From his very first performance, in Dibakar Bannerjee’s 2010 anthology film Love Sex Aur Dhokha, Rajkummar Rao showed the Hindi film industry that he was different. Here was someone who was not concerned about maintaining a traditional Hindi cinema’s “hero” image and sensibility on screen. His partnership with director Hansal Mehta is particularly noteworthy, their films together such as Shahid, Citylights and Aligarh are examples of some of the strongest work Hindi cinema has produced in recent years. He also delivered a stellar performance in Newton, one of the strongest films from both the Sydney Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival programs.
Here at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne to promote his film Trapped, Rao took the time to chat with us about the evolution of the Hindi cinema hero, his relationship with Hansal Mehta, upcoming projects and why films with stories of small towns are resonating with Indian audiences.
Let’s jump straight into the fire. You are the face of a new kind of protagonist in Hindi cinema. I wouldn’t call this leading man a “hero” per se. If anything, through your performances, you’ve changed the perception, image and face of a hero, along with a bunch of other actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui and others working today. In the ‘90s and 2000s, you couldn’t imagine that in mainstream Bollywood, the common man could also be seen as a hero. What’s changed in the time that has passed that’s allowed you to take up this space and challenge that conventional idea of a hero?
I think it’s all about the kind of stories our writers are writing now. And the way directors are telling their stories. They are writing characters now, you know? They are not writing for a particular name or a face. They write their stories, they write their characters and then they do their casting. Probably, that’s something that has changed. And also, the audience. They want to see content on screen. They want to see different characters living out their lives on screen. So yes, I think that’s the reason we are seeing this change happening right now.
In this very interesting space where Bollywood finds itself, with blurred lines between what’s considered ‘commercial’ and what’s ‘arthouse’, do you think we have somewhere overcomplicated things a little?
Absolutely. I honestly believe that you should not really comparmentalise films. A film is a film. Either it’s a good film or a bad film. That’s the only thing we should worry about. Any which way, films already struggle so much. As Taran sir (trade analyst Taran Adarsh) was saying, today there is only an 8-9% of success ratio.1 So, let’s keep other complications away and let’s just focus on the story and what the film is actually trying to say.
Let’s talk about your relationship with director Hansal Mehta. Because he’s really brought to the fore so many different sides of you. Shahid is so different to Aligarh which is so different to Citylights. What is it that Hansal is able to capture within you that works so well on screen?
I think it’s a kind of understanding that we share. And the kind of films and stories we want to tell are probably the same. Also, pushes me so much as an actor, you know? Like I’m playing Bose now.2 I’ve finished Omerta, which is at TIFF [Toronto International Film Festival] right now. These are the sorts of characters you don’t conventionally see me playing. But he is somebody who visualises and imagines me while writing a character. And then he gives me that responsibility. I’m very happy being in that space. As an actor that’s what you aim for. You seek to do different parts in all your films.
Trapped felt a really challenging role to pull off. When you have other people, other actors around you, that becomes a crutch. You can rely on them to share and embody the same space with you. But here, you had to carry the entire film just on your shoulders. You just had a pesky rat to share energy and bind with. How was that experience?
It was fun. It was not an easy film, not an easy character. But it was a lot of fun shooting for those 24 days with one of the finest directors we have in our country, Vikramaditya Motwane. I think it was just a great combination of a really wonderful script and an amazing director coming together. I feel very fortunate that I got the chance to be a part of Trapped because we don’t make that many survival dramas. Trapped is probably one of the few that we have. And there was so much for me to do as an actor. As you said, there was nobody else, just me throughout. And of course, that rat who was so natural! But I had fun. For me, it doesn’t really matter if I have a co-actor or not. I just have to react, be it to a co-actor or the situations I am surrounded with. In Trapped, it was the circumstances I was reacting to, so it didn’t really matter.
