The rise of Ranveer Singh is the triumph of the outsider. The new sensation of Hindi cinema shares the thrills and travails of his journey
Divya Unny | 14 Mar, 2019
JUST BEFORE he turned 20, Ranveer Singh found himself performing to a classroom packed with college students in the US. It was an acting class he had signed up for at Indiana University, and the professor had put them on the spot by asking everyone to present a piece. Ranveer, unprepared, walked up to the front of the class. It was the first time in years he was addressing a crowd. With sweaty palms but a steady breath, he rattled off the famous Amitabh Bachchan monologue from Deewaar (1975). Nobody understood a word, but the language barrier didn’t stop a hearty applause that still echoes in Ranveer’s mind. “I sat there stumped, and the claps continued. I remember it so vividly, almost as if it was in slow motion,” he says. That day changed everything.
Cut to a warm afternoon at a suburban five-star hotel in Mumbai 14 years later. Ranveer is yet to arrive but the energy in the room has already begun to shift. Two ice-cold espressos have been ordered, the room has been checked for the right temperature, an outdoor space has been assigned for the interview, and the path has been cleared. His spot boy informs his manager that he’s walking towards us. The drama, I’ve to admit, is amusing. Ranveer is famous for making epic public entries with his boom box blaring his hit songs, but that’s certainly not what was expected this afternoon. The 2018 Forbes India magazine that includes him among the top 10 Indian celebrities (in the company of Amitabh Bachchan and Sachin Tendulkar) lies casually on the coffee table in the room, and just as I flip its pages, I see him.
In black track pants, black jacket with his signature hoodie, sunglasses masking most of his face, and a slight smile, he says, “Hi ma’am, shall we start?” He’s mellower than usual today, not keen to draw attention. He still embodies his character Murad from Gully Boy. He takes a while to take off his sunglasses, and make eye contact. “I feel like it’s some kind of a weird security blanket,” he confesses.
Ranveer as Murad, the quiet introvert, the hip-hop music lover from Dharavi, who fights all odds, will be counted amongst the most exemplary and finessed characterisations in modern Indian cinema. There’s a Murad in every Indian home, who has hopes and aspirations that seem too audacious. And Ranveer’s embodiment of that persona, had us from frame one. He seethes slowly, there’s pain in his eyes, rebellion in his soul, and poetry in his words. “People think I’m this Bandra brat, but I am really among those kids as well. I grew up on the border of Bandra East and West, and literally shared a wall with them. On one hand, for me, were the affluent beings of this cosmopolitan suburb, but on the other was my time spent playing cricket and football with the boys from the waadi (neighbourhood).” Ranveer isn’t outwardly political, but he insists he isn’t far removed from Gully Boy’s social realities “I’d run back from school, throw my bag and rush to play a game with them. Their language, their conflicts, their fights with their own selves is something I witnessed very often. I’m not saying I related to their struggles entirely, but I wasn’t alien to them. My view for 25 years was fancy skyscrapers at one end, and the slums at the other. I was very aware of the duality of Mumbai, and that gave me a very interesting vantage point to the film,” he says calling himself a ‘true-blue Mumbai boy’.
Without a doubt his most understated performance, Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy establishes a new reality. Thirty-three- year-old Ranveer, who debuted just nine years ago and was almost written-off as too brash to be in Bollywood, is the superstar of his generation. With no hits to their name in the last year, the era of the Khans might finally be coming to an end. And their successor has both the appeal and charm of a hero, and the skill and submission of a great actor. He is not trying to imitate anyone, but is stitched from his own cloth. Someone who is standing on a pedestal, and still has his feet on the ground. “He’s an actor- star and since Aamir Khan I don’t think we’ve had someone who can do both, carry the might of a star and still maintain the honesty of being a fine actor,” says director Maneesh Verma who introduced him to the world with Band Baaja Baaraat (2010). “I don’t know about taglines, but what I do know is that this, what is happening to me, is beyond my wildest imagination,” Ranveer says.
In less than a decade, through his roles, coupled with a flamboyant yet magnanimous personality, Ranveer is ruling hearts and minds alike. With nearly 14 films, and 28 brand endorsements, at an estimated net worth of almost Rs 90 crore, he has leaped over his contemporaries, including Ranbir Kapoor. “When Ranbir came in he was looked at as a Bandra brat and he changed that perception by playing some incredible roles. But Ranveer has now taken that and made it so much larger by identifying with a section of society who have not been considered worthy of the gaze of Bollywood. His mellow, inward-thinking portrayal in Gully Boy makes him that much more identifiable with a mass who were looking for a hero from amongst them,” says senior film writer Indu Mirani.
