IT WAS A SCENE any student of cinema would gladly immerse themselves in. Naseeruddin Shah was in conversation with the late Irrfan Khan, sometime in 2016. The formal taped conversation between them had ended a few hours ago but the two were unwinding now, in the anteroom of a Mumbai hotel. Their wives, actress Ratna Pathak Shah and writer Sutapa Sikdar, were present, as were a few young actors and directors. The quietest of them, in a sharp suit, with his equally low-key actress girlfriend, Patralekhaa, was also the brightest. And the one listening most intently.
Remind Rajkummar Rao of it and he smiles shyly, saying what a great opportunity it was to listen to two greats talking about their craft. “I love these people. And as the Buddha said, ‘Be a good listener, especially when you get such an opportunity.’ I’m a student of acting and adore listening to the process of great actors,” says the National Film Award winner for Best Actor (for Shahid). Three very diverse movies have shown Rao’s range this year: Shimla Mirchi, the brilliant Ludo and the sweet tempered Chhalaang. He is also one of the three leads in Netflix’s forthcoming hotly tipped Oscar contender The White Tiger. Rao might soon find himself in the position of being listened to with awe.
If he’s not already there. At 36, he has already been in over 45 movies over a 10-year career which began with his role as the slimy store clerk who makes and sells a sex tape with his colleague in Dibakar Banerjee’s shockingly awesome LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhoka (2010). He continued his grubby ways in Ragini MMS (2011), a sleeper horror hit from Ekta Kapoor’s factory, and in Anurag Kashyap’s Shaitan (2011), but it was as Shahid in Hansal Mehta’s eponymous movie in 2012 that he broke away from the ranks of smart young sparks, two of whom were in his batch of 2008 at the Film and Television Institute of India. Jaideep Ahlawat achieved stardom this year with an exceptional turn as a loser policeman in Paatal Lok, and Vijay Varma has been here, there and everywhere recently, from A Suitable Boy to Mirzapur Season 2.
Negotiating Bollywood isn’t easy. Especially if, like Rao, you come from Gurugram, via Atma Ram Sanatan Dharma College, Delhi, and FTII. There are several dynasties and their extended families whose offspring know the diets, exercise regimens, dance teachers, stylists and publicists. They come into the industry fully prepared to be stars. Some manage, some don’t, but there are always enough auntyjis and unclejis to help. Young actors like Rao who believe, rightly, that careers are built in acting workshops and in theatrical rehearsals, and not gyms, have to work harder to get noticed.
Director of The White Tiger Ramin Bahrani has a fantastic process. He gives you all the time in the world and gives you your space. He never calls action, he just says, ‘whenever you’re ready’,” says Rajkummar Rao
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Equally it is true that some of Bollywood’s greatest stars have been quirky, unconventional outsiders, who’ve managed to get the industry to change to match their persona rather than transform themselves to fit the formula. From Amitabh Bachchan to Shah Rukh Khan, there is little to obviously recommend them except their prodigious talent and enormous intelligence. Actors such as Manoj Bajpayee and the late Irrfan were equally men who came from nowhere, but had hunger in their bellies and the determination to stand out.
Sometimes if the stars align, the newcomer gets lucky. In Rao’s case, he was to play off against
Nawazuddin Siddiqui in Gangs of Wasseypur 2 and spent a month readying himself for it, only to be told, at the last minute, by an apologetic Kashyap, that the part was now smaller in scope. Undeterred Rao chose to continue with the movie. Kashyap and casting director Mukesh Chhabra recommended him to Hansal Mehta who was looking to make Shahid, based on the real life terror accused-turned-human rights activist. After putting him off for a few days, Mehta met Rao, only to be convinced that only he could play the complex part.
