In Amit V Masurkar’s Newton, India’s official entry to Oscars 2018, Rajkummar Rao plays an unshakeable man of principle. His job is to hold free and fair election in a Maoist-infiltrated forest region of Chhattisgarh in Central India. In India, the largest democracy in the world, where election is often a circus of celebration even the most dyed-in-the-wool idealists like Newton sometimes have to assume the role of ringmaster. Like Isaac Newton, the scientist after which he has named himself – foisting greatness upon his less-than-modest personality – Rao’s Newton has hope in his eyes that blink frequently like a twinkling star and fire in the belly.
As one Indian critic, impressed with Rao’s act, phrased it, “Inside his head, there seems to be so much electricity that it has given his hair a permanent curl.” Newton is perhaps contemporary Hindi cinema’s most un-heroic hero and he is played by our most un-heroic hero. The presence of a film star endows a movie with grandeur. The presence of Rajkummar Rao endows it with something opposite of grandeur. He’s an Average Joe par excellence. Armed only with an earnest sense of duty Rao’s Newton declares with timid innocence at one point in the film, “I want to make a difference.”
Coming from the 33-year-old Rajkummar Rao, who entered Bollywood as Raj Kumar Yadav (the most un-Bollywood name imaginable) the words sound close to truth. For, Rao is slowly and steadily building a reputation as an actor who’s out to shake up the prevalent star system and make a difference with his films and his Matt Damon-esque consistency in each one of them.
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Indeed, these are exciting times for Rao, who has become the unlikely star of Hindies, that hybrid genre of alternative Hindi films made under shoestring budget and indie cast aspiring for mainstream acceptance. Some critics have already announced 2017 as the year of Rajkummar Rao. Unrestrainedly, one journalist called him the new “Raj” of Bollywood, a tongue-in-cheek reference to Shah Rukh Khan’s much-loved Raj persona while another took just the opposite path declaiming him as, “Hindi cinema’s favourite everyman.” Rao himself would balk at those comparisons because in most interviews, he has cited Shah Rukh Khan as a childhood favourite. But on screen, there’s no getting away from the fact that the Average Joe-ish Rao and others of his ilk – the list starts from Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui goes down to Adil Hussain and Bhumi Pednekar – have challenged the status quo of Bollywood.
“Content is the new king,” Rao recently proclaimed in a TV interview. And “content” is precisely what the Gurgaon-born Rao promises to bring to his films just by his riveting presence in them. This year itself, he has headlined three top-rated films. Vikramaditya Motwane’s gripping thriller Trapped, released this March, was a solo act with Rao’s character trapped in a Mumbai high-rise. Intended as a psychological portrait of claustrophobia, Rao painted a terrifying picture of fear, loneliness and the sheer question of survival. He quickly followed it up with Behen Hogi Teri in which he was busy coming up with innovative ways to get his lover married off to another guy. Bareilly Ki Barfi saw him as an author, competing with Ayushmann Khurrana for a spunky small town girl’s (Kriti Sanon) affections.
“My heart swells with pride every time I see his work,” says director Hansal Mehta, who, as Rao’s mentor, is known to bring out the best in him. Their collaboration began with Shahid in 2013, which won Rao his first National award and since then, they have made Citylights and Aligarh together. How did Rao come to signify the Bollywood “everyman”? In his early films (Love Sex Aur Dhokha, Shaitan and Ragini MMS), Rao, in Mehta’s words, “played this horrible boy – he’s had his share of screen horribles – but those characters were so far removed from what he is as a person.”
In 2013, Kai Po Che! offered him a chance to correct the past mistakes and take a turn towards Mr Nice Guy. Director Abhishek Kapoor may not have offered Rao the author-backed role – that went to the leading man Sushant Singh Rajput – but in the end, all agreed that Rao’s Govind, an industrious Gujarati, was the soul of that film. “There’s an innate niceness about him,” claims Mehta. “I have never seen an actor as generous as Raj. He will do anything for a scene. Even if he does not have a single line of dialogue or even if the camera is not on him he gives 150 per cent to make the scene work. For a filmmaker, having that kind of an actor who is working for the film and not for his own personal vanity, is a blessing.” The lack of vanity, Mehta insists, is Rao’s “greatest quality.”