“I was just a kid with a dream and it came true. I understand that I am fortunate to be in this position- So when somebody expresses love or excitement- I take it in and I try and give back threefold. That’s just how I am,” says Ranveer Singh
In the same note, his directors and co- actors see him as someone who’s fearless and doesn’t strive for perfection. His co- actor Vijay Varma, who plays his friend the carjacker Moeen, says, “Ranveer exudes a certain kind of self-worth and confidence that can’t be shaken by external factors. I truly believe that being a secure actor is something everyone should strive for and it shouldn’t be glorified. But Ranveer, in his system has a thing of giving, a lot. I remember during a workshop I was having trouble with my character and he just ran his palm on my back. Asked me to breathe. It was where I connected with him. That makes the experience so real, and so memorable.” Zoya Akhar, who is a friend and has also directed him in Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), adds, “He’s fine being vulnerable. He’s very mindful and knows when to step back. You don’t see Ranveer, but Murad the minute he’s on screen, and that’s because he’s so invested in his part. He’s okay to not take the spotlight in a scene, and aims to serve the story in the end, and that’s a precious quality for an actor.”
It’s a space Ranveer has been leading up to for years now. Being the quintessential ‘Hindi picture ka hero’ was his dream. Like it was and is for countless young boys in Mumbai. We were introduced to him as the boisterous Bittoo Sharma in Band Baaja Baaraat (2010). But Ranveer’s introduction to cinema was always the larger-than-life parts played by Amitabh Bachchan, Anil Kapoor, Govinda and others. He was so influenced by their magnetism and mannerisms, that even today, he can masterfully mimic Kapoor. “Once in between takes during Dil Dhadakne Do, I asked Anil Sir if he understands lens magnifications, like when they say, ‘50 lekar aao, 75 lekar aao,’ on set, does he get it?” Ranveer then scratches his chin, brings base to his voice, squints his eyes in classic AK style and says, “Aaj tak nahi seekha hun mein kya…aaj tak nahin seekha (I haven’t learned it yet…)”
“Ranveer’s okay to not take the spotlight in a scene and aims to serve the story in the end. That’s a precious quality for an actor,” says Zoya Akhtar
One can’t say if he’s just a natural, or just so taken by his idols, that their mannerisms are like muscle memory to him. In all probability it’s a combination of both. “I think I was eight or nine when my teachers used to tell me, ‘Tu bada hoke actor banega.’ I had that gregarious, vivacious personality. My report card remarks would always say: ‘He is keen to entertain the other kids in the class.’ So the signs were all there. And god knows I wanted to,” he adds. When he was 15 his dream became very real for him. “I was looking from the outside at this Hindi film industry, and I didn’t have a way in. This is around the year 2000 when all your heroes were producers, directors, actors’ sons— Hrithik Roshan, Abhishek Bachchan, Tusshar Kapoor, Vivek Oberoi. I mean, it genuinely seemed like too far-fetched a dream. I was an outsider. My chances were a million to one. Which is when you re-calibrate your dreams to match your reality. I signed up for an advertising degree in America,” he says.
By chance he took an acting class in his second year of university, and the rest is history. He is emotional when he recounts the most significant conversation he had with his father that evening after class. “I said to him, ‘I really want to finish my degree, come back to Bombay and try.’ Without a thought in his head he said, ‘Do it. I know this is what your heart wants. When your heart is going to be in it, you will be good at it.’ Randomly getting a call like that from your son who you have invested so much in, it took a lot of fortitude from his end to accept it. All he said was, ‘I have one condition. Finish what you started and then come back.’ I couldn’t accept not trying, I knew that I’ll regret it if I don’t,” says Ranveer.
By now word had spread through the hotel that Ranveer Singh is in the house. Just 20 minutes ago it was just me, Ranveer and his managers in the garden, and now there is a woman with her six-year- old son, a newly married couple, and a few others who (we could tell) were hoping for a selfie with him. Slowly the crowd was trickling in. One man even randomly threw a thumbs up in his direction, but Ranveer was too immersed in his story to notice. “I did theatre, joined an advertising film and basically groped in the dark for three years before I got a call back for the Band Baaja Baaraat audition. Even today Adi [Aditya Chopra, the film’s producer] says it’s the best audition he has seen in his entire career,” he says. Maneesh Sharma, the director of the film, remembers how other than him, everybody thought casting Ranveer would be suicidal. “People came and told me ‘he can never be a star’. I didn’t have validation for my excitement, but filmmaking is primarily based on instinct and my instinct said he was the one, and he was going to make it big.”
