"You are putting so much pressure on me, sir," he says to me as he sits down to have his meal. "Kahin baahar jaate; we could have met for lunch, at a café or gone for a drink and done this properly. This is so hurried."
It is my very first interaction with the actor, and just like that, we’ve gone from total strangers to potential friends in five seconds. That’s Ranveer Singh for you. With him, you don’t have to break the ice. He breaks it for you, puts it in your drink and raises his glass. He makes you his own immediately.
(Photo: Prasad Naik)
The thing about Singh is, there’s no escaping him. You may not be a fan right now, but there’s a good chance that eventually, you will become one. Maybe after you see him as the sword-wielding power-packed Peshwa in the upcoming film, Bajirao Mastani; maybe after his next crazy social media stunt (dancing in a Krrish costume in the middle of the street was his last one); maybe after reading this interview. But he will make you drop your guard at some point. He will sell to you like you’ve never been sold to before.
The public consensus in Singh’s case is: there’s something about him. What this something is, no one seems to be sure. If there’s a rule book for young leading men to make it big in Bollywood, it’s lying in Singh’s trash can. He’s done more Don’ts than Dos, and has arguably left Ranbir Kapoor (assumed to be his biggest competitor) and other new actors a mile behind with three hits in a row (Gunday, Ramleela and Dil Dhadakne Do).
But under this all-consuming, attention-loving and (mostly) politically incorrect public persona is a quiet, thinking man: a man who weighs his words but also makes them sound spontaneous, a man who knows what he’s selling and why. And a man who will surprise you with his perspective on fame, films and friendships.
The F word
Anybody who knows anything about Singh from his movies, appearances on chat shows and events, and his own social media persona, will assume that he loves the spotlight and knows the secret to staying there.
Be it his over-the-top roles, characteristics of which seep into his own being during movie promotions (he was bratty for Dil Dhadakne Do events; restrained for Lootera), or those spur-of-the-moment dares that he accepts from other actors on Twitter (he covered Taher Shah’s hilarious song Eye-To-Eye when Hrithik Roshan asked him to). Be it his candidness about his girlfriend Deepika Padukone (he announced "I love you, baby" during that controversial AIB Roast), or those loud, quirky shirts, fedoras and polka-dotted suits; Singh is always centrestage.
"He’s very bright when it comes to interacting with people beyond work," says Arjun Kapoor, Singh’s co-star from Gunday (2014)and his best friend in Bollywood. "For my two films before Gunday, I was just being my own private self in front of the media. But he made me realise that you can have a lot of fun with the media and make them your own. He told me that the warmth you exude is going to come back to you."
Singh claims that no part of his media image is orchestrated, for there’s no way he could have prepared for fame the way he’s experiencing it today. "I was never hungry for this kind of attention, it was the love of performing that got me interested in acting," he says. "Now I go to a college with thousands of students screaming my name and waving at me, clicking selfies and that’s what being famous is all about."
In his younger days, Singh couldn’t have dreamt about this sort of phenomenon because stars weren’t as accessible as they are today, and he didn’t know this is also what being a movie star entailed. "I just thought that Hindi films were damn cool, and wanted to be part of them."
Singh’s co-star from Ramleela (2013), Richa Chadda vouches for this sincerity. She says he was one of the most dedicated and driven people even before he became a star. They had taken some theatre classes in Delhi together. "A mean old lady, who shall remain unnamed, was conducting the course," says Chadda.
"And she criticised me and Ranveer the most. She told me that I need to read more books and develop a personality, and she called Ranveer an eyesore." Chadda says the teacher even condescendingly told Singh that he didn’t belong in theatre and should "try his hand at Bollywood".
The mean old lady must have eaten crow when Ranveer emerged on the screen in 2010, rubbing his eyes in the morning sun in the first frame of Band Baaja Baaraat. A star was born.
Under the radar
Five years since his debut, Singh has realised two things about stardom: 1) It’s impossible to be a “normal person”, and 2) It’s difficult to be yourself, the moment you step out of the house.
Singh believes that technology has made it “so much more difficult to be a movie star in India”. “Everyone has a mobile phone with a camera; every phone can record video. You have to be prepared to be captured. It’s very easy to be misconstrued and presented in ways that you wouldn’t prefer. If I take a selfie with bags under my eyes, it becomes a hashtag. After becoming famous, I’ve realised how overrated fame is. It gets in the way of normal life.”
