It has exactly been a year since actor Gajraj Rao waltzed his way into the heart of Bollywood fans with his winning performance as Jitendra Kaushik in Badhaai Ho last year. Since then, he has been a part of so many conversations across platforms that one feels he has been a part of the industry for a long time. In fact, he has been working in films for decades. Some of his past films include names like Black Friday, Talvar and Rangoon. But it was only last year when everyone began asking him, ‘Where have you been all these years?’

Dressed in a blue ensemble and a blue cap, we sit down at his club to look back at the year gone by and the way forward. The actor has recently returned from Varanasi where he was shooting for his next film Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. One of the major changes he has noticed in the last one year is the way in which writers, directors and producers are approaching him. He explains, “Earlier I wasn’t in the scheme of things of people except for the likes of Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bharadwaj, Shoojit Sircar and Anand Tiwari, who have seen some of my past work. And now a narration is specially arranged for me. It’s a very surreal experience. I used to see these things happening around me in the past, but I never questioned why this isn’t happening with me. I’m a big believer in destiny.” He also adds, “I’m a reluctant actor, I have limitations…I don’t consider myself a brilliant actor, I’m not saying this in humility, coming from theatre you know what you can pull off and what you can’t. I don’t have the charm of a hero.”

For Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, he teams up again with Ayushmann Khurrana and Neena Gupta from Badhaai Ho and Jitendra Kumar (Tech Conversations With Dad, a series by TVF). He plays father to Jitendra Kumar’s character, who is involved in a romantic relationship with Ayushmann Khurrana’s character. On asking how will this role of a dad be different from the one he played in Badhaai Ho, he says, “Jitendra Kaushik was a very adjusting person, he was adjusting with his wife, his mother, his kids and even with his colleagues. But Shankar Tirpathi, who is a botany professor, is a very opinionated man… You will have to wait to know more about this character.” He also reveals that cap is basically to hide his look from the film.

The actor is all praises for his co-star Jitendra, popularly known as Jitu, for taking up the role of a gay character at the very start of his career. He says “I think it’s very courageous of him to this. Though we have worked on the web together, I don’t know much about him. But this film will give me that opportunity. In the past few days that we’ve worked together in Varanasi or for the rehearsals for the film, I got to know so many things about his personal life.”

Apart from acting, Rao also runs an ad film production company (Code Red films with Subrat Ray) and directs most of his ad films. He will soon be making his debut as a feature film director. Now usually people don’t jump ships very early in their career, so what made Rao turn to directorship when his acting career has just begun in all earnestness?

He reveals, “From the very start, I had made it clear to myself that I will not be dependent on acting, it’s not as if my family will suffer if I don’t act. When I started out, there weren’t as many options, but today you have films, television, web series, YouTube, Instagram…I have always been a storyteller, be it in my theatre days or ad films. It gives me immense joy when you see something on paper and with the help of a few people, you recreate it on the screen. We are still working on the script and sometime next year, we will lock it. The thought of doing it now is that a lot of actors and technicians are friends, so I will get good collaborators to make my film. The film will be produced by my partner Subrat Ray and Rimi Sen (Dhoom). I have known Rimi for many years now, she began her career with the popular song Maeri for Euphoria, Pradeep da (Sarkar) directed the song. I was the casting director and assistant director for the song.”

Today, Gajraj Rao not only acts and directs ad films, but he also endorses brands. From getting paid on per day basis, he is charging endorsement fees, and all these are signs of how famous he is back in the industry and the connect he has with the audience. But he likes to deal with the fame from a one-hand distance and the reason being people don’t know Gajraj Rao the person, they know and love his characters. He says, “People don’t know Gajraj Rao or his story, they know his characters – Mr Bhatia or Mr Kaushik. One needs to be clear that they are not appreciating me as Gajraj, they are appreciating the character. I have that clarity and when you have that clarity, things become easier. You don’t take yourself so seriously… So when I am complimented, I take them on behalf of my characters. Thankfully, I have family and friends who are life-sized mirrors, they give me a reality check. My wife tells me all this is a phase, don’t make it a habit. This adulation is very addictive. And we’ve seen so many actors who’ve got all the adulation but later, thanks to either own mistakes or choices, they do bad work or get carried away. They take that adulation for granted. Nothing is forever.”

He adds, “Like this year at IIFA, I wasn’t even nominated. I felt very bad, I had taken it for granted that nomination toh ho hi jayega. They were following up with me, asking me to block dates for the show etc. For half an hour, I felt sad… then I told myself, ‘Gajraj, just a few days back you told yourself that you shouldn’t take these things seriously, so why are you taking it now’. A few days later, organisers called me to confirm my presence… I told them if I was nominated I would have a legit reason to attend the show, asking my producers to give permission, given that I have an outdoor shoot that day. But I promised her that in my next film, I will work so hard that I will get nominated for IIFA.”

How can you not have a conversation with Gajraj Rao about web content when he was one of the first adopters of the game? The game that exploded to such a level that world players are competing with each other to get their pie in the country. He was last seen as Prince Alexander in TVF’s Tripling Season 2. But the creator Rao isn’t very happy with the way the web industry is churning out content. He says, “Now is the gold rush…Everyone is thinking as there is no box office expectation or there is no benchmark for hit or flop, so people are making anything. So many web shows are being made now, this I think, will go on for a year and then the realisation will sink in. People are adapting their TV serial shows in web shows and are not taking advantage of the OTT space and telling new stories or telling stories differently. I loved The Office on Hotstar. I have seen the British and the American ones, it is difficult to match them but the way the original content was Indianised, I was very happy with it. The way they handled the situation or used pauses, as an actor and as an audience member, it was very refreshing. Otherwise, a lot of content is very uninspiring. I have also been approached to direct a show. I was just reading Anupam Kher’s latest book where he revealed that at the start of years, hundreds of pilots are made and then pitched to various networks, out of which only 5 to 10 percent are commissioned. This is a good way of filtration, we should also start doing the same thing.”

Rao is going to be back to films after a year, and has two releases lined up this month. One is Lootcase with Kunal Kemmu, where he plays a negative role and another is Made In China with Rajkummar Rao where he has a special appearance. Out of these, he is more excited about Lootcase, he reveals, “I give a break to my goody father image and play a waakda (crazy) character. I had such an amazing time shooting for the film as I was just following director Rajesh Krishnan. He is a fabulous actor and once he does a scene, you just cannot do anything better than him. I don’t usually emulate my directors but in this case, I just had to. I was very happy that I could deliver what the director had in his mind.”

He also says that he is absolutely comfortable playing positive as well as negative roles as this will keep things interesting and not become boring for him and for his audience members. Another big-ticket film up his sleeve is Maidaan, where he teams up with Amit Sharma once again after Badhaai Ho. “I play Roy Chowdhary, one of the antagonists in the film, against Ajay Devgn’s character. I was very happy when Amit offered me the role. I will work with him even as a prop. In fact, working with Ajay has also been an experience. We were shooting a confrontation scene and in one shot he had to look at me, instead of reacting to him I began admiring him. I didn’t tell him that but he has volcanic energy and has an amazing aura.” says Rao.