After technically starting his career with a major role in ‘Love, Sex Aur Dhokha’, Rajkummar Rao proved that he’s a actor who’ll be loved by one and all with films like ‘Ragini MMS’, ‘Talaash’, ‘Kai Po Che!’ and others. He won his first National Award and a Filmfare Best Actor award for ‘Shahid’ directed by Hansal Mehta, and then ‘Aligarh’, ’Citylights’, ‘Trapped’, ‘Bareilly Ki Barfi’, ‘Newton’ and now ‘Omertà’ kept getting added to his kitty making him an unmatched talent. He’s established himself as an acclaimed actor who has now even started becoming the masses’ favourite given the success of his recent releases. He’s all set to woe us playing an antagonist in Hansal Mehta’s upcoming film, which is based on the life of British terrorist Ahmed Omer Saeed Sheikh of a Pakistani descent. The film explores all his dark trades and Rajkummar promises to portray his part with all honesty.
Here’s what he revealed to us in a chat with regarding to ‘Omertà’:
Q. Does it take more time to prepare for a biographical film as compared to a fictional film?
Rajkummar Rao: It definitely does take lot more time. Especially when I was playing Omer Sheikh, he’s someone I didn’t know anything about or his world for that matter of fact. I had to start from scratch because I couldn’t understand him at any level. With roles like the one I played in ‘Newton’, it was easier for me to connect because it’s something relevant to our country. But for this one I had to do a lot of preparation. It had to do with physical transformation too. I had to grow my beard for 3 months. Had to be in a particular shape and look stronger than what I was. I was in London for 3 weeks and picking up the accent and trying to understand their culture. Lot of reading and research was involved, including understanding groups, ideologies and watching documentaries. I used to see horrific and disturbing videos. There was lot of anger and hatred inside Omer Sheikh which was driving him and making him do things that he was doing. I had to cultivate that anger inside me and those videos weren’t mentally peaceful at all. I needed them to generate anger inside me. There was a lot of internal violence more than physical violence he was having.
Q. What did you take back from a role like this?
Rajkummar Rao: It was mentally very taxing for me. My take away was an eye opener for the things they do in the name of the cause that they believe in. But ultimately there is no cause because killing innocents and creating violence is not an answer for anything. For me, it was highly learning experience to even see how it’s happening today as well. There are young boys who are highly intelligent who are getting brainwashed and going and joining these organizations. The brainwashing even sometimes happens on a platform like WhatsApp. It’s a scary thought.
Q. Did your role in Hansal Mehta’s ‘Shahid’ help you in anyway for preparing for ‘Omerta’?
Rajkummar Rao: Not really because both these characters came from very different backgrounds. Shahid was born and brought up in almost a lower middle class environment and wasn’t from a privileged family. While Omer was from a privileged family. He was studying in London School of Economics (LSE). However, both of them felt like victims for the same thing. Shahid got back and realized at an early stage that that wasn’t the right path, and chose to be a Human Rights lawyer. Omer Sheikh continued and became the most dreadful terrorist of this world. So Shahid’s preparation was a very different one.
Q. When you were approached for the film, you had any kind of inhibitions playing such a negative antagonist?
Rajkummar Rao: I wasn’t worried about playing this antagonist. Also as actors we get very fascinated by our characters. Be it Hollywood where Heath Ledger played Joker (in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’) or Anthony Hobkins. Even here we have Shah Rukh Khan in ‘Darrr’ or ‘Baazigar’ and Aamir Khan in ‘Arth’ and Sanju Baba (Sanjay Dutt) in ‘Khalnayak’, recently Ranveer Singh in ‘Padmaavat’. There are these villains that we get attracted to as audiences. As an actor, I thought it was a great opportunity to explore this.
Q. Did the character hurt you in anyway as a person?
Rajkummar Rao: During the filming, ofcourse it hurt me as a person. It created a lot of mess in my mind. I can be troublesome sometimes because you’re dealing with a lot of terrible thoughts. Even off set, I was tried to be him in real life. It can be tough sometimes but once you’re out of it, consciously you’ll have to leave it behind. You have to move to the next film.
