Jitendra Kumar: The incredible story of IIT graduate turned internet acting sensation

From Pitchers to Panchayat, Jitendra Kumar has lit up screens of all sizes. Now set for a magical outing with Jaadugar, 'Jeetu Bhaiya' tells us about embracing his feminine side, falling short of rickshaw fare and romancing Lady Luck

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Luck. Jitendra Kumar believes in it. For every milestone in his career thus far, the actor has a ‘luck by chance’ story in support of it. He calls it “magic.” We have a better word for it: talent.

Bursting on to the scene first as Munna Jazbaati in a TVF sketch, and then as Jeetu in TVF Pitchers, Jitendra Kumar is amongst India’s early YouTube sensations. With a filmography that now includes Kota Factory and two spectacular seasons of Panchayat, you’ll recognise the man even if you aren’t familiar with his early work for The Viral Fever. Up there with colossal talents like Pankaj Tripathi, Vikrant Massey and Jaideep Ahlawat, Jitendra Kumar is charting his course to stardom.

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His story starts out in the tiny town of Khairthal in Alwar. Raised in a home where his mother and her sister married two brothers (his father and tayaji), it was a tightknit joint-family unit. His father was a civil engineer who worked with the Public Works Department and was often transferred from one town to another within Rajasthan itself. It was at his school in Khairthal, in Grade 6, when a chance visit to the watercooler landed Jitendra a role in the year’s biggest dramatic extravaganza: the annual Ramlila performance. “The girl who was meant to play the role of Taraka fell ill. She had fever and left for home in the middle of the school day. She even took her costume with her. I left class to drink some water and found my class teacher pacing in the corridor. She was the director of the school’s Ramlila performance and now she was without a key character. When she saw me at the watercooler, she literally grabbed me for the part. Here I was, a boy playing a girl’s role, stuck without even a costume, and with stage fright to boot,” Jitendra recalls. Some hastily tied handkerchiefs served as a skirt, and Jitendra was pushed on to stage right on cue. “I was often mistaken for a girl as a child, because my ear is pierced. That isn’t uncommon in Rajasthan, but my piercing is in the wrong ear. Anyway, I made an abrupt entry because I was still protesting backstage when I got my cue, and just delivered my dialogue. It was all very dramatic and the audience loved it. Later, I was voted ‘best actor’ for my cameo and that felt incredible! I forgot all about my stage fright and participated in the next year’s Ramlila too — this time in a double role as Kaikeyi and Shravana’s mother Gyanvanti. I was meant to look like an old woman, but I looked like a hot chick in my costume,” Jitendra laughs.

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From Grade 8 to Grade 11, the acting bug took a backseat to academics and it wasn’t until the fag-end of his time in Kota — where he was sent to prepare for the IIT entrance examinations — that Jitendra rediscovered his passion for the performing arts. “I started watching films again. After class, we had a short recess and I would spend that time mimicking my teachers. A crowd would gather and everyone really enjoyed it,” he remembers. From mimicking his teachers to imitating Indian actors, Jitendra continued to entertain his friends upon admission at IIT Kharagpur. “Someone suggested auditioning for one of the many dramatics’ societies on campus and so I did. I got selected in my first month itself for the Hindi Dramatics Society. It was intense, but I loved every minute of it! Everyone at IIT is talented on the academic front and I didn’t stand a chance when it came to comparisons in that regard. I used to fail and then pass only when I appeared for supplementary exams. But the attention I got for my acting was amazing,” he recalls.

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College was a slog and it soon became obvious that Jitendra was not cut out to be a civil engineer, but dropping out was never an option. “Ghar pe dande padte,” he laughs, when I ask how he managed to motivate himself through four years at IIT. Ironically, it was here in Kharagpur that Jitendra met the founders of TVF — the streaming platform that proved to be his future launchpad. 

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When he first came to Mumbai to try his luck as an actor, TVF script writer Biswapati Sarkar and actor Naveen Kasturia even offered him a place to stay for a while. “My parents were disappointed and angry and that came out as frustration. Convincing them took several days. My father enlisted a handful of our relatives to talk some sense into me, so someone or the other would come and meet me daily when I was at home, and bring up the career conversation. In 2013, when I was doing sketches, I think they were still worried about my finances, even though I was getting popular for my work. Then, within 9 months, I landed a TV show and that resolved their doubts. Because, back then, being on TV meant something, versus being on YouTube (which wasn’t taken too seriously). I don’t think my parents themselves worried too much, but that social pressure existed — “IIT kar ke kya kar raha hai!” — and so they absorbed some of that stress,” says Jitendra.

