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What’s important for me is the internal journey: Rajkummar Rao

Shriya Mohan | Updated on February 04, 2021

Shooting star: This year, Rao is making a conscious choice not to do too many small-town comedies

The method actor has lived a multitude of lives in his decade-long acting career. And he is waiting for more

* His most recent release The White Tiger, based on the Booker-winning novel of the same name by Aravind Adiga, has been trending worldwide on Netflix ever since its release last month

* In 2008, during his first year at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, he was cast in a short film as a rickshaw puller. He stopped wearing chappals for a whole week, walking barefoot to class and subsisted on eating half a meal a day to experience hunger pangs

* If there was a turning point in his acting career, it was Mehta’s 2013 release Shahid, where Rao plays the role of Shahid Azmi, a former terror accused who earned a law degree while serving time at Tihar jail

* There is an innate sincerity in Rao which makes him a poster boy for small-town heroes

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It’s not surprising, really, that Rajkummar Rao is a huge admirer of Daniel Day-Lewis. The British actor — known for having immersed himself in every role that he played — famously lived in a cell and had ice-cold water thrown on him to prepare for the prison drama In the Name of the Father.

Rao has been doing a lot of that, too. In one of his most stellar performances in Trapped, a survival drama directed by Vikramatidya Motwane in 2016, the immensely popular Hindi film actor played Shaurya, a man trapped in a high-rise flat without electricity, water or a phone. All through the shoot, Rao lived on carrots and coffee, staying unkempt, to be able to feel like Shaurya. He even wanted to sleep in the empty flat, but was finally dissuaded by the crew from doing so.

Getting in character: Rao filled himself with hatred and anger to prepare for the part of Pakistani-British terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh in Hansal Mehta’s Omerta

 

And the most immersive character he has played till date, he tells you, is the role of the British-Pakistani terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, in Hansal Mehta’s 2017 crime drama Omerta. Sheikh, an academically bright student at the London School of Economics, was responsible for the kidnapping and murder of The Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl. To get into the skin of the character, Rao surrounded himself with hate, devouring incendiary speeches for three months.

The 36-year-old method actor from Gurugram has lived a multitude of lives in his decade-long acting career. Rao stresses that he believes in transmigration — the migration of a soul into another body. Not through black magic, of course, but with a sort of fierce dedication to his craft.

“That’s the one big reason I love being an actor. I feel extremely grateful to live so many lives and experience those joys and sorrows through each film... These characters and stories have helped me learn more about life and society,” he says talking to BLink on the phone from Dehradun, where he is at the moment shooting for his upcoming film Badhaai Do, a sequel to the 2018 comedy-drama Badhaai Ho. Rao plays a cop in the film.

His most recent release The White Tiger, based on the Booker-winning novel of the same name by Aravind Adiga, has been trending worldwide on Netflix ever since its release last month.

“It’s overwhelming. When I signed for the film, I knew that I was signing up for something special because I was a big fan of the book and of (American-Iranian director) Ramin Bahrani’s work,” he says. With talks of The White Tiger becoming an Oscar contender, Rao — who plays Ashok, the US-returned son of a tyrannical landowner and the protagonist Balram’s employer — has his fingers crossed.

But awards don’t excite Rao as much as the chance to sharpen his skill. In that sense, it was rewarding to work with Bahrani, he says. It was the first time he worked with a director who never said Action! Or Cut! on the sets. Instead, Bahrani would simply say, “Whenever you’re ready...” and roll.

“He takes actors on a journey within a scene. He would never come up and show you how to do a scene. Instead, he would make you search for truth in that scene,” Rao says.

The process of searching for truth, to take on a character with brutal honesty, is something that Rao holds sacred.

Method or madness

“When I started my training in acting I was never chasing stardom and fame, all I wanted was to get deep inside my art,” he says. He was barely 18 when after college hours he would do theatre rehearsals at the Shriram Centre for Performing Arts at the capital’s Mandi House area. Once, he says, he boarded a public bus with dark shades, a walking stick in hand and eyes firmly shut. “I wanted to grope my way through the world of a blind man,” he says.

