‘Shahid’ got me a lot of recognition as an actor, ‘Bareilly Ki Barfi’ fetched me commercial success’.
Actor Rajkummar Rao spoke to ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief and Chairman Shekhar Gupta on NDTV’s weekly show Walk The Talk about his love for experimental as well as character-driven movies.
Shekhar Gupta – Hello and welcome to ‘Walk The Talk’. I am Shekhar Gupta on Mumbai’s Versova beach and my guest today is probably one of the most talented actors in Hindi cinema in a very long time. Hello Rajkummar!
Rajkummar Rao – Thank you, sir. You can call me Raj.
SG – Not afraid of experimenting with your pace and character?
RR – Not at all, sir. I am a trained actor. I went to the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII ) and FTII changed a lot of things for me. Before FTII, I was watching a lot of Hindi films and for me, the perception of the Indian hero was very different. Then I started watching a lot of international films at FTII. I got access to Robert De Niro, Jack Nicklenson and I was like, wow! From there, acting became much deeper for me. It was not only about looking good, saying your lines and building your muscles. For me it was about playing characters, if the character is good-looking be good looking. If a character is somebody who is fat, be fat. For me, from there it was always about playing those characters.
SG – Because conventionally, heroes or leading characters were good characters. They were nice guys. Everyone else was bad guys who are usually lost in the end.
RR – I don’t know how true it is in life, actually.
SG – It may be the opposite. And bad women also lost in the end. Bad women ended up sacrificing their lives for someone else’s true love and bad men just met their end. Heroes were always good guys. You started off with some negative character in your life.
RR – My first film was Love Sex Aur Dhoka (LSD) by Dibakar Banerjee. It was the first digital film of this country. And I was playing this harami, I would say; somebody who is an opportunist.
SG – Who was using these CCTV cameras…
RR- Yes. Which happens a lot all over the world, actually. People use and misuse CCTV footages. I was playing one of those guys. My second film was Ragini MMS, where again I was playing a role of a pervert, who was using this girl for his own benefits and trying to sell their intimate videos. Then of course people started telling me that it might be harmful to a lot of people and for me also, as I would get typecast so early in the career. Then I realised that my third film will not be of the same character. Then I started working with Anurag Kashyap in Gangs of Wasseypur’ and with Bejoy Nambiar in Shaitan and lot of other people. But from there on Kai po che happened, where I was playing the most decent and nice guy ever.
SG – The chaste guy…
RR – Who was also a dreamer; who was also dating his best friend’s sister. I don’t know if that is a taboo.
SG – I think only in our part of the world, best friend’s sister will also tie a rakhi on you. It doesn’t happen all over the country.
RR – Yes, like his sister is your sister.
SG- So what happened after Kai po che?
RR –Kai po che actually put me on the limelight. People just knew me through LSD and Ragini MMS, but they didn’t know me by my name. Kai po che put me on posters. It was a leading part. The film did really well and music was a hit. And the same year, Shahid was released and I was playing the title part. This film gave me my first national award and first ‘Filmfare Award’. I think from there people started taking notice of me and the industry started taking notice of me. From there, things changed for me and that year was a crucial year.
SG- Did you also acquire these brooding characters? Positive or negative all the time?
RR-Ya, as an actor it’s so much fun. It’s fun playing somebody who has a mix of happening inside you, in life also for that matter, nobody is white or black. We are all greys. It depends on the kind of situations we’re in. That’s what I like in my characters. I like characters with complexes or characters dealing with circumstances or situations. I like playing such characters. For example, in Shahid, what an amazing life that guy has lived. Somebody who was a victim, went to a terrorist camp, who comes back and becomes a lawyer, who is shot dead when he was 32. I thought it was such an amazing character. Luckily, Hansal Mehta (director) sir was looking for ‘A’ listers to play that character.
SG- You don’t necessarily end up hating that character.
RR– You don’t. I don’t think anybody would hate Shahid. He was a human rights activist, he was human rights lawyer. Honestly, we need people like Shahid in real life. It was fun playing him. It was a great acting exercise for me. Also, I found Hansal sir because of Shahid. We’ve done five films together. There is one coming next year.
SG – So, do you think this brooding image stuck to you or you think you’re going to break out of it sometime?