Despite having an acting job in hand on his very first day in Mumbai, his path to fame was paved with challenges. “I consider myself lucky because I had this opportunity. I came to Mumbai to film TVF’s second sketch. Their first video had gone viral by then and everyone was talking about it. I shot the second video, but it didn’t perform as well, and that (failure) became a big topic of conversation. I shot two more videos thereafter and, for whatever reason, they didn’t get uploaded. After about three months in Mumbai, I started looking for a proper job, because acting wasn’t working out.” This ‘proper job’ led him to a construction company in Bangalore, where Jitendra spent nine months reminding himself why he did not want to be a civil engineer. “By some chance, one of the videos we had filmed while I was in Mumbai (but not uploaded), was suddenly released. It went viral and I was getting frantic calls from Biswapati Sarkar, who even told me, ‘Anurag Kashyap is calling you!’ I didn’t take it seriously because, by this time, I knew how hard it was to make it as an actor. It took me another few months in Bangalore to realise I had to go back and try again, but this time I wanted to acquire some qualifications as an actor. I applied for NSD (National School of Drama) and came back to Mumbai to prepare for it.”

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As it happened, Jitendra did not make the cut for NSD but, by then, his YouTube videos were attracting serious eyeballs. Of course, being an internet sensation didn’t pay the bills in those days and the actor took on a job as a teacher at PACE Academy to supplement his income. He chuckles as he recounts how he landed his teaching job: “You needed to clear an exam to get a job at PACE and I absolutely hate competitive exams, so I was looking for a way to evade this. Through some IIT friends, I found a contact. The guy insisted on the exam, but after some coaxing, agreed to meet me while he was on his tea break. When he saw me, he recognised me as ‘Munna Jazbaati’ and that secured me the job, subject to student feedback.”

With a car in his garage and a growing collection of shoes, Jitendra isn’t close-to-broke any more, but he hasn’t forgotten what that was like. “We were the first YouTube faces to get famous in this country, but it was a weird sort of fame. We weren’t making any real money. We were shooting sketches on literally zero budgets, but we were stars. We were being interviewed on the radio and getting invited to big events, but I remember going home from a function where I had been the chief guest and not having enough money for rickshaw fare,” he laughs.

The popularity of Pitchers changed everything for the actor and Panchayat sealed the deal. Jaadugar, his latest film, will premiere on Netflix this month. Irrespective of how it is received, we’re convinced that the magic Jitendra brings to his performances is sure to cast a spell. 

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TAKE FIVE WITH JEETU BHAIYA

From love songs to lauki, Jitendra Kumar shares his likes (and dislikes)

Another Panchayat star is the humble bottle gourd. So, are you a lauki fan?

(Laughs) No! I did eat a fair bit of lauki during the lockdown because we were growing it at home, but I am definitely not a fan.

What are you listening to on repeat these days?

All this week, I have been waking up to the theme music from Lootera. At night, I listen to Mujhe Tum Nazar Se by Mehdi Hassan, which has also been sung by Ali Zafar.

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Do you sing?

Yes, but badly. I only sing in groups and then I imagine that I am singing well (laughs). 

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If you could add something to your routine, what would you like to make time for?

Reading. I am not much of a reader, but that’s a habit I’d like to inculcate.

Are you a collector of any sort? 

I collect clothes. I pride myself on maintaining things well for years. I collect sunglasses, too, now.

OF SHOWBIZ AND STARS

From being an SRK fanboy to decoding the fantastic world of films, the actor reveals nuggets from his journey 

THE MYSTERY OF A GOOD SCRIPT: Growing up, I never had any intellectual exposure to films or filmmaking. My concept of acting was based on your typical film — the whole hero and villain thing. I never intended to do work like TVF Pitchers… and that shaped my perception. I began to understand stories about human emotion that didn’t fit the typical pattern. If you go looking for the drama, you may wonder what the drama is, but there is drama in everything. Kota Factory and Panchayat are excellent examples of this.

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AN ACTOR’S DREAM: I am open to any sort of role, but I’d rather not repeat my characters. I want to be decidedly different. A role like Joker from The Dark Knight would be my dream.

TOPPING HIS WISHLIST: I have quite a long list actually, but if you will only allow me to pick three people, I’d like to work with Zoya Akhtar, Sriram Raghavan and Anurag Kashyap.

FEELING FAMOUS: By 2016, I had met Shah Rukh Khan a few times. He attended the first YouTube Fanfest, where we were performing, and then I met him briefly at two other events. When he was promoting Raees, I went to interview him for TVF Live. I had a whole bunch of opening jokes around the concept that he wouldn’t recognise me. So, I had memorised this whole script and was in the washroom rehearsing it when Shah Rukh Khan arrived on set. I walked out while he was being introduced to the crew and when he saw me, he said, “Aur Jeetu, how are you?” and I was like, “I am fine, but now my jokes are not!” (laughs). I guess that was a great feeling. It definitely made me feel famous.

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LOW ON CASH FLOW, HIGH ON FAME: “We were the first YouTube faces to get famous in this country, but it was a weird sort of fame. We weren’t making any real money. We were being interviewed on the radio and getting invited to big events, but I remember going home from a function where I had been the chief guest and not having enough money for rickshaw fare”

HE’S NOT MUCH OF A SINGER, BUT JEETU CAN DANCE: I’d love to do a musical. I am not a technical, trained dancer, but I love to dance. I don’t need alcohol to get me going, as long as there is music playing!

RECALLING HIS FIRST-EVER OUTING AS AN ACTOR, JITENDRA TELLS US: “Here I was, a boy playing a girl’s role, stuck without even a costume, and with stage fright to boot!”

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