On an overcast October afternoon, I meet Rajkummar Rao on a film set in suburban Mumbai. The interview shall have to happen between takes, he informs me, slightly apologetically. So we begin our conversation in his vanity van, till he is called on set. Then I step out and we pace around the parking lot. Once the next shot is done, we walk around the set waiting for the assistant director to command ‘shot ready’ and off Rao goes. “We’ll pick up from this point,” he says and when he returns five to 10 minutes later, he continues from exactly where he left off.
It’s the mark of a clear-headed man who can multitask and give each engagement his complete attention. Rao’s dedication to his craft, his love for his profession have served him in delivering a seminal year in his career. During the seven years since his debut in Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010), he has bagged a National Award for Best Actor for Shahid and his last release, Newton, has been selected as India’s official entry to compete at the Academy Awards. In this year alone, the 33-year-old will have had six films release (including Behen Hogi Teri, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Raabta) and one web series (Bose) online. This may not be what the boy from Haryana ever envisaged, but one thing is certain — there is nothing else he can imagine himself doing.
When growing up, Rao, who was then known as Rajkumar Yadav before he changed his name, adored Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan. He once told me how he “became Vijay Dinanath Chavan for a week” after watching Agneepath and how, after watching Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, he wanted his name – Raj – to have the same impact on the girls in his college as Shah Rukh Khan’s character Raj had in the film.
Martial arts training and dancing on stage gave Rao a taste for adulation and appreciation. “I was part of a group in Gurgaon that would participate in shows and festivals. I really enjoyed being on stage. It gave me a real high. I liked the attention and the applause,” he says.
But cinema was his first love and the optimism of a career in Bollywood was stoked by the success of another Delhi boy. “I felt if Shah Rukh can, I can. He was my idol. I was watching his films as well as those with Manoj Bajpayee and Irrfan. All this added to my want of becoming an actor so badly — to do what they were doing on screen. By Class 10, I was quite sure that acting was what I wanted to do. I didn’t have a plan B, ever.”
A graduate in arts, Rao then applied to the Film and Television Institute of India’s (FTII) acting programme. He describes being accepted into the course as “one of the best moments of his life”.
“My reaction was filmi. I fell on my knees and said yes, I got in, I got in. FTII changed everything and that decision made me who I am today. I still love Shah Rukh, but then Daniel Day Lewis and Robert De Niro came into my life. I was watching Tarkovsky, Ray and Kurosawa and suddenly my perception towards cinema as a whole, changed.”
At the Institute, Rao specialised in method acting. It irks him when people misuse the term and he is quick to correct that only those actors who have gone through a method acting course can be deemed as method actors. “Someone who grows a beard or gains/loses weight isn’t a method actor,” he says.
Two years after coming to Mumbai, Rao landed his first break in Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex Aur Dhokha (LSD). “I was prepared for the struggle yet I remained optimistic. But living in an expensive city can take a toll. I am from a very middle class background but my family really supported me. At other times, when I had zero money, I would borrow from friends so that I could eat.”
Ironically, he had to starve himself in order to achieve a leaner look to play Adarsh in LSD. “You are looking for that one make or break opportunity. I was prepared to give my left thumb to get the role, so for a week I ate only cucumber and salad and lost 3-4 kg. Thanks to LSD, I got Gangs of Wasseypur with Anurag Kashyap and then he introduced me to Hansal Mehta, which led to Shahid. And after the National Award a lot of things changed,” he smiles.
Bookended by the commercially successful Kai Po Che and the critically acclaimed Shahid, 2013 was the first significant year in his fledgling career. Rao says, “These two films added up. Kai Po Che put me on posters and people liked my work. Then the National Award for Shahid really gave me a boost. I am also very proud of Queen and Citylights which came in 2014.” Then there was a dip in 2015 with Hamari Adhuri Kahaani and Dolly Ki Doli.
“I did some films for certain personal reasons but they didn’t connect with the audience. That’s when I decided I didn’t want such things to happen to me at such an early stage of my career, especially since I had begun with such wonderful films. You realise later that should go with your instincts and only do the kind of work you believe in, not do something because someone says this might take you there or there.”
So is he happy being in a niche?
“It is a niche, true, but I think niche is the new mass. Look at this year. The kind of films that have made money — Bareilly Ki Barfi, Shubh Mangal Savdhaan, Newton. The audience has also evolved. They are watching things online, on streaming services, and they expect the same quality from us.”