Q. How do you come out of these roles and how long does it take?
Rajkummar Rao: It does take sometime. It’s not an overnight thing. Once I shaved off my beard, I stopped watching those videos, I deleted all the research material I had and deleted my wallpaper too. I started spending time with my friends and family. I started watching lovely films, those light hearted entertainers and documentaries. In a week or 10 days time, you eventually start being your normal self.
Q. Your film is releasing with 2 other films and would that affect the collection of your film?
Rajkummar Rao: It’s very tough actually because we have only 52 Fridays in a year and we make around 200 films. Every week we cannot have a solo release unless and until you’re a ‘Bhai’ or a bigger superstar. It will happen, you’re blind to clash with someone or the other. In Omerta’s case, it’s a completely different genre and there are different films coming along with it. We are confident with our film because it’s travelled numerous film festivals and the kind of feedback it’s got is amazing. Also we’ve made the film in quite a tight budget.
Q. There are acclaimed actors who’ve said that they would want to do a light hearted film in between just to cut the pattern and come back to do content and performance driven films. What’s your take on that?
Rajkummar Rao: It’s not a rule that you have to do one that and other this. You have to explore everything. There is no rules or a count if I have to do 2 these or 1 that. I read scripts and whatever excites me as an actor, I do it and I also want to explore genres. I don’t want to only keep doing an Omertà or Trapped. I also want to do a Bareilly Ki Barfi or Stree or a Fanne Khan. As an actor, I don’t want to limit myself. I don’t want to keep a tag that Raj only does certain type of films or certain characters. I want to surprise myself and surprise my audience as well.
Q. How was it working with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in ‘Fanne Khan’? Was she intimidating?
Rajkummar Rao: It was great. She’s absolutely astonishing. She’s such a diva and a very committed actor. We have some great scenes together. Anil (Kapoor) Sir is there who brings such an immense energy on set being a young guy. I don’t get star struck. Once we actors are on set, we are playing a character, we are not being ourselves. It also depends, Aishwarya doesn’t give that kind of an energy. She’s very grounded and we share a great rapport together.
Q. What are your forthcoming films?
Rajkummar Rao: This year there’s ‘Mental Hai Kya’ which is a whacko-comedy and thriller. ‘Stree’ which is a desi horror comedy and ‘Fanne Khan’ which is slight hearted film but talks about a socially relevant subject. Then there’s ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’ which is a very special film being made with a lot of love.
Q. There are a lot of actors who are venturing into production. Do you plan to do something in that space?
Rajkummar Rao: I think right now my plate is full. But in future I would love to sweep into production.
Q. How much do you understand Hansal Mehta as a filmmaker now?
Rajkummar Rao: I think both of us are exploring and evolving together with each film. I think what Shahid was and what Omerta is, it’s the sincerity with which we make those films. That’s what you’ll find common in the work we’ve done, including ‘Bose’ where he was the creative producer. As long as honesty and sincerity is there and we are not trying to dirty our pants by putting gimmicks into our stories, we are very happy with working with each other.
Q. How do you see Kangana Ranaut’s change since you’ve worked with her in ‘Queen’?
Rajkummar Rao: She’s went on to win 2 National Awards. She’s one of the finest actors we have. I’m excited to start ‘Mental Hai Kya’ with her. For me length of a tile doesn’t matter, I thoroughly enjoyed the scenes that I got in ‘Queen’. We have much more screen time together in ‘Mental Hai Kya’. The script is fun and the director Prakash Rao is great. It’s going to be an exciting journey.
Q. Are there any parameters that you look at before signing a film? A question of how well it can do at the box office strike your mind?
Rajkummar Rao: Box office collections cannot be predicted easily. ‘Newton’ we made with a lot of sincerity and we didn’t really predict it to be such an amazing box office success. There’s no point in worrying about that. But yes you see a few elements that might work commercially. What I do is, I read all my scripts and the first thing that I see is content and I see if it’s offering me something new. Or if I can bring something new to my character which I’ve not done earlier. These are the parameters I look for.
