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Rajkummar of his dreams

Can an actor become a bigger star than he once dreamt of being?

brunch Updated: Jun 09, 2018 22:06 IST
Anil Sadarangani
Anil Sadarangani
Hindustan Times
In 2010, Rajkummar made his Bollywood debut with a small character role in the film LSD (2010). Eight years later, he is a box office phenom
In 2010, Rajkummar made his Bollywood debut with a small character role in the film LSD (2010). Eight years later, he is a box office phenom(Pictures shot exclusively for HT Brunch by Subi Samuel)

When you’ve delivered two sleeper hits at the box office in a single year, when you are the toast of fawning cinema critics, fanzines and a media desperate to stay relevant in the age of Insta stories, chances are that you have become a neurotic, tantrum-throwing diva. The kind of actor people describe as ‘starry’.

Except that Rajkummar Rao is none of the above. Not yet, anyway. “Honestly yaar, I want to just focus on my work,” he says with regular, boy-next-door ease. “There are a lot of things people are calling me, and I’m overwhelmed. I have a lot of gratitude, but I just want to keep doing what I’m in love with, which is acting. I chased my dream, worked hard for it, and now I am actually living that dream. This doesn’t happen to everyone.”

Quality matters

Without any fanfare, he has breezed into photographer Subi Samuel’s Versova studio. His entourage (“What entourage?” Rajkummar rolls his eyes) consists of his PR manager and spot boy/driver.

Then, something gives. He has fixed another meeting. Before we can begin our interview, his second appointment turns up, a group of babus wanting him to do a PSA video for their ‘cause’, attempting to steal him for their shoot.

Rajkummar calmly disarms the situation. He persuades the public servants to wait.

“Sometimes I try to juggle meetings but I end up making one person wait! Relax, yaar,” laughs the 33-year-old National Award-winner.

“There are a lot of things people are calling me, and I’m overwhelmed. But I just want to keep doing what I am in love with...”

In 2010, Rajkummar made his Bollywood debut with a small character role in the film LSD (2010), for which he was famously paid Rs 11,000. Eight years later, he is a box office phenom. Yet, he wants to stay grounded.

Dubbed by Forbes India as ‘one of the most bankable stars of neo-Indian cinema,’ he has risen through the ranks slowly and surely, captivating us with the different characters he transformed himself into for his movies.

Rajkummar takes his work very seriously, but doesn’t take himself seriously (Subi Samuel)

It helps that he’s at the right place at the right time: this is a disruptive phase in cinema in India. Content is king and we want to see quality movies and acting. But there’s something about this guy. Omerta failed at the box office, but the media continues to laud his advent. And let’s be clear – with him, there is no sycophancy.

“What is this starry thing? Why do you have to do it? Just be yourself, man,” Rajkummar says. A starry attitude, he is reminded, happens when people take themselves too seriously. “I take my work very seriously but I don’t take myself seriously,” he says with a grin.

Actor or star?

Famous last words? Surely he must enjoy the adulation and the fact that the world now seems to revolve around him? “That’s not true. The world is revolving around many other important things. We’re just actors, man, just part of things, we’re just doing our jobs, like everyone else does their jobs,” he says. “The adulation for us is much more because we are always in the public eye. But I never became an actor because I wanted people to scream out my name.”

Surely he throws some tantrums, we insist. Rajkummar guffaws. “Do I throw tantrums?” he asks his staff. They laugh and vouch he doesn’t. And they don’t just say that because he is in the room. When he walked into the studio, he complied with Subi’s vision for the shoot, doing more than was asked of him.

The future, he believes will belong not to stars or actors.

“Who would have thought Newton (2017) would have been such a big success? It proved a point. Now, there will be 10 more Newtons!”

“The future belongs to stories, honestly. Eventually, people will connect to stories and they will want to watch a film because they like the story. There will be actors, there will be stars, sometimes there will be non-actors too. But, cinema will be about the stories,” he says. “That line of art and commercial cinema has blurred. Now, a film is either good or bad. Who would have thought Newton (2017) would have been such a big success? It proved a point. Now, there will be 10 more Newtons. That’s how it works.”

Rajkummar believes there’s no success formula for an actor. (Subi Samuel)

There’s no success formula for an actor today, he believes. “First of all, you have to ask yourself why you do this. For fame? Glamour? Because you want to be a superstar or because you genuinely love what you do? Genuinely loving what you do is the correct answer,” he says.

Call me Raj Malhotra!

Rajkummar has genuinely been in love with acting since he was a kid. Little did film producer Aditya Chopra know as he formulated the idea for what would become the longest running film in theatres in the history of Hindi commercial cinema, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ) (1995), that his iconic movie would ignite a fire in the heart of one particular pre-teen growing up in then-small town Gurgaon.

“The day I feel this particular act is what I should keep doing because it sells, I will be scared. That is the death of an actor”

For three weeks after he first saw DDLJ, 11-year-old Rajkumar Yadav, as he was then known, imagined he was Raj Malhotra, Shah Rukh Khan’s character from the movie. “‘What is this Rajkumar? Call me Raj!’ I would tell my friends,” laughs Rajkummar.

This would become a ritual. “After Ghulam (1998), I would be Aamir Khan’s character, the lukha Siddhu, and talk like him for three weeks. I’d be Bhiku Mhatre from Satya (1998), Samar Pratap Singh from Shool (1999), and Mohan Bhargava from Swades (2004). I wanted to be all these characters!” he laughs.

The only thing that scares the actor about stardom is laziness (Subi Samuel)

One thing that ‘stardom’ has robbed Rajkummar of is his privacy. “I like walking down the streets. I have to cover my face when I do now. I don’t mind getting pictures clicked at a coffee shop but after a point I want to sit and have my coffee quietly. People say I’ve started looking good these days but that’s just perception and good photography,” he says. The only thing that scares him about stardom is laziness. “The day I feel this particular act is what I should keep doing because it sells, I will be scared. That is the death of an actor.”

If this were to happen some day, Rajkummar adds, he would still work for Rs 11,000 for a few select people who he will not name. “But we’re talking about LSD, which was eight years ago!” he grins. “In my defence, I’d argue, ‘Abhi mehengai bahut badh gayi hai, yaar!’”

Starrier words were never spoken.

From HT Brunch, June 10, 2018

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