Hungry for knowledge and an understanding of craft, Rao has used time on set to mine the minds of his mentors. When he worked with Aamir Khan in Talaash, he used the opportunity to quiz him on his performances in Ghulam, Lagaan and Rang De Basanti. “When they are performing I see them as the character and I am no longer in awe of the artist. Manoj Bajpayee was professor Siras for me in front of the camera, but off screen I had so many questions to ask him about Satya, Kaun and Shool. I am this curious acting student. Talking about performances and about cinema in general, gives me so much happiness.”
In Vikramaditya Motwane’s survival drama Trapped, Rao went through a dramatic process to play the part of a man trapped alone in an apartment in a Mumbai high rise. Then, in preparation for the part of the Subhash Chandra Bose, he shaved off a part of his hair and piled on the kilos. In order to get back in shape for Fanney Khan, in which he stars along with Anil Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, he went on a two-week diet of eating just one bowl of dal a day. Ask him if all these body transformations take a toll on him and he says, “It takes a toll, and it’s taken a great deal of effort to lose the 10-12 kg that I gained for Bose. At one point I thought what if I don’t lose it at all? Then of course I had to starve myself. I did a ‘Trapped 2’ on myself and almost stopped eating!” he says, laughing. The impact of playing these parts is not just physical. Omar in Omerta affected him mentally while playing Deepak in Citylights was “emotional draining”.
He admits that it takes him time to get out of one intense character and prepare for the next. “Like I know Omar’s world very well now and it disturbs me what people like him can do, people who could have been like Shahid and contributed so much to society but chose to go the other way. But once I am done shooting, and I shave off the beard, I go on a holiday, I spend time with my close ones and I start preparing for my next. I think looking forward to the next gives me space to get rid off whatever I have done in the past.”
Next week Rao is back in cinemas with Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana, a relationship drama set in a small town, just as Bareilly Ki Barfi and Behen Hogi Teri were. “The small town is the new Switzerland,” quips Rao, who counts Pritam Vidrohi from Bareilly Ki Barfi as one of the most fun characters he has played. “This was a territory I had not explored and the role gave me so much range to perform. It was an amazing experience.”
Is he concerned about getting typecast in these small-town stories or does he plan to surprise audiences by playing a hip, urban character? “I am sure filmmakers might think Raj will be great for the part, because they go by your last work. We do put people in brackets. So because I have done Citylights, Shahid, Trapped and Aligarh people will say he is a serious, intense guy. But then they see that I can dance as well and they are shocked. Omerta, Bose and Newton are very different worlds, so I am not worried about typecasting. Yes, the work I am doing in the future is very different. Besides Fanney Khan, which is a sweet, entertaining film, I am also doing something urban and contemporary, but with my sensibilities. I will not make something for the heck of it,” he says, before excusing himself for this next shot.
Ten minutes later, he’s back. No pause to snap in and out of character. No break to check his messages. He just picks up his thought where he left off. “I feel fortunate that the directors I have worked with have given me space to explore my territory within a scenario, and I expect that from my directors. I am not a puppet. I can’t act where they say go from point A to point B, look right and say this line, look left and say this line. I can’t function that way. You have hired me so then please see what I am doing and then let’s discuss what we can do. I give my suggestions, but I always follow the director. For instance I saw Newton in a particular way so I asked Amit (Masurkar) if I could curl my hair and do that blinking thing with my eyes. Because he was agreeable, I did it.”
Among his contemporaries, Rao singles out Varun Dhawan. “Of course he is a much bigger star, and I really like his energy. I can’t do all that he does, and it takes guts to do what he does. I thought he was very good in Badlapur and he is striking a good balance. He did Judwaa 2 and now he’s doing a film with Shoojit Sircar. Ayushmann (Khurrana), Sushant (Singh Rajput), everyone has their journey. I choose my own films, I read all my scripts and if I feel excited by it, I do it. Naturally I do want my films to be successful too, because that gives you more power to choose the kind of work you want to do. I want this, but I don’t think about it. I keep my thoughts very neutral that way,” says Rao.
When he’s not working, his ideal evening is to be home watching Netlfix or Amazon, or spending time with his friends. “I am surrounded by real people, not by filmi yes-men/women. I know 2017 came after seven years of working and I know that everything is momentary. People can make you a star after two films and then not ask for you for you next five years if you don’t continue giving them those wonderful films. So I intend to keep doing wonderful films.”
Observing him on set, I notice the absence of an inflated entourage around Rao. He’s accessible, unassuming and excited. “I am madly in love with what I do. I don’t think about the byproducts that come with being an actor. Being in front of the camera and giving a shot in the happiest time of my day,” he says, just as the assistant director calls ‘shot ready’ and gestures that it’s time for Rao to shoot his next scene.