How Rajkummar Rao Became Too Good for Bollywood

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How Rajkummar Rao Became Too Good for Bollywood

Illustration: Sushant

The 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 and the Filmfare Awards. Even their internal crises are first-rate first-world problems. And really, who could get behind a Gattu, Newton, or a Shaurya?

You could, if the character is being played by Rajkummar Rao.

Over the last two years, the actor who has played the lead in 10 films, including Newton, India’s official entry for the Oscars, and underwent a gruelling physical makeover to star as Subhash Chandra Bose in a web-series, has cemented his place as a star. There was no actor these years belonged to more than it did to Rao, who churned out unique and electrifying performances with such ease that it could put other actors to shame. As Pritam Vidrohi, Rao unleashed his comic timing delivering a career-best performance that stole the spotlight in Bareilly Ki Barfi. Similarly, in Newton, Rao gave a face to the peculiar kind of non-hero government officers who’re oblivious to the perils of idealism. And in Trapped, his raw, visceral performance encapsulated just how hard Rao, who comes neither from a rich filmy family nor was afforded a Dharma debut, toiled to cement his personal route to success.Just like Shaurya, Gattu, Pritam, and Newton, for a long time Rajkummar Rao was nobody’s idea of a hero. Yet in the decade that he has spent in Bollywood, he has redefined what it means to be a hero in his own terms. If there is ever a vacancy for the guy next door – an actual mohalla boy, not the Ranbir Kapoor-variant Bollywood has been peddling all our lives – Rao is the go-to guy. Because unlike the disaster, Sidharth Malhotra pulled off in Jabariya Jodi, Rao looks the part, and has the signature ability to play it with a rare perspicacity. It’s probably why the actor can play human rights lawyer, Shahid, and Rajouri Garden groom, Vijay, with equal ease.

Of the 31 films that Rao has been a part of, he has made his mark by playing characters that are 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, Govind in Kai Po Che and Vicky in Stree. The small-town Average Joe he played in Newton, comes on the back of roles where he plays a supermarket supervisor, a slimy cop, a geek, an ex-Army driver, a journalist, a call-centre employee, a helpless man struck in a skyscraper and a meek salesman who’s forced to metamorphose into the galli ka gunda.

Of the 31 films that Rajkummar Rao has been a part of, he has made his mark by playing characters that are all been rooted in middle-class India.

The secret to Rao doing justice to each and everyone of these varied roles is his face and body language having 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 Nawazuddin 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, most notably in Gangs of Wasseypur and Sacred Games.

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 gentlemen. They don’t have to copy anyone. They can leave their mark on the back of their own signature style.

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