His is truly a filmi story. It has all the elements that go into the production of one – furore, passion, dedication. “There was never a Plan B. I never thought of doing anything else. It was always acting.” If a new film released in the neighbourhood of his city, Rajkummar Rao was one of the first people in line for tickets. If the movie caught his fancy, he stood in line for an encore. “I have watched Titanic over and over again, and DDLJ (Dilwaale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge) too.”
It is no wonder then that recreating his favourite scenes off-screen was a given. “When I was in class nine, there was this sequence in Ghulam where Aamir Khan and Dipak Tijori run in front of the train. My friends and I have actually done that.” He even missed school to visit the cinema. “My mother was always aware of my bunking and watching films. I used to tell her that though I was in my school uniform, I was not going to school, and she was okay with that.”
He was one of those boys in class who never shied away from auditioning in school plays. He embarked on a life that was meant to entertain, when he formally danced for the first time for an audience in the 10th standard. “I enjoyed it so much. Then I thought that since people are so appreciative, there was no reason to not pursue a career on stage.”
It may be natural to assume that coming from a typical middle-class Indian family, his folks would have nudged him to aspire for a regular nine-to-five job. Then again, this story is a positive one. “It never happened that one day I sat at the dinner table and told them that I want to become an actor. It was very organic and they knew it. When my parents would come to school for meetings, they would be happy listening to my teachers praise my dancing.”
At the same time, he didn’t just shirk away a good education. He had a good balance of naughty and nice. “I was very adventurous growing up. There was not a single moment where I would just open a book and read. I used to come home from school or college, throw my bag and then roam with friends. But it wasn’t that I was terrible in academics either.” An above-average student, he went on to become an Arts graduate. All this while, he kept his talent alive. “There is an acting school in Delhi called Shri Ram Centre for Performing Arts. It was a two-year course. I was with them during my first and second year of graduation and was also doing plays in college. Then I joined a professional theatre company.” When the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) started their courses in 2004, he put in an application in 2005. From the thousands who wrote the entrance test, he was one of the few shortlisted for an interview and then again one of 50 for a workshop and finally one of 20 for the course.
“FTII was a changing experience for me. Before this course, my only reference was Bollywood and the actors I grew up watching. Then I started seeing international performances and acquainted myself with people like Daniel Day-Lewis and Robert De Niro. That is what has given me a bigger perspective of acting.” With a coveted school name on his resume, he moved to Mumbai on February 17, 2008. Soon after, with some help from FTII mates, he did the usual try-out rounds for many roles.
Rao was never nervous about his auditions – it was the feedback that put him in a state of confusion. “Once I had almost got this film for an interesting project. The casting director was on my side and he thought I could do full justice to the part. But the production house thought I was not fair enough. It got me wondering, how does the colour of my skin matter? It’s not like the character is from Kashmir! But you smile and move on.”
Two years later he bagged his first movie – Love, Sex Aur Dhoka followed by Ragini MMS, both of which had him play leads. Yes, he did get the recognition he deserved, but the offers his way after these were not that of the protagonist’s anymore. He was seen as Shamshad, a hoodlum in Gangs Of Wasseypur, inspector Devrath Kulkarni in Talaash, and, for a few brief minutes, as Malwankar in Shaitaan. “They were small, but important roles.” He is also happy with his brief appearance in Mira Nair’s short film God Room, for he feels that it is an honour to be collaborating with the film-maker.
Not once during the time of waiting for leads did he wonder if this was it for him – being a supporting actor. He simply went with the flow, allowing his destiny to connect the dots for him. And then, Kai Po Che happened. “It put me in the lead again. They had me on posters and that is big because that is how people know you.” He got Shahid because an impressed Anurag Kashyap recommended him to Hansal Mehta. And then Queen happened.
Somewhere deep down, he does believe that even though his past choices weren’t very calculated, it is his penchant for reading biographies of veteran actors that have subconsciously played on his decision-making and techniques. “I see myself doing everything. I grew up imitating Bollywood’s superstars. Even if I haven’t done anything like them, I know it’s in me.” As long as the role challenges him, he is game for it. With no guiding hand, his decisions are his own.
Does this make him feel like a foreigner to the industry? He looks at it very objectively. He wasn’t born to a Bollywood star. “I felt like an outsider initially because there was no one backing me. But if I wanted to take up a government job like my father, he would have definitely helped me. The same way, parents of star-sons have worked really hard. Now if their kids want to take their help, there is no harm.”
Not part of any of the film cliques yet, he has but a handful of whom he can label as friends. Director and screenwriter Hansal Mehta is someone he considers a good friend, as well as Kai Po Che co-stars Amit Sadh and Amrita Puri. “If I am ever in trouble, I know Amit and Amrita will be there for me.”
Now that he has honestly won the title of an actor, especially with the National Film Award and a film glossy’s Critics Award for Best Actor endorsing this, he hesitantly admits to missing parts of his old life. It’s not like he now takes this platform for granted. “When I get nominated with actors whom I’ve watched in my childhood, it feels surreal.” He knows he is living his dream. “This is what I’ve always wanted.”
In spite of it all, to sacrifice a lot of delicious grub for the profession is this foodie’s suffering. “Whenever my mother sees me, she says, ‘You’ve become so thin!’ I just laugh and say that I haven’t become thin, you have become fat.” Every once in a fortnight he allows himself debauched devouring though. “Sometimes when I just get out for paani-puri, I realise there are a lot of people who are looking at me. It feels special. But I feel the most embarrassed when someone asks to take a picture with me when we’re in a temple.”
Between schedules, when he goes back to his family in Gurgaon, he is “just a guy who wants to be home”. Family time ranks high on his agenda. “When you’re home, you only have to ask to get something. Living in Mumbai, you have to make your own tea or wait for the maid to cook for you.” Luckily for him, his mother visits him often, not depriving him much of the coddling. “She wants to meet Mr Bachchan one day,” he discloses, adding that watching her son being presented an award for Shahid by the superstar, made her the proudest.
Since his debut release in 2010, this man has arrived as an actor, but deep down inside, he is still that boy from Gurgaon who is brimming with aspirations, very much in touch with reality. He adores animals and if he had the time, he would keep a dog. He loves that his profession shows him the world. He makes sure he takes time out to visit local cafes and walk the streets. When in India, he is aware of the attention he can garner. He is crazy about cars and has his heart set on the Lamborghini and Range Rover. Perhaps one day he will own them.
Bigger and better is the way forward for him. A couple of international agents have come to him with interesting offers – he has met a director from France and one from Pakistan but cannot divulge their names right now. And he doesn’t doubt that a Bollywood bigwig like Karan Johar may also like his performance and cast him in his film. “It has just been three years since I’ve been in this industry. You never know,” he grins.
Experiments and varieties are the ingredients with which he is stirring his life’s pot. “I’m doing different types of films now. I don’t want people to think I can only do parallel cinema.” Rao can see himself in light-hearted genres too, as long as they have a point to them – like Andaaz Apna Apna or Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron. “The script I’m going to be a part of cannot be something illogical. As an actor you are giving a few months of your life to it, so it better be worth it.”
Rao has his own process to get into the skin of his characters. He modulates accents, looks up the place of its origin, background, and if need be, travels to the city or town even for a thorough feel of it. Acting with a skilled old-timer would excite him more than intimidate him. Sharing screen space with a contemporary doesn’t threaten him. This man is all about the performance. People in his frame are only part of the script. Who then does he play against? “The man in the mirror is my competition. My only competition is my last performance.”