Actor Patrick Dempsey (of Grey’s Anatomy fame), it is said, was quite a rage among women and according to audience surveys, there was a special mention of his hair as part of his sex appeal! Closer home too, the mane has been a crowning glory for many Bollywood actors. Well, Rajkummar Rao the young, unconventional and talented entrant to Bollywood’s alternative film scene, is no different. Even though he entered Bollywood from the opposite end of the spectrum-with a very dark and gritty film as his launch vehicle, he is now playing by the showbiz rules, sporting a distinct, casually-stylised crop on the head that lends him a certain subtle, but clearly noticeable starriness.
The actor who hails from Gurgaon (Delhi’s NCR) is certainly going places. After a searing impact in Dibakar Banerjee’s LSD in which he played a young salesman who videoshoots his amorous shenanigans with a colleague and sends it out in order to get out of a debt situation, there was a similar turn in Raagini MMS, a spook thriller and a fleeting appearance in Gangs of Wasseypur and Talaash. Rao was always competent but he blended with the characters so well, that he barely stood out. Things, however, began to turn around since 2013 when Kai Po Che emerged a major success at the box-office followed by Shahid, a biopic on slain human rights lawyer, Shahid Azmi. This year has not been too bad either, given that he had a small but pivotal part in Queen, the runaway marquee success and now there is CityLights, yet another gritty and poignant drama with director Hansal Mehta coming up. There are a few other projects like Dolly Ki Doli and one more with Rajkumar Gupta, besides Hamaari Ahduri Kahaani with Emraan Hashmi and Vidya Balan and Ramesh Sippy’s romantic film.
It is perhaps a good sign and his northward climb that Rao, has recently got himself that ubiquitous and most essential of helps in showbiz—a ‘boy’, and yes, a designer too. He offers a simple, matter-of-fact explanation for it.
“It’s important to have someone like a ‘boy’ because if you are deep into your scene, you can’t just go out and say, hey “Spot dada, paani” because you have to focus your energies towards something else. He is always around, so he knows your requirements. I have realised that it’s important to have a ‘boy’ so I have just started keeping one with me on the set just so that I can focus more on my scene.”
That’s fair enough. Well, at this stage, Rao is certainly among the new faces to watch out for.
“I think God has been really kind. My films got critical acclaim and they earned money also. I think it’s important to balance out things. I would love all of my films to have both,” avers the actor who came into the city of dreams, well prepared for the battle. A product of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), he mentions that his background in martial arts and the fact that he is a very good dancer, got him interested in theater and acting. This, besides the fact that he and his family love movies! Screen brings you excerpts from a lively conversation with the new powerhouse performer on the block.
Heartiest congratulations on the National Award for Shahid, were you expecting it?
Seeing the awards through the year, I was not expecting a National Award. I wanted it though, and I thought that Shahid deserved it, but I wasn’t sure that it would get the award. Since I wasn’t expecting it, I wasn’t following the news either. I was elated when I came to know of it and tears just flowed. Suparn Varma, my friend, called, and said, “Oye, jeet gaya tu!” and I kept asking him whether he was sure that he had got it right. And then of course, calls started pouring in.
Your parents must be very proud?
Yes, my parents are very happy. The whole Delhi media is at my place, so they feel they have become stars now.
You have quite a noteworthy slate of films lined up, so how do you keep things different for each character that you play?
I try not to make them look and feel the same. In CityLights which is about a couple that moves to Mumbai in search of a better life, I am playing Deepak Singh a guy from Rajasthan. I try and give a different nuance to my character and not make them look and feel the same. In Dolly Ki Doli, I play a Haryanavi Jat boy, and since I am from Haryana, it was a little easy to play that. So what I do is, give a back story to each character that I play in order to give myself clarity on the graph that it should follow.
There has been a lot of acclaim for your work and you have landed good projects, but stardom of the kind that your fellow actors Ranbir and Ranveer (whom you admire), have, is yet to happen, so do you feel disappointed?
