EXCLUSIVE with Rajkummar Rao: "Making a Film is Far Easier than Releasing It"
National Award winner Rajkummar Rao on his Shahid journey, competition and marriage
No sexy photo-shoots showing off gym-toned six packs. No controversial link-ups or denials. No fairy godfather investing millions for over-the-top promotions. No benign family connections to boast of. And no attention-seeking antics in front of the cameras! Indeed, Rajkummar Rao possesses none of the ‘qualities’ that define most stars shining bright in the Bollywood universe today. What he does have in abundance is dedication and passion for his primary love - acting. In a clannish Bollywood, he is the proverbial ‘outsider’ – quite like Nawazuddin Siddiqui or an Irrfan Khan – to make a mark on sheer talent. And that is precisely what has fetched him the highest acting honours in the country this year – the National Award for best actor for his portrayal of the slain lawyer and human rights activist Shahid Azmi in the biopic Shahid.
Rajkummar’s impressive ability to get under the skin of his characters has made him a critics’ favourite of late. The spark that one saw a couple of years ago in Love, Sex Aur Dhoka, Ragini MMS, Gangs of Wasseypur and Talaash turned into a full-fledged fire in Shahid, Kai Po Che and the recent Queen. But was it enough to thrive in an industry run by the PR machinery and box office devotees? Thankfully, as last week’s National Award announcement proved, sometimes, skill and honesty is enough for an actor to get the recognition he deserves.
When Masala! met him two years ago at the Dubai International Film Festival (DIFF) where Shahid was being screened, we were struck by his simplicity and down-to-earth approach to life and work. Two years, two superhits (Kai Po Che, Queen), loads of critical appreciation and a National Award later, we spoke to him again. And realised he is as refreshingly ‘real’ now as he was back then...
Congratulations on the National Award for best actor. What was your first reaction when you heard the news?
I was on the sets of my film Dolly ki Doli. One of my friends, director Suparn Verma broke the news. He said, ‘Bro you won the National Award’. Of course it was a surreal moment, I couldn’t believe it. I kept asking him if it was true and he insisted it was. It took quite a while to sink in (laughs). I am happy but even more so for Hansal (Mehta, the director of Shahid who won the Best Director award). The fact that Hansal and I got it together makes it even more exciting.
What has been the response of your colleagues and the industry at large?
It’s been incredible. I have to charge my phone twice or thrice a day now, the congratulatory messages are still pouring in. Even on social media, the reaction has been very encouraging.
Shahid has had quite a journey from its conception to the theatres. Do you feel vindicated now considering how long it took for the movie to get a proper release?
Yes it had started doing the festival rounds in 2011 but took one more year to release commercially. I am glad our patience paid off as it can get frustrating at times. I feel making a film is far easier than releasing it! UTV picking the movie for distribution and promotion made a huge difference.
Shahid was a very well-acclaimed film and your portrayal was widely appreciated. How did you approach this role?
The challenge of playing Shahid Azmi was that there was no reference point about him. He was not such a famous personality that we’d know all about his life, the way he looked etc. Whatever I learnt about him was by spending time with his family. I approached this role too the way I do for others – with utmost honesty and sincerity. I am sure Shahid’s family must be thrilled; unfortunately I have been so busy with my shoots that I haven’t been able to meet them. In some way, I feel it’s their son’s good karma that fetched us this award. Not only did he help people when he was alive, but he has helped us even when after his death.
From supporting roles in Talaash and Gangs of Wasseypur to lead characters in Shahid and Kai Po Che, you have had an unusual career graph. How do you choose your movies?
I will never compromise on the script or the story. That has always been my approach and it will continue to be so. So far it has held me in good stead. Luckily there are a lot of talented people writing excellent scripts now and I am lucky people have reposed their faith in me.
What made you sign Queen considering it was an out and out Kangana Ranaut movie? Wasn’t it a risk to sign for a small role in a woman-oriented film?
It never occurred to me that I was taking a risk. I was aware that it was a woman-centric film but I liked my role. Moreover, I was getting an opportunity to travel to Europe with Vikas (Bahl, the director) and his team.
But your risk paid off. You got glowing reviews and the film is a big hit…
Haha, yes! I thought it was going to be a really nice to play an insensitive fiancé. I liked it when people said they hated what I did to Kangana’s character.
So can we safely assume that changing your name from Rajkumar Yadav to Rajkummar Rao has worked to your benefit?
(Laughs out loud) I don’t know. I guess it has!
But what made you change your name?
Primarily it was to avoid confusion. A lot of articles mistook me for Rajpal Yadav (the comedian and character actor). My mother also insisted I change my name. In fact she wanted me to wear a lot of rings and stuff (laughs). Changing Yadav to Rao seemed the better option.
Kai Po Che was a big hit but did you feel you got the recognition you deserved? It was widely felt that Sushant Singh Rajput got the maximum mileage.
I am here in the industry to grow as an actor. I don’t want to waste my energy on anything else. I do now want to worry about who is doing what and how it’s being done. I am ambitious as far as my roles are concerned, I want to be known as the best actor in the country. I want to work towards it.
You are definitely one of the best actors we have. You have a stamp of quality now to your work and this award is proof of that...
(Laughs). Really? Do I? It’s thanks to people in the media who have appreciated my performances. Frankly, I do get a lot of messages from fans who say ‘sensible’ is a synonym they associate with me. It feels great but it also is a great responsibility.
You have been very self-effacing. Don’t you think it’s essential to have a more flamboyant image?
Isn’t it more important to be an actor first? I want to know everything there is to my craft; the rest will follow. Maybe the flamboyance works for some people but it’s something I can’t do. I am only concerned about the film and my performance. When I sign a film I don’t even think what’s going to happen to it or where it’s going to take me. Instead of planning and plotting, I’d rather live in the moment.
How do you manage to remain so grounded?
That’s the way I am. I feel the same as a person, I haven’t changed at all. Maybe people around me have!
What are the other films you are working on?
City Lights, directed by Hansal Mehta, is up for release on May 30. It’s very different from Shahid, I am really proud of it. Then there is Dolly Ki Doli with Sonam Kapoor.
You have been dating Anwita Paul for a while now. Is marriage on the cards?
No not all! I am quite happy with the way things are. I am still a kid, marriage can wait (laughs).