Rajkummar Rao is an actor who hasn’t done a single bad movie. It’s the kind of filmography any actor would envy. Now he has won his first National Award, and he’s not even 30 yet. How does someone like him from a non-filmi family get this much acclaim in such little time? The actor reveals his secret...
How does it feel to win the National Award, you’re not even 30 yet...
It is overwhelming because it’s the National Award, but it has been some days now. It already feels like history to me. It’s great, but I want to enjoy the process of filmmaking rather than cloud my mind with thoughts of awards and money.
But it matters right?
Of course, it matters a lot. I am grateful to everyone who thought I deserved it. When my friend told me... it was probably the happiest moment of my life.
Your filmography is enviable... Kai Po Che, Ragini MMS, LSD, Shaitan, Gangs Of Wasseypur, Shahid — how do you do this?
I just read the script, and see if it has something that excites me as an actor and if it challenges me. I believe in my gut feeling, if I feel really strongly about something I do it.
I don’t think about all that. The only thing that is in my hands is my performance. I believe in destiny and every film has its own. I can’t control that. What I can control is the environment of the movie, and the honesty towards my craft, so I’d rather concentrate on that.
You prefer reading a script or a narration?
Do you know you want to do the movie within the first 10 pages?
I’d say in about 20 pages you get the idea of where the script is going (smiles). But I do make sure I read the whole script, maybe twice sometimes to be very sure.
Is it happening now — someone you once ran after, didn’t take your calls is running after you?
Yes, it has happened. I won’t name them but yeah there are a couple of people who thought that I could maybe play an important character in their films but not the protagonist’s part, now want me to play the main lead. I just find it strange. Why judge somebody by his or her success? They shouldn’t.
Any rules for saying yes to a script?
It should excite me, challenge me like Shahid or it should move me like Citylights did.
Can you leave a character behind on the set?
When you do a movie like Shahid, you’re constantly thinking about it, doing a lot of research, before you start the shoot. It’s not like I started visiting courts just because I was playing a lawyer, but I try and live my characters subconsciously if not consciously. So yes, I am subconsciously only thinking about my character.
So do you become difficult to live with? Especially when you’re filming a character like the one in Gangs Of Wasseypur, or in Citylights?
Well that’s what my close friends feel. They tell me I start talking in the flavor of the character while even conversing with them in real life, because that’s all I am thinking about sub consciously.
How did you prepare for Citylights?
I firmly ensure that none of the characters I play sound the same. If I am playing a guy from Delhi – he must sound the part. If somebody is from Mumbai, they will talk in a particular way, so this character that I play in Citylights who is from Rajasthan, must sound Rajasthani. So my co-actor Patralekha and I, went to Rajasthan and lived there for three weeks, trying to pick up the accent, learn the culture – most of the times we even shopped for our own costumes with the designer. As an actor I feel I know my character really well. This may come across as disheartening to certain writers, but I sometimes feel I understand my character better than even the writer, because they have written it but I am living it. So once I am done with the physical part, like growing my moustache, losing weight and learning the accent – I start working on the internal process. I keep reading the script. I try and put a lot of my imagination vis a vis the character. I work with the co-actors. I am the kind of actor who is really prepared, mentally and physically. Once I am on set I don’t really believe much in rehearsing lines and scene work etc. By the time I’m on set I know my character so well that I can adapt to any situation that is put in front of me.
You have manged to stay grounded despite all the prasse, success and awards. How?
I think of Sachin Tendulkar. He is among the biggest celebrities in the world, and there is so much to learn from his humility. I don’t think I’ve achieved even .01% of what he has achieved, so when he can be so humble and grounded, who am I? I haven’t achieved anything.
That’s the only reason?
Well, that’s one of the reasons, also when people say I am a good actor – I don’t believe it. I don’t think of myself as that good an actor. I can still do so much with my craft, learn so much, especially when I see films like Lincoln, or Taxi Driver or Raging Bull or even Dallas Buyers Club, Wall Street – I see where I stand and I stand nowhere. There’s still so much to explore as actors, I think that’s what keep me going.
Do you think you don’t get offered these huge movies like Student Of The Year, or 2 States despite all the laurels you’ve achieved only because you’re not somebody’s son or nephew?
Well, I’ve done Kai Po Che, and now I am doing Revolution 2020, so its okay if I’m not there in 2 States. But you are right, being a star son – you get your first break relatively easier, but then eventually it’s your work that speaks.
Isn’t that frustrating?
No it’s not at all. If I become a successful actor, it will be easy for my son or daughter to be an actor and I would help them, why not? That’s what families are for. No one asks a businessman when his or her kids enter the business. No one will question an Ambani for example as to why their child has joined their business, and what’s the harm? I don’t feel frustrated about anything. If a father won’t help their children, who will?
But don’t you feel that you lost out on some roles because you don’t come from a film family?
You can’t fight destiny naa. It’s not somebody’s mistake to be born into a film family. If you are a Kapoor son – it’s not his or her mistake. It’s their destiny. It’s god’s wish. Like my family has supported me in the way they could have supported me, so I don’t think there’s anything wrong in it. It doesn’t affect me at all. Getting your first film is relatively easier for a star kid but then its only your work that speaks for you.