Q. Tell us something about ‘Stree’ and ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’.
Rajkummar Rao: I’m almost done with the shooting of ‘Stree’, I just came back from Bhopal after the schedule. Just some activities and promotions are left for it. It’s a Desi horror comedy, a very unique genre which hasn’t been really explored here. I’m quite confident about the way it’s shaping. We’re having lot of fun onset making it. Shraddha (Kapoor) ofcourse is really amazing, such a sweet girl and very hardworking and dedicated actor. And ‘Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga’ is something I cannot talk about but it’s a very special story which is relevant and also the way Shelly (Chopra Dhar) Ma’am is making and dealing with it is making it shape really well. Sonam (Kapoor) is ofcourse super fun, I worked with her in ‘Dolly Ki Doli’, it’s like working with your friend on set.
Q. What is your criteria to doing a film with a multi-starrer cast?
Rajkummar Rao: The content and what I bring to that story and my participation as an actor is what matters.
Q. You’ve once said that it’s easier to say ‘Yes’ than ‘No’ to a script. Did you ever feel bad saying ‘No’ to a script?
Rajkummar Rao: Ofcourse I feel bad sometimes because you can’t really do what ever is offered to you. You’re already committed to a project sometimes and can’t do a film. It’s not personal ever. I still stand by that statement. you sometimes can’t see yourself in that story and don’t fit into the scheme of what you’re planning to do next year. There are different reasons but I hope people understand that and don’t take things personally.
Q. With Ranveer Singh getting more appreciation than a Deepika Padukone or Shahid Kapoor for ‘Padmaavat’, do you think audiences are being more inclined towards negative characters? Since this pattern was also noticed with Jim Sarbh in ‘Neerja’.
Rajkummar Rao: It’s not like we are appreciating negative characters, we are appreciating the performances. Whenever you’re playing a villain’s character, the scope is much more. There are no limits as such but when you play a good boy, you have to be in your limits and you can’t cross it. Even if it was Pritam Vidrohi in ‘Bareilly Ki Barfi’, the guy didn’t give a damn about anything when he was outrageous but when he was shy, he had to talk in a certain way. So it’s the performance which audiences like and not those negative characters.
Q. Would you ever sign a film just because you always wanted to work with an actor whose in that film?
Rajkummar Rao: If there’s a film opposite Meryl Streep then I would definitely want to act in it without asking any questions about the script, money and anything else.
Q. The film has traveled to so many film festivals, do you think ‘Omerta’ has a universal appeal?
Rajkummar Rao: Yes, terrorism is a universal subject. The whole world is having this problem. People connect with it on different levels because it talks about 26/11 it’s our country’s most unfortunate thing to have happened, it talks about 9/11, Kaandha, it talks about Daniel Pearl‘s kidnapping and killing, so there are so many events involved that are relatable.
Q. Given your success last year, do you think the view of the industry has changed towards you?
Rajkummar Rao: I don’t know how I’m looked upon. I’m just doing exciting work and am happy with it. As long as I’m going onset and doing my work which I like and love, it’s great:
Q. Given the political atmosphere we are in, did you have any inhibitions while doing this film?
Rajkummar Rao: Not at all. When you work with someone especially Hansal (Mehta) Sir, he’s one of the most fearless directors that we have, we don’t really think about how people are going to react. That way we will just compromise on whatever we are making. We have to tell our stories honestly and especially in Omertà’s case, it’s a brutally honest film and we are not trying to glorify anything. We’ve shown everything as it is.
Q. Is there a pressure of the film being received well by the Indian audiences after the film already having garnered appreciation in film festivals?
Rajkummar Rao: It doesn’t actually. It’s nice that these prestigious film festivals have given us such experiences because the kind of feedback we get from audiences there, we can make our cut better for the final Indian release. That’s what we’ve done with ‘Omertà’.