As Rajkummar Rao readies to take the audience by a storm once again with his next movie 'City Lights', he talks to Pinkvilla about his family, films and his struggle.
How did you get the acting bug?
I was born and brought up in Gurgaon to a middle class family. My father, now retired, worked with the revenue department and my mother is a housewife. I have two siblings who are both married and have kids. But I was always interested in doing something apart from studies.
I was a very outgoing guy. I loved roaming around, hanging out with friends. From class 5th, I practised and learnt martial arts for about 7-8 years and have won medals at the national level. Then I trained in dancing on-stage. In class 10th, I acted in my first play, and that’s when I realised I wanted to become an actor. There was nothing else I could do. And that changed my life, I enjoyed the process thoroughly. I loved living someone else’s life. Not like I was bad at studies, I was good at studies too. But acting made me feel alive.
Do you think it was a brave decision?
I have never…it has been a very smooth journey for me. I think god made this very path for me, and he guided me all throughout. And my family has always been very supportive. It’s not like one day I sat across the dinner table and told them, I want to be an actor. It didn’t happen like that. From the very start, I was into dance, martial arts and acting, so my family just felt that if this is what he enjoys doing, he should just continue doing it. In Delhi I became a serious stage actor. Then luckily the FTII acting course began and I studied there, spent some time working on my craft. In 2008 I moved to Mumbai, and then in one and a half years of so called struggle, I got my first film ‘Love Sex aur Dhokha’ (LSD). And Since then, luckily, I have been working.
You were outstanding from the cast of LSD - big filmmakers & producers have taken note and employed you. Who are you grateful to?
That was my plan when I signed up for LSD. I knew when I acted in that film, that no one would be screaming my name on the streets of Mumbai. If I acted in that film, since it was Dibakar’s (Banerjee) film, filmmakers would watch me and it was a great opportunity to showcase my craft. Luckily for me, Anurag Kashyap, Bejoy Nambir and Reema Kagti are amongst filmmakers who saw it and took notice. Anurag called me for ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’…At that stage ‘…Wasseypur’ was supposed to be between me and Nawazuddin’s (Siddiqui) character only. Ekta called me for ‘Ragini MMS’ after LSD. So I am very grateful to Atul Mongia, the casting director of LSD, Dibakar and Mukesh Chabbra, who cast me in ‘Kai Po Che!’ ‘Kai Po Che!’ has also been a game changer for me, it has put me on posters - it’s very important in film industry to be seen on posters.
What about ‘Shahid’?
Maybe spending a lot of time with Shahid’s family really helped. And like Shahid, I used to feel really bad when you see someone innocent spend time behind bars, I used to feel the sense of injustice like him (laughs) When I used to watch films as a young boy, I used to feel really bad ki ‘Begunah Salaakhon ke peeche hain…Ya hamara hero hain, ye qaid nahi ho sakt a yaar.’
So that spark got ignited and spending time with Shahid, and realising from his experience, the brutality of society.
When I met Shahid’s family and when Hansal (Mehta) told me about his story, I was very inspired. A lot of people did tell me ki ‘wo toh iska aadmi tha, uska aadmi tha’, but when I met him, and met those families that he had helped, my faith in him got stronger. So what we show in the film is our experience of knowing Shahid, the harassment he faced. Of course, there are still some who think he was anti-India. I don’t think he was anti-India; he was fighting for people who were wrongly imprisoned. And that he was right is proven by the fact that the courts acquitted the people he was fighting for.
How do you take a break? How do you rejuvenate? Acting is taxing.
I try and not switch off when I come back from a set, when I come back I try and live my character subconsciously. I try and not switch off from the process of being the character. Not that I spend time behaving like my character in real life, although I do want to achieve that at some stage.
But you are right; when I first came in I thought an actor’s life is one of glamour, of fame, where you get things quite easily when you ask for them. But now I have realised that it is actually a lot of hard work. You have to give in a lot, and just sustain, to do the kind of work you want to do, and to win trust and get credibility from your audience and your filmmaker. Subconsciously, I think of my character and review the scenes to do, and the ones done.
Filmmaking is a very tiring job, and this latest film ‘City Lights’ has drained me completely. It was very taxing as an actor, it was really high on emotions, and this character Deepak is going through hell, he is trying to make life work in a big city. So playing him was very tough. But then, that’s the fun of the job.
Somewhere content that we have done something good today, I feel happy. If I just come back home from a day’s work feeling ki ‘aaj toh kuch kiya hi nahi yaar’, then that feels inadequate.
Struggle phase beyond Manoj Bajpai to Irrfan Khan, now have times changed for the better?
For my generation, the most positive change has been the trend of the casting director. At least now an actor has someone to show their show reel too. When I first came here, I couldn’t meet directors, it’s not possible for them to meet anyone and everyone. That has really helped a lot, for new actors coming in. There’s a lot of talent in the industry, and I meet a lot of new actors who are seeking work. Which is why, casting directors are a profession now, who make money. We take them seriously now. And they have brought in a lot of new talent in the past couple of years.
For instance, for LSD, I went to Dibakar’s office, and that’s how I got to know of Atul Mongia, the casting director for the film. I found him on Facebook, asked a mutual friend for his number and then kept calling him and emailing him my pictures. Finally after calling and mailing him thrice, he called me for the audition. I kept going back to Atul for somewhere, I knew that LSD was my only chance. Dibakar was looking for newcomers. After the audition, I was given the role and I made a good start.
Tell us something about ‘City Lights’.
I don’t mind doing melodrama, but the script should make sense to me. I don’t mind doing, say an ‘Andaz Apna Apna’ which has very over the top acting and larger than life characters. It’s one of my favourite films and I would love to act in a film like that.
But then I can’t act in films which are in between - that are trying to be real and trying to be melodramatic, neither here nor there.
As for ‘City Lights’, I have seen the film, honestly, I am really proud of it. People will connect to it, it’s a common man’s story, and the character of Deepak is like anyone you meet on the street. It’s a story of migration, of survival, of hope. It’s got a lot of heart, and I am very proud of it.
Living in Mumbai, love & relationships.
I live alone. My parents have spent their whole life in Gurgaon, so it will be uncomfortable for them to relocate and start a new life. Plus I am not home.
Family and friends are very happy, and they have become stars in our home town. It’s in old Gurgaon, in Premnagar. Especially after I have won the national award, people in my neighbourhood point to my house and say, here lives Rajkumar Rao!
Reactions are a little dramatic, I was a lot like that too, anyone seen in two films for two minutes was a celebrity to me. So I think it’s a natural reaction. My motive of going back home is to relax, take a break. But that doesn’t happen much now, people want to meet you, click pictures. I love the attention, and its natural, but I don’t really get to relax!
What do you have to say about your contemporaries?
I want to work with all people who know their job, want to be part of really beautiful stories. I really admire Ranbir Kapoor, the kind of work he is doing inspires me. I don’t have a wish list, but I want to work with everyone and be in all good films.