Moving from survival dramas to political dramas, let’s talk about Newton. We rarely make political films in India. And then Newton comes along, which challenges the status quo through satire. Do you feel that using the satirical medium to convey the film’s political message, especially for an Indian audience, makes it slightly more digestible?
It’s always fun if you add a little humour to a serious film. That’s why I’m a big fan of directors like Rajkumar Hirani and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Their stories are so sensible but they put a bit of humour ka tadka in it (a sprinkle of humour). This way, the audience can go and watch the film. They can go and get entertained but it also makes them think. So that’s what probably Newton will also do. It talks about something very serious but in a very humorous way. It’s a great combination. Yes, there aren’t many political films that we make. So, I hope Newton resonates with audiences so we make more such films.
I was intrigued by your character in Newton. He’s not a very likeable personality, with his stickler for rules kind of attitude and approach towards life. Yet, you were able to tap into a deeper humanity within him that makes us root for him by the end. How was the journey of understanding the pulse of the character? Was it difficult to pin him down?
No, it’s very simple. He’s just this idealistic guy who doesn’t want to move from his idealism. This is not a strict comparison but just like Gandhiji3 – he never moved from what he believed in. And that’s what really Britishers got fed up off in the end, that this guy just doesn’t move! For them, Gandhiji was just like Newton. I also believe in this ideology that if everybody starts doing the work that’s given to them, we’ll have a better world. We just feel a little lazy. Sometimes, we are a bit careless. But Newton is not that kind of a guy. He is just at it all the time. He will finish his job no matter what. That was the simple brief given to me. That he is somebody who believes in his ideology and he won’t move away from that path.
What I find fascinating is that mainstream Bollywood actors who started their careers back in the ‘90s are now venturing into new performance spaces, which they would never have done if the conventional ‘formula’ films still worked today. How do you navigate these different spaces, moving from Trapped to completely different space in the upcoming Bareilly Ki Barfi? Does that raise eyebrows from people because they seem two very different worlds?
Well yes, a lot of people tell me this. That suddenly you’ve started doing films like Bareilly Ki Barfi and Behen Hogi Teri. Are you trying to venture into commercial cinema now? And I tell them it’s not the first time I’ve been offered such scripts. I’ve been offered commercial films since Love Sex Aur Dhokha days. But somehow, I didn’t feel excited enough to do those films. They didn’t match my sensibilities. Bareilly Ki Barfi is a film which is very content driven. It talks about characters. It talks about small towns. And that’s very much my space. Suddenly, it’s not like I’m beating up twenty people on screen. As an actor, I’m still trying to portray my character honestly. I hope people will see it from that perspective as well and not just as me trying to jump into the commercial arena.
I was talking to Shubhashish Bhutiani when brought his film Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation) to the Sydney Film Festival, and he made this very interesting observation that small towns have become cool again in Hindi cinema. We are trying to tell our stories. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, it was all about Europe and the Swiss Alps. But now, we are rediscovering our own cities like Varanasi through films.
Absolutely. I believe most of India lives in small towns. Most of the population lives there. And honestly, they are people who make or break our films. So I’m very happy we are going back to that era which Hrishikesh Mukherjee started with his films. Most of his films were rooted in small towns and its characters. And now that sensibility is coming back. And also, I think somewhere it’s also a formula. You know, like how in the ‘90s, everybody started going to Switzerland, Europe and making films. Those kind of films worked then. And now, the small town is the trend and people are making films around that. I’m pretty sure this will also fade away and something else will come up. And then we’ll start following that. But it’s an exciting phase to be an actor. Because I get to play characters that are so well etched out. I’m also from a small town so I can easily connect with all these characters.
What do you think has been the reason for this trend to emerge?
I think films to an extent have become a lot more real now. I mean, of course, we are still selling dreams. Indian cinema will always sell dreams. But more than that, people do want to see reality on screen. That’s why films like Lipstick Under My Burkha, Hindi Medium, Talvar, Shahid and Trapped are being made. And they are making money as well.