Eleven months after a difficult shoot, Shahid was ready for release and made both Mehta and Rao lifelong friends. The two have made five movies together: Shahid, City Lights (2014), Aligarh (2015), Omerta (2017) and this year’s light-hearted Chhalaang. Along the way, he also played Netaji Subhas Bose in a show Mehta produced: Bose: Dead/Alive in 2017. Shoma Munshi, television scholar, remembers that performance. “He pulled off the role with audacious brilliance. He managed the transition from a quietly rebellious teenager to the heroic nationalist in his adult years without missing a beat, be it the Bengali accent, partially tonsuring his head for the role, his love for his German wife, the flirtatious encounter with the girl in the arranged match, his beating up the British professor, his pointed talks with Gandhi and Nehru, with Hitler, and with Darbari Lal,” she says.
What stands out is his preparation for each character. It could be the curly hair and constant blinking for Amit Masurkar’s Newton (2017) where he plays a dedicated election officer. It could be the way of saying hello in Pritam Vidrohi’s Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017). Or it could be the hair and the dance style he picked up from Mithun Chakraborty for the role of a convict-turned-restaurateur in Anurag Basu’s Ludo. Often his directors do not know what he has planned. Says Masurkar, “I really don’t know how he prepared for Newton. He was busy with Trapped  and he dived straight into Newton. We did do some readings where we discussed the character, story and themes in detail. He’s a very sincere actor and trusts his own instincts, and came up with the idea of having an unruly, curly mop of hair like Isaac Newton and some peculiar characteristics,” he says.
That he is on a permanent diet for some role or the other, which usually requires some element of physical transformation, is perhaps Mehta’s only complaint against his friend. “We’ve travelled together for some festivals since the days of Shahid and he’s great fun, except when it comes to food. He’s a vegetarian and usually on a specific diet plan. Plus he’s a teetotaller.” It doesn’t stop him from dancing all night, cracking jokes, and generally having fun when he wants to, notes Mehta.
Rao has also managed to overcome the affliction of Bollywood newbies, the curse of wanting it all. He seems to be in no particular hurry to accumulate material wealth, focusing instead on his work. It helps that he has trained himself to be calm and positive. How? “Because my blood group is B+,” he says with a laugh. “We can’t look back at the past. We have to move on. And the pandemic has told us we need to stay sane to stay afloat, to have some people out there who are there for you.” He has several friends who are outside the film industry, he says, and they provide a reality check. “If you can’t be real in real life, how can you portray it on screen?”
The pandemic has told us we need to stay sane to stay afloat, to have some people out there who are there for you. If you can’t be real in real life, how can you portray it on screen?,” says Rajkummar Rao
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He reads for inspiration, whether it is Rumi, Kahlil Gibran, Paramhansa Yogananda or Mahavatar Babaji. “It’s important to find your centre point and focus on it,” he says. Perhaps that’s why he didn’t find the lockdown to be too much of a downer. “I was trying to be productive,” he says. After 10 years, he also felt he needed to go back to the basics. He attended online workshops on screenwriting and direction, as well as acting classes with Kevin Spacey, Natalie Portman and Helen Mirren, among others.
Nothing excites him more than honing his craft—though he is not averse to playing dress-up for the red carpet, for festivals and events as well. His best role is always something that awaits him. In Ludo, he says, he so enjoyed playing out of the crease. In The White Tiger, it was great to work with a director like Ramin Bahrani who loves his actors. “He has a fantastic process, which the best here have as well, like [Anurag] Kashyap, Hansal sir, [Anurag] Basu dada and [Aditya] Motwane. He gives you all the time in the world, and gives you your space. He never calls action, he just says, ‘Whenever you’re ready.’” Thanks to films being shot digitally now, there is no shortage as in the days of stock, he points out, and sometimes magic happens because of that ease and latitude.
For Rao, that is what he loves the most. Coming back home from a film set where he has been psychologically and physically taxed, as he was in Shahid and Omerta. “I like getting deeply involved in my character. I don’t think about anything,” he adds.
So, a decade on in the film industry and in the year that took a toll on his friend and co-star of their breakthrough movie Kai Po Che (2013), Sushant Singh Rajput, does Rao consider himself an outsider or insider? “I’m just an actor, who is blessed,” he says. His advice for those who want to make it? “Come here because you love your craft, not its perks,” he says.