RR – Now, I am out of it. This year, I am working on a lot of commercial films but with content. As you know how we were discussing earlier. Now , cinema is going through a change. Now, it’s mostly about actors playing characters. Starting with the super star Mr Amir Khan, he is the biggest super star we have. He experiences a lot with his characters. For him to play a 50-year-old father in Dangal and for him to do more than Rs 300 crore business, I think this a witness in itself. Cinema has changed.
SG- People are not afraid to play their age and looks
RR- Absolutely, like Shah Rukh sir is playing a dwarf in his next film. He has done Fan…
SG- He has also played sort of senior characters in many films now, Dear Zindagi for example.
RR- I think things are changing for good. Manoj Bajpayee sir quite often tells me that I am very lucky to have entered the industry now. Now, even directors are experimenting with their stories, we have writers who are writing characters coming from small town, which people relate to.
SG– When Abhay Deol came, people said his forearms are not strong enough.
RR– But he ended up doing some great films like Dev D, Oye lucky! Lucky Oye, Manorama Six Feet Under…
SG– In fact, those films like Manorama are a bit ahead of time. Today, with so many multiplexes, Manorama would have done so well.
RR- Absolutely, I totally agree.
SG– So, tell me little about your character in Gangs of Wasseypur? Because it’s a film we watched with full attention, both parts of the movie (Gangs of Wasseypur 1 and 2). It has such characters coming and going, one talented than the other.
RR- There were more than 160 characters in the film. So, the main motive for me to do LSD was, because as an outsider, you just want that first film to happen. And I know it doesn’t happen with everyone. Honestly, I feel blessed that it happened and in two years after I came here. My motivation to do LSD was, I knew it was Dibakar Banerjee’s film, I knew it that directors like Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bharadwaj or Hansal Mehta would watch it. And that happened. Anurag Kashyap saw it; he liked my work in it and then called me for Wasseypur.
And that time, the story was about Nawaz’s character and my character. That was the whole story. We both went to Wasseypur to do research, to pick up the accent. We stayed there for 10 days and came back. Then, Anurag sir called me later and said that when they started writing the characters, things changed and my character will not be there for long. But he also told me that, he would be happy if I played the character, but it was up to me. My greed was to work. My greed was to work with somebody like Anurag Kashyap. There was no way I wouldn’t do it. So, I ended up doing it. Luckily I took it, because from there, he and Mukesh Chhabra suggested my name to Hansal Mehta for Shahid. And as I was telling you, a lot of things changed after Shahid.
SG- Talk about your character in Wasseypur. Many people have forgotten.
RR-Yes, so my character name was Shamshad Alam. There is a very famous chase sequence in the film, where me and this character called Definite, that was all improvised and never planned. The whole chase was never there in the script. But something happened on the sets, his gun got stuck and I was in the moment and picked up a rod and started running after him, and then it was a cut. Anurag sir was rolling on floor laughing. He said it was amazing and we have to make a chase sequence. We ended up shooting for six more days in Banaras (Varanasi). The associate director would create traffic jams, so that we can have that chase sequence. It was fun.
SG- I don’t think it take much doing in Banaras. There will be a traffic jam if a cow walks in
RR- That’s true, that’s true
SG – About your later-day character in Newton, were you aware of the role you were playing? About the politics of the film?
RR – I was aware and I was scared. Amit. V. Masurkar (director) wanted to shoot in Chhattisgarh, which was a conflict area. I would ask him he was sure about it. Because there was no security, I was one of the famous ones on the sets. My perception was, if something would happen, it would happen to me only. Amit told me, it’s better without security and I went with his gut. I knew Newton was somebody who is an idealist, one who stands for justice, which, in a way I am as well. I believe in justice; I believe in standing for the right thing. So, I could totally connect with Newton’s ideologies. Then of course, the look with curls and blinking eyes, was something I introduced in my character. Amit allowed me to experiment. I wanted to experiment because he is this simple guy; he is somebody like in a way like, Govind from Kai Po Che, who’s simple and just doing his job. But I thought, how can I make it different. That is when the look came. It turned out to be a beautiful film. Because you know the actors; those indigenous were from that area; they couldn’t speak the language. It was all Amit’s patience; he would spend hours with them, just to get a line right. It was all worth it eventually.
SG – Were you also conscious of the caste element in that film?
RR- No, not really. I wasn’t at all.