The quality of being unaware is priceless. It goes away the more work you do-which is when you know that there can only be one performance in your life that will be all heart and no craft,” says Ranveer Singh
Even today, Ranveer believes that he can never top what he did with Bittoo. “After I got selected I was messing it all up. I was too nervous. Adi called me one day and said they were going to do a screen test and I could treat it like the World Cup final. If I won I could take the cup home, if not I could leave for good. Thankfully, I stayed. I don’t think in my whole life I will be able to match what I did in Band Baaja Baaraat. It’s too raw, it’s too unadulterated. I can see now that I didn’t know anything, and I am just doing everything instinctively.” Sharma who was also directing his debut film found in Ranveer a partner who was willing to give it his all. “His emotional quotient is really very high and he’s extremely sensitive. He really knows which buttons to press in terms of his own sensitivity to the character. I remember during the climax of the film I went to Ranveer and I saw ‘CLIMAX’ written in big bold letters on a white board. He was so nervous, and had made the scene so big in his head that we couldn’t shoot that day. I had to ask him to relax and treat it as just part of the story, and that’s when we nailed it,” he says. “I was so kuccha (raw)… as an actor the quality of not knowing, and being unaware is priceless. It’s invaluable. It goes away the more and more work you do, which is when you know that there can only be one performance in your life that’ll be all heart and no craft. Only one,” Ranveer adds.
Band Baaja Baaraat brought him recognition and acclaim. It was a time when Ranbir Kapoor was still the blue-eyed boy of Bollywood, Salman Khan had just landed with Dabangg (2010) and Akshay Kumar had four films that year. Still, a messy-haired, dusky boy with no godfather in the industry, made his mark. On a talk show with NDTV Ranveer reveals how he would constantly get asked how much money his father had pumped in to make him a star. It was success well earned, but he knew he had to do more to prove himself.
“I want to write- compose- direct. I want to explore other avenues of filmmaking. But it takes courage and personal evolution to do that. I don’t feel like I am there yet,” says Ranveer Singh
He soon broke out of the niche of the loud, snarky, street-smart Dilli boy he was expected to follow. Many new actors stick to parts that they’re comfortable and popular for; Ranveer did the opposite. With Lootera (2013), where he played an archaeologist-cum- painter, he expertly internalised the performance. “Lootera was way out of my realm as an actor at that point, but Vikram [director Vikramaditya Motwane] held me down and made me see what it feels like to play it down. I remember on the fourth day of the Lootera workshops, I wasn’t getting it. I tried and tried until I had a huge breakthrough and realised what it takes to pitch oneself at that scale,” he says. During the shoot of this film, he broke his back and was bedridden for two months. He remembers this as a time when he discovered himself. “I was yet to understand my comfort zone as an actor, but I never wanted to submit to it. I realised slowly that parts like in Simmba come to me easily. It’s the quieter parts that were more challenging because there’s nothing to say or to do. It keeps me stimulated, and I’m not stuck doing the same thing,” he says.
This need to experiment came as an epiphany. After Lootera he went on to act in Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela (2013); Finding Fanny (2014); Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) and Bajirao Mastani (2015). In each film we only saw the character, and not Ranveer. His multi-coloured pencil box and notepad he’d carry on set and take notes in while pacing around has become iconic. He often used music to stimulate his mind, and also fell back on smaller things like one perfume per role. His co-actor and wife Deepika Padukone reveals, “He’d get so consumed by the roles he plays that his walk, his way of dressing, the way he speaks, how he responds, everything changed. It’s a joke in our relationship that every six months I’m dating a new person. And at that point, we’d just met and I really wanted to get to know him better. It was very exciting to see him imbibe this new self now and then, but I really needed some consistency too,” she says.
Ranveer will soon begin shooting for ’83 where he plays the role of former Indian captain Kapil Dev
His process is not defined he says and can never be. Ram from Ram Leela is nothing like Peshwa Bajirao Ballal from Bajirao Mastani (2016) and Kabir from Dil Dhadakne Do is a far cry from Sultan Alauddin Khilji in Padmaavat (2018). These are roles that grew beyond the film itself and remained with his viewers. “I stick with my part of the deal: kalakaari (acting). The endeavor is to stick with the feeling. I have worked with actors who are all craft, no feeling. I am standing one inch away from them in the flesh, and I know for a fact that it’s all craft. It’s got everyone fooled except me because I am trying to connect with this person and there is no connect. I don’t want to get there ever, and for that I have to submit fully,” he says. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, who has directed him in several blockbusters, said in a television interview, “I have never seen obsession for the world of cinema in the way I’ve seen it with Ranveer.”
