His journey has been one heck of a ride. With 10 films in the last two years and many more releasing in 2019, Rajkummar Rao has become the flavour of the season for every filmmaker. Here he is in conversation with Team Box Office India, about bringing about a wave of content-oriented cinema, his next film Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga and more
Throughout your career, you have been appreciated for your performances. Now, you have experienced commercial success as well as critical acclaim. Does that make it more special?
Well, a film doing more business means that more people are going out and watching it. More and more people are watching your work and appreciating your efforts. That is how I look at it. For me, of course, I feel great when my film becomes a big box-office success. But the only motivation I have to act is that I love the craft and I love exploring different characters through my films. I love putting all my efforts into whatever I am doing.
Yes, sometimes, it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Like, for me, Trapped is a very special film. It will always remain close to my heart even though it did not earn `100 crore at the box office. But I know this film will be my legacy. I am very proud of it. Thanks to the digital age, the audience can watch it whenever and wherever they want to. It is a special feeling when your film makes money, does good business. But I am not chasing that.
Your film Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga releases next week and it will be your tenth film in the last two years, plus you were a part of a web series. Do you fear that you are overexposing yourself to the audience?
As long as I am getting to play different parts, different roles, and as long as the audience is not bored watching me over and over again, I do not have any fears. I do not live in fear. I try and do different work with every film.
And you have succeeded.
Thank you (Smiles). I try and bring something new to all my characters, be it the region they belong to, their language in the film, the look they have etc. As long as people see a different person on the screen every time, I think it is all good.
With your last film Stree going on to clock record-breaking numbers, did you take time out to congratulate yourself? Do you feel you have arrived?
No, I have never felt that way. I am still mesmerised by cinema, by the novelty of it all and the whole process of filmmaking. I do not think I will ever experience this feeling. For me, it is just being in an amazing relationship with this world. I am a different guy when I am performing in front of the camera. I am that character.
But, as myself, as Raj, I am untouched by whatever is happening around me, I am very detached. I live a very simple life. I love watching films and I love talking about cinema. I love performances and I still feel that I am a student of filmmaking, like how I was when I was studying in FTII and doing theatre. That feeling is still the same, it has not changed.
I have not really got the chance to sit back and think that last two years have been amazing and maybe now people think I have arrived. I am getting a lot of labels from people, which is an overwhelming feeling. I am very happy about it but I really cannot rest on my laurels.
So what is success for Rajkummar Rao?
I think success, for me, is to keep doing what I love doing most. To keep getting the opportunities to continue with that, is success for me. It is also to choose the kind of work I want to do and to do it with utmost honesty. I hope the day will never come when I sign a film for any reason other than the fact that I like the character or connect with the story. That is what success is to me, as long as cinema is there in my life.
Speaking of the labels you mentioned, some of those tags include you being called the next big thing or a bankable star. What is your reaction when you hear these things attached to your name?
As I said, it is overwhelming when people see the effort you have put in and the work you have tried to do. Apart from that, I do not really think about it very much. I read about all these things, the articles, the tags that come along with it and, of course, it makes me smile, it makes me happy but that’s about it. I do not let these things get to me.
I feel that I still have to grow. I honestly feel that my best is yet to come. I still want to challenge myself as an actor. I am waiting for that one part where I feel, ‘Wow! This I did not imagine. I could not imagine I could do this or go this far with my character.’ I am still waiting for that part.
Some of your iconic roles in the past did not surprise you that way?
Well, there have been moments. There were moments when I was doing Trapped or Newton or Stree. Like in Stree, the climax was largely improvised. Amar (Kaushik) came up with the ideas and he shared them with me. We thought, let’s just go ahead and explore. Let us just roll the camera and see what happens. So, all those scenes where I was pulling Shah Rukh Khan’s style or shouting at the stree happened at the spur of the moment.
As an actor, I look for those moments where you don’t plan and it just happens organically. It happens with me as an actor and that is what we look for in all our characters. But I have never really felt proud of my performances and that’s because I see so much amazing work happening all around the world. When I see actors like Daniel Day Lewis or Matthew McConaughey, I feel like there is still a long way to go.
In the last couple of years, there has been a debate between content-driven versus commercial cinema and you are one of the very few actors who started bringing content into the industry. What does it feel like to be a pioneer of this revolution that we are seeing right now?
I feel validated. I have always believed in content and now finally it is being recognized in the last two to three years and people want to see content on the big screen. But I have been part of all content-driven stories. The only reason I did Queen was content. It did not matter that my part was not the lead in the film or that the film was not called ‘King’ instead of Queen. I have always backed content from the beginning of my career.
Love Sex Aur Dhokha (LSD) was a very risky film to have as your debut film. But I believed in its content and I believed in Dibakar Banerjee and Ekta Kapoor, and I thought it’s a very new and fresh take on story telling. I am glad it became a successful film. And then Ragini MMS kind of redefined horror. Before that, the kind of horror films we used to make was similar in a way. We were following a particular trend and Ragini MMS broke that trend. It was too realistic in nature. After that, there was Kai Po Che!, Queen and then Shahid… I still think there is nothing bigger than your story. We are all just a part of making that story in whatever way possible. There is no one bigger than the story.
You mentioned LSD, which was your first film. As a struggling actor, you must have been chasing a dream which you are on your way to achieving right now. How have your goals changed over time?
Even today, I feel very excited whenever I read a new script and I know that I can be part of this story. That hasn’t changed yet. The dream is still to be a part of good films and I am very happy with the kind of line-up I have. That hasn’t changed. Now, the only dream is to keep my loved ones happy, apart from my acting, apart from my career. I have always dreamt of working in films and now, every day, I am living my dream.
Coming to Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, with the kind of success you have had in the recent past, many actors would be hesitant to take up a multi-starrer. No apprehensions on your part?
