One of the most talented actors in the Hindi film industry right now, Rajkummar Rao has carved a niche for himself over the last 8 years that he’s been a part of Bollywood. It’s been a slow and steady climb to being respected and recognised and the man has been relentlessly working towards it – one role at a time. Rajkummar has an enviable filmography of films like LSD, Queen, Shahid, Newton, Bareilly Ki Barfito his name and he’s already bagged a National Award… but the good news is that he’s just getting started.
2017 was a milestone year for Rajkummar and this year he’s gearing up for his first big release Omerta, in which he plays Omar Saeed Sheikh, one of the most dreadest terrorists in the world. Here’s my brief conversation with the actor just days before the release of Omerta:
Rajkummar Rao: It took me a while to figure out, as you rightly said, personally also I could not connect with him at all. I didn’t know anybody like him, I didn’t know about his world, how they function or what they do. But, when I was reading about him, what I could see was that there was a lot of hatred and anger inside him, which was driving him in what ever things he was doing. So, I wanted to cultivate the same emotions in me. I am not at all like him, there is no hatred no anger inside me. It’s there somewhere but it’s not driving me, it’s not my most important emotion.
For that, I started watching a lot of disturbing documentaries, disturbing videos, listened to a lot of hate speeches, things that really disturbed him in 1994, how he was moved, and wanted to do something. I started doing all those things with myself. I started putting myself in that situation. Apart from that I also was in London, picking up the language, learning about the culture there and simultaneously was growing my beard to physically also resemble him. I was also working out, trying to be strong and muscular, physically.
So, having done your bit homework of watching those videos, listening to the hate speeches and reading about him, did you understand where the violence and hate that Omar Saeed Sheikh had within came from?
Rajkummar Rao: He was very disturbed, or people like him they get very disturbed, even now as Raj or probably you, when we see what’s happening in Syria, we feel very angry, we feel very helpless and wonder why no one is doing anything about it. In that emotional moment, you get very fragile. He was a hot blooded young man, and there are people who are waiting for such boys, they brainwash you and then it’s up to you to decide whether you want to go into that path or not.
Omar chose to take that path, Shahid didn’t. Shahid came back, he chose a righteous path. But there are people like Omar as well. Even today, I hear stories where young people from very good backgrounds are getting disturbed, getting brainwashed, sometimes on WhatsApp groups and joining these groups knowing nothing, and sacrificing their lives for a cause which is of no worth I think.
We see almost similar visuals in Shahid and Omerta – the training in Kashmir for example, however post that their lives take totally different turns. Having played both these characters, what do you attribute this difference to?
Rajkummar Rao: It’s a scary world actually, the process that I was going through while I was filming Omerta was scary too. It’s very subjective and depends on the kind of frame of mind you are in at that point of time. Shahid could have also chosen that path, but he came back, he realised that this is not the right path for him. But there are people of course who can’t realise that and who just end up becoming what Omar became – the deadliest terrorist that he was. He’s still in prison and I don’t know what’s happening to him right now.
It’s your consciousness which makes you do things. But, I can imagine that you are so disturbed and moved by seeing what ever that is happening and you take it very personally, that I have to do something about it and as I told you there are people who are just waiting for that to happen.
Just as the brainwashing of Muslim youngsters is a reality, so is Islamophobia. Do you feel Islamophobia is a reality in today’s India, not in the film industry but in the society around you?
Rajkummar Rao: I don’t think so, probably there are a bunch of people who are trying to create this phobia around us, but apart from it, I don’t think so. I have so many Muslim friends, I’m sure you have Muslim friends, we don’t care which religion you belong to. For us, it’s your character which matters, it’s what you do and your karma which matters and not who you pray to.
But surely you’ve noticed a change over the years. Religion has become a much more contentious issue today.
Rajkummar Rao: It’s definitely not right, what’s happening. What we see and hear about somebody getting killed in the name of food, somebody getting killed because he fell in love with a girl from a different religion, that’s not done. But it’s happening not just here, it’s happening everywhere. Any kind of violence I strongly oppose and I strongly condemn. Right now we feel that’s in the air and I hope it goes away because it’s not right for any democratic country. India is known for its secularism and we have so many religions existing for thousands of years in this country, so I hope that we realise that it’s not about religion, it’s about you as a person.
You’ve been a part of films like Newton, Aligarh, Shahid, Omerta – films that aren’t the run of the mill flicks, which carry a social and political comment, but you yourself don’t air your political opinion or views on social media. Is it that you do not have any or is that you deliberately want to avoid any kind of controversy and would rather just do your job as an actor and move on?