I don’t see any disadvantage. Ranbir and Ranveer both senior to me, are stars in their own space—I just saw Ranveer’s Do-the-Rex ad and only he could have carried it off—but I don’t see any difference in the kind of films I am doing. About stardom, I don’t resent anyone’s fame. I am not here for a quick race. I am here for a marathon. I want to stay here, die here. I am here to be known as one of the better actors we have around.
There are several stalwarts of parallel cinema who feel bitter about their lack of stardom, so would it bother you if you are recognised as a fine actor, but not a star?
I believe in destiny. You cannot fight it. I never compare myself to somebody. I will never do that. I will never say, “Why is he doing that film and not me? I am happy in my space.
When I see a great performance, I feel, “Arrey yaar, lucky him.” But it’s a very positive jealousy. It’s like when I see Godfather, I feel “Lucky Al Pacino.”
Would you agree with the assessment that actors, more often than not are very insecure?
I don’t know what kind of insecurity actors are supposed to suffer from. Is it the insecurity that I might not get work after five years? I am not insecure that way. I know that the kind of place I am in, I will get work. You can’t be too greedy, but I am not insecure. I don’t plan ahead too much. I focus on one thing at a time and keep my energies focused.
Who were the actors you grew up watching?
Rajkummar, you have already worked with some very interesting hatke directors like Abhishek Kapoor, Anurag Kashyap Dibakar Banerjee and Hansal Mehta, so let me ask you about the actors that you would like to work with.
I have worked with Aamir sir, Manoj Bajpayee and Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), but I want to work with Aamir sir in a bigger role. I want to work with Irrfan, Ranbir and Ranveer. Among actresses there are Deepika, Parineeti. I am forgetting people’s names, but there is so much talent out there, and I would like to work with every one of them. When you have a better co-actor, it’s very easy for you to react.
Were you bitterly disappointed at being dropped from the film NH-10 by your co-actor and producer Anushka Sharma?
I never feel disappointed about anything, I am quite positive that way and also, I could not do that film because it got delayed and by the time they began, I had started shooting for CityLights. Besides, whatever happens, happens for a good reason. I have a couple of interesting films —City Lights is releasing this month and then there is Dolly Ki Doli, a film with Rajkumar Gupta where I play a Banarasi boy and one with Emraan and Vidya too.
At the time that you decided to take the plunge, did you have a career plan chalked out for yourself?
I was doing theater because it was the only thing I could do during graduation. I did not want to come to Mumbai unprepared. I wanted to come to Mumbai feeling confident about my craft but as I told you, the acting course at FTII was restarted. I thought, I should enroll as it was a film institute and that it might open up avenues for acting and meeting people as I was not aware of how Mumbai was. My only experience of the city was when I came with my brother, (four years younger than me) to audition for Boogey Woogey. I wasn’t selected, but in hindsight, I am glad I didn’t get selected because then I would have pursued dance, not acting.
I never had a career plan when I came to Mumbai. My whole thing was to maybe, get this one film. LSD was my only option and I am very proud that I started out with such a film. It’s not like I had a buffet to choose from. I was looking for work and LSD came my way, so I jumped at it. The sole reason was that it was Dibakar’s film. When I was doing the film, I did not think people are going to start shouting my name on the roads; I was just hoping that it would land me more work. I was hoping that film-makers should see the film and give me more work which actually happened.
You are not from the film industry, so did you know early on that it was acting that you wanted to pursue?
Although nobody from my family has anything to do with films, but we all love films and are film buffs. I always wanted to be an actor, since school. Films always fascinated me. I remember when I was in class seventh or eighth, I became the character of every film that I watched, for maybe, two weeks. After DDLJ, I saw myself as Raj and all the girls were senoritas for me. When I saw Hum, I became Tiger played by Amitabh Bachchan. It started with martial arts when I began taking classes in class fifth or sixth. And then I started dance, I loved being on stage and performing in front of people. I think that acting keeda came from there. I did my first play when I was in class 10. I love living someone else’s life. I also liked the special attention that you get when you do something apart from studies. I think I was in awe of that attention and it was something that I loved, so I thought of continuing and planned my training. I started doing serious theater after school, in Delhi. And then the acting course had re-started at FTII so I went there in 2005, before coming to Mumbai with no plan other than getting my first film.
