and eventually, I was getting a lakh per episode, making me one of the highest paid actors on television,” reveals Bhat.
It was when he made his Bollywood debut with Yeh Mohabbat Hai, which seemed a dream project on paper, that his luck unceremoniously abandoned him. “The movie had a huge launch. It was as big as it gets. I thought I had arrived, and this was it,” recalls the actor.
But it was not. The movie tanked at the box office. “I was very depressed. But soon, I got Nayee Padosan, that too as a double role, and it did pretty well. But somewhere, I was beginning to get disillusioned. I didn’t like the kind of roles I was being offered. I decided to take a break from acting. I started producing television serials instead,” he smiles. He produced some relatively big shows under his home banner, but what made him stay away from acting?
“Television serials by then had become rather regressive. But I had to make money, so I produced those. I didn’t want to be the face of that,” chortles the actor who even wrote the concept of some of those shows. A prolific writer, even today he has nearly five scripts ready with him, which he wants to turn into movies at some point.
But once an actor, always an actor. A few years later, he bumped into Anurag Kashyap, who recognised his PMGP colony neighbour. “He was making Gangs of Wasseypur and asked me if I would be interested. But I didn’t want to do a small part and I told him that. He said, ‘rassi jal gayi lekin bal nahi gaya’ (laughs). He asked me to meet him at his house the next day, and he narrated Ugly. There was no audition. He offered me the role of Varshney.
Ugly received a standing ovation at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival where it premiered in the Directors ’ Fortnight section, and brought the actor international acclaim. He followed it up with Fitoor and played a small but impactful role in Jai Gangaajal.
2018 saw him again turn into a leading man, this time opposite Aditi Rao Hydari and Richa Chaddha, in Daas Dev, Sudhir Mishra’s take on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Devdas. He was also seen in the courtroom drama Section 375.
Ask him what made him take an eight-year-long break when his dream to work in the movies had just started to turn into reality, and he has a one-word answer. “Foolishness.”
However, the actor, who had no proper training in the craft, used his break judiciously. “It was the time that I got introduced to world cinema, and saw what real performances were. It made me realise that I was a horrible actor who knew nothing about the craft. So, I started to educate myself on cinema as well as acting. I picked up the nuances of the craft by watching. Even now, I watch at least two films every night. Also, I read a lot on cinema during that period.
“The irony is that when I was a bad actor, I was a big star. And now that I have become good at my craft, I am almost starting afresh,” he chuckles.
But with cinema coming out of the shackles of Bollywood clichés, something which he had grown averse to and rejected almost a decade back, he thinks it is finally his time to shine.
“The next three/four years would be very exciting. I think I have matured and come back at the right time. And my best is to come,” he grins.
Times have changed, and the hero has evolved into an actor. But even today, he refuses more offers than he accepts. And that is probably because he looks for that elusive perfection. “I put my 100 per cent in my acting, and get rather flustered when others don’t. So, I pick my project very carefully. I have to like the script, I have to like working with the director. The intention of making the movie should be the right one.
He will be next seen in an entirely new avatar, in fact, he is almost unrecognisable, playing the lead in a movie, his third with Kashyap. Currently, he is spoiled for choice and has six scripts in hand. His story definitely has an interesting and gripping post-interval twist; one just hopes he doesn’t decide to pull another disappearing act.