It may seem a strange thing to say of someone who rode, three years ago in Vikas Bahl’s Queen, a scooter covered in heart-shaped balloons, but Rajkummar Rao isn’t given to onscreen flamboyance. Over seven years and 20-odd films, the 32-year-old actor has built a reputation as an empathetic but unsentimental interpreter of regular lives. Which is why the showreel from his Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) days, in which he seems to have at least one eye on mass-market stardom, is surprising. Scene fragments show Rao in dramatic, romantic and slapstick situations; he dances, does some shirtless taekwondo, performs kalaripayattu. It feels like the résumé of someone who’s saying, look at me, I can carry a commercial film.
Rao can carry a film all right, but in a way that’s far removed from the vanity of stars. His best performances are examples of what American critic Manny Farber called Termite Art. This particular approach, which Farber contrasts with ostentatious, obvious White Elephant Art, “goes always forward eating its own boundaries and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity”. It’s difficult to imagine a better description of what Rao achieves with his roles in Shahid (2013) and Trapped (2017), Kai Po Che! (2013) and Newton (2017)—busy, alert performances, composed of a multitude of small choices rather than a limited number of grand ones.
It’s been an unusually busy year for Rao. This weekend, Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Bareilly Ki Barfi, in which he stars alongside Ayushmann Khurrana and Kriti Sanon, will release. He’s already had two films out this year, Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped—in which he gave his most physically charged performance—and Ajay Pannalal’s comedy, Behen Hogi Teri. Newton, a sparklingly written, mordant take on elections in a Maoist-controlled area of Chhattisgarh, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in February, will open in September in India. Hansal Mehta’s Omerta, in which he plays Omar Saeed Sheikh, the terrorist accused of murdering journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002, will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival next month. And there’s Bose: Dead/Alive, a web series premiering later this year (Mehta is the creative producer), in which he plays, improbably, Subhas Chandra Bose.
For someone with a rare ability to blend into scenes and disappear into parts, that’s a lot of visibility. And though none of these is a big commercial film, the constant presence of Rao on screens big and small through the year might work to his advantage. Film buffs may talk of Trapped and Newton, but to the general public—when they think of him at all—he’s still that guy from Queen, the necessary evil that kicks off Kangana Ranaut’s process of self-discovery.
Vinod Mirani, a veteran analyst, says Rao isn’t yet seen in trade circles as someone with much box-office cache—but he can get there. “I’d never have thought Naseeruddin Shah could have crossed over, but he did,” he says. “Rao will get his chance, he has to wait for the right role.”
Unlike indie fellow-actors such as Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Rao has avoided playing the hero’s best friend or eccentric villain in major studio films so far. “It’s been offered to me,” he says, during our second meeting, one early morning at his apartment in Andheri, Mumbai. He’s been shooting the Bose series, and it shows: a beanie obscures an unseemly haircut, and his normally thin face is puffy with the weight he’s gained for the role. “I’d probably get a lot of visibility, but I don’t think I would enjoy the process. And for me, the process is what you remember.”
Rao grew up in Prem Nagar, Gurugram, with two older siblings and three cousins in an extended family. It was the sort of middle-class milieu that many of his characters find themselves in. His father was a patwari, a keeper of land records, and his mother a homemaker. It was a family of movie enthusiasts—when his parents were wed, his mother brought a large poster of Amitabh Bachchan to her new home.
Growing up, Rao was a Shah Rukh Khan fan, though also enough of an Aamir Khan fan to attempt, when he was around 14, a version of the “dus dus ki daud” stunt from Ghulam with two of his friends (“We sat on the tracks and counted to 10 while the train was coming towards us and then jumped. It was night, so all you could see was the light getting closer. It was plain stupid”). He took notice when a largely unknown actor—thin, hungry, intense, much like he would himself be when he started out in films a decade later—burst on to the scene in Satya and Shool.
“I was highly influenced by Manoj (Bajpayee),” Rao tells me, in his trailer at Mumbai’s Filmistan Studio, awaiting summons for a recording of The Drama Company show, part of a seemingly endless string of promotions for Bareilly Ki Barfi. “It was after seeing him that I thought of becoming an actor.” Years later, he would share scenes with Bajpayee in Chittagong and play opposite him in Aligarh.
Rao had started acting in school plays, but took it up in earnest when he began college. He joined the Shri Ram Centre repertory in Delhi in his first year. This meant travelling by bus from Gurugram to Atma Ram Sanatan Dharma College in south Delhi every day, and from there to his theatre classes at Mandi House, before returning home late at night. He would spend the 4-5 hours of travel reading—plays in English and Hindi, the acting treatises of Konstantin Stanislavski, Shiv Khera’s You Can Win. It was exhausting, but ambition had taken grip. “I could never lead a typical college life,” he says. “The moment I passed out from school, the only aim was to become a film actor. I just worked towards that—no girlfriends, no fun in life.”
