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Weekend Binge: Rajkummar Rao is undeniably the finest Bollywood actor of his generation

It was a long time coming, but we can no longer deny the fact that Rajkummar Rao is the finest Indian actor of his generation. With Omerta in theatres, here’s looking at his journey to the top.

weekend binge Updated: May 05, 2018 10:28 IST
Rohan Naahar
The many faces of Rajkummar Rao.
The many faces of Rajkummar Rao.

Every week, we will curate a collection of titles - movies, TV, general miscellanea - for you to watch (and in some cases, read, or listen to), in a series we call Weekend Binge. The selection will be based on a theme which binds the picks - which could be extremely blunt in certain instances, or confusingly abstract in some. No rules apply, other than the end goal being getting some great entertainment to watch.

While the idea is to base the theme on the week’s major events - it could be the release of a new movie, or show - we could also use this opportunity to comment on our world in general, and turn to art to wrap our heads around some of the more difficult stories of the past seven days.

Omerta (2018)

Not enough is being written, or said, about the bravery that must have gone into Omerta. Fans of Mario Puzo’s gangster novels and the films they inspired would be familiar with the term. In the Sicilian mafia, Omerta is the vow of silence that the gangsters take. Even if their daughter were to be killed, they would never point fingers or name names. In many ways, this aversion of the eyes is the reason behind most of our problems as a society. There’s always the thought that had more of us been braver, a lot of our problems - and the people responsible for them - would go away.

Playing a terrorist - especially one who has a very close relationship with our country, and is responsible for the grief many of our countrymen and women have faced, and continue to endure - could not have been easy. Especially in India, a country that routinely finds it difficult to separate actors from the characters that they play on screen, there is a chance that we forever associate Rajkummar Rao with the vile Omar Saeed Sheikh. Luckily for us, the director-actor duo of Hansal Mehta and Rajkummar Rao rarely plays it safe. They have, over the course of four incendiary films (and one show), established themselves as among the finest creative partners in our country, and dare I say, the entire world.

Theirs is a filmmaker-actor partnership right up there with some of the most acclaimed duos of modern times - Scorsese-DiCaprio, Refn-Gosling, Burton-Depp, Almodovar-Cruz.

The greatest product of this partnership, besides of course, the films, is the fact that Rajkummar Rao is now finally receiving the praise he always deserved - even when he was playing bit parts in films such as Shaitan and Wasseypur.

As he ventures into the mainstream - it’s bound to happen, so we might as well accept it - let’s take a look at his journey to reach this stage. Here are the five best movies of Rajkummar Rao’s career, pre-Omerta.

Shahid

Shahid (2013)

Along with the 2014 film Court, Shahid is the finest movie about the Indian legal system we’ve had in the last decade. But while Court was more satirical in tone, Shahid is a film clearly inspired by Italian neo-realism - brutally stark, unfussy and shot with the rugged authenticity that can only come with hand-held cameras. It’s almost as if Hansal pointed the camera in Rajkummar’s direction and let him loose - some takes are unbearably uncomfortable. And this fearlessness has given us a performance that has an unhinged sincerity and passion that we rarely see in Indian movies.

CityLights

CityLights (2014)

Of all the movies on this list, perhaps the only one that couldn’t quite attain the phenomenal heights of the rest is CityLights, but that is probably because I hold the original that it is based on, Metro Manila, in such high regard. However, Hansal and Rajkummar effectively transport the flavour of the Philipino city to modern Mumbai, and zero in on the sad realisation that while we may be separated by borders, in face of grief and survival, we are all the same.

Aligarh

Aligarh (2016)

There are very few Indian films made with the empathy and sensitivity of Aligarh. It’s a heartbreaking tragedy of one man trying to survive in a world that doesn’t accept him. Like the film, Ramchandra Siras, a homosexual professor at Aligarh Muslim University, was beaten down, repressed and gagged - usually by those in positions of power. He was isolated, assaulted, persecuted and shamed. But we of know the pain he lived with now. We know his story, a story that will live for eternity - as a warning, but also as a sign of hope. And it makes you wonder, how could someone try to bury a tale as beautiful as this?

It’s also a great example of cinematic restraint - both the film and the central performances. While the rest of the films on this list feature Rajkummar in a leading role, this is Manoj Bajpayee’s movie to carry - but he could not have done what he did without Rajkummar’s support. Together, they achieved greatness.

Newton

Newton (2017)

As the lines between art and propaganda blur, there is one bright spot. It feels sort of reductive to label Newton as a social drama - it isn’t, at least not in the way that some of Akshay Kumar’s films are - but it’s a film that has anger in its heart, and spirit in its veins. Like Shahid, it points the spotlight in the direction of a systemic problem in our nation that we simply have not paid enough attention to. Like the legal system - broken, corrupt, compromised in parts - making a film about rigged elections takes courage.

Trapped

Trapped (2017)

There are bad Rajkummar Rao films, but never a bad Rajkummar Rao performance. Trapped is neither. It is -- like similar vanity projects such as All is Lost (Robert Redford), Buried (Ryan Reynolds), Locke (Tom Hardy) -- a virtuosic one-man show, a film that has at its centre a performance so commanding that you forget that you’re watching an actor at all. But not enough people realise how risky films such as this really are. In the wrong hands, it could have come turned into an unbearable exercise in self-praise. It’s not. Under Vikramaditya Motwane’s deft direction, the films becomes a statement on our place in the world - sort of like CityLights.

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar