There is something about Rajkummar Rao that makes him stand apart from the cookie cutter assembly line actors produced in the ‘Bollywood factory’. Perhaps it’s his earnestness or perhaps it’s his ability to proverbially meld into the skin of the characters he is portraying but each performance of his remains etched in your memory long after the curtains go up. Be it the rookie cop who plays foil to Aamir Khan in Talaash: The Answer Lies Within or the insensitive fiancée of Kangana Ranaut in Queen or the intense human rights lawyer in Shahid, Rajkummar Rao’s presence in a film cannot be defined by the length of his role. He makes a solid impact, whether he is the lead or a supporting act.
After a hiatus of over a year, this powerhouse of talent and National Award winner suddenly has a rush of releases in 2017, starting with Trapped (that released this month), Behen Hogi Teri in May and Bareilly Ki Barfi in July. There is also Newton, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival in February and might be released this year, as most likely will the recently completed Omerta, directed by Hansal Mehta.
In conversation with Rajkummar Rao, we find what makes him tick!
With five films on your platter this year, would you say 2017 is your year?
2017 is Indian cinema's year. It's just a mere coincidence. I finished one film, took a gap and started shooting for another. So, it's just a coincidence that they're all coming up together.
What do you look for in a script before signing a film?
The first thing is the story. What is there in the story that should excite me as an actor or want to be a part of it? Then comes who's directing it and what am I contributing to the film – what’s my character. For me, content is the most important thing.
What challenges did you face while doing Trapped?
It was quite a difficult journey for me as an actor. My character goes through so much in the film. As an actor, I had to go through similar experiences, to bring that honesty into my part. This included not eating for 15 days to eating non-vegetarian food.
Is it hard to get work in this industry?
No, I have five films lined up for release, so there's your answer. I've been very fortunate that people have accepted me and I'm getting enough work.
What about when you were struggling – were you able to face rejection?
Yeah, I was ready for it, no complaints. When I finished my training as an actor, I came to Mumbai. I was ready for the fact that I would have to go through a struggle. Unless I was really lucky that I could go somewhere where someone was waiting and said 'Come, join our film’! Struggle was a part of my journey, something I knew I had to face and was prepared for it. In my case, this lasted for two years.
What's your take on nepotism in the industry?
I don't mind supporting my own child. For example, whenever I have a child and he or she wants to become an actor, I'll train him/her. I would give them proper training so that I could be proud of their performances, their work or whatever they want to do! The only problem arises when someone is not at all talented but still bombards the audience with his or her films. Luckily, that's changing now! Our audience is accepting talent. I'm a big fan of Ranbir Kapoor; he's one of the finest actors we have. Your work takes you forward, nothing else! Alia (Bhatt) is also immensely talented.
How important are box-office numbers to you?
It is important, to an extent! Everybody wants their films to do well. To make that much money means that many people have watched your film. I want my producers to make money, so we can have 10 more films like Trapped.
You've always played characters that are real and who people can relate to. How do you challenge yourself with every film?
I love challenges, as an actor. I love pushing my boundaries, otherwise it gets very monotonous! If you keep doing the same thing, it’s no fun. That's the reason I try and do different films. I try and play different parts in all my films, and see how I can make them look different and sound different. That's my high as an actor.
Do you fear being stereotyped?
No, not at all, I am doing such different films; playing very different characters. I'm the least stereotyped actor.
How would you sum up your journey until now?
I always say this but I really believe in it – this is just the beginning. There's so much more I want to do and discover about myself as an actor.
With every film you do, people expect more out of you. How do you deal with that pressure?
I don't know that they expect more out of me, so that's probably how I deal with it. I can't really act under pressure! When I'm doing a film or a part, firstly, I'm doing it for myself. I just want to do my work in the way that I have been doing it.
The tagline of Trapped was: 'freedom lies beyond fear'. How much do you personally believe in this?
I do believe in this. I believe in not giving up. I believe in hope. Hope is a very powerful word; you can change things with hope. Once we conquer fear, we can actually taste that freedom.
How do you deal with criticism?
I love criticism. I want people to tell me what they didn't like about me or my film. I'm also my biggest critic.