Rajkummar Rao’s story in cinema sounds like the lives of Hindi cinema’s greatest icons. Rao has grown up in Gurgaon in a middle-class family, trained himself in dance and martial arts before being selected for the coveted acting course at FTII, Pune. Graduating with top honours, his struggle began when he started to audition for bit parts and made rounds of film studios and offices of casting directors after that. For the first year, a 10,000 rupee pay cheque was rewarding and meals were often shared. But as he often says, “I was persistent. I called Atul Mongia, who was casting for Love, Sex Aur Dhokha to try me out for a bigger role. “
His continuous phone calls paid off. An audition later, Rao landed his first film; and immediately rose to the attention of filmmakers that mattered. Here was an actor that could become a character and raise it as a screen person.
But Rao’s achievement goes beyond that of being a character actor. Today, he is the leading man in mainstream films. His looks don’t sync with the image of a Hindi film hero till date. Yet, for films that hold promise, he happens to be playing the pivotal part of a leading man. His forthcoming film, Stree, a first of its kind horror comedy, casts him with Shraddha Kapoor. A funny and promising trailer, Stree has gotten audience interest right from its first looks. Rao will also be starring in Ek Ladki Ko Dekha To Aisa Laga, alongside Sonam Kapoor and Anil Kapoor. Slated to release next February, it’s a romantic drama with an extended cast of Juhi Chawla and Regina Cassandra. Next year also sees him star opposite Kangana Ranaut, reuniting the actors from Queen, in the dramedy Mental HaiKya. Rao also appears in Love Sonia, Tabrez Noorani’s hard-hitting film on sex trafficking that is currently the toast of the festival circuit. In brief, Rajkummar Rao seems to be everywhere, in a good way.
Rao’s exponential growth in Hindi cinema is largely due to his phenomenal talent. But it is also a result of changing audience tastes that have compelled the mainstream to accept talented filmmakers with fresh ideas and innovative casting. Acting takes precedence in the current landscape as poorly performing actors have little room for survival, even if they bring in star value. Rao’s recent release, Fanney Khan, serves for a good example. While both Anil Kapoor and Rajkummar Rao have been praised for decent performances in an incoherent, poorly made film, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan has been unanimously panned. Her performance has been criticised as has been her visible inability to grow as an actor. Being a star alone doesn’t matter much when an audience can choose from global content on streaming giants, or switch to engaging and quality regional films. Actors that audiences root for and connect with are crucial to make films succeed.
In the past, talented actors like Manoj Bajpai and Irrfan Khan have had to struggle for long years before they have found validation. They found just enough work to pay their bills in expensive Mumbai and kept plodding to find roles that did justice to their merit. In their cases too, filmmakers with fresh thinking gave them their visible roles. Ram Gopal Verma established Bajpai’s prowess as a brilliant actor with Satya; and in pivotal roles in Maqbool and New York, Irrfan Khan hit the mainstream thanks to Vishal Bharadwaj and Kabir Khan. He hit bullseye with Paan Singh Tomar, more than a decade since he began to act in films.
That Rajkummar Rao has found substantial roles today is because films that feel different and tell a good story, tend to do well. Rao has often stated that for him, the length of a role and its scope in a film rarely matters; it’s the quality of the story that makes him choose a film. He has said no to hero roles in mediocre films. He prefers to play a key character or second lead in a promising film with a solid script. Rao’s choices- Shahid, Omerta, Newton- reflect that quiet confidence that he stands ahead of the game as an actor. In his desperate performance in Trapped, a film riding entirely on his acting, Rao has proven his versatility and command over his craft. It’s his ability to be malleable that sets him ahead of his contemporaries. In Newton, where he plays a committed honest election officer, Rao delivered such a convincing performance that a film meant for the festival circuit went on to make money in theatres. Filmmakers that are keen to explore facets of storytelling beyond the conventional go to him first; he leads the new wave of Hindi cinema without much competition. When Shah Rukh Khan heaped praise on Rajkummar Rao at the opening ceremony of IFFI Goa 2017, he stated that he is the finest today; from Khan that’s rich praise for it indicates that the movers and shakers of Hindi cinema have come to recognise the value and immense potential of this young actor.
While doing a round of interviews recently, Rao has expressed keen interest in working on an action film soon. He wants to put his training in martial arts to use in a good, convincing story. So far, at 33, he has a National Film Award to his credit. With him eyeing a typical action entertainer, his confidence in his abilities to be a movie icon shine through yet again. As he displays his prowess over comedy, drama and different emotions with each film, one can hope for many more memorable roles from this talented actor who has successfully dented the star system of Hindi films.