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Rajkummar Rao: 'I want to remain a hungry actor'

Rao reflects on a decade in acting, his first international project, 'The White Tiger', and his attempt at scriptwriting

Rajkummar Rao in 'Chhalaang'
Rajkummar Rao in 'Chhalaang'

Ten years ago, Rajkummar Rao made his debut as Adarsh, a supermarket attendant in Dibakar Banerjee’s dark anthology drama LSD: Love Sex Aur Dhokha. In the decade since, he has won a National Award for his performance as the human rights lawyer Shahid Azmi in Shahid and been part of a number of award-winning films, including Newton, Aligarh, Trapped and Bareilly Ki Barfi.

Two of Rao’s movies have now released back-to-back. Anurag Basu’s anthology Ludo premiered on 12 November on Netflix. Rao can also be seen as Montu, a sports teacher, in the Hansal Mehta-directed Chhalaang (released on 13 November on Amazon Prime). On the phone from Chandigarh, where he was shooting his next film, Rao talks about his first decade in cinema and his plans for the future. Edited excerpts:

‘Chhalaang’ is about rival teachers facing off. Are you competitive?

As long as it’s healthy, with a good sportsman spirit, I am okay with it, but I don’t believe in competition in any art form. Art is pure. Therefore, my competition is myself: with what I do in front of the camera, on screen, while playing a character. No two actors get the same part, so you cannot really say who has done it better.

Hansal Mehta also directed you in ‘Shahid’, ‘Citylights’, ‘Aligarh’ and ‘Omerta’. Is working with the same person constricting or preferable?

Every film is a new challenge. It’s a new story with new characters. With Chhalaang, we are trying a new genre. Before this, we have done serious dramas and biopics. So this was fun for us as well. People slot actors and directors and say they make certain kinds of films, but I am glad Hansal sir is breaking that stereotype with a light-hearted sports comedy. The more you work with someone, the more you trust each other. Trust between an actor and a director is very important, and we had that trust from the first film.

Is there less pressure with a digital release, since you don’t have to worry about opening weekend collections?

I think it works both ways. There is some fun in waiting for that Friday and the weekend to see how people are going to react to your film. With OTT, that pressure is definitely not there. Actors and makers ultimately make films for people to watch. Now we know OTT has a strong reach and is a powerful medium. So we hope audiences watch these films and appreciate what we have tried.

What are some of the milestones in your decade as an actor?

Getting my first film, LSD, which started it all, was definitely one highlight.

Then Shahid (2013), which got me a lot of recognition and awards. After that 2017 was a big year, with Bareilly Ki Barfi, Trapped, Bose: Dead/Alive and Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana. I surprised people by trying so many fun characters.

In 2018, Stree put me in the so-called 100 crore club.

Do you feel you might be stuck in a mould—of playing the small-town guy who is standing in the wings waiting for the girl to notice him?

It does not bother me and I don’t feel typecast because it’s not like I have only done these films. Okay, as a ratio, maybe four out of 10 films might have me playing a small-town boy. But there are so many stories in our heartland and so many characters. It doesn’t matter to me if they are based in small towns or set in cities, as long as there is something exciting and new to my characters.

Do you like to improvise on set?

There is always room for improvisation, no matter what the genre. Fortunately, the directors I work with always give me that space. They want me to search for my motivation and for the truth in that scene, which might need improvisation here and there. Not that I stop myself. I don’t plan my scenes and my performance but if there is an impulse to react in a certain way, I do it. I try and be in the moment and react to the situation.

‘The White Tiger’ is your first big international project. What was it like working with American writer and director Ramin Bahrani?

I am very excited for The White Tiger. It is very well made, hard-hitting and true to the book (written by Aravind Adiga). I hope people notice me internationally and I get to broaden my horizons. I would love to go international. Working with Ramin was fantastic. He is such a prolific and highly respected director. His passion and commitment to the characters and the way he loves and pampers his actors is phenomenal. He gives you so much space and freedom to perform.

How did you keep yourself occupied during the lockdown?

I tried to keep myself occupied and productive by reading a lot, watching series and films on OTT and attending online workshops on acting and screenplay writing. I had not undergone any fresh training since leaving FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) around 12 years back. Whatever I have learnt thereafter has been on film sets. So I thought why not use the time on my hands properly and attend workshops. There are so many great workshops available online.

Do you have a road map?

I want to remain a hungry actor who is trying sincerely. I am not a guy with a five-year plan. I like to live in the moment. Currently my focus is on this film I am shooting. I am not sure what to expect out of 2021 besides a wish that things return to normal and we find a vaccine. I also have a few films in the pipeline, including Roohi Afzana, Badhaai Do, Chupke Chupke and the Hindi remake of the Telugu film Hit.

After those screenwriting workshops, any plans to write a script?

I tried to write. I even wrote a couple of pages. But it is a job of patience. I have so many ideas in my head that I tried to put them down, but it’s not an easy task. It requires a lot of time and patience. But as they say, never say never.

Udita Jhunjhunwala is a Mumbai-based writer, film critic and festival programmer.

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