The obsession could be all consuming, especially for a part like Khilji where Ranveer felt like he was losing his mind. It took him eight years to learn how to separate his self from his roles. Khilji, with his mad locks, kohl-rimmed eyes, and untamed sexual appetites, was a new kind of villain in Bollywood. He certainly was the best thing about Padmaavat, but it came at a price. “I remember during Khilji, in the middle of the 40-day grueling schedule, one day I woke up at 4 am suddenly in my apartment. I walked past the mirror and I couldn’t recognise myself and it scared the shit out of me. The character was seeping into me. I was becoming angry and cynical. I was becoming a person I was not. I called my mother immediately and asked her to come on set. I realised that you have to go back to things that truly ground you, truly bring you back to who you are,” he says.
“When we started dating six years ago, I was more successful than him, busier than him, making more money. I’ve never come across a man who is so comfortable with the attention I was getting,” says Deepika Padukone, actor and wife
As Ranveer grew as an actor on screen, so did his personality off screen. “I spent two months with him on set as Murad and he was so calm, so quiet. And on the last day I saw him explode on the dance floor. That’s when I realised who the real Ranveer was,” Vijay Varma says. Time and again, he gave his fans high-octane drama, be it with his sense of fashion, or his over-the-top demeanour. He was exuding life and energy that seemed abnormally high to most. He could be anything, he could be everything; he was a superhero on the streets of Mumbai, one moment, and another he’d be prancing around in a ghaaghra at his own wedding reception. His acts flooded social media, he was often even trolled. Be it on a TV show or the stage, he was vocal, and unabashedly so about how his feelings for the woman he loved, and all of it made him come into his own. He wasn’t afraid to express himself and frankly it was refreshing. He was okay being the object of desire, and he was okay breaking into tears.
HE WAS THE HERO, but defied the stereotyped machismo a Hindi film hero came with. After years, we are seeing a leading man who is so comfortable in his skin that he cares little about feedback, except when it comes to his films. He’ll fall into the arms of his fans, without a thought, and you can see that he is happy. “That’s just my way of expressing gratitude. My way of saying thank you. I have wanted this ever since I’ve known who I really am, and now when I’m getting it, all I want to do is give back. I made my own luck, but it still didn’t have to come to me… I was just a kid with a dream and it came true. I understand that I am very fortunate to be in this position. So when somebody expresses love or excitement I take it in, and I try and give back threefold, that’s just how I’m built, it is just who I am. So it’s coming from a very genuine place or gratitude,” he says.
A big shift in his life is his relationship with Deepika that he says has changed him for the better. Their wedding was the most talked about affair at the end of last year. While it flooded the media, the couple also managed to keep it personal. “When we started dating six years ago, I was more successful than him, busier than him, making more money. I’ve never come across a man who is so comfortable with my success and the attention I was getting. He was supportive and encouraging of my career and it wasn’t superficial support. That doesn’t happen with many men. He really cared, and I don’t think our relationship would have lasted if not for how he inherently felt about my world and how much he respected it. I did not have to make compromises to keep my man happy and that was the best thing about him,” says Deepika.
Just as we come to the end of our hour-long walk, Deepika appears on Facetime. She’s on a shoot, and surprised to hear from him. “I pocket dialled you by mistake, Rani. I’m in an interview now, will call back. You look really hot by the way!” he says, spontaneously. It’s endearing. He speaks about her with affection and respect. “She’s taught me a way of being. She has opened up my eyes to a whole new dimension of hard work. I had never in my life before seen a person work that hard at something and it made me understand what it takes to achieve something. If she is the number one actress today, it is because nobody else deserves it more than her,” he says.
Recently Will Smith, the original hip-hop icon, congratulated Ranveer. On an Instagram story, he said, “Yo Ranveer, congrats man, I am loving what you’re doing with Gully Boy for me old- school hip hop here seeing hip hop all over the world like that I am loving it man. Congrats.” Now that kind of praise naturally thrilled Ranveer. He says, “I kept re-winding it and watching how he says, ‘Yo Ranveer!’ it was too cool. The Pursuit of Happyness is among the greatest cinematic performances of all time and when your idol says something so encouraging, what more can I ask for?”
With his aspirations, talent and energy, Ranveer is sure that acting is just one of his many hats. “I want to write, compose and direct. I want to explore my creativity in various other avenues of filmmaking. But it takes a lot of courage and personal evolution to do that. I don’t feel like I am there yet. I am getting a lot of very stimulating acting work and I want to concentrate on that,” he says. He will soon shoot ’83 where he plays the role of former Indian cricket captain Kapil Dev.
Before he leaves he happily obliges the 25-odd people who have been waiting patiently for photos with him. He looks in my direction and says, “You have a choice in life always. You can take two paths. One is seemingly easier, within your reach and more accessible. Another is bold where you go down a path which seems very dangerous. You don’t know what will come out of it. You don’t know what this path holds. But do it, you never know. You’ll never know until you do.”