Your parents, though not industry folks were obviously very encouraging of your passion?
My father just retired; he was working in the revenue department and my mother has always been a housewife. My parents were absolutely thrilled because they started to get a lot of “aap ka beta toh bada achcha dance karta hai.” They were enjoying these compliments, so they never put me down or asked me to do something else in life other than what I wanted. My mother never interfered with anything in my life—be it my girlfriend, bunking school or not studying during board exams and watching films. She never forced me to do anything.
What is the quintessential difference between the acting cultures of Delhi and Mumbai?
Delhi is more about theater, although eventually people do want to join films.
And what were your impressions of Mumbai?
Both cities have their own charm. Mumbai gave me a certain freedom. I felt very open and free when I came here. Of course, it is very expensive, so there was the whole struggle of looking for a house and then for ten thousand, you get this tiny space that you are supposed to share! In Gurgaon, we have what you call a bungalow in Mumbai, so it was a very shocking experience. But it’s where I will now live forever, unless I shift to Hollywood!
Tell me something about that much talked about struggle phase?
It was a one and a half or two years of struggle, which most people go through. I was staying with two of my friends from film school, who were also actors, and we would go to meet casting directors. Luckily, when I came to Mumbai this whole trend of casting directors started that actually helped a lot of people. It’s very difficult to meet directors and I understand that, because they are very busy people, besides why should they meet you? So this casting director trend was great because I knew this was the person I could keep calling again and again for work because that was their job. So I kept calling a lot of casting directors—Atul, Abhimanyu, Mukesh. Atul was the one who gave me LSD. I somehow got his number through Facebook — I must thank Mark Zuckerberg— and I got in touch with him. I mailed him my pictures and I kept calling him again and again till one day he said, “You know what? Just come and give the audition.”
So did you click those fashion portfolios showing off your musculature and do the rounds of parties waiting to get discovered?
I never did any filmi portfolio. For my photographs, I just did my hair nicely and wore nice clothes. That whole filmi portfolio thing is a little outdated now. And yes, I did make a showreel —a five minuter to show it to directors and casting agents.
As for parties, I never did that. I have realised that going to parties never helps. I now go to parties and can easily spot those looking for roles; I want to tell them it doesn’t happen that way. I would advise people to stay at home instead and watch a good film.
There is a film industry theory that acting can’t be taught. As an FTII graduate, what is your take on acting schools?
FTII really helped me. It gave me that space and time for two years to just practise my craft. It also gave me access to a lot of international actors. When I was in Delhi, I only knew Tom Cruise, but when I went to FTII, I started watching Daniel Day Lewis, I started watching Robert de Niro. Acting is not just what you see on screen. There’s a process too, so I started taking it very seriously. It’s very personal because I want to challenge myself as an actor. I don’t know if acting can be taught, but my teachers really helped me because you can’t judge yourself.
Acting is not only about theory, we used to perform a lot. There were teachers to tell us what was right or not. Also, every actor has his own process. You can take inspiration, but eventually, everyone has their own process. So FTII helped me a lot, but I chose my own process.
Give us a peek into the minds of the characters you have played so far and what went into it.
For Shahid, I wanted to reach inside. Why was he fighting his cause? So, I met his brother to know and spent a lot of time with his family, friends and people who knew him. And then, he was a lawyer by profession so we would sit in court for hours to understand how the whole system works. Before that, I had not been to court and my impression was as they say “order order,” but that is not something they do at all. For Kai Po Che, I read the book a couple of times. The book was 360 pages, while the script was 120 pages so I read it. I noted a lot of things from the book and spent time with Chetan (Bhagat) because he was the writer, so I wanted to know what was in his mind when he was writing it. And then a lot of things came from my imagination, like I thought why Govind was so obsessed with money? So, I made up a story in my own mind for reference, that his father left them —his wife and son, and started staying with a rich girl. I understood that Govind, at a very early age realised that money is powerful and he wants to show his father that he was richer than him, so he never comes across, but I always kept it at the back of my mind.