There are also times when the ‘star’ gets whipped into shape when he pushes the envelope like perhaps the time he decided to endorse a condom brand. “My father pulls me up, and rightly so,” Singh says. “The main struggle between my father and I is that he thinks I’m too impulsive. He wants me to consider every aspect of a situation and make an informed decision.” Even Ranveer Singh isn’t spared that dreaded “where’s your life going?” conversation.
Being impulsive might have led to a few headlines and controversies now and again, but Singh says that being wary or calculated is “just not who I am as a person. It’s not in my constitution”. “I hope I trust my instincts more than my impulses.”
When he manages to leave the stardom on the coat hanger; when he’s Ranveer Bhavnani (the name he was born with) and not Ranveer Singh, he loves “catching up on sleep, exercising, watching movies, and most importantly, gaming,” Singh says. FIFA becomes a blood-sport. “My two best friends and I play rough, it becomes pretty heated and intense, and there’s lots of gaali-galoch.”
Picking them right
He’s less of a man-child when he’s picking roles. In the famous words of Robert De Niro, the talent is in the choices. And Singh has made the most unusual ones so far.
In his debut film Band Baaja Baaraat, he was an unpolished Delhi boy with his heart on his sleeve (he’s said “it’s still the performance I enjoy watching the most”). In Lootera (2013), he played a con-man (he did it to know what “nuance” and “thehrav” was all about). In Ramleela (2013), he played a red-blooded Romeo from Gujarat’s Rabadi community (he turned the loverboy Romeo into a sexed-up smouldering adult) and in the recently released Dil Dhadakne Do (2015), he was a complete brat (too close to how we know him).
Apart from obvious factors while choosing roles (“engaging script, good role”), Singh tries to strike off things that may not even exist on other actors’ lists. “The world that the film is set in matters to me,” he says.
Going to the same type of sets, saying the same type of lines “pakaos” him. “When the first reading or the narration changes something in me on an emotional level, I realise I’ve got something good to work with. I am not an over-thinker; I won’t read it twice or ask for more narrations.” What also works in his favour is that he is “extremely thick-skinned when it comes to criticism,” says Chadda. “He doesn’t get bogged down by it.”
Singh is aware that there’s a certain level of abandon in his performances that not many possess. “I debuted in Bollywood without inhibitions, and I don’t want to develop any fears now,” he says. “Nothing is more detrimental to an actor than the lack of total surrender.”
Interestingly, most onscreen worlds that Singh has inhabited so far had been abandoned by other actors at some point. Band Baaja Baaraat and Dil Dhadakne Do were first offered to Ranbir Kapoor, Lootera had been written years before Singh signed-up, Bajirao Mastani had changed about half-a-dozen hands from Hrithik Roshan to Ajay Devgn to Salman Khan, before Bhansali zeroed-in on him.
But every single time, Singh swooped into action and made the role and the film his own. “The journey of the material is of no consequence,” Singh says. “I’m a strong believer of the ‘now’. I have to make my decisions irrespective of these things; otherwise I will end up making corrupt decisions. I give the material the respect that it deserves.”
The inspiration to play these roles in vastly different worlds comes from Singh’s own angst, he says. In an interview to senior journalist Anupama Chopra in 2013, Singh admitted: “My tank of angst is empty; I don’t know what to tap into anymore”. That was the time when he was in the midst of big film announcements and good reviews from critics and was feeling “light and happy”. But things have changed drastically.
Today, he says that level of angst has gone “through the roof and is at its highest.” It’s because he’s suffering from “the worst injury of [his] life”, while shooting for “the most demanding role of his career”. He dislocated a shoulder and has been recuperating for six months bang in the middle of shooting Bajirao Mastani which means he’s unable to do sword-fighting, horse riding and large-scale action sequences. “The injury led to a lot of anger and frustration. Fortunately I’m playing a character filled with rage, so it’s a good outlet.”
Physical ailments are his worst nightmare; the sure-shot antidote to his otherwise happy-chirpy self. Singh says that he can overcome any problem in life as long as he is in good shape. “But when I’m injured,” he says, “even the smallest of issues seem monstrous. It makes me feel depressed and angry at the world. My self-confidence, my happiness, everything comes from my physical fitness, and injuries put me in a funk.”