SG- But did you know there was a message there? That Newton is a Dalit, portraits of Ambedkar…
RR – Yes, I knew it. Me and Amit discussed everything in detail. We knew what we were getting into. We knew what we were trying to showcase and what actually happens and I was okay with it. Because there are people, there are Dalits who are working in the system. It was not like we are trying to bring in something new. That is the reality of the system.
SG -What about the name, Newton?
RR-That’s Amit, actually. The title was ‘Election’, earlier for some reason. I think it was my idea to call it Newton. It sounds so cool. A guy from Chhattisgarh, whose name is Newton. It is very fascinating.
SG – They don’t quite grow apples in Chhattisgarh…
RR – They don’t even use apples, at least in the area we were shooting in. It was fun shooting in the real location in Dalli-Rajhara, a very small town in Chhattisgarh which is four hours from Raipur. It was fun, there were no hotels; we lived in simple guest houses for almost two months and there was a tragedy in my family, I lost my mom during the shooting. Whatever happened with Newton and after that was all because of her blessing.
SG – Among all the work that you’ve done, don’t tell me what is your favourite and all that, I know you are fed up of being asked that question. But tell me, which character made the most difference to your life and career?
RR – Well, there are two sides of it. One is Shahid, which got me a lot of recognition as an actor, gave national award and another one is Bareilly Ki Barfi, which got me lot of commercial success and people started noticing me as an entertainer as well.
SG – I haven’t watched it
RR – You must watch it. I think you’ll have a lot of fun watching my character in the film and the film itself. Hindi cinema is also about entertainment. Now, it’s about engagement as well but it’s mostly about entertainment. People watch films to get entertained and to laugh. That character in Bareilly Ki Barfi clicked and how? I had never witnessed people clapping and whistling; it rarely happens. But I witnessed it with my character, Pritam Vidrohi, in the film. I think these two characters changed a lot of things for me. One gave me a status of an actor another gave a status of an entertainer, who can be funny. People had these perception that, I can only do intense films and I am good only with that but Bareilly came and amazed people.
SG – Would you do more fun films or would you do more intense films now?
RR – I would just do films…
SG- Because you don’t do that many
RR – I don’t do that many but honestly my heart is in stories. The reason for me to do Bareilly Ki Barfi, was not because it was a commercial film. I don’t really connect dots. Because there is no guarantee that which character would work or which wouldn’t. I just read all scripts all by myself and if I get excited about it, I just say yes to it.
SG – You’re an unlikely male star if I may say so. These days everybody looks like they’ve come out from the same sculpting workshop. Same teeth, same biceps and everything. Are you reminded of this often by producer or directors?
RR – Oh yeah, they say that I am an unconventional star that we have and I take as a compliment. People said the same thing to Mr Amitabh Bachchan, of course not comparing at all. They said the same thing when Shah Rukh came. He started off in the same characters. He started playing negative characters in the very early stage of his career. He became a huge star with his role in Baazigar and Darr. He was someone who was experimenting a lot with his craft.
SG – Well, Amitabh Bachchan also used to play brooding characters. Who can forget Anand?
RR – Absolutely. These people motivate me a lot.
SG– In Anand, the guy who was suffering was brooding and the guy who was looking after him was also brooding.
RR – Of course. I am big fan of Rishi da, Hrishikesh Mukherjee. I am so glad now, that such cinemas are coming back. Cinema is getting more rooted. Our characters are coming from small towns of our country, which is the majority. Major part of country live in small towns and those characters are coming out now.
SG –You’re a small town boy also. Although Gurgoan is the opposite now.
RR – Yes. But when I was growing there, there was nothing. There was jungle and no MNCs and huge malls. There was only one DLF phase and the whole of Gurgaon.
SG – You also come from a very simple, working-class family
RR – My father was in state government revenue department; he is retired now.
SG – That is a powerful job.
RR – Very powerful job. He was a very honest man.
SG– He must’ve had a very tough life.
RR- It was a very tough life. Financially, it was quite painful for us because he was a very honest man.
SG- It is very tough to be honest.
RR-Yes, it is very tough. People would just offer money from their pockets as a gift.
SG – And they hold it against you, if you don’t accept it.
RR – Yes, that’s true. The same honesty I got it from there, I show and have it my performances. In my life, I try to be honest.
SG – Did you ever see a film called Satyakam?
RR-Of course! Yes, I have.
SG- So, do some of the characters you play, Newton in particular, make you think of Satyakam or is there a bit of Satyakam reflection there?
