Two days before the shoot for Monsoon Wedding (2001) began in Delhi, actor Vijay Raaz received a call from its casting director Loveleen Tandan. He was to do the role of PK Dubey, a small-time wedding planner, and, yes, could he please rush to Delhi the next day? By then, he had done enough bit roles in Hindi movies to afford a mobile phone. He had auditioned for the role some time ago, but had little hope of bagging it since two prominent actors were in the running. Since the scale tipped in his favour only at the eleventh hour, he missed the workshop that Mira Nair had made the entire cast go through.
Naturally, the question of how Raaz would approach the role was on top of Nair’s mind. The actor promptly assured the director: “Now that you have shown faith in me, I would do something and make this work.” Such a response, says Raaz, can come only from someone who does not know anything. “A trained or method actor will be able to specify how he plans to go about it. I could never answer such questions. I still can’t,” says Raaz, lazing on the terrace of the Jam Jar restaurant in Andheri, Mumbai.
Needless to say, his marigold-eating lover act became very popular, and is still his calling card. The role made him an overnight comic sensation, ensuring a steady flow of offers and handsome remuneration. “If someone believes in me, that helps create the magic. If I have to prove something, it becomes difficult for me. It feels like sitting for an examination. If I had to study, I would have gone for higher degrees, fulfilled my father’s dream of getting a government job,” says the commerce graduate from Delhi’s Kirori Mal College.
This lanky actor’s first brush with theatre was as an inspector in a play called Pagal Ghar. Two months of rehearsals got him hooked to acting forever. He worked with Sakshi Kala Manch in Mandi House, Delhi, for a few years, before joining the NSD Repertory Company at a monthly salary of Rs 12,000. During the NSD interview, he chose to enact a monologue by Karna from Avtar Sahni’s Maharathi, but forgot the lines mid-way. Unruffled, he offered to redo it from the start — this trait has seen him through rough patches. Four years later, in 1998, he quit NSD and packed his bags for Mumbai.
Despite his bumpy journey in the industry, Raaz has stuck to casual preparedness before facing the camera. “When you read a script for the first time, the impressions that it creates are fresh, the way all the senses are focussed when you taste something new,” says the actor, who is currently basking in the critical appreciation he got for his role in Abhishek Chaubey-directed Dedh Ishqiya.
He plays the character of Jaan Muhammad, an ambitious politician with roguish charm, who aspires to upgrade his social status by marrying Madhuri Dixit-Nene aka Begum Para. His aversion to study the script worked in his favour. It landed him the role of a gangster in Delhi Belly (2011), a movie that brought him back into the limelight after a string of forgettable appearances.
In spite of the production staff nagging him, he did not read Delhi Belly’s script — he just glanced at the parts that involved his gangster character — before he met director Abhinay Deo. “However, when we started talking, none of us felt I was not well-versed with the script,” says the 44-year-old.
Delhi Belly’s expletive-spewing don paved the way for an eventful second innings after the career slump in 2005 following his detention in Dubai — where he was shooting for Deewane Huye Paagal — for possessing marijuana. By then, he had established himself as one of the most talented actors in the industry: Rajat Kapoor-directed Raghu Romeo (2003), featuring him as a naive protective lover, bagged the National Award for Best Regional Film (Hindi). Even though Run (2004) was a flop, his “kauwa biryani” act was a hit (35-minute clipping of his scenes alone used to be shown on cables in north India). “I did not have a movie for nearly a year after that. I could deal with the setback because I am not very career-oriented,” he says.
If reports are to be believed, he even increased his price after Delhi Belly. Today, three of his films are lined up for release this year — Atul Agnihotri-produced O Teri in March, his directorial debut Kya Dilli Kya Lahore, in which he also acts, in April, and Neeraj Pandey-produced Saat Uchakkey in May. His next, Rangez Pandey, based on a real-life incident, will go on the floors soon.
What makes him a perfect choice for characters with comic traits? For Naseeruddin Shah, his co-actor in several movies, including Monsoon Wedding, Barah Aana and Dedh Ishqiya, it is Raaz’s “fantastic acting” skills and “confidence in himself”, while Agnihotri believes in his ability to grasp a role quickly. “When I first saw him on stage (during NSD Repertory Company’s show of Agni Aur Barkha, a Girish Karnad play, where Raaz played a 90-year-old), I thought it was some kind of optical illusion. He appeared as a spidery kind of character. And I told myself, ‘What is this person?’ I was too impressed with him,” says Shah. Later, the actor recommended Raaz to Mahesh Mathai for his debut movie Bhopal Express. Kapoor, who gave Raaz his first lead role, sums up his uniqueness, “Like most good actors, he has a great instinct. Once an actor latches on to the right note, it can’t go wrong. The rest is rubbish.”
Chaubey’s long search for an actor to play Jaan Muhammad ended with Raaz. His long locks, paired with dark glasses, and a quirky demeanour made him the perfect choice for the role. But Saat Uchakkey’s director Sanjeev Sharma — who has been tracking the actor since his Delhi theatre days and finds him “dynamic” — had made up his mind about casting Raaz from the beginning. “I needed a free-spirited actor to play the role of Jaggi, a wheeler-dealer,” says Sharma.
When asked about a movie or a role, Raaz’s standard answer is: “It just happened.” Even the dragon tattoo on his right forearm “just happened”. Yet, in between such nonchalant responses he keeps slipping in how he is particular about “enjoying” his work. Even as a directionless college student, he found acting “an interesting career option” when he discovered that it was more enjoyable than “playing cricket”.
Raaz’s roller-coaster journey in the industry has, perhaps, inspired him to explore life. When not working, he loves to be alone. He also reads books on spirituality and philosophy. Or else, he likes to go on long drives. “When I have time, I travel to the mountains. Otherwise, I have my room and solitude.”