Actor Gajraj Rao broke into films after appearing as a villainous character in director Shekhar Kapur’s acclaimed 1994 drama Bandit Queen. In an appearance on Cyrus Broacha’s podcast, the actor recalled the casting process for the film, and how nervous he was during it.
He found out about the audition from Tigmanshu Dhulia, and said that because not a lot of films would be shot in Delhi at the time, every theatre actor went to audition for Bandit Queen, after hearing that Mr India director Shekhar Kapur was at the helm. Gajraj recalled that theatre actors in Delhi were slightly arrogant at the time, and going for auditions was considered shameful. He reasoned that it was their insecurity coming out, because they knew they wouldn’t be comfortable in auditions.
The audition took place in New Friends Colony, and there was a large crowd of hopefuls gathered there. One by one, actors would go into a separate room and come out sometime later. When it was Gajraj’s turn, he went into the audition room, where the first thing that struck him was how handsome Shekhar Kapur was. He had gone to the audition after having prepared a monologue. The filmmaker pulled him aside, and asked him, “Darega toh nahi (You won’t be scared, will you)?” And that was it.
Gajraj left the audition confused. Outside, he told Tigmanshu what happened, and Tigmanshu wasn’t sure either. Gajraj assumed that he had been rejected, and he walked away thinking arrogantly, “Hoga jo hoga Shekhar Kapur.” A few days later, Tigmanshu came looking for him, and cursed him. He told Gajraj that he had been selected after all. The signing amount, the actor recalled, was around Rs 30,000, and for the first time, he was given medical insurance and other perks.
Bandit Queen was based on the life of Phoolan Devi, and starred Seema Biswas in the lead role. It was also selected as India’s official entry for the Oscars. Incidentally, the film also featured Manoj Bajpayee in one of his earliest roles, which brought him to director Ram Gopal Varma’s attention.
Gajraj Rao was last seen in the film Thai Massage. He witnessed a career resurgence after appearing in Badhaai Do, alongside Neena Gupta and Ayushmann Khurrana. Shekhar Kapur went on to have a successful career in Hollywood, with the two Elizabeth films, starring Cate Blanchett. His new movie stars Lily James, Shabana Azmi and Emma Thompson, and is titled What’s Love Got to Do with It?