And nothing lifts his spirits like a good potboiler. “Yaar, I just watched Baahubali,” he says, already bursting at the seams with excitement. “And I flipped. Flipped matlab I went mad! I watched it in a multiplex and I was behaving as if I was in a single-screen theatre. I was clapping, shouting, standing up and howling. I went mad over that film.” Phew, now this Ranveer, I know.
Quickly circling back to the conversation about fame and stardom, Singh says that the ability to be himself is one of the most important things for him. “I never want to lose the ability to sit in a dark theatre, surrounded by people, eating popcorn and watching an amazing film. I’m the best viewer a film can get,” he says laughing. “I think everybody should call me for their trial shows because I like all kinds of movies. I will find some amount of credibility in everything. I will laugh out loud and I will cry. Directors will say, ‘Kash audience ka har member Ranveer jaisa hota’.” The ability to appreciate another actor’s work is key.
It’s also something he’s consciously imbibed from Deepika Padukone. “The most important thing I’ve learnt from her is her ability to stay solidly grounded,” he says. “That’s an invaluable lesson and a necessary reminder [of reality].”
But maintaining humility is a bigger battle. For now, he’s busy making small changes. “Before starting Dil Dhadakne Do, I made a mental note to be the best co-star to Anushka Sharma,” he says. “I decided I’d make it a breeze for her to work with me; compensate for all the stress I caused while shooting for Band Baaja Baaraat.”
There are some other acting issues as well: “I have a huge problem with my line-of-sight while doing a serious scene,” he jokes. “I just cannot have a crew-member lurking. And it bothers me when a director scolds me. Mr Bhansali is generous with his praise but equally blunt when he’s dissatisfied. He’s told me ‘you’re boring the sh*t out of me,’ in so many words.”
Maybe he will emerge a better actor on the other side of Bajirao Mastani, learn to deal with fame better, and even get rid of some of that angst (although I hope he doesn’t lose the edge and turn into one of those porcelain-doll actors). But those are conversations for another interview. A less-hurried one over a drink, perhaps.
Out of words
It’s difficult to stun Ranveer Singh into silence. Following his recent shoulder injury, the actor caught up on a lot of international films in the last six months, but there were bigger surprises waiting in Bollywood. The actor tells us about three of his favourite performances from the recent past and why he thought they were special
She was so transparent in the movie. It’s the highest achievement for any actor to bare their soul in front of the camera. Piku could have come off very annoying; Deepika made her endearing
Richa Chadda in Masaan:
She was unbelievable in Masaan. Actually that cast was phenomenal. I know Richa since we were both acting students; we did theatre classes together. She’s a great actress and was very impressive in Masaan.
Karan Johar in Bombay Velvet:
For a first-time performer, he was so natural in the movie. Karan was superb in Bombay Velvet. I was shocked by how good he was.
From the author's diary
Acting skills. (check)
Not self-important. (check)
Says three things and then thinks about the first one. (check) But over and above everything else, you can’t dislike him because he played the all-time-awesome Bittoo Sharma in Band Baaja Baaraat (BBB).
You know how Hum Aapke Hai Koun..! and DDLJ are the ’90s movies with the highest repeat value? For the ’00s, it’s Band Baaja Baaraat (and Jab We Met and Wake Up Sid. You’ll get the memo soon, wait for it). I
have a group of friends who can quote BBB off the top of their heads even after four drinks. Even I have resorted to "bread pakode ki kasam" more times than I’d like to admit. And Ainvayi Ainvayi leads to some involuntary foot-tapping and head-shaking.
I love that just the tiniest bit of Bittoo Sharma sneaks into some characters he does – be it the playboy Ricky Bahl, the man-child Ram or the bratty Kabir Mehra (Dil Dhadakne Do).
And here’s the fun part: The real-life Ranveer also has a bit of Bittoo in him. He was restless and jumpy throughout the interview just like Bittoo, he was eating something almost 98 per cent of the time (like Anushka says in BBB, "Pakka bhukkad hai tu") and he was extra warm and friendly, like he’s selling me a wedding package.
I got the best news right after the interview. They’re apparently planning BBB 2. And I’m already bouncing off the walls. Bread pakode ki kasam!
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From HT Brunch, August 16
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