Gulshan Devaiah, the Shaitan star who’s just as talented as Rao and in the stakes of good acting, maybe even his rival, jokes, “I would love to have the sustained consistency of Rajkummar Rao. You can see that he wants to be the best. There’s that hunger in him. I can imagine him in all the roles I have done and I can imagine myself in all the roles he has done. I can openly say that I am jealous of him.”
Rao’s ability to recede into anything has made him a favourite with filmmakers looking for realistic portrayals. He is always eager to collapse into the role he is performing. For Trapped, he dropped his weight while doubling it up for the upcoming web series on Subhas Chandra Bose where he plays, to the surprise of many, Bose himself. Speaking to The Indian Express on September 24, Rao explained, “If I am playing the role of a man who has not eaten for 10 days in Trapped, then I can’t hog and fake it on screen that I am hungry. I must experience that in personal life and then show that in reality. Tomorrow, if someone offers me a character which I like and he has a six-pack abs then I don’t mind developing that.” As Amit V Masurkar, Newton’s director, pointed out in a pre-release interview, “Rajkummar has a malleable quality that makes you feel for the character, even though he does certain things that have repercussions.”
Devaiah, who perhaps knows a thing or two about those repercussions, says, laughing, “He wants to make you believe in whatever he is doing. In Shaitan, he slapped me six times just to get the scene right. My ears were buzzing long after the shot was done.” Though Rao’s success – and struggle – story is not nearly as humiliatingly intense as Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s he has had his bad days. “He’s not the one to romanticise his struggle,” notes Vasan Bala, director of Peddlers, who worked on Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur series. Viewers can recall Rao playing second fiddle to Siddiqui but only because his role, significantly bigger when conceived, was clipped to shorten the film and partly, to project Nawaz as the new king of cool. “He’s always had a hunger to work, as simple as that,” says Bala. “I don't know which league he is in right now but whatever it is he resides there alone. It's his space. I don't see anyone else there.”
Critics feel that Rao may be an indie star today but is still a long way off in terms of carrying a film on his own shoulders. Rauf Ahmed, a senior film journalist, points out that the general public still remembers Rao for his commercial outings, chiefly Kai Po Che! and Queen as Kangana Ranaut’s London-returned fiancé. “He’s talented, but so was Naseeruddin Shah who couldn’t reach his commercial potential. Only Irrfan (Khan) managed that successfully. Rajkummar is somewhere in between. These few years are his litmus tests.”
For Rao, who came from a middle-class Gurgaon family with no film connection, the single-minded focus of making it in Bollywood had assumed the striving urgency of a rock climber. Much like that perpetual “outsider” Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Rao still finds it difficult to blend in. “I definitely feel that I am part of the films that I do, I am part of the directors I work with and I am part of their lives now,” he recently told CNN News 18. “But I am not sure if I am part of the industry as such. I still feel like that curious kid from Gurgaon who is in this surreal world of Bollywood.” People who know the actor confirm his reticence. Vasan Bala recalls a meeting called by Anurag Kashyap after LSD. “All the actors were new, but Raj was the least chatty. He sat in a corner and just observed. Of course, there was no prophecy then that he would turn out like this but he sure looked determined and super focused. He had a lot of pride in his silent demeanour.”
Hansal Mehta feels Rao’s introverted and meditative personality helps provide the much-needed nuance to performances. “There are times when we are on a shoot or somewhere and he senses that something is off. That’s what makes him such a fine actor. He recognises signals. He’s always aware. He will immediately come and ask me, ‘What’s wrong?’ He is very steadfast, loyal, honest, extremely caring and perceptive of your state of mind.”
Breaking into laughter, he concludes, “He has all the qualities I expect from my wife!”