23 films and one web-series old, Rajkummar Rao has had an unprecedented rise in Hindi cinema. With a National Award already tucked under his belt for his performance as the slain advocate Shahid Azmi in 2013’s Shahid, Rao delivered four outstandingly memorable performances this year. Starting with a one-man act in Trapped, Rao followed it up with a cameo as a 324 year-old man in an otherwise forgettable Raabta. We later saw him in three romantic comedies, of which Bareilly ki Barfi became a sleeper hit. And as a rookie election officer in Amit V Masurkar’s Oscar-hopeful Newton, he has been winning hearts and international awards alike. We break down this gifted actor’s trailblazing streak and analyse what makes him one of the finest performers of his generation.
After graduating from FTII in 2008, Rao appeared in Dibakar Bannerji’s Love, Sex aur Dhokha in 2010. Over the next couple of years, he continued to leave an impression as a character actor in Raagini MMS, Gangs of Wasseypur – Part II, and Talaash, until Kai Po Che and Shahid happened. As one of the trio in Kai Po Che, Rao’s turnout as the shy, bumbling, money-minded Govind Patel made critics and other filmmakers sit up and take note. Later the same year, he bagged a National Award and a Filmfare Critics Award for the Best Actor for Shahid.
The journey to success, however, wasn’t all that easy. As an eleventh grader who had recently been bitten by the acting bug, he responded to a casting agent’s advertisement who was looking for a fresh face for a TV show. He paid Rs 10,000 to get his portfolio made, only to find their office shut the day he went to collect it. In addition to getting conned in his early years, Rao also signed a few films that never materialised. In an interview with Anupama Chopra, Rao recalls that some casting directors would reject him because of his eyebrows. Not taking superficiality seriously, Rao is one of the few “outsiders” in the industry who are thriving today with meaty roles in one hand and a standout report card in another. With a prolific body of work this year, he has certainly proved that hard work and patience are rewarding virtues. To be a good actor, Rao believes that one must be a good human being first, which involves not forgetting your roots. Calling acting “just a job,” Rao emphasises the importance of staying grounded by being real and respectful to the people in his surroundings – be it his entourage, an Uber driver, or a tea vendor.
Speaking about his craft in an interview with The Indian Express, Rao revealed that he used to take the bus from his home in Gurgaon to acting workshops in Delhi, and would pen down his observations of those around him during the journey. This life-inspired research helped him imbibe his characters with distinct tics, idiosyncrasies and gestures. Case in point, the excessive blinking of Newton Kumar, or the drawled out “Hello” in Bareilly ki Barfi, a trait Rao picked up from his brother-in-law. Not afraid to test his limits, Rao survived on carrots for 20 days to lose weight for Vikramadiya Motwane’s Trapped, a harrowing survival-tale of a man who gets locked inside a Mumbai high-rise. To lend an element of authenticity to his character’s despair and horror, Rao refused to use fake blood in a scene, choosing to cut himself instead. As the only person on screen for nearly an hour and a half, Rao displays a range of emotions – from shock to anger to despair – without much dialogue, and without any hamming.
In Newton, his biggest hit this year, he plays a rigidly moral elections officer who struggles with corrupt security forces and an apathetic electorate to conduct elections in an area prone to Naxalite violence. Annoyed with his birth name ‘Nutan Kumar’, his character rechristens himself ‘Newton’, in an act that displays his agency, his willingness to take charge and make a difference, which later extends to his professional ambitions. The political satire was unfortunately obstructed by a personal tragedy when Rao’s mother passed away whilst he was shooting deep within the forests of Chhattisgarh. He credits the success of the film to his mother’s blessings who, he says, was proud of his work. Lauding his achievement in Newton, director Hansal Mehta said, “An actor of the calibre of Rajkummar Rao enables directors like me to think of ambitious narratives.” The two have previously collaborated on Shahid and Citylights, and their next outing together, Omerta, will feature Rao as terrorist Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh.
With his film selected as India’s official entry to the Oscars, Rao has taken a step in a direction where many would hesitate to go. November saw the release of his web-series, Bose: Dead/Alive, an ALT Balaji production on the life of Subhash Chandra Bose. Rao gained 13 kilos and shaved half of his head to physically transform himself, but the real challenge was to get into the mind of his character. This mental preparation required him to read several books on Netaji’s life and even spend time at his house, Netaji Bhawan in Kolkata.
His inspiration for consistently excelling at challenging roles comes from a genuine love for cinema. Additionally, he watches a lot of films to learn from other actors, and cites his Aligarh co-star Manoj Bajpayee as a major influence. Rao considers himself lucky to be working in this age, and not 10-15 years ago, when stardom defined success. With digital methods of filmmaking and the creative freedom that the internet allows, he believes that the format is immaterial as long as quality content is generated and the actors are true to their craft. “Every character is difficult and challenging,” he said to Chopra, “It’s up to you how much you want to work hard for the character.”
With seven films and a fiercely competitive Oscar campaign, Rao’s calendar for 2018 is already full. The thirst for scaling new heights is, however, unquenchable as he sums up modestly, “I think I’m an average actor, who is very sincere and is genuinely trying to push the boundaries.”
Featured Image Courtesy: thequint.com