Rajkummar Rao: No, whenever someone asks me, like you just asked me and I replied. I don’t have an issue, if someone asks me I would definitely speak my heart out. On social media, if I feel strongly about something I do write but I can’t write every day. I can’t just say every day that this is wrong and that is wrong and this should not happen.
We all know that it is happening, sometimes I just end up retweeting something and sometimes I just feel very sad about it. There were days when I actually took it very personally and there were days when I felt I was going under depression because I am thinking so much about it, and then I realise I would also need to focus on my work. I can pray that we don’t go wrong and we have a better environment to live in where we all feel fearless and can express our opinion.
You made your debut in 2010 with LSD and you’ve been consistently turning out brilliant performances in every film that you’ve been a part of. Do you personally feel that it has taken longer than usual for the industry to take you seriously, to see you as someone who can carry a film on your own shoulders? I am comparing it to the kind of reception a star kid would have got with the same talent.
Rajkummar Rao: I actually never saw it like that. Since 2010 I have been working non-stop and I feel blessed for the kind of love and admiration I got from a lot of people including critics and filmmakers. Yeah, probably they were not giving me work, probably they were not giving me those big films to act in but I got a lot of respect for whatever work I had done. So I never really thought of it like that. I also didn’t plan it like – “2017 I will show it to everyone and I’m going to do so many films and I am going to prove it”. It just happened that way, I never planned it like that.
So, I think everything happens for a reason, every thing has a time and in my case it was supposed to happen in 2017, when people would take me seriously and would probably think that I can carry a film on my shoulders now. I also think that I have grown as an actor compared to what I was in 2010. Also, life teaches you, I am more experienced, I feel rich when it comes to life experiences now than what I was in 2010. So whatever happens, I am very happy that it is happening now. So no complaints, it wasn’t as if I was sitting at home doing nothing, I was working.
But do you see a discernible difference in the film industry’s attitude towards you post Trapped, Newton and Bareilly Ki Barfi ?
Rajkummar Rao: There is definitely a change that has come my way. I am way busier than what I was in 2016, but it’s very natural because someone is investing a lot of money and they also want to be sure and I am glad that people who took that risk in my earlier films be it Kai Po Che, Queen, LSD or Ragini or all my films for that matter, but it’s fine. As I said earlier, it took people a while to realise that yes – he can pull it off and he can pull of a Newton or a Bareilly Ki Barfi, so as long as that is happening and it’s not happening 10 years later, it’s fine.
When you entered Bollywood you were, Rajkumar Yadav, and in a couple of years you changed your name to Rajkummar Rao – added an extra ‘M’ and changed your surname altogether. Frankly, you don’t come across as the superstitious type who would believe in numerology and stuff. What was the reason for this change and do you think it has helped you professionally?
Rajkummar Rao: I was only Rajkumar actually, if you see my credits in LSD or Ragini or Wasseypur. Well, my loved ones wanted me to add that extra ‘M’, I met people for that and they suggested that I should do this to my name. Rao is something that I always wanted to change to because I would read articles where people would compare me to other Yadavs or by mistake they would start writing – Rajpal Yadav or whatever, so I decided it’s not fair for me or even for him as actors.
My siblings they all use Rao, Rao is like a title given to Yadavs in Haryana. So decided I wanted to use Rajkumar Rao but then my loved ones also asked me to add the M. It took me a while to finally take this call whether I want to do it or not do it and I ended up doing it. But, it is not like just because of that extra ‘M’ suddenly things changed for me. I think eventually it’s your hard work and commitment which pays off.
You are one of the best actors the industry has today – what is your biggest fear as an actor?
Rajkummar Rao: I don’t want to find my comfort zone, I don’t want to know that this is what people like and so I should keep doing it. I don’t want to be in that trap, it’s quite scary. That’s why I want to keep pushing and keep trying different genres, different characters.
Today, Rajkummar Rao comes with a certain brand value. As an audience – one associates quality cinema, not necessarily art house – does that put added pressure on you? You can no longer sign a film just because the money is great.
Rajkummar Rao: I am not aware that there is this credibility that I carry now and honestly I don’t want to know it. I don’t want to take any kind of pressure. I’ve been working in films that I have wanted to work in, I’ve been listening to my heart for a long time and I just want to do that. I just want to keep doing that because I can’t work under pressure. I can’t think about what people think I should do and keep doing that.