As Pritam Vidrohi in Bareilly Ki Barfi, he had the audience rooting for him. As Newton Kumar, the actor carried the film on his shoulders and his performance had critics raving and how. With his sixth film this year, Shaadi Mein Zaroor Aana, the actor is all set to explore a whole new genre — the romantic drama.
The National Award-winning actor Rajkummar Rao talks to DANFES about being a method actor in a commercial industry, why learning English is important for a Hindi film artist and how the Harvey Weinsteins of the world should be exposed. Edited excerpts:
You have always taken up roles for what they are and have no qualms about playing the lead, the second lead or even a cameo. How do you manage to do that so confidently, considering that the industry is quick to stereotype?
Both the industry and the audience are undergoing change. Today, they can differentiate between someone who wants to be an actor and someone who just wants the tag of being a hero.So, now is the right time to portray some interesting characters. That’s what I try and aim for when I read a script. It might be the second lead, but perhaps it’s a much better role than the lead. I would rather choose something that gives me the chance to perform.
Are you interested in doing a masala potboiler, which portrays you as the quintessential Hindi film hero?
I don’t dream about doing a quintessential masala film, but if somebody offered me such a role, I wouldn’t mind trying it out. However, I will do it my way .I won’t follow the herd mentality. After all, you have to be in the system to change the system.
You sound extremely confident about your stance. Does it stem from the realization that you are a good actor?
More than confidence, it’s the ability to understand the script you might not be part of the entire story, but you have succeeded if people still talk about you. For example, Julius Ceaser. He is not shown in the entire play, but the other characters are constantly talking about him, and that keeps him alive in the audience’s mind. I guess, my academic approach to cinema stems from the discipline inculcated in me during my stint at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and while doing theater in Delhi.
I am not in the film industry for fame, money or because it’s glamorous. I am here because I genuinely love cinema. There was never a plan B in my life. I never came to try my luck, give it a year and then see how it goes. If this is something I am doing every day and earning my bread and butter, then I better take it seriously.
What about the pressure to be proficient in English despite wanting to be a Hindi film actor. Do you feel that we place a lot of importance on a person’s ability to speak English?
The world is shrinking because of the internet. I get messages from fans across the world, which sees my films. Even my interviews are read by the whole world. While growing up in Gurgaon, English was just a subject taught in school and not our spoken language. Language is an essential tool for communication and so, I had to work hard to improve my English.
You have overcome your limitation as far as speaking English is concerned. What do you think are your limitations as an actor?
I haven’t found any, but I do feel that as an actor, I have a social responsibility. In our country, people look up to actors. If I make one mistake, I know that there are ten boys in small towns who might follow me. I come from a small town and I remember how, after seeing Shah Rukh Khan’s glasses and pullovers in Mohabbatein, I bought the same. That’s why I am careful about what I do, as I don’t want to mislead anyone.
You said in an interview that growing a beard or making changes in your appearance to look the part is not method acting. Does the industry tend to confuse the two?
It’s the job of an actor to look the part and it’s not something extraordinary. Earlier, many actors didn’t take pains to look their part and probably, that’s why people tend to confuse the two. But, now a lot of artists do focus on their get-up. When Christian Bale lost 40 kilos for The Machinist, it was awe-inspiring, but gaining a couple of ki los and growing a beard is just part of the job. Method acting was formulated by Konstantin Stanislavsky. Lee Strasberg popularized it in America. Any actor who trains in that system of acting is a method actor. I call myself a method actor because I was trained under that technique in film school. Having said that, I have no complaints, I just cleared the air since you asked me. I have never given gyaan to people. I put my point across only when I am asked to. I don’t want to be the flag-bearer of method acting.
As an actor, what are the challenges that you have encountered in the past seven years in the industry?
I believe in a certain kind of storytelling and the challenge was to keep that faith alive. There have been times when a film didn’t work or make enough money. But, the kind of respect one gets overpowers everything else and then, box-office numbers don’t matter. I believe that some films cannot be judged on the basis of their performance at the box office over a weekend.
Has the respect you have earned as an actor changed the industry’s attitude towards you? Or, do you believe that even today, actors who can bring in the box-office figures are the ones who are in the reckoning?
Trapped, Bareilly Ki Barfi (produced by Junglee Pictures and BR Studios) and Newton have got the numbers at the box office. Earlier, even though people wanted to work with me, they were not confident about investing money. Now, they probably feel that more money can be invested in my films.
The recent scandal involving Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has had women speaking out against sexual harassment. Are there Harvey Weinsteins in Bollywood too?
Not just in the industry, there are Harvey Weinsteins everywhere. People have to speak up and use social media to combat it. When people don’t speak out against the perpetrators of sexual crimes, it empowers them. The #metoo campaign is significant because it gives people a platform to address these problems and the ones committing these crimes now will be scared, as they can be easily exposed. The survivor’s silence empowers the perpetrators.