By Poulomi Das Jan. 19, 2017
Despite playing the lead in four films last year, and excelling at each, there was no Filmfare Award “Best Actor” nomination for Rajkummar Rao. The actor still has a long way to go to breach Bollywood’s insider circle.
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. Not the Filmfare Award jury for sure, that has completely overlooked the actor even in the nominations (He only has a measly one for best supporting actor).
In 2017’s 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.
Over the last year, the actor who has had six film releases, played the lead in four 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 2017 belonged to more than it did to Rao, who churned out electrifying performances with such ease that it could put several A-listers to shame. As Pritam Vidrohi, Rao unleashed his comic timing delivering a career-best comic performance that stole the spotlight from the likes of Ayushmann Khurrana and Pankaj Tripathi 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.
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.”
Just like Shaurya, Gattu, Pritam, and Newton, Rajkummar Rao is nobody’s idea of a hero. He’s spent about eight 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 school-teacher; 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.
Of the 21 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 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.
In giving a painfully regular character a voice and a distinct quirk, the actor goes against a Bollywood staple. Courtesy: Phantom Films
In giving a painfully regular character a voice and a distinct quirk, the actor goes against a Bollywood staple.
Courtesy: Phantom Films
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 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.
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 gentlemen.
But not aspire to a Filmfare Award.
When not obsessing over TV shows, planning unaffordable vacations, or stuffing her face with french fries, Poulomi likes believing that some day her sense of humour will be darker than her under-eye circles.