Is there subliminal anger in you? Because when I see you in Kai Po Che, City Lights trailer…
I think it’s the characters anger that comes out. I was really angry when during my school and college days – I was into fights and other such things, but then I realized I want to act and all those energies went into acting and theatre, and now I am not really angry. I am quite patient. I think it’s my upbringing.
The greatest stories are born out of creative collaborations like Scorsese-Leonardo, SRK-Karan Johar or David-Govinda…
Rohit Shetty and Ajay Devgn…
Yes, do you think you’ve found your jodi in Hansal Mehta and in you he has found his muse?
I don’t know if we are the new jodi, but I share a really beautiful relationship with him and we understand each other really well, not only professionally but personally as well. We share a common belief, a common interest toward the films we want to make, and our vision is the same because we come from the same school of thought and that’s why we enjoy working with each other.
Will it hurt if he casts someone else in his next movie?
No, it won't hurt me because I will still participate in the movie in any capacity that I can. Regardless of me starring in it. Our relationship is beyond these things. There a few ideas that we have discussed, and I know as far those ideas are concerned I will be a part of those movies, and you know if he’s got a character that is 60+, or a 12 year old kid, how will he cast me? But if the character is 25 or 30 I am sure he will cast me. (Laughs)
Pick one. Great script-bad director v/s bad script-good director?
I’d go for the great script.
A good film with less potential or a film assured to collect 100 crores at the box office?
I have been offered movies where the makers have assured me it’ll do 100 crores, and that it’ll break records but if I don’t believe in the script, if it doesn’t excite me, if my heart is not in it – I can’t do it just for the sake of money, it wouldn’t be fair to the makers as well.
So you don’t care about the business of a movie?
No, I don’t. I should be happy with the process. You give 3-4 months of your life to a film.
Is money never a priority at all?
It is never the first priority. Second maybe.
Abhishek Kapoor and Hansal Mehta offer you a film. Pick one.
Its very tough. I love both of them equally…, but with Hansal Sir I share this personal bonding, we meet almost everyday. Gattu Sir will never come to me at the same time as someone else. I’ll request Gattu Sir to either prepone or postpone his movie, and request Hansal Sir for the same. But I’d do both.
Three directors you’d want to work with, so badly that you’d even audition for them?
I don’t mind auditioning for anyone actually. I love the process.
Do you watch other actor’s movies and follow their collections, like Varun, Sushant, Aditya Roy Kapur…
I don’t watch other actor's movies because they’re my contemporaries and I have to keep a check, I just watch any film if the trailer excites me. I don’t have that much energy to snoop on other people’s work. I’d rather focus on my work.
So you don’t care when a contemporary actor’s movie grosses 100 crores?
I just feel happy for everyone, in fact when I see a great film or performance, I feel its great that our cinema is growing for the better. I really don’t believe in this 100-200 crore clubs and all..seriously … I’m honestly telling you…
Yes, but numbers are a benchmark of audience validation…
Yeah but look at the West – films are making 5000 or 6000 crores, what is a 100 crore in comparison? I think we should focus on making movies that we can proudly showcase to the entire world, that make 100 crores in a country outside India, that would be something to be proud of. I believe that film is either good or bad, I don’t judge movies by the numbers they do.
But good or bad film is subjective, right?
Yeah, of course. I’ve seen films that I didn’t like making 100, 200 whatever crores, and some really fantastic films not even doing well, so you can’t judge movies with the amount of money they make.
Can you finally demand money now?
Yes, I can. I can demand some money now. I’ve just started learning how to talk money finally (laughs) – as I don’t have a manager, I’ve to do it on my own.
In the last few years there’s been an influx of young actors, where do you see yourself in this crowd?
(Thinks) Well, during the City Lights promotion, a lot people have been comparing me to a young Dilip Kumar, or a young Amitabh Bachchan, when people compare you to stalwarts such as these, and Balraj Sahni, I just feel overwhelmed. Nobody can be Dilip Kumar, there cannot be a second Amitabh Bachchan, I just see myself as a guy who really loves acting, I am not here for the fame or for the money or to buy a chopper, I am here because this is the only thing I know how to do and the only thing I love, the feeling of being on set is another high altogether, and that’s why I don’t even feel the need to drink.
A piece of advice to someone who is struggling to make it big in the movies?
Lot of people ask me this, but honestly there is no formula. The only advice I can give them is focus and try and improve your craft. Times are changing now for Indian cinema, we are evolving and now we are more open to experimenting with characters and stories. So try and improve your craft by working on it.
Getting married anytime soon?
Not at all. I am in a relationship, but I haven’t even started thinking marriage yet.
You are dating your Citylights co-star Patralekha…
We have been seeing each other for a couple of years now, but that’s about it. I mean it’s boring to talk about. We are seeing each other and that’s about it. The only thing I like talking about is my work, whatever else that happens in my life is personal and I am very sure no one is interested in where I am having my dinner.
I am sure people are interested.
Well, I eat dinner at my own place (laughs)