Rajkummar Rao and The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

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Rajkummar Rao and The League of Ordinary Gentlemen

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

T

he Rahuls and the Rajs of the world always win. They’re the ones with successful careers or enough inheritance to avoid building one; they’re the ones who eventually get the girls. Even their internal crises are first-rate First-World problems. And really, who could get behind a Gattu or an Adarsh?

You could, if the character is being played by Rajkummar Rao. In the almost-enjoyable Behen Hogi Teri, Rao essays yet another iteration of the everyman, the naïve small-town loser. When he lets loose a drunken, broken-hearted tirade against another Rahul – who has “stolen” the love of his life, Binny (Shruti Hassan) – you know he is voicing the underlying disenchantment of every small-town lover-boy who can’t match up to those hallowed names. It happened with Salman Khan in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, rails Gattu, continued with Akshay Kumar in Dil Toh Pagal Hai, and was now unfolding in his own helpless life with precision.

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Just like Gattu, Rajkummar Rao is nobody’s idea of a hero. He’s spent about seven years in Bollywood, but he’ll never make the bracket of A-listers. But if there’s a vacancy for the guy next door – an actual mohalla boy, not the Sidharth Malhotra-Ranbir Kapoor-variant Bollywood has been peddling all our lives – Rao is the go-to guy. Because unlike the disaster Shah Rukh Khan pulled off in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, Rao looks the part, and has the ability to play it with a rare perspicacity.

Rao occupies the middle of a middle-class spectrum of actors. At the lower end of this is Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who can fill in the shoes of a migrant worker or a small-town schoolteacher; at the upper end is Ayushmann Khurana, whose face now screams Dilliwala sperm donor. Rao, however, can play human rights lawyer, Shahid, and Rajouri Garden groom, Vijay, with equal ease.

Rao’s face and body language have that singular quality that might make an audience member look at the screen and say, “That sounds like me,” instead of thinking, “I wish that were me.”

Of the 16 films that Rao has been a part of, his characters have all been rooted in middle-class India. His characters don’t take impromptu vacations out of the country every time they hit a minor hurdle or break into song and dance in expensive designer wear. They don’t have aspirational First-World names like Ayan and Ved. His characters, instead, are people you sit next to on the local bus: Adarsh in Love Sex Aur Dhoka, Vijay in Queen, Govind in Kai Po Che. The small-town Average Joe he plays in Behen Hogi Teri, comes on the back of roles where he plays a supermarket supervisor, a slimy cop, a geek, an ex-Army driver, a journalist, and a call-centre employee.

Rao’s face and body language have that singular quality that might make an audience member look at the screen and say, “That sounds like me,” instead of thinking, “I wish that were me.”

In giving a painfully regular character a voice and a distinct quirk – whether it is the wide-eyedness of Gattu, the crippling desperation of Shaurya, or the meekness of Deepak – the actor goes against a Bollywood staple. Where most other actors imbue their parts with traces of their stardom, Rao, sitting on the periphery of Bollywood, brings vulnerability and honesty to every character.

In some ways, Rao’s path was made marginally easier by actors like Siddiqui and Manoj Bajpayee who preceded him by a few years, and the directors and writers looking for authenticity in their characters. Bajpayee has sung in every role he has done before and since Bhiku Mhatre; Siddiqui’s rustic charm has been exploited to the hilt in Gangs of Wasseypur, Manjhi: The Mountain Man, and Haraamkhor.

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In giving a painfully regular character a voice and a distinct quirk, the actor goes against a Bollywood staple.

Courtesy: Phantom Films

It took Siddiqui more than 18–odd appearances and a decade of toil before he was able to capture the public’s imagination. Rao has been far luckier.

In a Bollywood populated by big-budget superstar vehicles and clichéd remakes, Rao has striven to redefine the interpretation of a “character actor” and his saleability. In doing that, he poses the question: What is a character actor supposed to look like?

Very far from the Rahuls and Rajs of the world. With folks like Rajkummar Rao, they can live, breathe, and thrive in the league of ordinary gentleman.

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