Amit Masurkar, whose film Newton, starring Rajkummar Rao, has been selected for the competition section of the prestigious Tribeca Festival, remembers observing Rao during his debut film Love, Sex aur Dhoka in 2010. While Masurkar was quietly shooting the making of the cult film by Dibakar Benerjee, he felt there was something special about Rao. “I was just watching him and I could sense something special. He had confidence and he cracked jokes. He worked very hard. Anyone who has known Rajkummar should not be surprised at his success at all. That is how hard he works,” says Masurkar.
Seven years and more than 15 films later, Masurkar isn’t the only one who thinks Rao is special. After having worked with directors like Anurag Kashyap, Hansal Mehta and Dibakar Banerjee, Rao is looking at a splendid 2017 with five films—all of them promising—starting with Vikramiditya Motwane’s urban survival drama Trapped, which had premiered to standing ovation at the MAMI film festival.
Following Trapped, there will be Behen Hogi Teri, Bareilly ki Barfi, Newton, Love Soniya and Hansal Mehta’s Omerta. Rao has been shooting non-stop all of last year. “After Aligarh I didn’t have a release. I was just shooting continuously. Finish one film, take a ten-day break, get into preparations for the next and shoot. But I am excited and thankful for all the work,” says Rao.
The 32-year-old actor has had no time to do up his newly-acquired home, a mark of ‘having arrived’ in the fiercely competitive city of Mumbai. He runs to his home leaving his car stuck in the notorious Andheri Link Road—Lokhandwala jam to receive the delivery of a new sofa. He insists on making and serving ginger tea by himself. He reverts on SMS—quick, matter of fact and polite. All trademark signs of the manic city finally settling under your skin.
It helps his latest film Trapped that Rao, originally from Delhi, has vivid memories of how isolated one can feel in the matchbox apartments of Mumbai. The film has Rao essaying the character of Shaurya, who has just moved into a top floor apartment in a vacant high-rise and gets trapped for days. Loneliness, fear, helplessness, desperation are all too palpable in the trailer. Is it as much as about the city as the situation itself?
“Acting is my true love, if it is not talking to me for a year, it’s okay you know. I can handle it,” says Rao.
“In Delhi we live in houses. When I first moved here and I saw grills outside the windows, I wondered how I’d get out if something happened, what if I was trapped, if there is a fire. Then I got comfortable, it has all been smooth. But yes, in the past I have heard horror stories. I’d come back to the building and see an ambulance and people standing. You ask and some old person is dead for five days and nobody knew. That’s so scary on a human level. In that sense Trapped is also a subtle comment. The city was my co-actor in the film. I am talking to the city, to the people.”
Director Vikramditya Motwane, of Udaan (2010) and Lootera (2013) fame, says Rao is a powerhouse of talent and could go to any length for the role. He would stay aloof from the film crew, survive on black coffee and carrots and even volunteered to cut himself for a scene. He is known to work on roles so much that it goes beyond lending credibility to the character, be it Shahid, Deepu in Aligarh or Govind in Kai Po Che.
His mentor, family and frequent collaborator Hansal Mehta is all praise. “He has facilitated making of good cinema. Shahid would not have been half the film without him. I keep writing parts for him. He has rekindled my passion to make films. He doesn’t carry the baggage or arrogance of a great actor. His humanity shines through in the work he does.” Mehta also mentions that Mira Nair, in appraisal of his performance in Shahid said it was one “without any ego.”
The feelings are reciprocated by Rao in equal measure, if not more. “We have that comfort with each other. When I work with Hansal sir I feel very safe, I trust him blindly. We don’t need words to communicate and the connection started right from Shahid (their first film together). Now it’s more personal. He is family now, father figure. We do believe in the same ideas and ideologies. These are the stories we want to tell.” Together they have done Shahid, Aligarh, City Lights and are now working on Omerta, a political thriller, which has Rao in a “never-before” dark role. Amidst these he has also done Kai Po Che, an important film in his career along with Queen, where he plays Kangana’s hypocritical, possessive and desperate fiancé.
After having done theatre in Delhi, Rao applied to FTII, which was restarting its acting course after a gap of 28 years. “FTII was an eye opener. Watching international films, legendary actors like Daniel Day Lewis, Robert De Niro. Before that the only actor (from the west) I knew was Tom Cruise...Their books, biographies, discussions… I realised acting is not a simple thing. It’s vast, huge. You have to keep learning, keep exploring. You can never say I am an accomplished actor now. There will always be a character you won’t know how to play.”
He says he does one film at a time—the shorter schedules and delayed releases are probably the reason for a whopping five films this year—and likes to have a different look for each character. Be it as subtle as a twang in the accent in Kai Po Che or the curls in Newton, a look, director Masurkar says, that was designed by Rao himself. “I was worried if Rajkummar would be okay with wearing a full vest (baniyan), which would have made the character more interesting but wouldn’t look nice and so I had kept two before him and asked him to make the choice. He went with the full one on his own.”
Rao has got good work, right from the start, but there have been times when he was looking for work and nothing came by. It’s his friends, acting exercises with FTII friends and travelling that kept him busy, but never was he troubled or anxious. “Acting is my true love, if it is not talking to me for a year, it’s okay you know. I can handle it. You keep busy and stay in touch with acting exercises. God has been too kind, guiding me to go to Pune, Mumbai, meet this one, go there, there, and there,” he says animatedly.
Now that guiding light has led him to films like Newton, Bareilly ki Barfi and Behen Hogi Teri, which mark a departure from the gritty, grey roles that Rao has come to be identified with. “Newton is a black comedy. Comedy is something you don’t do; it is the situation that is funny, like life. You react and it will be funny. The other two are commercial, but I am not lip syncing. There is a story, characters. Actually, commercial cinema is also changing now. Imagine the biggest film, Dangal, is a rather non-commercial film about a 50-year-old father. Salman Khan and Shahrukh Khan are doing Sultan, Fan, Raees. Tanu weds Manu made Rs 150 crore, Queen made 70-80 crore,” he goes on about how much difference it makes when superstars tell these stories.
Though immersed in his craft, Rao goes back to Delhi to meet his ‘best friends from school’ and family, but only to hurry back to the feverish grind of Mumbai. “I can’t live anywhere else now. This is my karmabhoomi. I love my work too much to be away,” he gushes about the process, the industry, the trends. “Sometimes I have some ideas so I note them down. May be I can use them later. I am not a writer. It needs patience, time and commitment. But I like reading non-fiction.”
Many of his films have been based on solid issues—urban migration, human rights. How important is it for him to be aware, to be involved? How does it translate in his work? “Even if we are not participating, we should know what is right and what is wrong. I am socially aware. I follow what’s going on all over the world. And then, there are things I am not aware of. For example, I did not know what actual courts were until Hansal Sir and I visited one for Shahid. My conditioning for courts was Hindi films. When we went, we said we want to show this. I spent lot of time with Shahid’s brother Khalid to understand him. For Omerta too I had to do my research.”
And while doing so, it goes beyond getting the truth in his performance. “I learn about the history of our world, and where we come from. Whatever bad happens, I learn how it started. I am becoming a better human being just by doing these films.”