At 29, Rajkummar Rao already has the National Award for Best Actor under his belt. The quiet, unassuming actor has started getting noticed fairly early in an industry where people take ages to get a decent role. Some don’t even get that. That is one way of looking at it. Another way is that Rao is an exceptional actor, who is too talented to always be cast in bit roles. The fact lies somewhere in between. “For my generation, the most positive change has been the trend of the casting director,” says Rao. “Now an actor has someone to take his showreel to. Casting directors are well-paid these days and people take them seriously.”
Born to middle-class parents in Premnagar, a township adjacent to millennium city Gurgaon, Rao does not boast of an artistic pedigree. What he has though are extremely supportive parents. “My father, now retired, worked with the Revenue Department,” Rao says about his childhood. “I have two siblings who are married and have kids. Fortunately, my parents have always been very supportive. From the very start, I was into dance, martial arts and acting. So my family just felt that if this is what he enjoys doing, he should just continue doing it.”
For his role in Shahid, a biopic based on the life of 32-year-old human rights lawyer Shahid Azmi, Rao tried to get into the mind of the character. It was a tough role for a host of reasons. For one, Azmi wasn’t around to tutor him; the lawyer had been killed in his office in 2010. Then there were also the polarised responses to the film.
Before turning to a career in law, Azmi had trained in the terror camps of Pakistan. He was arrested by the police and spent seven years in New Delhi’s Tihar Jail. It was during his time in Tihar that Azmi studied to be a lawyer and after being released put all his energies to fighting cases for Muslim youth who had been imprisoned on false charges.
“A lot of people would tell me ki wo to iska aadmi tha, uska aadmi tha, but when I met the families he had helped, I began to understand him,” says Rao. “I don’t think Shahid was anti-India; he was fighting for people who were wrongly imprisoned. And that he was right is proven by the fact that the courts acquitted the people he was fighting for.”
In seven years, Azmi had secured the acquittal of 17 terror suspects. That was testimony of his high rate of success and, if anything, an equal testimony to his belief that he was right. Azmi had also faced police brutality during his incarceration, and this became an important aspect of the defence he used to build around his cases. In the film, Rao brings out this aspect of his character with a real-life feel.
But, Shahid is not the first time Rao has played a character in a life-like manner. Critics and filmmakers woke up to his talent after his debut Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (LSD) in 2010. It was evident that there was something special about this man, who brings intrigue to every role he essays. However, there is more to it than the technique of acting. Rao has trained in the craft through theatre in New Delhi and the FTII in Pune, but, in his films, he delivers more than technique, humanising his characters.
“I don’t think FTII has a lot to do with Raj’s talent,” says Hansal Mehta, who has directed Rao in Shahid, and the upcoming City Lights. “Raj is instinctive and selfless; he does not put himself before a film. An actor like him is a boon for a director. He will not bother with how he looks in a close-up shot but will give his 100 per cent, even for a cue.”
Vikas Bahl, the director of Queen, who cast Rao as a superficial chauvinistic Delhi male in his runaway hit, also hints at his superior skills. “If an actor starts adding value to a film, that adds to his shelf life,” says Bahl. “Such actors make the film better. Without too much effort, Raj knows how to carve out his screen space in a crowd. While watching Kai Po Che, I missed him on screen even if he was away for just five minutes.”
Homework and meticulous research are important tools for Rao. For his role in Shahid, he spent a lot of time with the lawyer’s family. This helped him internalise the trauma of the character. “Like Shahid, I started to feel restless seeing an innocent man behind bars,” he says. “Even as a young boy, when I watched films, I felt rage and grief when a good guy would be imprisoned for no fault. So that spark got ignited. Shahid’s experiences made me realise the brutality of our society.”
Besides his single-minded focus and sound choice of roles, what has perhaps also worked for Rao is the new-found professionalism in the Hindi film industry. Rao recalls of his first big role. “For LSD, I went to Dibakar Banerjee’s office and got to know of Atul Mongia, the casting director for the film,” he says. “I found him on Facebook, asked a mutual friend for his number and then kept calling him and emailing him. Finally he called me for the audition. I kept going back to Atul because I knew that LSD was my only chance as Dibakar was looking for newcomers.”
With an ensemble cast of newcomers, LSD paved the way for Rao’s next role, this time as a loutish Delhi boy in Ekta Kapoor’s Ragini MMS. The 2011 horror film offered little scope to act, but Rao would make everyone notice him even in the limited time he was on screen. Next, Anurag Kashyap cast him in Gangs of Wasseypur 2 and Reema Kagti gave him Talaash. But the film that put him on posters was Kai Po Che, the 2013 hit where he played the most understated role amongst three male leads. The film brought him the kind of attention that is reserved for a successful Hindi film actor.
“I have a decent fan following, a lot of women come up to me. The numbers went up after Kai Po Che,” he admits shyly. The boy from Gurgaon has finally arrived in the city of dreams.
Rao is openly admiring of his contemporary actors, especially Ranbir Kapoor. “I want to work with everyone, do all kinds of films,” he says, “but the script should make sense to me.”
It is this yearning for excellence that keeps Rao forever on the lookout for challenging and different roles, a fact made evident in his decision to take up City Lights, an adaptation of Sean Ellis’ 2013 hit Metro Manila. The film casts him as a migrant labourer in Mumbai.
The actor explains the process of preparation. “I try and not switch off when I come back from a set,” says Rao. “I try and live my character subconsciously. City Lights has drained me completely. It was very taxing as an actor, high on emotions, and this character, Deepak, is going through hell trying to make life work in a big city. But then, that’s the fun of the job, makes you feel content at the end of a long, hard day.”
Success is a long game in Bolywood, one that is linked to equations within the industry. Rao too is starting to get a sense of this, but for every low, he seems to have a high. Reportedly, Anushka Sharma got him replaced in her debut production NH 10, but he is acting with Sonam Kapoor in Dolly ki Doli.
Today, Rao is a celebrity in his own right — even without the National Award. People queue up to get a photograph clicked with him. He drives an Audi Q7 and hopes to buy a beach-side apartment. His personal life is increasingly coming under scrutiny: the paparazzi has already linked him with Patralekha, his onscreen wife in City Lights. But, none of this seems to affect Rao, who has charted a clear path for himself. For him, it is important to be an actor first, stardom can wait for now.
(Archita Kashyap is a freelance writer based in Mumbai)