Unassuming to a fault, you could pass him by in the street without realising you're walking next to a star. Dressed super casually — in tracks and sneakers — he walks up and introduces himself with a warm handshake at the entrance of Roseate in Aerocity, Delhi, where the photo shoot for THE MAN is scheduled to take place. “Hi, I'm Raj,” says Rajkummar Rao with a friendly smile. That sets the tone for the rest of the afternoon. “I'm hungry,” he says with a hand on his stomach. “Shall we eat first?” Yes, great, he says at the mention of a buffet, as he heads off towards Del on the first floor.
What's the big deal you might ask. Nothing really, except that there's zero fuss, no furtive glances to see who's noticed him, a film star, no request bordering on entitlement for an elaborate order of food to be delivered through room service. He makes a quick selection of low-calorie stuff from what's on offer at the buffet and polishes off everything on his plate with economical efficiency.
He doesn't interfere with the stylists or offer an opinion about how they want to dress him. “I trust them. They are professionals, they know what they're doing.” He poses for selfies, bending to give me a hug to make it more personal, indulges a 18-year-old who wants to recreate the poster from Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana by holding his hand and looking into his eyes. To young hotel staffers watching from the sidelines, he offers with complete understanding: A selfie? He's been a fan himself, he understands the psyche and the awe towards film stars, but all this is without an iota of arrogance or that famous 'starry' condescension.
From Love Sex Aur Dhoka, his initial foray into films to the most recent Made in China, Raj plays each character with utter conviction, making you forget that there's a 'real' person behind the role who goes home to eat and sleep.
Getting into his head to understand the creative space is a challenge. “How do you explain a creative process?” he wonders. But tries to explain nevertheless. “I want to know everything about the character. What he looks like, what he thinks, where he's coming from, what drives him...I discuss this in detail with the director as well to understand what he wants from the character, how he's envisaged the role, the entire film.” To that end, he chooses his scripts with care. It's the usual answer of: “I must like the script.”
But with Raj, it's also about how passionate the director is about the film, and about films in general. “Is he looking to make a buck out of the film or is he trying tell a story?” This approach has obviously worked because, as he points out, he's worked with a lot of first-time directors. These were all people with a burning desire to tell a story.
He's played regular guys you might have met or who you know. “I want the audience to connect with the character, for them to say, I know someone like that.” That's not to say big budget films haven't been offered to him. The scripts, he says, didn't always excite him.
But shouldn't he sign up big budget films to become a superstar? “Who is a star and who's a superstar,” he counters. “I'm an actor. I'm doing my job, as much as you as a reporter are doing yours. It's about being true to what you do. Just do it with sincerity.”
View this post on Instagram
There is a superhero inside all of us, we just need the courage to put on the cape~ SuperMan For @themanmagazineindia @rohiniyer Editor: @bobbyjohnvarkey Photographer: #TarunVishwa Styling: @who_wore_what_when Hair: @vijay.p.raskar Make up: @nitin.ntd Media director: @media.raindrop
He has to think hard about the first person who came to him for a selfie. His first fan moment is not etched in his memory as something momentous. He continues to go out for street food or a coffee as the mood strikes and isn't fazed by anyone who wants a picture with him. “It's all a part of the job,” he says with a shrug. Fame and stardom are the corollary. Neither does he feel the need to hide from the public now that he's become a known name. He remains accessible to his fans. Even when he's chatting at the interview, he's all in the moment. He's thoughtful or quick or firm in his refusal to answer certain questions. He guards his 'me' space without putting anyone on the outside.
View this post on Instagram
There will be a time in your life when you will feel low, or feel high or feel nothing. No matter what the time is don’t forget to smile, be kind and be thankful. You have the power to conquer anything with compassion and determination. For @themanmagazineindia @rohiniyer Editor: @bobbyjohnvarkey Photographer: #TarunVishwa Styling: @who_wore_what_when Hair: @vijay.p.raskar Make up: @nitin.ntd Media director: @media.raindrop
Rajkummar Rao in a few short years has become a force to be reckoned with in the film industry. "I only want to be an actor, I only want to act" is what he reiterates time and again, no matter from what angle you approach a subject with him. On paper this might sound practiced or rehearsed. But when you meet him, the passion is evident. He lives and breathes movies. A childhood spent watching whatever he could lay his hands on put him on the path of make-believe and celluloid. “We would watch everything on VHS tapes, sitting on foldable beds, and even eat there. It was a family thing. All of us loved films. I must have been about five or six when I began to say I wanted to be an actor. When I watched films, I wanted to be a part of that world. I'd mimic whoever I'd watched whether it was Rahul from DDLJ or Samar Pratap Singh from Shool.”
