The last time we sat down for a heart-to-heart with Rohit Saraf was before Mismatched premiered on Netflix in November 2020. In the hour or two we spent gabbing on that occasion, his grit and candour made quite an impression. Not to mention his compelling story. Aged 15, Rohit came to Mumbai with a smattering of assignments in hand, and a well-shot portfolio. He remembers his mother crying the night before he left home — the only time she ever had second thoughts about sending her youngest child off to maximum city to chase a dream.
It is more than a tad ironic that the 26-year-old star, currently touted as the ‘national crush of India’, wasn’t really chasing his own dream. The strongest motivation for pursuing an acting career was that Rohit’s father — who passed away when Rohit was all of 11 — had always wanted him to be an actor. “I wanted to be a dancer. Photography and fine arts were areas of interest too,” Rohit recalls. When a school friend did a photoshoot in Grade 10, Rohit’s mother encouraged him to follow suit. “So, I did the shoot, and sent those photographs to a couple of casting directors whom I accessed through the internet. I got a great response! I started giving auditions almost immediately,” says Rohit.
Venture past the surface, and it is clear that the last decade has been both turbulent and decisive for the Mismatched star. “I did a seriously significant amount of work when I moved to Mumbai: two TV shows, seven commercials, and a film — all within my first year of being here,” Rohit recollects. However, what was meant to be his debut film — a John Abraham production titled Banana — never saw light of day. Oscillating between exhilarated and devastated was par for the course back then. “If I could give some advice to my 15-year-old self now, I would say that I should have celebrated the highs more, and not been so weighed down by the things people had to say.” Recalling one instance in particular, Rohit says, “When Dear Zindagi came out, I was thrilled to be in the same film as Alia Bhatt, being directed by Gauri Shinde, and being watched by many millions of people. But, instead of congratulating me, a lot of people — including some of my cousins — said, ‘Oh, we just watched your film. Part thoda chota tha, na?’ That wasn’t very nice to hear and, in that moment, it bothered me so much that I suddenly forgot the joy of my achievement, and started thinking about the part being too small or inconsequential. I wish I had the maturity not to let that happen. An achievement is an achievement and it must be celebrated — no matter what anyone else thinks.”
There’s a vulnerability to Rohit that suggests he will never be bulletproof, but he certainly has acquired armour in the last few years. He doesn’t stem from a film family, and that has its drawbacks, but he has grown up here — in Bollywood — and earned his stripes. We delve into the vagaries of the mind, tracing days when Rohit ate through his lows and worked his way out via therapy. Every step forward has been taken while navigating a minefield; he has been preyed upon because of his good looks, but he has also been ridiculed for his features and his ambitions. “I’ve felt small and humiliated,” says Rohit, “but I have come to realise that I am stronger than I thought I was. Today, I am very comfortable with who I am, where I am at, and what I can take on. I feel like I don’t have to explain myself and clarify things all the time. It’s okay to be silent. And I realise that one needs to learn to be a little detached, especially where work is concerned. I think I have been too attached to my work and, naturally, that makes me extra attached to the outcome as well. So, my resolution for 2023, is to practise detachment from things I can’t control. I have made peace with my insecurities and I don’t need a person in my life to pick me up or enable anything in me. This is me. And I am okay with myself.”
It helps, of course, that Rohit has the solid support of his family — led staunchly by mum Anita. We talk about his December 8 birthday, and the annual ritual of floral bouquets arriving daily in the final countdown to the day. “This year we had a rager,” Rohit laughs, confessing to a midnight not-surprise-party. “It wasn’t a surprise because I told my friends that they better be here to bring it in! Then we partied hard the next night as well. I used to get really emotional on my birthday until a few years ago, but now I am just a jumpy, wild, happy person.”
Jumpy, wild, happy, and single too, Rohit confesses, when we ask about the love life of India’s ‘national crush.’ “I feel like the relationship I have now, I’d like to have that forever. I can’t casual date,” he says, as we object vociferously to this plan. “You are not the only person who thinks I should be having fun,” Rohit laughs. “My Mismatched director, Akarsh Khurana, used to say: ‘Every relationship you have cannot bear the burden of forever.’ Just calm down a little bit and enjoy yourself!” There is no shortage of willing candidates, as evidenced by Rohit’s Instagram DMs. “I get marriage proposals on DM all the time, but my mum’s DMs are even crazier. People message my mum, calling her their mother-in-law! My mum loves it,” Rohit chuckles.
As a new year dawns, Rohit readies himself for the release of Ishq Vishk Rebound — his first film in a leading role — and bigger, better things. “There are so many times that I’ve thought to myself, ‘Goddammit, this is crazy, and it is finally happening. Wow!’ But, immediately after that, I experience something else and I think, ‘I can’t wait to be bigger, to do better work.’ I haven’t reached a place where I am riding the high without facing lows at the same time. You have a release that has done phenomenally well, so much so that for three months, people can’t stop talking about it. Meanwhile, you have given four auditions and haven’t cracked a single one.
There are people chanting your name at events, but then you also have that other life. Getting a table at a packed restaurant without a reservation… that kind of thing happens, and when it does, I feel so privileged and special. I feel a little guilty about that privilege, but I have immense gratitude for it. It’s a heady mix.”
Resolved to trust himself more, and push himself further in 2023, Rohit is poised for an exhilarating new year. We’re delighted to kickstart it in style.