Another time he sat at Bengali Market, a busy food hub in the Mandi house area, pretending he was a beggar. He whipped himself, playing the part of a beggar belonging to a certain sect that indulged in self-flagellation for sympathy and alms. When the police asked him to leave, he was so in his character that he began arguing with them, and then pleading in desperation, feeling the weight of that crushing poverty that makes one harm oneself for a few rupees.

In 2008, during his first year at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, he was cast in a short film as a rickshaw puller. He stopped wearing chappals for a whole week, walking barefoot to class and subsisted on half a meal a day to experience hunger pangs.

“I wanted to feel the pain. The germ of getting inside your character’s mind, and the detailed way in which you can work on your character... all that came from FTII,” he says.

The two years at the FTII expanded his understanding of method acting and what it meant to get under the skin of a character. It was the first time he was introduced to the works of Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and the universe of world cinema.

“The one actor I am hugely inspired by is Daniel Day-Lewis. I think it’s the honesty and commitment to his art which makes so many people love and respect him,” he says.

Prior to FTII, too, Rao — who was born and raised in a middle class family — was a Hindi cinema buff. His family took movies very seriously. In a media interview some years ago, Rao mentions how when his parents wed, his mother brought home a large poster of Amitabh Bachchan.

But for Rao, the lines always easily blurred between happenings on and off screen — both as a viewer and an actor. In an interview on The Ranveer Show on YouTube, Rao recalls that as a schoolboy, when he watched Agneepath (1990) for the first time with his family, it was difficult for him to accept that the hero (Bachchan) dies at the end. He would howl into his pillow, wishing for Bachchanto come back to life.

Later as an actor, it came naturally to Rao to allow a character complete internal control, to the point that he could begin to think, feel and act as if he were possessed by it. “That’s the fun of being an actor. When you give it all that you have,” he emphasises.

In Trapped, for instance, it is only for the first 15 minutes of the film that Rao is seen interacting with other characters. From there on for the next hour, locked in, he pulls offa solo act portraying a range of emotions — from disbelief, rage and betrayal to desperation, madness, savagery, loneliness, fear and hopelessness, emerging from it with a ruthless instinct to survive.

There was a scene where Rao used bits of cardboard and wrote SOS messages using shaving cream and toothpaste and flung it outside the window hoping that someone would come to his rescue. But when the tubes ran empty and he had nothing to write with, he used his blood. Rao insisted on keeping it real and cut himself for it. Blood and sweat, clearly, is not a metaphor for Rao.

“I’m a big fan of survival dramas,” says the actor who thrives on drama. “People who’ve seen the film think it’s one of my best works. When the film ended, I felt the same freedom that Shaurya feels when he finally makes it out,” he says, laughing.

Rao takes pride in revealing that he has never had a dietician to help him lose or gain weight for a role. “Diet is the easy part. Changing your appearance isn’t that difficult unless it’s like what Christian Bale did in The Machinist or Daniel Day-Lewis did in Lincoln. What’s important for me is the internal journey,” he says.

It can’t be easy to live with someone who is constantly slipping in and out of character. Is there a price his loved ones pay to simply keep up with his transformations?

He cites the role of Omar Saeed Sheikh — and how it troubled his partner, actor Patralekha Mishra Paul.

Omerta was very tough. Such dark characters can mess with your mind. It’s not a trajectory I want to take up again anytime soon. For three months I was carrying so much hatred and anger,” he says. “Patra came to see me in Delhi when we were shooting and she just left the next day saying, ‘There’s something weird about you and your energy’. I couldn’t explain it to her. When you’re constantly in character, trying to live that life, it starts showing in your personality,” he says.

In one of the scenes of the film, when Sheikh kills Pearl, the scene was supposed to end with the journalist being shot. But Rao couldn’t stop himself. He had to unleash more violence. So he took the back of a gun and pummelled Pearl’s face and then as if that wasn’t enough, he asked for a knife and beheaded him. All the while Mehta kept rolling the camera. The scene stayed.

“After I finished shooting for Omerta I shaved off my beard and only then I felt I was back as Raj,” he says.

Life on the fast lane

If there was a turning point in his acting career, it was Mehta’s 2013 release Shahid, where Rao plays the role of Shahid Azmi, a former terror accused who earned a law degree while serving time at Tihar jail and went on to become a prominent criminal lawyer in Mumbai. It was the first time he was cast as a solo lead.

