Raj Saheb!

He is the king of relatability, the prince charming of indie who’s swept mainstream Indian cinema off its feet. But it wasn’t always like this. Rajkummar Rao spills the beans

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“I was just there shooting for Made in China and talking to everyone. Of course, I had to pose for selfies, but I don’t mind it. If I don’t talk to real people, I can’t play their characters,” says Rajkummar Rao. He was trading selfies for the perfect Ahmedabadi accent.

Observing people’s body language and accents and making them his own was something he did even as a child growing up in Gurgaon (now Gurugram). The freedom he had in those years allowed him to open up and meet all kinds of people. “A typical north-Indian small-town boy, I would be out with my friends all day, returning home at about 11pm. I would study only during the exams but still get good marks. We would dance, sing, watch films and re-enact those scenes together. We would talk about films, we’d talk about our dreams.”

Even as he soared free as a kite, he found support in his mother’s trust. “My mother was also my best friend,” he says. Rao’s mother passed away in 2016. “I would share everything with her—[be it about] friends, girlfriends or school. In fact, whatever was happening in my life. She never questioned anything. The only thing she would ask when I came home was whether I had eaten.” She was instrumental in convincing him to add the extra ‘m’ in his first name and use ‘Rao’ instead of ‘Yadav’ because she believed in numerology. “I’m so glad I led that life because it helps my performance now. I was friends with everyone from various castes and communities and got access to a variety of characters, which now helps because I’ve seen life across all classes.”

My mother was also my best friend. I would share everything with her—[be it about] friends, girlfriends or school. In fact, whatever was happening in my life. She never questioned anything. The only thing she would ask when I came home was whether I had eaten.

Perhaps this is why, although he’s confident onscreen, he manages to convey vulnerability with an awkward smile or the swing of his arms. His characters are relatable, even when they have grey shades; perhaps even because they have shades of grey. The audience identified with him right from his first role as a store manager making a sex tape in Love, Sex Aur Dhokha in 2010, as the possessed lover-boy in Ragini MMS, as the gawky geek Govind in Kai Po Che!, the human rights activist and lawyer in Shahid (for which he received a national award), the strong yet vulnerable struggler Deepak in Citylights, the sensitive journalist Deepu in Aligarh, and several other characters across 17 films until 2016. It was only last year that Rao truly came into his own and his stellar performances in Trapped, Bareilly Ki Barfi and Newton catapulted him into the limelight.

For someone who lives and breathes acting, the spotlight is the reward for his labour. “For me, acting is recreating life,” he says. “I try and make it believable, as if it is really happening to someone. I feel happy when people who watched Trapped say they felt they were in that flat with Shaurya. That’s what I want to do as an artiste.” He visited Wasseypur to get into the mindset of Shamshad Alam, the greedy goon from Gangs of Wasseypur 2, and had no qualms about shooting in places said to be haunted for the recent horror-comedy Stree, which has comfounded experts and has crossed the 150 crore rupee mark.

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He has come a long way from his early days in Mumbai in 2008, when he shared a small house in Four Bungalows, and did the rounds of studios for auditions. He was told time and again that he wasn’t hero material and he sometimes didn’t have money for food. “It was tough but I enjoyed it because I was hungry to make it as an actor. I am still madly in love with what I do. You don’t leave your true love for anything… you chase it till you achieve it,” says Rao, who was bitten by the acting bug when he was in class 10. He joined the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune after graduating from college in Delhi, where he had dabbled in theatre. “My whole perception of acting and cinema changed once I went to FTII. I started watching international cinema and actors, learned about their process and commitment to work. I was inspired and influenced by the techniques they used and the way they functioned.”

It was his friends from the institute who supported him through those years. Eight years later, Rao lives on the 15th floor of a high-rise building in a plush western suburb in Mumbai, drives an Audi Q7 and confesses to treasuring a collection of Gucci shoes along with his prestigious acting trophies.

He is candid about his seven-year relationship with actor Patralekha, aka Anwita Paul, whom he met at FTII. “We are supportive and proud of each other,” he says with a smile, the warmth reaching his eyes. Even though there are walks on fashion ramps, glamour photo-shoots, dubbing and interviews, alongside 14-hour film shoots, he makes time for and cherishes holidays with her, quiet times at home, meeting close friends and visits to Gurugram to meet his family. “I never had any specific dreams that I want this, this and this in life,” he says. “Today, I have a more than comfortable life. Importantly, I’m getting more exciting work than earlier. I worked with some phenomenal people, but now I’m getting a chance to work with some amazing filmmakers. I’m very busy working. Apart from that nothing much has changed about me or my life.”

My whole perception of acting and cinema changed once I went to FTII. I started watching international cinema and actors, learned about their process and commitment to work. I was inspired and influenced by the techniques they used and the way they functioned.

His humility shines through and there’s nothing brattish about him. Perhaps that’s why he is the frontrunner in the superstar sweepstakes. While some are buoyed by their genes and connections, and others let down by a supreme lack of talent, Rao is determined to be the outstanding outsider who makes it on merit. Much like his childhood hero Shah Rukh Khan.

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On advice to newcomers, he says, “Keep doing something. Everyone has a phone with a camera. If you cannot get a break in films, write a short film, shoot it, put it on YouTube… do something instead of waiting for that one person to say, ‘Yehi chehra chaahiye mujhe!’ Keep it rolling, do theatre, get your friends and act at home. I used to do that. It helps. It keeps you going and is very satisfying. You can’t just go to the gym and keep pumping iron. You have to work on keeping your craft fresh.”

That’s how Rao reinvents himself each time. “I don’t want to get typecast in one particular genre. Not many people knew I could dance but after Stree and Bareilly Ki Barfi, they know I can. I’d like to explore action as well. I’m trained in martial arts (he learned taekwondo from the age of eight and has won gold medals at the national level) but haven’t done anything in that genre. I want to do everything. That’s the fun. If you keep doing the same thing, it becomes boring for you and for the audience. That’s why I keep pushing myself, like in Omerta, in Stree, in Love Sonia. I can’t do two films simultaneously, especially if I’m sporting a particular look. Doing one film at a time allows me to give it my all. That’s tough because you invest months in a film. Practically, it’s difficult to do more than four films a year.” His end-game is to get to a point in his career where he can focus on just one film a year or even one in two years. “I want to live that character, even off screen, completely submerge myself in it.”

Today, I have a more than comfortable life. Importantly, I’m getting more exciting work than earlier. I worked with some phenomenal people, but now I’m getting a chance to work with some amazing filmmakers. I’m very busy working. Apart from that nothing much has changed about me or my life.

Luxing it up

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WHEELS WITHIN WHEELS

I love cars and have a Rolls Royce on my wish-list. My Audi Q7 was the first car I bought. I didn’t have much money then, but it was a leap of faith. I went to buy a small car but saw this and thought, let me buy it!

FOR KICKS

I have this fetish for shoes. Mostly sneakers, casual wear. I have a lot of Gucci shoes. I got these really cool LV sneakers recently, which are lifelong. But it’s not like I only have branded shoes; I have all kinds.

RETAIL THERAPY

I’m not a sanyasi, I like buying things. I buy paintings sometimes, and clothes, of course. I shop when I’m travelling. Now it’s a bit difficult to go out and buy when I’m in India but my stylist shows me catalogues.

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TRIPPING ON TRIPS

In India, I love travelling to Ladakh. Internationally, I love Austria as a country and walking around cities like New York and London.

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