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31 Aug

Rajkummar Rao: The leading man

Portraying extraordinary depth and versatility in his performances, RAJKUMMAR RAO is here to master the rules and change your definition of a Bollywood hero

On a comfortably grey and cosy Mumbai morning, Rajkummar Rao slips onto our set without any celebrity fanfare. With back-to- back releases, his PR machinery is revved up and though there’s enough reason for self- aggrandisement, Rajkummar is happy to just let his work do the talking. His performances have been positively received by critics and audiences alike. But Rajkummar is still becoming accustomed to his stardom, as he toggles between disbelief and gratitude. “When I moved to Mumbai in 2008, I experienced a culture shock. It’s a tough and expensive city to survive in,” he reveals speaking of his early days.

His backstory is as suited to a Bollywood script as can be. A young boy with big movie star aspirations moves to the city with nothing but big dreams and an even bigger will to make it. “There are so many people who come to this city in the hopes of getting a break as an actor. And even though a number of films get made over here, the opportunities are slim; it’s not easy to break through in the industry. So, in hindsight, I feel blessed that I get to live my dream because there are so many people out there who want the same thing.” Rajkummar finds himself in a happy state of mind right now; and why not? His collaboration with cinema, thus far, has been breathtaking. His performances have always won accolades and Rajkummar’s name is now listed as one of the finest of our generation. But all this acclaim came at a price. “I have really worked hard to get here. It’s not like I chanced upon this career or was born into it. I did theatre in Delhi, worked on plays in college. I enrolled at the Film and Television Institute of India, where for two years, I simply breathed cinema. We were constantly discussing cinema, acting, actors, performances, the process of performance—all of that drove my passion for this job,” he shares. Those were hard days for the struggling actor, but Rajkummar knew that this was all he wanted to do. And he was not going to compromise.

JEWELLERY: Hazoorilal Legacy

“People usually assist on films or do other jobs around a set, but I didn’t want to find the comfort of any other job. I knew that this was the only job for me and no way was I going to try anything else. I just wanted to face the camera and so I kept at it. During my first two years here, I met a lot of agents and people for jobs. They, of course, wouldn’t have me audition for lead parts. They’d pitch the smaller roles. But, I’d just keep pursuing them and pitching myself. All I wanted was a chance to simply try. Sometimes they’d let me audition for the lead and the feedback would often be the same: the producer wants a certain star cast or they have a different idea of a leading man. I never felt demotivated though,” he recounts.

Today, his résumé packs an impressive punch. Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010), Gangs of Wasseypur – Part 2 (2012), Shahid (2013), Queen (2014), Trapped (2016), Newton (2017), Bareilly Ki Barfi (2018) and Omerta (2018), to list a few, are some of Bollywood’s finest movies brought to life by eclectic performances including that of Rajkummar’s. “I think it’s a great time to be a part of the movies—whether as an actor, director, writer or a technician. We’re experimenting with cinema and art so much. The moviegoers today want to connect with the people they see on screen; the audience wants someone to relate to. I guess that’s why a film like Newton worked because the cast was so relatable. Maybe that’s why people are connecting with actors like me. Perhaps they feel like ‘he’s one of us’,” he responds, in trying to decode the approval of his audience. “I know that right now no one can imagine me doing a full-throttle action flick with 20 cars bursting into flames as I walk past with swagger. But, you never know— no one expected me to be able to dance either,” he teases. His will to challenge convention is apparent. “I don’t want to risk being pigeonholed. I’m still exploring my craft and myself, so why [should I be] restricted to genres and character types,” he questions.

JEWELLERY: Hazoorilal Legacy

While Rajkummar is altering the template of a Bollywood hero, he understands that the audience has as big a role to play. “I think the audience has changed the definition of the leading man followed by writers who have evolved the characters. I was still doing supporting roles until one day someone said, ‘let’s sign Raj as our leading guy’ and it connected with the audience. There’s so much access to international cinema and series; there’s such consumption for good content and characters, so now, the moviegoer wants to see relatable characters on screen. Look at Aamir (Khan) Sir playing an overweight, greying 50-year-old father in Dangal and then look at the love, the audience has bestowed on that film! That speaks volumes of where we’re going as an industry and people. Stories are becoming important and content is being treated with due respect,” he points. It’s no surprise then, that Stree (2018), his latest release, is a story that has generated such curiosity. “I’m very proud of this film; it’s not easy to pull off a horror-comedy and with Stree, I think that our team has managed that.”

With Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga and Mental Hai Kya due to release, Rajkummar is immersed in another exciting year of work. “I love the drive; I’m happiest on a film set,” he states.

His journey has seen many pivotal moments, but is there a role that left him as gobsmacked as his audience? “I think I surprised myself with Bose: Dead/Alive (2017). I didn’t see myself fit the character sketch, but then I thought that if someone could envision me as this character then there must be something. I was just happy and proud of the final product.”

Today, he’s shared screen space with the cream of Bollywood—be it Anil Kapoor, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan or Kangana Ranaut. “You can be an industry insider or an absolute nobody—talent will find its place,” he assesses.

Well, here’s looking at Rajkummar—a man whose career is a true example of talent finding its place.

Photographs: Nuno Oliveira; Outfits, Accessories & Styling: Varun Bahl; Hair: Team Hakim’s Aalim; Make-up: Nitin Purohit; Location: Rustomjee Elements, Mumbai 

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Lynn Lobo / [email protected]
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