In the series titled “First of many”, the who’s who of Bollywood will revisit their first ever acting project. They will reveal how they landed the role and what was their experience on the first day of shoot.
Gajraj Rao’s performance as the middle-aged new father in Badhaai Ho won hearts. But the actor has a lot more to boast about in his 25-year long career. Rao has been a theatre artiste, a film actor and even a popular face in the digital medium. Rao’s memorable films include Dil Se, Black Friday, Rangoon and Blackmail among others. His last screen appearance as Prince Alexander in web series Tripling 2 turned out to be one of the high points of the TVF show.
But how did Gajraj Rao land his debut role of Ashok Chand Thakur in Shekhar Kapur directorial Bandit Queen (1994)?
Here’s what he shared:
Q. What do you remember of your first project – Bandit Queen?
I remember everything about that project so clearly. Because that was a milestone in my life. It gave me the experience I will never forget.
Today, because of Ekta Kapoor and Balaji Telefilms, actors get work. Today, we also have web platforms like TVF, Amazon and Netflix. However, 25 years back, work was limited and there were not many opportunities in Mumbai. So, it was a tough period for struggling actors. Also, that misconception is there that giving an audition is wrong, that you are judged or your acting skills are being questioned. That’s wrong. Even top actors like Robert Downey Jr. auditioned for Iron Man.
I was happy doing theatre in Delhi. News spread that auditions are going on for Bandit Queen which was to be shot near Delhi. The casting director of that movie was Tigmanshu Dhulia and he was the first AD too. He had seen my theatre work and he liked it a lot. So, he told me to audition. In my audition, Shekhar Kapur spoke warmly and asked me whether I had acted in front of camera before. He then asked me whether I would be scared. I told them no. He then told me to go back. I had prepared a monologue for the audition but never got to say it. So, I thought he didn’t like me. After few days Tigmanshu Dhulia told me I had been selected and that Shekhar Kapur liked me a lot. Then I signed a contract for the first time in my life with BBC Channel Four and received a 10 percent advance amount of my fees. It was a remarkable feeling.
Q. How was your first day at shoot?
Two months after signing for the film, we were sent to Dholpur. On the first day of shoot, I got a call sheet. I didn’t know what a call sheet was. My call time was 6.30 AM and at 5.30 AM it was written “stand-by for Gajraj Rao”. So, I thought the filmmakers have kept another actor on standby, that incase I don’t perform well, they will replace me. In the morning, I realised that a person with a similar built as mine, with same costume was kept on standby to check the lighting and camera position. That’s when I realised that the actors are respected so much to ensure their time is not wasted.
Q. What was your first scene? Were you comfortable?
In the shot I am chasing and eve-teasing Seema Biswas on a bicycle. I was really nervous. It was my first feature film being directed by Shekhar Kapur who had made movies like Mr. India and Masoom. The unit was really huge. But Shekhar Kapur understood that I am a new actor and I was nervous, so the first thing he did was he stopped the assistants from giving me instructions and he put a hand on my shoulder as a friend and started talking about the story of the movie. He got me on the level like we are two friends. After 5-10 minutes, he told me that forget the lines and improvise according to the situation. He asked me about the dialect. I told him I belong to Rajasthan, so I will get the dialect right.
That 10-minute conversation with him reduced my nervousness. I suddenly realised that no one is judging me there and I am making a movie with them.
Q. How did you shoot that scene eventually?
In the scene, I had to grab Seema Biswas. We knew each other from our theatre days. I was really awkward as I was molesting a lady, who is senior than me and there was no camera trick, no cheating. I had to come from behind and grab her. And I was really scared as a person. So, she lovingly told me that “Gajraj, this is part of the story and you don’t need to feel reluctant.” It was a critical scene in the movie and I will never forget how nervous I was.
Q. How many retakes happened in that scene?
We did that scene in 2-3 takes. Because Seema Biswas was so volcanic, her performance was so amazing, that I became part of her energy. I forgot that I was Gajraj and I imagined myself has Ashok Chand, the son of Sarpanch.
Q. Anything you want to improve or change in your debut work now?
I feel at that time my performance was fresh, my mind was fresh. If that would happen today, I would think about it a lot. At that time, it required innocence.
Q. Any film or role that inspired you to become an actor?
I really enjoyed movies by Shyam Benegal or Satyajit Ray or Govind Nihalani. They inspired me a lot. I thought actors like Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah are performing so well. I remember the movie Mandi and I thought it was magical. There was another movie called Bhavni Bhavai by Ketan Mehta that really inspired me a lot.