This focus only intensified when he began a two-year acting course at the FTII, Pune. Batchmate Anish John, now a leading sound designer, remembers how Rao used to impose a curfew of 11pm on himself—a rarity for that bohemian campus. John, who has worked with Rao on Trapped and Newton, believes he hasn’t changed much since. “He comes on set very focused. He’s not this brooding, serious actor—it’s not like he’s in character while eating lunch—but the minute the shot is ready, he switches on” (Rao says he watches documentaries and Game Of Thrones episodes on his phone to unwind between scenes nowadays). Amit Masurkar, Newton’s director, also spoke of his discipline, saying, “He would sleep every night at 9.30, wake up 2-3 hours before call time, do his exercises, get his hair curled, come on set exactly on time.”
That Rao is capable of uncommon focus is of a piece with his screen persona. If there’s one thing that unites nearly all his characters, it’s the single-mindedness with which they pursue whatever they’ve set out to achieve. In Kai Po Che!, Govind alone among the central trio refuses to be side-tracked from their dream of running a successful business. In Newton, the eponymous hero’s insistence on official procedure begins to resemble mania, as all unadulterated idealism eventually does.
When the character’s goal is less than wholesome, this concentration can take the performance into thrillingly dark places. In his first two films, Dibakar Banerjee’s LSD: Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (2010) and Pawan Kripalani’s Ragini MMS (2011), Rao has the coiled energy of a wild animal on a hunt. Physically unintimidating, he bullies with speech instead, keeping up a jabbing verbal patter that denies the women he’s seducing the chance to think clearly. Even when he isn’t playing a creep, this attitude persists—in an amusing scene in Shahid, where he plays a lawyer, he can’t seem to stop quizzing his client Mariam about her marital status.
“His early audition was as Raj. (His) charm, the quiet intensity was there. But we needed to see the other side,” says Kanu Behl, director of Titli, about his time as co-writer and chief assistant director on LSD.
Rao, who went by the name of Raj Kumar Yadav then, had moved to Mumbai after graduating from the FTII in 2008. In July 2009, after close to a year and a half of auditions, and nothing to show for them, he read in a Pune newspaper that Banerjee was looking for new actors for his digital film. He managed to get himself introduced to Atul Mongia, who was casting along with Behl. The part he was competing for—there were two other candidates—was of a fairly despicable supermarket manager who, in order to pay off a debt, tries to con an employee into sleeping with him so he can record the act on hidden camera.
Behl and Mongia were looking for someone who could pass for an average Delhi guy, with a bit of rakish charm but also capable of cruelty. Rao intrigued them—but he wasn’t mean enough. “We had to play mind games,” Behl says. “We wanted to make him unsure.” Mongia played good cop, telling Rao that Behl didn’t think he was up to the task. Over the next two and a half months, though, Rao grew into the part, and was finally cast.
When LSD released in March 2010, it was the ordinary-looking, intense actor in the second storywho seemed, as Behl put it, as if he was here to stay. This deliberately unattractive film was a moderate success; more importantly, it was a perfect springboard to launch Rao towards the kind of cinema he was looking to do. Anurag Kashyap saw the film and cast him in Gangs Of Wasseypur (still being written at the time), which in turn led to Shahid. Ekta Kapoor saw it and insisted he play another creep trying to con his girlfriend in the horror film Ragini MMS.
Over the next two years, Rao appeared in small parts in Shaitan, Chittagong, Gangs Of Wasseypur II and Talaash. Shamshad Alam, the crooked trader he plays in Gangs Of Wasseypur II, was conceived as a central character. After the part was vastly reduced in the writing process, Kashyap asked the actor if he would rather back out. Rao, who had already visited the area to pick up the accent, said he would stick on. Although Shamshad isn’t on screen long enough to register as strongly as some of the other characters, he’s part of one of the film’s most memorable set-pieces, an extended comic chase. “The chase wasn’t part of the script initially,” Rao says. “Zeishan (Quadri, playing the gangster Definite) was supposed to empty his gun before I made my entry, but it got stuck, and we stayed in character. I knew there was another bullet inside, so the reaction you see when he points the gun at me is genuine. Anurag was rolling on the floor. He said, we can’t end the scene here.” It’s a small, stunning example of an actor known more for his preparation serving the film and his own performance by staying in the moment.
