“As an actor or an artist, you should be socially responsible. I really don’t want to do films where I am spreading hatred. Or do something that will influence 10 more boys in small towns, who follow me… I am very aware of that,” Rajkummar Rao said at Express Adda in Mumbai on Saturday.
There is little doubt that 2017 belongs to the 33-year-old actor, who has appeared in no less than seven feature films this year, including the critically acclaimed Trapped, and Newton, which was chosen as India’s entry for the Oscars’ Best Foreign Language Film category.
In a freewheeling conversation at Tote on the Turf with The Indian Express film critic Shubhra Gupta, Rao spoke about his journey from a middle-class home in Gurgaon, Haryana, to Maximum City; how he learned to act naturally on stage and screen; and how he can only endorse ideas he feels connected to.
Asked about the kind of issues he would like to be associated with, Rao said, “I want to be the brand ambassador for compassion and secularism. I get very disturbed and sad when I see people get divided in the name of religion; when they kill in the name of religion. So, if somebody wants me to become a brand ambassador for them, I’ll say I can be the most secular guy. We shouldn’t feel divided by anything, be it religion or region, we’re all Indians… Actually, we’re all human beings first.”
On whether he would endorse any brand, the way actors from the film industry are known to do, he added, “I could never endorse a fairness cream. We’re Indian and we’re brown and we should be proud of that. I think those products are a scam.”
A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, Rao arrived in Mumbai in 2008 to try his luck as an actor. He talked about his struggle, the help from his very supportive family, and the constant auditions, till one day he got a part in Dibakar Banerjee’s 2010 film Love Sex aur Dhokha. “It was one of the happiest moments of my life. I like characters with different shades, those who have some internal struggle going on. Once you understand the character, you can enjoy, have fun and take them anywhere you want,” said Rao, while recalling the embarrassment his 15-member strong joint family experienced when they watched the film. “Humara beta toh pehli hi film main nanga ho gaya (Our son got naked in his very first film).”
Rao said that the other turning point in his life was meeting Hansal Mehta, with whom he would go on to make four films (Shahid, CityLights, Aligarh, Omerta) and a web series (Bose: Dead/Alive, in which Mehta is co-producer). Mehta was present at the Adda, along with Rao’s partner and fellow-actor, Patralekha. “I’m very grateful to God that I met Hansal sir; I felt an instant connect. More than professional, it is very personal… he’s like my friend, my father and my mentor,” said Rao.
Speaking about the Padmavati controversy, on which both Rao and Mehta have been very vocal, the actor said, “I went to a news channel with Hansal sir. What’s not done is not done. I think everything can be solved through dialogue, violence is not the answer to anything. That’s goondaism.”
Rao also urged the government to take a more clear stand on censorship. “We’re talking a lot more about censorship now,” he said. “The trailer of Aligarh got an ‘A’ certificate, which was so unfair. We did what we could do but eventually, it is the government, they have to decide to take a stand. We can suggest a few things, but we’re not lawmakers. The CBFC (Central Board of Film Certification) is a certification body and we are mature enough to decide what is it that we want to see or not see on screen. You can’t say ‘No, only watch this’. Who are we fooling? Everything is available on the Internet and we’re talking about it, about sex and sexual problems, murders and violent images. So what is the point in making films the victim of all that?”
The Express Adda is a series of informal interactions organised by The Indian Express Group and features those at the centre of change. Among those who attended the Adda on Saturday were Ashishkumar Chauhan, CEO, Bombay Stock Exchange; Shailesh Gandhi, former central information commissioner; Ravindra Shisve, Additional CP, Special Branch, Mumbai Police; S Jayakumar, Additional CP; S Jagannathan, ADGP, Training; and Saroja Sirisena, Sri Lanka’s Consul General in Mumbai.