Actor Gajraj Rao made his debut in Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen way back in 1994, but it took him many years to finally rise to fame with Badhaai Ho in 2018. With Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020), he created a niche for himself in the film industry as a versatile artiste possessing an uncanny sense of comic timing. In conversation with Outlook's Giridhar Jha, the 49-year-old actor talks about his latest film, Lootcase, his journey as an actor and why it is the best time for audiences. Excerpts from the interview:
Your performance of a scheming but comical villain in Lootcase, which premiered on Disney+Hotstar recently, is being praised everywhere. Tell us about your character in the film?
It is a comedy film, a simple comedy, not a slapstick one. No character in this film tries to make you laugh, but its situations are funny. What greed does to a person and what it makes him do are basically what Lootcase is all about. There is a politician, a policeman, a don and a common man and everyone runs after a suitcase, which creates all the mayhem in the film. I play a wily politician, who does not explicitly scold or threaten anybody, but he does that in his own subtle way. It takes a few minutes for the other person to realise that he has been threatened. He has this crooked style of getting his work done.
You have always displayed a certain style of subtle comedy. Is it a conscious decision not to do anything over-the-top to make the audiences laugh?
I have been fortunate enough to get such scripts in this genre and work with directors and writers whose sense of timing is excellent, be it Amit Sharma of Badhaai Ho, Hitesh Kevlaya of Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan or Rajesh Krishnan of Lootcase. I am of the firm belief that comedy is nothing but understanding of the timing. If you do not possess a sense of timing and do not know when to take a pause, then you will not be able to do comedy. It is most important in comedy. I was lucky enough to get my training under Ranjit Kapoor’s guidance in theatre and I learnt from him how to take and create pauses on the stage. I am only using that experience to my advantage in films now.
You have a vast experience in theatre but it took you many years to make an impact in the film industry with Badhaai Ho. How will you describe your journey as an actor before and after that movie?
One immediate analogy that comes to my mind is that of a journey on different railway tracks. My career before and after Badhaai Ho has been like the different journeys on the chhoti line (meter gauge) and the badi line (broad gauge) – of a train. My career before this film was like a journey on a meter-guage train. Badhaai Ho suddenly put me on a broad-gauge train. That is the difference. The journey on a chhoti line train was enjoyable but a broad-gauge train takes to the distant big cities and increases the number of your admirers considerably. I am grateful for that.
The audiences have lately shown a remarkable penchant for good stories. Will it eventually draw curtains on the haloed start system of Bollywood?
It is a new trend. Now, the concepts of both kinds of movies are working. There are big films such as Baahubali (2015) or Baaghi 3 (2020), which are called event films. Only Tiger Shroff can pull off a Baaghi 3, nobody can replace him. Only Salman Khan can do justice to Tiger Zinda Hai (2017). Any lesser star will not be able to do it. Or, for that matter, the kind of movies Akshay Kumar has been doing cannot be done by smaller actors or character actors in the same manner. I think it is a great time when big stars like them are shining bright. If you have Hrithik Roshan on one side, there is an actor like Ayushmann Khurrana on the other. If we have Varun Dhawan, we also have Rajkummar Rao. It is a very good time when different films are catering to different audiences. Some people relish litti-chokha while others can have dosa-sambhar. It will be an excess if you force litti-chokha lovers to switch over to dosa-sambhar and vice-versa. Just the way everybody's free to taste the cuisines of their choice, the audiences are also getting to watch the films of their choice today.
So it is the best of both worlds for the audiences? Isn’t it?
Absolutely. If a man fond of litti-chokha wants to try chhole-bhature or somebody who likes dosa-sambhar wants to try rajma-chawal, there is freedom to do so. There is no compulsion for audiences, and they have a lot of options. Likewise, the film-makers, the actors and the technicians also have the options as to which project they want to do and which they do not. Let alone Hindi cinema, a lot of good movies are being made in Marathi, Bengali and Malayalam. During lockdown, I saw a Punjabi film called, Rabb Da Radio (2017). It is not a run-of-the-mill film and has a different kind story, which is rooted to local culture. If I get an opportunity to do a film like Rabb Da Radio, or any good project in Bangla, Malyalam or even Bhojpuri and Maithili, I will certainly do it today. Ten years ago, it would not have been possible.
How do you look at the advent of OTT platform? Has it helped the cause of good cinema?
I feel that the winds of change have not yet swept the cinema in Bhojpuri, Maithili or some other languages in the north, where stereotyped films are still being made but the change will probably come, sooner than later. I have many friends from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and the other parts of the cow belt. I know that there is a treasure trove of stories waiting to be made into good films. I had once done a play called Netua written by Ratan Verma, which was about launda naach (a local folk dance performed by a man in a woman’s attire). Why cannot a web series be made on this art? Why cannot we make a web show on the stories of Phanishwar Nath Renu? I am sure that in the days to come, some enlightened person or somebody from the local establishment will come forward and say, “Let’s make a cinema which will not only depict the local stories but also give work to the local artistes”. During lockdown, film-maker Vishal Bharadwaj was in Uttrakhand where he met the Chief minister and discussed the prospect of making movies on the local stories. I am optimistic that the stories from all regions will get opportunities to be retold on the OTT platform.
As an actor, how different is a web series from a conventional feature film for you?
It entails the same hard work. What is important is what kind of script it has, what kind of intentions the writer and the director have and what kind of journey they want to undertake. The journey is more important for me. I get excited and curious about what kind of people I am going to work with and whether I would be able to enjoy working with them. I want to know whether I would be able to laugh out loud with them during the lunch break or not.
After Lootcase, which projects of yours are in the pipeline?
The next is an Ajay Devgn film, Maidaan. Half of the shooting had been completed when the lockdown happened. We hope to resume its shooting in November and plan to release it in August next year.
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