To understand the space Rao occupies in Hindi cinema today, a useful point of comparison is Nawazuddin Siddiqui, his co-star in Gangs of Wasseypur, Talaash and Chittagong, whose rise has been pretty much concurrent. Few would dispute that Siddiqui is the most exciting Hindi film actor of the last half-decade. His appetite for risk rivals Rao’s, but he has also branched out in directions that the younger actor hasn’t, running a profitable side business as a rescuer of bloated commercial productions. He’s the sort of performer whose mastery of his craft is visible for all to see. With Rao, too, the mastery is there, but it’s not as easy to spot. He’s Robert Duvall to Siddiqui’s Robert De Niro, happy to inhabit rather than steal a scene.
If Siddiqui seems to gravitate towards the oddballs—killers and thieves, cripples and pornographers—Rao has increasingly come to stand in for the average Indian striver. It’s an image that started to form in 2013, his breakout year.
Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che!, in which he headlined with Amit Sadh and Sushant Singh Rajput, gave him his first big hit. His Govind is a wonderful creation—fussy, square, ambitious—but an even finer performance, one which earned him a National Award, would come later that year, in Hansal Mehta’s Shahid. Playing Shahid Azmi, a real-life attorney who defends several accused in high-profile terrorism cases, Rao tempers his customary intensity and industriousness with a genuine sweetness. His passion in the courtroom scenes is a dramatic high point, but scattered along the way are dozens of little actorly moments, like when Shahid and his colleagues are being yelled at by their boss for their poor grasp of English, and he guiltily adjusts his tie.
Throughout his career, Rao has played driven, relatable young men, most of them comfortably or uncomfortably middle-class: journalist Deepu in Aligarh, desperate to land his first big story; white-collar worker Shaurya in Trapped, channelling the spirit of Mumbai through his untiring efforts in the face of insurmountable odds. Perhaps his new-found interest in physical transformation—emaciated in Trapped, wizened in Raabta, shaving his head and gaining weight to play Bose—is a reaction to finding himself Hindi cinema’s favourite everyman (one wonders how his Omar Sheikh will subvert this relatability). He hopes to be like Daniel Day-Lewis one day, concentrating on one film at a time, disappearing completely into the role.
“I really can’t do things that I don’t believe in,” Rao says. But once he believes, his directors say, he’s all in. For the Bose miniseries, he took up smoking. For Trapped, he starved himself to match his character’s reality, subsisting on carrots, black coffee and a few sips of water. He also cut himself when the fake blood looked, well, fake. During the shooting of Newton, his mother died. Rao went home for a day, then returned to Chhattisgarh. “This was her only dream. She’d have wanted me to come back,” he says.
In person, Rao is affable and enthusiastic, happy to share credit for his performances with his directors and co-actors. He steers well clear of offending anybody; I was unable to get him to name directors he would like to work with in the future. The only time he made any displeasure known was when he spoke about the kind of performer he didn’t like working with. “Some actors can be really selfish,” he says. “They can only think about their lines, their scenes—if they are looking okay, if they are facing the camera.”
Rao’s involvement in scenes in which he doesn’t appear on camera was mentioned so consistently by people I spoke to about him that it painted not only a flattering picture of Rao but a most unflattering one of Bollywood stars in general. Rao says he’s always made it a point to give line cues when his character is involved but he isn’t in the frame (this task is often delegated to assistants), and that he expects his co-actors to do the same for him. “I think I perform better when I’m giving cues,” he says—something Masurkar echoes in a separate conversation. The Newton director also recalls how, for a sequence in which his character is being chased, Rao ran off-screen for the duration of the shot, so that the other actors would have an actual moving figure to focus on.
Onscreen too, Rao is great support. Unusually for Hindi cinema, he can be a remarkably self-effacing actor. His chirpy but slightly bland Deepu in Aligarh only serves to make Manoj Bajpayee’s withdrawn gay professor all the more intriguing (Siddiqui, performing a similar function in The Lunchbox, almost steals the film from Irrfan Khan). It’s telling that the film Rao is most widely known for—Queen—is one in which he is on screen for barely 20 minutes. It’s a sly, funny turn—no one has ever put more gleeful lust into the words “sweet corn”—yet played in such a way that the focus in his scenes with Ranaut stays on Rani’s emotional state.
Rao says he doesn’t worry about top billing or commercial viability while signing a project, just the script and the director—not a unique sentiment coming from an actor, but one that’s borne out by his filmography, which has a high percentage of worthy films and few outright duds. At a glance, it looks like a carefully planned career, but Rao insists this isn’t the case. “Honestly, when I look back, I just wanted to get away from the mundaneness of my life,” he says. Now, through his work, he shines a light on other mundane lives, and makes them exceptional.