MOMENTS OF MOTIVATION
Rohit tells us about living the dream, while keeping it real
“Facing an audience of screaming fans is 100 per cent surreal! I don’t think I will ever get used to it. The first time I remember experiencing something like this was when I was promoting The Sky Is Pink with Priyanka Chopra, at Amity University in Delhi. I had never faced a live crowd of over 7,000 people before. A few of them knew me because of Dear Zindagi and whatever little work I had done here and there, but the majority did not know me. Priyanka Chopra introduced me to that crowd, and that was the first time I heard people yelling my name. I think about it and I still get goosebumps — that’s how powerful that memory is. Every single time I experience something like this — and it has happened often while promoting Vikram Vedha and Mismatched — it instantly takes me back to that first time. My mum was sitting at home in Delhi, watching that promotional event live on Amity University’s Facebook page. I remember speaking to her right afterwards and she said, “Rohit, I feel like I am living in a dream.” Ever since that day, consciously or subconsciously, it has almost become a thing that I want to live for — I want her to have the kind of life that feels like living a dream. It is such a driving force for me. She could never even imagine a day when people would chant her son’s name… I don’t think I will ever get used to it, and I don’t think I want to get used to it, because that feeling is so beautiful. It is such a powerful emotion for me.”
PET PEEVES AND PASSION PROJECTS
BATTLING TROLLS WITH LOLS: “The first time hate comments were directed at me, was when the trailer of Mismatched came out. There were some ridiculous comments! I read the first two and they really bothered me. My sister was with me at the time and together we opened YouTube, hunted for the hate comments, and tried to find humour in them. We laughed it out and it felt so good! Genuinely, it was the best exercise ever. Like permanent insulation.”
CONTROVERSY’S CHILD: “You won’t find anything particularly controversial on my social media pages, because I haven’t really participated in anything controversial. But if there is something I truly believe in and feel strongly about, I will put it out there — even if I feel like people will come at me for it. If I can make a difference by saying something, I will stand my ground and say it. Anything to do with violence against women, for instance. The alpha males will attack, but I don’t care.”
INFLUENCER ALERT: “The first film that ever impacted me in a way that it made me want to get up and change something about my life, was Wake Up Sid. It made me fall in love with the city before I had even visited it for the first time. It made me fall in love with the music. And everything that it spoke about.”
IN CHARACTER: “I would die to play Timothée Chalamet’s part in Beautiful Boy. And Paul Mescal’s role in Normal People. The way he has played that part… it gives me goosebumps to think about it. Right now, everyone is talking about intimacy when you are shooting something, and vulnerability, and the way that man has portrayed both of those things is just something that I can only aspire to. To be that comfortable, to be that naked with one’s self, it is just outstanding.”
Born: December 8, 1996
Originally from: Nepal
Siblings: The youngest of 5; rohit has 3 sisters and 1 brother
Loves: His mom (and her cooking)
Brief filmography: Dear Zindagi (2016), What Will People Say (2017), Hichki (2018), The Sky Is Pink (2019), Ludo (2020)
Best known for: Mismatched (opposite Prajakta Koli)
Up next: Ishk Vishk Rebound
COVER STORY NOTES
Sitting on the floor next to his bed, ‘national crush of India’ Rohit Saraf is wearing tiny, orange shorts. I’m sitting at my desk a couple of kilometres away, wearing fluffy grey bathroom slippers. You cannot ascribe the familiarity of our chat to either of those variables, but they’re certainly representative of our hours-long banter. What it is about this 26-year-old actor that makes him so real and easy to talk to, I could not say. He wears his heart on his sleeve in the most endearing way. Or, at least, he radiates that vibe.
Our conversation oscillates constantly between superficial and deep. We giggle about girlfriends, but we also delve into the vagaries of the mind — tracing days when Rohit ate through his lows, and worked his way out via therapy. In our last exchange, over two years ago, Rohit told me about an intricate full moon on his inner arm; simultaneously exposing his tattoo and his vulnerabilities: “I had it done to mark the first time in my life when I felt whole. I felt so content with every sphere of my life — I felt complete and amazing — and I thought to myself that every time I am going through a low, I am going to look at this and remind myself that I felt like this once, and I can feel like that again.”
The man readying himself for 2023 has acquired some armour since, but retains the gentle core that attracts swooning hearts across the nation. I mention how moved I was by one of his recent Instagram posts — in particular, the heartfelt caption that accompanied a handful of images. “You write beautifully,” I tell him, “Assuming that was you?” and pat comes his self-deprecating response: “I think I am a shit writer.” Packaged along with it though, is a confession: “I can’t be outsourcing my Instagram captions so, yes, that was me. But I write like that only when something really, truly moves me. For instance, the whole frenzy around a release is so overwhelming and empowering, and that’s generally when I write captions like this. And then I take my time with it… it is usually at like 3 or 4 in the morning. I would never be able to write a show or a script. I don’t think I can ever write when it is commissioned, or pen a story that’s not truly mine. Whenever I do write something, it is really personal — I write to express how I am feeling in that moment. Whatever is on my mind that cannot be shared, is saved in ‘Notes’ on my phone.”
In this heart-to-heart, we stop just short of that ‘Notes’ folder — going past façades, but drawing a line prior to privacy.
Hair: Tanik Singh
Make-up: Imtiaz Sheikh
Styling assistant: Jainee Bheda
Managed by: Kimberley Fernandes
Artist reputation management: Raindrop Media