RR-It does, in a way it does, you’re right. Anyway, my reference point was never Satyakam. But you can definitely say they are inspired.
SG – Obsessively honest government servant, who’ll not even borrow a chair from his office in his home.
RR – Till a point that they can be irritating.
SG – Also, self-destructive.
RR-There is a scene in Newton, which normalises corruption. Again as I told you, we need people like Newton. Corruption is humungous in our country.
SG – It was an inspiration. Newton was not a failure unlike Satykam.
RR – Yes, Newton was not a failure. We need more Satyas and more Newtons.
SG – You did a biopic on Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. It was a web series. What is it like to play a biopic, that too someone like Netaji?
RR- Oh! I could never imagine somebody looking at me like Netaji. I thought they would cast me play Bhagat Singh. Because I am this young guy, hot blooded, not in real but I can be. When they told me to play Netaji, it took a while to process it in my mind that probably I can be Netaji. But then I thought how will I do it? I shaved my head half. My team was very much against it because I wouldn’t be able to do anything for the next six months and I’d be stuck. But I was like, no. If I have to play Netaji, I have to do this. I cannot go for male pattern baldness. I tried doing those prosthetics once, but I found it fake.
Then I gained 13 kgs for the role. It was fun eating sweets, pizzas and biryani which you can’t eat otherwise. I had a great time. This was just a physical appearance. For me, it was more about his internal process. I started reading books about him. Then I did figure it out about what kind of a person he was.
SG – In fact, most of us had forgotten that Netaji smoked.
RR – Yes, he did. He was a chain smoker. I had to smoke as well. I had never smoked before that in my life. Initially, I thought I would smoke and then come out of it, but I would just puke after pack-up. Then I thought I should start smoking in real life as well and made my body get used to it to become Netaji.
SG – Tell me about one character that you might want to do for a biopic from our history like Netaji
RR – I am a big fan of Bhagat Singh. I read a lot about him since I was growing up.
SG – But he’s had the most biopic by any Indian, even more than Gandhi.
RR-I know. He had that connect with the youth. But I would do it my way.
SG – How would you do it differently?
RR- I have seen a lot of Bhagat Singh’s real pictures. I think he was not this muscular guy. He was a very thin guy but there was passion in his eyes. I want to bring the kind of dedication he had towards his motherland, I want to bring the language. Rarely I have seen Punjabi being used, I’ll play it as a Sikh. It transports you to that era.
SG – And if you were to do a biopic on a Hindi cinema actor?
RR – Actor? Never really thought about it
SG – We don’t do such things, but…
RR – I don’t know. But I think the younger generation doesn’t really know much about Raj saab (Raj Kapoor). We know him as a filmmaker but we don’t know how crazy people were about his films in Russia. Internationally, he was one of the best we had. I think I would love to play him on screen.
SG –I’ll tell you, I went to cover the Tiananmen Square massacre and I went to cover the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet empire. In most of those countries you could get by singing two lines of, ‘Aawara hoon’. If you’re struggling to send your story in a telegraph office, if you kept on singing in loop just the four lines of ‘Aawara hoon’, people would make sure that story would go through.
RR – Imagine the power.
SG – But to play Raj Kapoor, you will have to put on some 43 kilos
RR – I am ready to do that. Anything for acting
SG – More sweets to eat. Don’t tell me there are no fringe benefits of acting…
RR – There are. You just have to choose your parts correctly.
SG – So, you have one more film coming out now?
RR – Yes. I actually have a release today called Fanney Khan, where I am opposite Aishwarya Rai and Anil Kapoor. And I have a film opposite Shraddha Kapoor called Stree and it’s a horror comedy set in Chanderi (Madhya Pradesh). The trailer is out and I am sure, a lot of you’ve seen it. I am playing a role of a typical Bhopali guy.
SG – Who is the horror in the film?
RR – That I can’t say.
SG – But the name is ‘Stree’. It’s a female ghost .You are unlikely to get scared of a ghost, male or female.
RR – I was scared of ghosts but I think with time you realise it’s all in your mind.
SG – No Haryanvi ever admits to being scared of anything.
RR – You too.
SG – Absolutely. Look forward to more such avatars.
RR – You’re one of the most realist persons I have seen.
This interview was transcribed by Anagha Deshpande and edited by Jayanta Kalita.
Watch the full interview on NDTV here.