Fortunately for him, he didn't face opposition from his family when the idea crystalised in his mind. “I didn't sit down one day and announce that I wanted to be an actor. It was all very organic. I'd taken martial arts and dance classes through school. I'd been winning medals. My parents were happy and proud when people praised their son. So, this desire to be an actor was all part of that.”
After leaving school, he joined the Sriram Centre for Performing Arts for evening classes at Mandi house in Delhi and was doing theatre at college during the day. “We were a bit stretched financially at that time,” Raj recalls. “And I was leaving the house early in the morning and returning late at night.” The FTII in Pune was the next natural step. “A whole new world opened up to me. So far, I'd only been watching Hindi cinema, now I was exposed to world cinema. I was in a place where everyone only breathed films.”
He cites Robert de Niro and Daniel Day-Lewis as exemplars of good cinema and admits Rocky left an impression on him. “Rocky had a huge impact on me. It showed me that hard work never goes waste. We all love an underdog. Perhaps, that's the reason Rocky is a favourite for so many of us.” That's also the reason his own Shahid stands out for him. “Here was this guy who was a nobody and who was willing to put his life on the line for a cause.”
Raj has no complaints with the trajectory of his career so far. “I might play my earlier roles a little differently now,” he says. “Simply because I've grown as an actor and matured as a person.” The eternal question about box office success versus critical acclaim is a no-brainer for him. “The box office gives a boost to your career. If you play a role with honesty the critics will notice and comment. In that way they are both important. I try to balance the two. Awards are great, no doubt about it, they give you happiness and make your family happy, but they don't really advance your career, only the box office does that.” Someone should have read the stars when he did the role of Oedipus at 16 when he was a part of Nishtha Sanskritik Manch, the drama group he'd just joined in Gurgaon. “I didn't realise the weight of that role, I was too young.” But it gave him tremendous confidence. He travelled with that play and it gave him a taste of what acting in real time was all about.
There's a quiet dignity about this man, a modesty that's almost puzzling given his perfect strike rate in his choice of films, certainly contrary to the popular image of a Bollywood star. Raj is only out to better his own performance and take it from there. He insists that his challenge is only with himself and no one else. He remains the eternal student even when watching films. “Some part of the brain is observing how an actor has executed a part. That can't be helped." A good performance, he says, keeps him happy for days.
The roles he found the most challenging were of Subhash Chander Bose for Bose: Dead / Alive (2017) the web mini series on ALT Balaji, and Omar Sheikh in Omerta. “I was surprised when I was offered Bose. But I figured if someone thought I could do it, then I made sure that I did justice to the role. I read up, put on weight and went bald for it. Although it was challenging, in the end I could do it because I'm an Indian and know about India's struggle for Independence.” Apprehensions apart, in the end it turned out to be an enjoyable stint in Kolkata where he got to indulge his sweet tooth. Even more challenging was playing Omar Sheikh (for Omerta), based on the UK-based Pakistani Khalid Sheikh Mohammad who murdered (by decapitation) American WSJ journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002. “That was a dark role. I just couldn't relate to the character. There was so much hate and anger in that guy, it was hard to be in that space for the two months or so of doing that role.” Raj is normally even-tempered, and by his own admission, a 'sensitive' guy who tends to retreat into himself when he's angry rather having an outburst. Certainly, there's never a desire to kill anyone!
The only downside of Bollywood is that films are judged by box office figures. “A good film is a good film. But we tend to look only at the commercials. Nobody knows how much money The Godfather and Raging Bull made, but they are classics for life, they continue to be watched. A film is not only about a weekend release. It has a life beyond that.”
Now with The White Tiger (adapted from Arvind Adiga's Man Booker prize-winning book of the same name) for Netflix where he shares screen space with Priyanka Chopra, he's stepped into the international arena. All he says about the experience is that it is more or less the same yet not the same. “For one thing, they are more particular about time.”
Styling: Pranay Jaitly, Shounak Amonkar (Who Wore What When)
Location: Roseate House New Delhi
Make-up: Nitin Purohit; Hair: Vijay.P.Raskar