Two to tango: Rao and his partner Patralekha came together in Hansal Mehta’s CityLights, a 2014 film which portrayed the struggles of a migrant family from Rajasthan

 

Up until Shahid, Rao was known for portraying some versatile side roles. He debuted on the silver screen in a brief appearance as a news reader in Ram Gopal Varma’s Rann in 2010. That year he also clinched his first role where he played a supermarket supervisor in Dibakar Banerjee’s Love Sex aur Dhokha. Other roles followed. He made notable performances as a small-time goon in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur 2 (2012), a migrant worker from Rajasthan in Hansal Mehta’s CityLights (2014), a nerdy Ahmedabad boy aspiring to open a sports academy with his friends in the backdrop of the Gujarat riots in Kai Po Che (2013), based on Chetan Bhagat’s book The 3 threemistakes of my life, and also as a manipulative fiancé in Vikas Bahl’s Queen, also released that year.

But it was his performance in Shahid that made people sit up and take notice of his formidable screen presence. “While it didn’t do so well at the box office, the kind of love and encouragement I got from that film was unmatchable,” Rao realls. It earned him his first National Film Award for best actor and a Filmfare critics’ award for best actor. It also earned Mehta a National Film Award for best direction.

“Most of the dialogues in the court scenes in Shahid were improvised,” he reveals, recalling how passionately he had argued the cases defending those accused of false terror charges, often not sticking to a word of what had been scripted. So it came as a surprise for him when the film also earned a national award for best dialogue.

Eyes wide open: In Newton, Rao is a government clerk on election duty, literally airdropped into the Dandakaranya forest in the grips of left wing extremism

 

The awards, he admits, gave him a real career boost when he needed one. And ever since, it’s been raining films for Rao. In Newton (2017), directed by Amit V Masurkar, Rao is a government clerk on election duty, literally airdropped into the Dandakaranya forest in the grips of left-wing extremism. His blinking innocence and the integrity and idealism he wears on his sleeve rub off on viewers. In the romantic comedy Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017) Rao is a meek salesman at a sari store and transforms into a paan-chewing badass babua enmeshed in a love triangle. In Made in China (2019), Rao plays an enterprising Gujarati businessman.

In Anurag Basu’s Ludo (2020), Rao is Alu — an embodiment of Mithun Chakraborty, a hopeless romantic, an emotional fool with a heart of gold. “I had so much fun playing Alu. It’s not a very realistic character. It’s a little over the top. Still, I wanted to keep Alu very human, to keep his emotions very truthful... I didn’t want him to be a character who just made you laugh, who you’d forget about. I wanted people to feel sad for him. He is a person with a heart, who’s madly in love,” Rao says.

Having had his heart broken by Pinky for the umpteenth time, Alu slowly dances Mithun style in the middle of a road — twisting, tiptoeing and swerving his head and shoulders — even as his eyes brim with tears and he tells himself “Hum nahin royenge, hum nahin royenge (I won’t cry)”. That such flamboyant dance moves could be used for such a heart-breaking scene was a stroke of genius.

“The first day I walked on the sets dancing like Mithun carrying my boom box, and at that moment Dada (Basu) decided to keep a lot of dance in my character,” Rao says. Even on a phone line Rao’s smile is unmistakable.

Is there any role that Rao struggles to pull off?

If there is a slightly sore point, it is his ability to pull off foreign accents. In Omerta, which required him to pull off a British English accent, he seemed to be swallowing the endings of his words in an effort to soften his pronunciations. In The White Tiger, his American English accent lands awkwardly in between, neither fully American nor Indian. According to Rao the crew was sure they didn’t want him to go all out with the accent. “I had to be someone who was still trying to fit into America, despite having spent a long time there,” he says. Yet, being an unflinching self-critic, he engages with the criticism. “It is tough. You don’t pick up an accent easily especially if it’s a foreign language, but my question is why not. I could’ve said it in my own English but that would have been easy for me as an actor. There was no challenge for me,” he insists.

There is an innate sincerity in Rao which makes him a poster boy for small-town heroes. Omerta apart, can he ever play a larger than life villain? Pure evil?

“I’d love to! I’m waiting for such a script,” Rao exclaims. “This year I’m making a conscious choice to not do too many small-town comedies. There’s still time for people to put me in a box.”

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Published on February 04, 2021
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