No, I am doing Anurag Basu’s next, which is also an ensemble. You have to see the story and, as I said, there is nothing bigger than the story. We appreciate the actors in the West who have a very small part in the film, like Matthew McConaughey in The Wolf Of Wall Street and Brad Pitt, who played such a small part in Thelma & Louise. Why can’t we do it here? If the film works, everybody works. That is how I see it. If people like the film, they like everybody in the film. They might come out with one particular actor or two who stay with them.
But that is where I come in. I have to be sincere in whatever I do. I don’t act with the thought that I have to hog the limelight or I have to be the best in the film. For me, the film has to be the best. It’s my job to make everybody comfortable on the set and to be part of making everything better than it is on paper. That’s how I see it.
It must have been good to relive your theatre days because you are playing a theatre writer-director in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga.
Oh yes, I have done theatre for three years in Delhi. I was doing two to three plays simultaneously in college with my theatre group and acting school. So, yes, in a way, I was reliving what I had done in Delhi. And it is amazing. I love the whole world of theatre. There is no baggage, there is no fear, it is just about telling your story in the best way possible and seeing how the audience reacts to your story and that too live. It was fun… the whole two months of rehearsal. It was actually like a film. You are with your unit for one or two months. It becomes like family. That is how theatre groups are. You become one big family and make that play.
You had once said that there needs to be uniqueness in every character that you play. What was unique about this character?
Well, I can’t talk much about the film. It is releasing next week. The uniqueness is that he is selfless. He is a great friend who can be a great lover. For a while now, I have not played a guy from a city. I was doing a lot of small-town characters, trying to make them different.
In this film, I am from Delhi so I could connect with this character. My character, Sahil Mirza, has this really nice language. There is this mix of Urdu and Hindi. Then I had to relive my theatre days. This was the uniqueness I thought I should explore. I just wanted to be part of this story. It is a very special film made with a lot of love and with a lot of passion. I wanted to be part of this because it is the first time we are making a commercial film and still talking about something that some people still feel is taboo.
Films are judged based on the numbers they make. A lot of actors are also turning producers. Do you think it is important to understand the business aspect of films?
It is very tough not to know about the business side because it is in your face. When you log into your social media feed, everyone is talking about numbers, expectations and how much a film is likely to earn on a Friday. It is so in-your-face that you cannot help it.
But it does not bother me. My producers feel really happy when my films make big numbers, but more than that, they want the films to be good films. They want to be proud of what they have made. Of course, numbers are like a double reward for us. But making a good film is the first and foremost criterion, especially in today’s times. If a film has a high concept and it offers something new to the audience, it will definitely get the right numbers.
That is the only thing that is working right now.
Yes, absolutely. And I am glad. It is a very welcome change. As I already said, I was part of this change since 2010, when my first film released. People are wholeheartedly embracing that change today.
You come from a non-film background. Has your perception about the film industry changed now that you are part of it?
Before joining the industry, I was living in Delhi. I was doing theatre at that point. I used to think that actors must be leading such an amazing life and things must be so easily available to them. But no! There is so much hard work involved. You do not get time for yourself if you are a working actor. It is just about being the hardest worker in the room. That is what takes you forward.
Glamour and everything else is fine but it is not easy to be a working actor in the industry. It takes a lot out of you. You have to make a lot of sacrifices, starting with something very basic like food. We love food, but cannot have it our way. You are always around people and you cannot be rude to them. So, yes, it is tough.
Let us talk about your upcoming films. After Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, you have Mental Hai Kya…
(Cuts in) It is as edgy as the posters are. The film is about these two amazing characters, played by Kangana (Ranaut) and myself, and about their relationship, their stories and everything that they do. The title is Mental Hai Kya, so you can imagine the edgy and fun journey that we both take in the film. The trailer will be out in a month’s time.
A still featuring you and Fatima Sana Shaikh from Anurag Basu’s next film went viral on social media a few days ago.
(Laughs). I am so kicked about Basuda’s next. We do not have a title yet. He is a genius. He is like a magician. Whatever he does and makes us do on screen surprises me. I could never have imagined myself doing all these things. I am very, very excited about the film and my other film called Made In China, which is about an aspiring Gujarati businessman. So yeah, 2019 looks superb! Then there is Turram Khan that is also releasing. It is something very different that Hansal (Mehta) sir and I have worked on. It boasts of great writing by Luv Ranjan. It is shaping up really well.
There is Imli too.
Yes! Imli will start very soon. I am very excited to work with Basuda again. It has a lovely story. It is a beautiful relationship drama that has not been made for a long, long time.
With 10 films in two years and a `100-crore film in your kitty, how do you manage to stay grounded?
I do not know how to fly, so I have to stay close to the ground (Smiles). God has not given me wings to fly. I am happy walking on the ground and running across from here to there. In fact, I am running almost all the time but I love it. I know that eventually, after a year or two, I will take it slow and do very select films. Every year I decide to do just two or three films but when you get films like Made In China and Imli, you get greedy.
You cannot say ‘no’ to these films just because you have decided to do two-three films in one year. If that happens, then someone else will do it and you will be, like, ‘Ahh, I wish I could have done it!’ So that is how we figure out dates. My team helps me a lot. I have a great team with me, KWAN, Raindrop, my stylist and my hair and make-up artiste. We spend more time with each other than with our loved ones and families. It is just the greed of an actor that urges me to play these parts on screen, work with these amazing filmmakers and say ‘yes’ to these films.
No intention of taking a break?
I want to (Laughs). I told you that every year I feel the same. A while ago, the team and I had a long meeting about me not doing more than two or three films a year. But I am sure that a good film will come my way and I will go, ‘You know what? I think we should do it.’
We hope you keep doing films.
I hope so too (Smiles).